We found out yesterday that we lost Carl V. Lewis, the founder of Open Savannah, a Code for America Brigade. Carl was a leader in our community, and served on the National Advisory Council for the Brigades. He was a true believer in a vision we both shared, and shared with many others. Getting to know Carl was one of the great joys of my past few years at Code for America, and I would like to share a little bit about the Carl I knew. Please also read Em Burnett’s post here.
I first became aware of Carl through a blog post he wrote shortly after he had founded Open Savannah. He wrote about Savannah’s future in the context of its past, a theme he would return to, and he started that post with a quote from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt:
“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large . . . Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”
Carl was a product of Southern culture, and his own quirks of personality had achieved great brilliance in it. But Carl dreamt of change, and the most obvious of those quirks was impatience with the lack of it. He wanted Savannah’s future to be inclusive and equitable, but he loved a city (and a country) resistant to change, and the result was a constant nervous energy and impulsiveness that expressed itself in things like making a logo, writing up copy, and registering a Meetup group for Open Savannah in about 10 minutes, on a whim, shortly after moving back there. He would have done all of this with the confidence that a strong gut instinct could inspire in him. And the next minute the insecurity would have kicked in, and he would decline to even promote his creation. Turns out it didn’t matter; people found it, and loved it. They showed up.
But Carl dreamt of change, and the most obvious of his quirks was impatience with the lack of it.
This impulsiveness was enabled by a set of wide-ranging talents that made him an unusually effective and efficient one-person team. Yes, he could write articulate, compelling copy and knock out a logo in a few minutes; he could also write code, scrape data, visualize data, report stories, organize events, create community, stir up trouble, smooth feathers, change the dialogue. Fundamentally, though, I will remember Carl as a gifted and prolific communicator. (His middle name was Virgil.) He seemed to be constantly either writing thoughtful insights into the meaning and purpose of civic tech, posting epic screeds in Slack, feeding one of the best Instagram feeds out there, coining the best slogans, or churning out great schwag.
Carl did Code for America better than Code for America does Code for America. We loved him for his brilliant original content and for his remixing and remaking of Code for America schwag. I remember showing up in Savannah last year sporting our modest blue “no one is coming, it is up to us” sticker, and finding a pile of the same sticker, but redone in bright red (our exact brand red, I’m pretty sure) and supersized as a bumper sticker, with the CfA logo swapped out. It was a no-brainer to slap the red one right across the entire top half of my laptop. For the next year and a half, my computer was a giant red ad for Open Savannah.
Carl did Code for America better than Code for America does Code for America.
I think the org having that real estate on my laptop made Carl happy, because he wanted Savannah, and Open Savannah, to be seen. He took great pride in taking visitors around the city, sharing its culture, its local government, and its evolving civic tech scene. He wanted people to see the potential in the community, the positive future he saw for it. But he also wanted people to see the future he was trying to avert, in which rising sea levels brought catastrophe to his community in a way that would tragically replicate the injustices of the past, bringing the most harm to those who had already been harmed. And he believed you could not organize to avert that harm for people, but rather with them. He lived all the Code for America values, but made especially sure to model outreach to a diversity of his community and working with, not for, people.
“With people” is in fact how he defined the work of our field. In another blog post about what he and his co-organizers learned during the first year of Open Savannah, he shared the conclusion that
…civic-tech isn’t at all just about building civic apps or scraping interesting datasets. Rather, at its core, civic-tech is about building a community, a movement, a sustainable, scalable, longterm citizen-driven network of actual humans to support bottom-up innovation and experimentation in government services and technology — with the ultimate goal of restoring public trust in our local institutions, marked along the way by milestones of improved outcomes along the way.
Carl’s nervous impatience was not always comfortable, but he was always charming, and always genuine. He genuinely cared about democracy. He cared about community engagement and resilience. He cared about journalism. He cared about racial justice. He cared about Savannah. He cared about government. He cared about his family, and missed his late parents. He cared about his friends and co-conspirators, whether they were in Savannah or scattered around the country, as his fellow Code for America Brigade leaders are. He cared about me, and showed it in the kindest and most thoughtful of ways, particularly at the last Summit, when he and his fellow NAC members bought me a tree as a gift, to remind me how small things can grow.
All who knew him cared about him too, and we were incredibly lucky to have him in our lives. If you didn’t know him, thank you for reading this and for seeing him and the things he cared about. I hope we can honor his life by doing something about them.