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On my way to visit Trump, I found the kindest corner of the Internet

Jennifer Pahlka
Jun 29, 2017 · 4 min read

I have written about why I decided to go to the meeting convened by the American Technology Council despite my own real concern about normalizing the Trump administration. I expected a broad range of reactions to this decision. The people who power Code for America (fellows, volunteer Brigade members, government partners, staff, funders, advisors, and friends) have one thing in common: the belief that making government work for the American public in the digital age could be the greatest good of a generation, and that it’s not someone else’s job to make that happen. It’s ours.

Beyond that, our network encompasses a wide range of perspectives about how to make it happen, and that diversity of opinion is part of our strength. For some, the Trump administration’s stances on climate, immigration, social services, and other issues are the definition of a government acting against the interests of its people, and engagement with this White House is counter to the mission and values.

One dedicated volunteer who leads his local Brigade was angry, and he shared with me privately the pain that this news caused him. He grew up in a racist community and has lost friends and broken family relationships as he’s chosen to stand up for what’s right. To him, my going, carrying the Code for America name with me, opened up all of that pain. We traded a few longish emails about history and family and choices, and I got to know a little more about him, and he about me. In the end he told me he supported my decision, and wished me luck and courage in the meeting. I hope I have the chance to support better him in his work in the future, and to count him as a friend.

For others, (a large majority of those who spoke up, in fact) government is something “we the people” claim and try to shape no matter who wins the election. Another Brigade leader told me she would have been angry if I hadn’t gone. “It’s like voting. If you can vote, and you don’t, then don’t talk to me about this country’s problems. I don’t want to hear it. If you get a voice there, you’d better use it.” She also talked about why she felt so strongly about my showing up. “We do this stuff in our spare time, which means that we intentionally take time away from family, work, and hobbies to advance this mission. If government worked the way it should, we could all go to the movies or just hang out instead of organize our hack nights and go to City Council meetings. But it doesn’t. So we do this. I will show up at yet another Council meeting, and you need to show up for this meeting.” Yes, Ma’am!

I was quite surprised at how many people agreed with the choice to go, but my biggest surprise was the tone of pretty much all of the conversation. People were thoughtful and respectful whether they agreed or not. This is the Internet. People were kind. High five, civic tech community!

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Among the hundreds of responses, one other stands out to me, and elicits my own strong emotions. Leah Bannon, erstwhile Code for DC leader, 18Fer, and a friend, tweeted that “We wouldn’t have to do this appeasement crap if the Obama administration hadn’t been so slow to understand tech/design and listen to us. Unless you were there, pushing the administration to embrace user-centered design and open source, I don’t want to hear it.”

I also worked for the Obama administration. I love and admire everyone I worked with, and I love and admire Barack Obama. But Leah’s criticisms are not wrong. Somehow, with all the good intentions, and with all the pride I have in everyone who got the ball rolling standing up USDS and 18F, the feeling remains that we could have and should have done more. That we shouldn’t be in this position in 2017. That a bolder approach then would have meant so much, especially if we’d known what was coming. I wanted bolder then, too, and didn’t know how to push harder, go faster. And now it’s Trump’s people who are pushing harder, trying to go faster, and do we wish them to fail? “Complicated” doesn’t begin to describe my emotions here. But no, personally, I cannot wish them to fail. And I wouldn’t have confronted these feelings as productively without Leah’s prodding.

Self-reflection and even self-criticism matter. Being accountable to the community that powers and drives your vision matters. Sharing our biographies over ideologies matters. Respect matters. So as of Sunday night, I was of the mind that whatever happens at the meeting, we’d grown stronger as a community through grappling with this tough choice and honest, authentic reactions.

But WHAT HAPPENED at the meeting, Jen? Right. For that, read part 2.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for…

Jennifer Pahlka

Written by

Committed to government that works for people. Advisor to USDR. Member of the Defense Innovation Board. Past: Code for America, USDS. Mom. Keeper of chickens.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

Jennifer Pahlka

Written by

Committed to government that works for people. Advisor to USDR. Member of the Defense Innovation Board. Past: Code for America, USDS. Mom. Keeper of chickens.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

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