Is it Time for a Tech Sanctuary Movement?

From left: moderator Alexis Madrigal, Michael-Ray Mathews, Paul Chavez, Avi Rose, and Lateefah Simon

Last night, over 100 people — tech workers, activists, and other engaged citizens — gathered at Google’s offices in San Francisco to explore a provocative question: is it time for a Tech Sanctuary movement? The event was organized by the TechEquity Collaborative and co-hosted by Solidaire, Open Society Foundations, The Chavez Family Foundation and New Media Ventures.

Our goal was to get people thinking about what role the tech community (workers and companies) can and should play in protecting those who are, as one speaker put it, “closest to the violence” including immigrants (documented or not), refugees, ethnic and religious minorities, and other groups (like the LGBTQ community) whose safety is particularly under threat from the national government.

Moderated by Alexis Madrigal, Tech Correspondent at The Atlantic, we had some top-class panelists leading us through the discussion:

  • Michael-Ray Mathews, Director of Clergy Organizing for PICO (the country’s largest faith-based social justice organizing network and the force behind the Sanctuary Churches movement) gave us a history of the Sanctuary movement and exhorted us to be in proximity to those who are most at threat, in order to do the most good.
  • Paul Chavez, Executive Director of Centro Legal de la Raza, an organization representing more immigrants going through legal proceedings than anyone else in the Bay Area. Paul gave us a sense of the threat level — is it really that much worse than during the Obama years? Answer: yes. — and provided insight into the day-to-day stress many immigrants are feeling now.
  • Avi Rose, Executive Director of Jewish Family and Community Services-East Bay, gave us the perspective of refugees who experience a unique set of threats and stresses as they resettle in the US.
  • Lateefah Simon, BART Director District 7 and President of the Akonadi Foundation, gave us a sense of the practicalities of implementing sanctuary policies (in her case, in a transit agency) on the ground.
  • Tom Chavez, an entrepreneur who recently sold a company to Salesforce and started the Chavez Family Foundation, spoke from the perspective of a member of the tech community about what we are called to do in this moment and how tech workers should think about deploying their power and influence to support the vulnerable.

One big question animated the conversation: What, practically, can Tech do to protect vulnerable communities? We heard lots of great answers which broke out into two main categories:

Things Tech can do in physical spaces, including its office buildings
Many of the janitors, food service workers, security guards and other support staff on tech company campuses are members of communities that are facing threats. Groups like Silicon Valley Rising are organizing to protect and advocate for them. They’re currently organizing a set of actions on May Day and are calling on Google to protect the workers who will be participating in those actions. You can support that effort here.

In addition to what tech companies can do on their campuses, there’s the role all members of the tech community can play in their role as citizens with a relative amount of privilege and power. The PICO Network’s representatives in the Bay Area are holding rapid response trainings for those who want to be legal and moral observers during an immigration enforcement event in their local neighborhood and collect data that will help immigrant families defend themselves from fear and deportation. If you’re interested, you can sign up for a training in Santa Clara county here and in San Francisco/San Mateo counties here.

Things Tech can do through their platforms and tools
Of course tech companies also have a lot of influence through the platforms that they build. Many of those in attendance mentioned things like refusing to comply with unlawful requests by the government to access user data, and fighting those requests in court (as Twitter recently did against the Dept of Homeland Security). Other ideas were for tech companies to consider the impact real-name policies have on members of targeted communities.


There were some other suggestions, like pushing tech companies to reorient their lobbying budgets around these priorities, and interesting questions, like how we reckon with tech companies that are seen as contributing to a threatening environment.

It was definitely the beginning of a conversation, and we left the discussion agreeing on a few key takeaways:

  • There’s enough going on that people from tech who want to put their privilege to use should plug into existing efforts rather than build new things
  • Showing up, being in proximity to affected communities, is as important as deploying tech’s resources
  • We need more spaces that act as bridging spaces between the tech community and the groups working on the ground.

This is work the TechEquity Collaborative will continue to do, in partnership with the direct service organizations. We invite you to sign up for updates, join the TechEquity Collaborative, or make a donation to support our work.