“Cultivating the Karass” My Civic Innovation Journey

As I walked through the SFO airport, I suddenly had a sinking feeling in my stomach. It was an early fall day in September 2012, and I was on my way to my first Code for America Summit. I felt that I had no reason to attend this conference. I couldn’t code for myself let alone America. I didn’t have any significant innovation accomplishments. I wasn’t even given financial support to attend from City Hall. I was given permission to attend for professional development purposes, but I had to pay my own way to the conference. I even stayed on a friends couch (later to find out this is typical for those in this innovation space) all on the intuition that I knew I needed to be here. But why?

Six months earlier I had a reunion with some friends I had met in Vienna, Austria two years prior for a class I had taken while earning my MBA from the University of Richmond. This brought me out to San Francisco for the first time for which I made it a point to reach out to Ryan Resella, one of the first Code for America fellows in 2011. I met Ryan the previous summer in D.C. for Govloop’s Next Generation of Government Summit. He wore the iconic dark blue track jackets that Code for America is known for, and thus began my first introduction into civic innovation.

In April 2012, Ryan had since transitioned from fellow to staff member at Code for America. During this trip to San Fran, I wanted to see what all the press had been about with Code for America. I took a break from my Vienna class reunion before lunch to make a visit to the Code for America HQ.

It was here that I was shown a magical foundational element of the civic innovation process. This building is at first sight, beautiful, perfectly techie and very San Fran. Wide open shared space with coders, working away building amazing technology solutions to social challenges for cities across the country. As Ryan shared with me the Code for America way, there was a constant dinosaur roar that went off. After the eleventieth roar, Ryan explained to me that this years fellows decided to add a sound effect for each time one of them uploaded new code to their GitHub repository for a project. Interesting Pavlovian means to encourage productivity, even if every fellow was wearing headphones. Probably to deaden the never ceasing sound effect. Regardless, I was overwhelmingly encouraged.

This was my introduction to the powerful connection between government, open source technology, and innovation to tackle social challenges. I had unknowingly become part of the karass.

Karass — a network or group of people that unknown to them, are connected or linked to complete the will of God, found in Kurt Vonnegut's the Cat’s Cradle and on a sticky note found on Jake Brewer’s computer.

Cultivate the Karass” label assigned by the late Jake Brewer for how to change government.

I’m not sure when I exactly met Jake Brewer, but we crossed paths several times. It was probably first at the Gov 2.0 Summit I attended in 2011 or this Summit in 2012, but either way, he was an influential passionate visionary who was a founding leader for innovating government. Jake’s light went out way to soon, but his passion, drive, and endless optimism continue to light the path for the future of change in our country. He touched and encouraged countless people (myself included) from his time at the Sunlight Foundation where he supported the creation of Code for America to his role at the White House as evidenced in President Obama’s touching tribute. His phrase found as a daily reminder on his work computer “Cultivate the Karass” explains perfectly the change he saw all around him. This phrase became the unofficial theme for this years Code for America Summit, appropriately so, as Jake Brewer passed away merely weeks before it started.

For more about the influence Jake had in his job, check out his inspired memorial. He prophetically labelled this growing tide of government change-agents as a ‘karass’, and I was soon becoming part of this swell.

Let’s get back to my journey on the BART to the kickoff of the Code for America Summit back in 2012. I really had no idea why I was going to this conference. But for some reason, I knew I needed to make this trip. I couldn’t explain it, well not yet anyways. Over the next three days, I learned three main themes:

  1. The transformative impact open data was having on governments across the country, namely in Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco. Open data is publishing online the data and information governments collect that is defined as public. It’s how we can change government from simply printing or posting a static graph or chart and instead make available the actual information that makes up this visual. Open data increases transparency, accountability and can restore (albeit slowly) public trust in government.
  2. I saw demo’s from all eight Code for America partner cities that showcased the Code for America process of design thinking and systems thinking to address social challenges. From tackling blight in New Orleans to location specific text message surveys to improving how businesses interact with government, I was blown away by the simplicity of these solutions in their ability to transform how customers access government. This was my first introduction to civic technology: applications that are designed to enable public participation and communication to improve governments operations. Civic technology doesn’t necessarily fix government services, but transforms the interaction between government and its constituents.
  3. The power of Brigades! I met brigade captains and members from all over the US at the Summit. They were local city residents with skills (usually coding, visual, or computer based) and were passionate about where they lived and want to make life better. Brigades built maps, apps, and visualizations out of open datasets from local governments. They brought to life seemingly dull and boring information to show what was going on in our neighborhoods with our tax dollars.

As the conference was nearing its end, I attending the closing unconference, and they asked for comments from the audience. Having drank the karass Kool-aid over the past couple days, I wore jeans, a t-shirt and a sport coat to do my best to fit into this west coast tech culture. I unknowingly stood up to be the last speaker and told them the account I have shared with you above.

“I arrived on Wednesday morning to attend a conference that I honestly did not feel qualified to attend. But as I now leave this event, I am encouraged, emboldened, and challenged to bring the values and approaches you have all shared with me back to Richmond. Your courage, openness and willingness to share with me your passion and experiences is something unique to government that is honestly absent. I look forward to building an open data portal in Richmond (after three years of briefing and prepping it was finally launched on July 1, 2015). I am eager to bring Richmond to the table to develop and build a transformative civic technology application (current Code for America partner city in 2015). And I look forward to finding the passionate community of civic coders, hackers and designers that want to work collaboratively to form a Brigade to change our city (Code for RVA was officially launched in January 2015).”

As I reflect on this experience in 2012, I was part of that years karass. I was cultivated by a community of passionate, driven and committed individuals who not only welcomed me in their group, but encouraged me to go out and conquer. They showed me what was possible and how to achieve success. The most important thing they showed me was that when you cultivate, you do not create, you find. I did not return to Richmond from this Code for America Summit in 2012 to build an innovation culture in Richmond, no, I returned to find the who, the why and work together to find the how. Jake Brewer predicted in his “Cultivate the Karass” quote, exactly what attracted me to attend my first Summit and what was the motivating factor behind coming home to “Cultivate the Karass” of change in Richmond. Every city has the tools, the people, the experience, and the ability to change their government. There are people who unknowingly are connected to complete pre-ordained work that transforms their landscape. All they need is someone to serve as the beacon of hope, possibility, and passion to be the aligning voice expressing what is possible. I was called to be this person in Richmond, and I have been able to find its karass, which has in turn cultivated others to the call.

Go cultivate your karass. They are out there, go find them.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.