Bringing a National Network into One Room

Reflections on Brigade Congress 2019

In-person events like Brigade Congress are an opportunity and reminder to live up to the values we espouse. This year in particular, we hold close the memory of our dear friend Carl V. Lewis, whose actions and values remain a guiding light for the work that we do.

Today, the Code for America Brigade Network is 85 chapters strong. As a dispersed national network of volunteers, we dedicate our time to put our skills (technical and non-technical!) to good use solving real problems in our communities. And when we’re doing that incredibly rewarding boots-on-the-ground work in our respective cities and towns, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of the full Network. Which is why it’s important to take time to step back from the day-to-day work to come together, share knowledge, and build relationships in one central space. The three of us served on the content committee for one of those events last month: our third annual Brigade Congress at the Cleveland Public Library.

Attendees at Brigade Congress

Our in-person events are vital to our success as a nationwide movement, where we all benefit from feeling a sense of community and camaraderie by being around those engaged in the same work we are. Civic tech is such a wonk-tastic and niche space, and many of us struggle to even explain what it is to our family and friends. At Congress, we’re surrounded by people who already get it, who feel the passion, who suffer through the same struggles. We can start working on solutions—and at the end of the day, working on solutions is why we’re involved in civic tech.

These events are also an opportunity to get reenergized. Many Brigade leaders and members (ourselves included) feel burned out from time to time. Organizing or supporting a Brigade can be a great deal of work, and while it is always rewarding, there is often a need to recharge and reset back to the mentality that led you to your journey in advocating for civic tech—and connecting with our larger Network does this for many of us. Coming together is both an emotional and very literal reminder that we are not alone.

This is not to say that we’re not connected as a Network throughout the year—we’re constantly knowledge sharing and asking each other for support through online gathering spaces like Slack and Discourse, we participate in monthly workshops, and we come together for days of action like National Day of Civic Hacking. Our ability to connect in a variety of forms at many times keeps us going throughout the year. While networking and collaborating via remote tools is great, it can’t compare to the connections built on in-person interactions. Brigade Congress and Code for America Summit allow us to bond with fellow Brigade members on an emotional level that can take a lot longer to achieve remotely. That bonding and mutual trust is immensely valuable for remote collaboration on national work.

This year’s Brigade Congress was held at the Cleveland Public Library. As one attendee said, the “beautiful civic space set the tone” for the entire weekend. We heard from inspiring speakers like April Urban and Ariana Waller, and covered topics like project facilitation, user research, volunteer burnout, and affordable housing. We also held unconference sessions, which gave us a less structured opportunity to ask hard questions and start important discussions (why hear from one or two voices when you could hear from thirty?) In these sessions we can get really honest about Brigade projects, from big wins to partial successes to downright failures. The work that we do in our communities is tough, and it’s important to support each other as a community of mutual reliance—in both the good times and the not-so-good times.

Finally, Brigade Congress is our opportunity to hunker down and look internally to improve the way our Brigades work and how we collaborate as a Network. A lot of this comes out of larger conversations around leadership. If we want to build up leadership capacity in our Network, we need opportunities where we can lift people up and give them the chance to grow. One really great thing about leadership opportunities around an event like this is that they are temporary. It gives people a chance to see what it feels like to lead without worrying about burning out. We believe that can help people decide whether they want to take a more permanent leadership role like joining the National Advisory Council (NAC) and it hopefully prepares them to lead more effectively. This also helps people appreciate the challenges of leading a diverse and varied national network.

Many of us have leadership positions and responsibilities within our local networks, but it’s important to contribute to the larger picture as well, and our in-person gatherings provide that opportunity. We have access to so many people with an array of talents, passions, and an overall desire to contribute to our collective vision of improving government in the digital age, so it’s great that Code for America provides our volunteer network with leadership opportunities on a larger scale. Whether you’re on a content committee, planning unconference sessions, or simply attending, these simple acts of leadership show our volunteers nationwide that they aren’t alone in this mission to improve government from the ground up.

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