For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Andreen Soley, the Director of Public Interest Technology at New America.
At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
Tell us a little about the journey that led you to the field of civic tech. How did your other experiences build to where you are now?
I got to civic tech circuitously. For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in how individuals are shaped by the world around them. When I was working as a development director at an all-girls STEM high school, I could see that ability did not play a part in why women and individuals of color were underrepresented in the sciences. The research showed that all through elementary, middle, and high school, girls and boys took math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys graduated from high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college. Yet, fewer women than men chose these majors in college, and by graduation men outnumbered women in nearly every science and engineering field. Why is that? Why is it that even as girls and boys took similar math and science courses in primary and secondary school and displayed similar abilities based on course grades, girls began to underestimate their abilities? That work led me to focus on structures and processes that block the full participation of people in the careers they at one time wanted to pursue. Now, for the past three years, I have been leading a network of universities and colleges working to build out the civic or public interest space, and one of our signature programs is unpacking some of the structural and institutional barriers in the delivery of technology training and learning opportunities to foster an inclusive and equitable ecosystem.
What do you hope the next generation of civic tech enthusiasts will look like?
I believe this field’s value rests squarely in centering the needs of communities that have historically been denied access to new technologies, been systematically left out of conversations at the intersection of technology and policy, and been denied opportunities to join the technology workforce. So I want the next generation of civic tech practitioners to connect their tech enthusiasm with clear and real material outcomes for the constituents they are serving, while understanding and operating with an awareness of the limits and benefits of their technology dreams. I hope that through the work they do, they are able to center people’s hopes and dreams for the lives they want for themselves, their families, and their communities. Finally, I want tech enthusiasts to be able to contribute in an environment that honors their labor by paying them family sustaining wages and benefits.
I want the next generation of civic tech practitioners to connect their tech enthusiasm with clear and real material outcomes for the constituents they are serving, while understanding and operating with an awareness of the limits and benefits of their technology dreams.
What kind of education or lived experience prepares someone well for a career in civic tech?
We all have our own lived experience, but I think what’s equally important is an education that allows you to gain access to the experiences of others—experiences that may potentially be outside of your scope or view. One thing that troubles me is generalizing from your own good fortunes or assuming that what worked for you will necessarily work for others. I am reminded of a Howard University virtual talk I attended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that was given by Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She said, “Some people’s fantasies are other people’s nightmares.” I come back to it quite often in my mind. For me, it reads as a clear invitation for us to craft educational experiences that allow for perspective taking: How do you allow your students to imagine what a potential innovation might mean for others? It’s all well and good to say that you want students to take courses that allow them to see the implications of a technology or a design process, but how exactly do we do that well?
Educational experiences can be a door into someone else’s reality and foster a sense of solidarity.
One of the trickier elements of the ubiquitousness of our increasingly frictionless technologies is that their costs can be obscured or made invisible. So one of the ways that we help students measure the costs and benefits of our innovations is through technology clinics attached to courses or internships. In these clinics, universities and colleges place students in multidisciplinary teams where they are asked to work on real-world problems with nonprofit or local government partners. Recently, through our Network Challenge grant application, we supported a project between Columbia University and Lehman College. They created a Public Interest Technology Data Science Corps that provided summer research experiences for undergraduate students to work on public interest projects in New York City’s underserved communities, in partnership with Town+Gown:NYC, a citywide university-community partnership program. In one successful project, students used ESRI datasets, ArcGIS, QGIS, and Census figures to map the impacts of green space, waterfront access, highways, and air pollution on Bronx communities that were suffering disproportionately from COVID-19–related mortality and had the highest respiratory hazard rates in New York state. In their research, the students found that those who lived farther from parks had more health problems and that the dropout rate among students was exponentially higher in areas located along federal highway corridors, many of which carry diesel trucks servicing the entire metropolitan area. The students’ findings will inform the policy agenda for a local advocacy organization. Importantly, the project allowed students to deploy their skills and technical knowledge in a way that revealed and addressed the lived experiences of their neighbors. Sometimes, you won’t have the same experiences as others, but it is possible for you to engage in a process that allows you to see different perspectives and outcomes for others. Educational experiences can be a door into someone else’s reality and foster a sense of solidarity.
What do we in the civic tech field need to do now to build a future that’s welcoming to people with a broad diversity of identities?
The best way to build the future we want is to consciously begin with the present and start in our spheres of influence. It’s important to cede space if you find you are taking up too much, to look for who is missing from the conversation and find ways to include them if you have the power to do so, and to recognize that you have the ability to shape each space you are in to reflect the future you want. If we want a future that includes a broad diversity of identities who can thrive and have all they need, it takes time, resources, and a will to do the work.
If we want a future that includes a broad diversity of identities who can thrive and have all they need, it takes time, resources, and a will to do the work.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
For me, bringing my full self means having and creating boundaries about how I choose to show up at work. It also includes creating a space that allows everyone, regardless of their status, to contribute and see the value of their labor. I am someone who focuses on the work that needs to get done to advance our goals or our mission. I am the freest when I know that I am able to contribute and that my contributions are appreciated. I try to do the same for others as well, because I want them to know that I appreciate their contributions first and foremost. It’s how I honor what they have to offer.