Leading the Field: Brian Whittaker

A conversation with the creator of Humans of Public Service

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 Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Hispanic and Latinx leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect.  This week, we spoke with Brian Whittaker (he/him), the creator of Humans of Public Service. 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.

Hispanic Heritage Month encompasses the stories of so many diverse communities. What’s the story of the communities that made you you?

I’m Afro-Latino! Both of my parents were born in Panama and grandparents as well. As I understand it, my great-grandparents moved from the Caribbean to Panama for work, specifically to help build the Panama Canal. My immediate family is full of public servants, including teachers, nurses, police officers, and military members. We bond over music, competition, and food. My parents instilled the importance of education, budget, and work ethic in me and my three sisters. As a kid, it wasn’t strange to see my parents and sisters working multiple jobs or working overtime to pay bills, afford gifts around the holidays, or pay for a trip. I grew up in a suburb outside of Washington D.C., where I was fortunate to go to an ethnically and socio-economically diverse high school, solidifying my interest in and appreciation for other cultures.

You run an account called Humans of Public Service that highlights the stories of people in government. What inspired you to start this project?

Humans of Public Service was born out of tragedy and data. The murder of George Floyd forced me to reflect on my position in society and my ability to positively impact diversity, equity, and inclusion in this country. I thought about being Afro-Latino and how I’d like to support more than one demographic. I considered my circle of influence and what I could do with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering technology and a Masters in Business Administration. After months of reflecting and mind mapping, I felt confident that I wanted to take action—all that was missing was the place to focus my energy. 

Then, in August of 2021, the Partnership for Public Service released a report stating that only 23% of senior leadership in the federal government self-identify as people of color. According to the latest census, people of color make up 40% of America. The gap illuminated by this data gave me a place to focus my energy. I saw a needle I could move that would have a positive impact on our systems of government. Using this data as motivation, I stood up the Humans of Public Service accounts and website to show the diversity in government and hopefully inspire the next generation of public servants.

Humans of Public Service was born out of tragedy and data. The murder of George Floyd forced me to reflect on my position in society and my ability to positively impact diversity, equity, and inclusion in this country.

How do we build a pipeline to bring more diverse perspectives into the government and technology problem solving space?

While it is important to build a pipeline for people with diverse perspectives to enter government and civic tech, it’s equally if not more important to make sure we are ready to receive and retain this talent. I think a big part of that is identifying and sharing the stories of managers who are creating equitable and inclusive spaces—so that people who are curious about working in government can see it as a space they’ll belong.

We should celebrate, highlight, and reward the people who are redefining leadership and providing a path for the rest of us to follow. Employee word of mouth will also play a key role in building the pipeline. Already, diverse public servants and technologists are gathering and forming their own online communities and networks, like Techqueria and Blacks in Civic Tech. Talent will naturally flow towards these equitable managers and their organizations.

What do we need to do to ensure this is a safe space for those voices to be heard and for their perspectives to be respected?

As leaders, we need to be open to feedback and alternative approaches. We should trust our teams, their expertise, and their experience. Leaders in any organization can demonstrate this trust by asking questions like What am I missing? and Where am I going wrong? Hearing feedback from your team—and acting on it—builds trust in both directions. We also need to lead with empathy and create space for people to share how they are feeling following traumatic experiences in the country and sometimes even in the workplace.

It’s also important for people to find belonging in their work and bond over common interests. It can be hard right now with hybrid or remote work to feel like you’re part of an organization, but we can use tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to organize and create channels based on background and interests, fostering a sense of belonging in a virtual world. 

What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field? 

We are humans before we are professionals, and there are a variety of things that impact my mood and energy before I start the work day. As people, we have to deal with hidden disabilities, stress from current events, family emergencies, community issues, and our own biases. As a leader, I prioritize being understanding of all this. Bringing my full self to work means intentionally speaking about what I think and feel so others on my team can hopefully feel comfortable doing the same. Setting an example by sharing my focus on health and family or expressing my concern over court rulings and current events is even more important today as we try to  connect with team members in hybrid or fully remote work environments. 

Check out Brian Whittaker on a panel about tech talent from Code for America Summit 2022.

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