Leading the Field: Lapedra Tolson

A conversation with the founder of Friends From The City
a quote from Lapedra on a purple background

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 Lapedra Tolson (she/her), the founder of Friends From The City, a digital firm specializing in human-centered design and software development for federal and state agencies. 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.

As a small business working to partner with government agencies on innovation, what do you look for in a project? What are good signs that a partnership will lead to positive change?

One of the first things I look for are agencies that focus on social safety net programs and are trying to help an affected population made up of underrepresented groups, like women and minority Veterans. I think of my family—my mother and father and people who share a similar background with them—and I imagine their challenges interfacing with government agencies and services. My grandmother, who had a ninth-grade education, had a difficult time understanding Medicare and its benefits, and missed out on services that she would have benefited from. I want to make sure that people like my  grandmother who need access to healthcare don’t have a hard time benefiting from these programs because of complicated language or confusing eligibility questions. I want to be a part of that change. Our mission at Friends is to make interacting with the government easy and accessible for all people. There’s this notion: if something isn’t accessible, it’s not available.

Furthermore, as a Black woman, a queer person, and veteran, I used to consider myself a superminority with no privilege. I don’t think that anymore. We can truly make real change at Friends. We don’t pursue performative projects for people who are checking a box. We want to see real commitment from our team and government partners. Can we bring in a content strategist who will lead the charge in transforming legalese to plain language? Can we staff diverse researchers and designers who will prioritize a diverse group of respondents from our target audiences? Do you recognize the importance of diversity and its role in the human-centered design process? How partners answer these questions shows their commitment to innovation and inclusivity. We’re down for that. That’s how we make an impact.

In your work with Friends from the City, you emphasize that ethical, private-sector innovation belongs in government spaces. What ethical practices would you like to see more of in the social innovation space?

At its core, ethical innovation means creating technology that empowers people rather than hindering them. It means creating technology accessible to people with all levels of educational attainment, all gender identities, all abilities, all racial backgrounds. And it also means having a diverse group of people creating that technology, bringing all their different lenses to the table.

Representation is a huge part of ethical innovation. One of the projects we did involved user research as part of a new digital experience at The National Museum of African American History and Culture. NMAACH’s goal was, essentially, to make African American history and culture available and accessible for all—even if you couldn’t make it to the museum in Washington D.C. As a Black researcher on the project, I had the unique ability  to get real and raw feedback from our research participants, because they had the sense that I “got it.” They felt safe showing up as their authentic selves and not code switching or playing down their experiences of being Black in America. Their openness revealed innovative ways to help the museum tell the African American story in a way that resonated with people beyond the African diaspora. 

How does your background and identity influence your worth ethic? What does it mean to bring your full self to the table each day?

I tell my employees all the time that my representative had her day in the sun. For the majority of my career, I was afraid to be queer, I was afraid to be Black, I was afraid to be a veteran. I felt all the stigmas at once. So to protect myself, my representative went to work, not Lapedra. I was code switching to death. I was in the closet. I tried to change my voice to sound “more white” or “less aggressive” and at my lowest point, I wished I wasn’t Black. I hate to even admit that, but I felt so traumatized that I had no pride in myself and my culture.

I’m done with that. I regret not being myself for so long. So I try to be an example now, just by being my full self. I tell all my employees, “Listen, you can take that off if you want. You can leave your representative at the door.” That’s not the environment we’re creating at Friends. Even if that’s a small population right now, it still feels like I’m doing something worthwhile, because I never had a space where I could show up like that. We even hear from candidates during our hiring process that we make them feel human and seen. That lets me know we’re on the right path. 

I regret not being myself for so long. So I try to be an example now, just by being my full self. I tell all my employees, “Listen, you can take that off if you want. You can leave your representative at the door.”

What’s something you’re trying to do differently with your company?

After George Floyd’s murder, it felt like everyone was on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon—but a lot of that energy has died since then. It’s disappointing. It makes me wonder how much of it was performative, how many companies really care about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). That’s not the kind of space I want to create, and I don’t want to hire people who treat it like that kind of space. 

A lot of the change starts with setting expectations right from our job postings. We want to attract creatives and technologists who jive with our values and want to truly make an impact. We get asked about metrics—we don’t do that. We take a holistic approach to building a team. We care about the whole person. No one is a KPI with a number attached, no one will be reduced to numbers like that. I want to work with people who lead with kindness and who have integrity in their values—who approach our work  with an open mind and curiosity designed to gain understanding. I want everyone who interacts with Friends to feel seen, heard, and respected. We trust people to do their best work, and we’ll be right here to support them. 

You’re on the Content Committee for Summit this year, which has the theme “Showing what’s possible in a changing world.” How has that theme shown up in your work?

Our whole goal at Friends From The City is to be a model proving that equity as a service can be achieved in civic tech. We’re showing that’s possible, and at the same time, we’re also creating a place for Black and Brown people, queer people, veterans, and other people who are marginalized to make a real impact in civic tech. Together, we will affect positive change for millions of people.

Related stories