Leading the Field: Tiasia O’Brien

A conversation with a Qualitative Research Scientist
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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 Pride Month this year, we’re lifting up the voices of queer leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Tiasia O’Brien (she/her), a Qualitative Research Scientist and the Founder of Seam Social Labs.

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.

What first drew you to civic tech? How did you know you could make a difference in this space?

I spent a decade working in the public sector and simultaneously, I was growing more interested in the tech space. I started attending a lot of tech conferences in the early 2010s and finding myself thinking: How could technology solve problems in the public and social impact space? In 2018, I decided to start a company dedicated to empowering communities; this idea came from a very personal place of growing up in a gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn and feeling like myself, family, and neighbors were ignored as the community changed. I knew technology could be a way to solve this, if done in an equitable and ethical way. That was how I landed in the world of civic and public interest tech! 

You study how civic engagement varies by community based on wealth. Can you talk about how the wealth gap impacts interactions with our civil institutions?

The wealth gap is really interesting when it comes to the civic space. I actually call this social dynamic the civic gap—whereby our socio-economic status impacts our community-level ability to be heard and influence policy. Historically, wealth has impacted communities in many different areas: housing, environment, workforce opportunities, and infrastructure. At the nexus of these areas is one core problem: have we listened to these communities to understand their lived experiences? Are we able to leverage their feedback into solutions for better outcomes?

Traditionally, the answer is yes—in communities of wealth. Lobbying, advocacy, and political donations are costly. For communities with no access to wealth, this is challenging. My hot take (spilling all the tea) is that our system is designed this way–a representative democracy exists when you have money and power. So civic institutions should constantly ask themselves: How can we do a better job of listening? How can we balance out our power?

So much of your work surrounds storytelling about communities. How do stories about your own communities and where you come from show up in your work?

Growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn really defined my experiences. Our transit access was awful: no ADA accessible steps and a crumbling train station. Housing and land conditions were less than ideal. I grew up in a food desert and we either had to drive 15 minutes or walk 30 minutes to the nearest supermarket. Then I went to undergrad at Adelphi University in Long Island; every semester break I came to a new change: a ramp was now at our train station, a new health food store, and even parks and public artwork. 

The bigger change in the neighborhood was the demographics: I saw less Black and Brown neighbors. I quickly saw the correlation and most importantly, I realized no one even bothered to ask us about these changes even though we owned property there. Our community’s story and lived experience was not documented or recorded. This influenced my work in the public sector and definitely launched me into the civic tech world.

How have you seen the civic tech field grow and change over your time in it? Where is growth and change still needed?

It’s interesting because the civic tech space has grown, developed, and even branched out in some ways. With govtech and public interest tech scaling and emerging respectively, we see companies that cross the lines of both of these industries to make something new. 

I think growth is still needed in recognizing this space as a vast and tremendous opportunity for investment (from grants or otherwise). Too often, civic leaders rely on polling or social media to understand the sentiments of the 300 million-plus residents in this country when great civic technology exists to solve that problem!  

During Pride Month, it feels right to ask—what are you proud of? 

My team at Seam Social Labs, a public interest technology company, which represents the many intersectional identities that exist in this country. They are total rockstars! 

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