In a few short weeks, we’ll be welcoming Code for America’s first-ever Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, Arlene Corbin Lewis. Arlene brings two decades of nonprofit strategic communications experience, and will help us drive toward our goal of creating a more equitable and resilient government.
Before Arlene officially joins us on October 28th, we asked her a few questions about her background, her perspective on government, and the opportunities she sees for Code for America’s future.
What drew you to Code for America?
Code for America’s mission and values spoke to me at this moment in time when it’s become clear that our government could and should work better.
As someone passionate about politics, policy and communication, I feel in my heart that joining Code for America is the natural continuation of my journey, and I look forward to working with the incredible team to reimagine government and address many of the systemic challenges facing our nation—from shoring up our safety net to criminal justice reform.
I couldn’t be more excited to join this organization and help answer the question of how we invest in our democracy in a way that makes sense for individuals, families, and the entire nation.
What does “building a government with heart” mean to you?
The pandemic made clear that our government isn’t meeting the needs of those who need it most. So we have to start by putting people first.
We must ask how do we ensure that government is responsive and listening to the people it serves? And then we must center our efforts around the people most affected—by rebuilding and reimagining the government that we have.
Are you an optimist or pessimist about our nation’s ability to change?
First and foremost, I am a realist. I’m more optimistic than pessimistic, but I recognize that there are systemic challenges facing our nation—whether its racial justice, social justice, or environmental justice.
And yet, as the mom of three Black sons, I have no choice but to be optimistic and hopeful that things will improve, and I recognize that we all have to do our part in improving things for future generations. And that’s what inspires me to wake up every day and fight for the changes that are so badly needed.
What do you think that our nation should do to build more equitable systems for our social safety net and in criminal justice?
For me, it comes back to community and who we center in the conversations we have about the changes that are needed.
We have to build a better country and democracy, and the solutions exist. So we must ask who are the leaders we need to be in dialogue with. The ideas for change must not just be heard but taken seriously. We must listen deeply to the needs of the people who are most deeply affected. And most importantly, we must build a movement for change and hold our leaders accountable for making it happen.
You worked most recently at Demos. What was that experience like?
My time at Demos has been nothing short of amazing. Demos as a think tank is really about changing our democracy and economy so that it serves people better, especially those in black and brown communities.
One of the things that I’m most proud of is our effort to bring transformative ideas into the mainstream. Our race and class narrative project is one example. Sometimes you can’t just talk about race and you can’t just talk about class to move the needle. There are ways to talk about them both to advance issues such as voting rights and police reform. And so we were able to bring a coalition of people together—government, civil society, grassroots, and the private sector—to advance bold ideas for change.
I think there is a huge opportunity to build partnerships like these at Code for America.
You’ve worked at some of America’s leading non-profits including the Urban Institute and Habitat for Humanity. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned at these organizations?
I came away with an appreciation for how these two organizations have been able to connect the dots and bring together government, the public sector, the private sector and non-profits to drive change on issues.
At Habitat for Humanity, for instance, we recognized that the work can only go so far, and we needed to be open to advocacy work to achieve our goals on affordable housing. Similarly, at Urban Institute, we identified the factors and levers that needed to be pulled and pushed in all sectors.
What’s your approach to driving campaigns and initiatives?
Along the way, I landed on a simple approach — you’ve got to start with the audience first. You’ve got to ask the question—who do we need to center on to carry the message farthest/fastest and build a strategy around moving them.
At Code For America, there’s a broad range of audiences—government, policymakers, funders, Brigades, communities. So we have to look to what’s the connective tissue to create a story and narrative that ties these audiences together.
How have you managed through the pandemic? What do you miss the most?
I’ve had to constantly remind myself that none of this is normal. On the upside, I’ve been able to spend more time with my immediate family. But I miss the connection to the rest of my family. And it hits the hardest for me when I recognize that this might be our reality for a very long time. It’s forced a collective shift in how we relate to each other that is very profound. I miss our sense of joy and the fact that we can’t see each other smile when we are all wearing masks.
How does living near Washington, DC shape your perspective?
DC is such an interesting example of the divide between those who have power and those who do not. It’s definitely a city of haves and have nots, and the gulf is widening. On one hand, it’s the seat of government, and on the other, residents pay taxes but they don’t have the vote. This shapes how I see power, especially how it plays out in federal and electoral politics.
As a native of Canada, what’s your perspective on how the US government works (or sometimes doesn’t)?
I grew up in St. Catharines near Niagara Falls. In Canada, I think there’s an innate and genuine sense that government is a good actor with benign intent. That’s not necessarily the way people see it here. There is far more skepticism.
For me, knowing that there’s a place where government is almost always seen as a helping hand helps me think of our government differently in terms of its potential and opportunity.
What’s your favorite way to relax outside of work?
First, I’m a documentary film buff. I recently watched a documentary on the Challenger disaster. Anyone who lived during that time remembers exactly where they were when they learned that the space shuttle had exploded. It was a heart-breaking moment for our nation. And second, my guilty pleasure is reality TV. I love all of the Real Housewives franchise. So you could say I enjoy the full spectrum of non-fiction programming.
How do you think compelling storytelling can help Code for America achieve its mission?
Storytelling is central to achieving the mission of Code for America. For me when I think about telling a compelling story, I think about how it connects to a broader narrative.
So we must find the human stories that matter, connect them to the mission and use them to advance the ideas and ideals that Code for America stands for.
What would you like to achieve over the next few years at Code for America?
Code for America is today doing incredible work to change the way that government works for the people who use it.
Going forward, I believe that Code for America can be a catalyst for change across the nation and be the go-to organization for those seeking to rebuild our government.
I believe that so much can be accomplished when people who feel the hunger for change come together behind a mission. And there is so much opportunity before us. We can and should tell a compelling story about the role of government service, and all the ways that the work Code for America does touches people’s lives. I’m really excited to tap into that.
Government today is built for a time that no longer exists. So over the next decade, Code for America will be at the forefront of a movement for change that transforms our systems and structures built around the needs of the 21st century.
I’m really excited to join Code for America during these unprecedented and challenging times.