What Does It Mean To Build With, Not For?

Reckoning with our histories and the meaning of allyship in civic tech
A group of people sit around in a circle with laptops open in their laps. Behind them is a chalkboard that says
Members of the 2019-2020 Ka Maka ʻĪnana cohort work together. Ben Treviño sits second from right.
Credit: Purple Maiʻa Foundation

Protocol is a procedure or system that determines what is needed for a person, place, and thing to live in harmony. Indigenous Hawaiian communities inherited this practice, which has historically been a way of life for them. (Audio created and graciously provided by the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation in Hilo, HI)

In 2019, I found myself in the Code for America Office on Mission Street, standing next to my Fellowship partner, Stephanie Chang. We were about to present on the transit innovation project we had worked on as Honolulu Community Fellows when Stephanie, who grew up in Hawaiʻi, mentioned, “You know, Native Hawaiians have always been incredible technologists.”

That statement sent me down a path of discovery and inquiry that today defines how I see myself in the world. Previously, I—like many of Code for America’s fellows and volunteers—had thought of myself and my skills as a resource I was bringing in service of communities. On that day in the Code for America office, I began to wonder if the communities themselves were the resource.

The spark that draws every single person into the network of Code for America is the drive to be of service. What is unique about Code for America is the value we bring to our work with communities: “Build with, not for.”

But what does that mean, exactly?

Reining in the desire to build, build, build 

I’ve been around Code for America since Honolulu was a Fellowship city in 2012. I had a chance to be a Fellow myself in 2018; I have helped lead our local Brigade, Code for Hawaiʻi; and recently finished a term as an elected representative to the National Advisory Council where I have served as co-chair for the second year of my term.

I don’t think it is overselling it to describe the emotional connection I have to this organization, this network, and this movement as “love.” I love the people I work with and the work we do together. Like with many loving relationships, over time, you start to learn about your beloved—what they dream about, what wounds they carry. 

In the Code for America Network, I believe we most strongly identify with the “BUILD” aspect of that motto. We are doers. We are biased towards action. We put our skills to work. It was that aspect of our identity that made me feel like I belonged here. 

But building too quickly, without considering the why, how, or who, can make our work a force for harm, rather a force for good. Civic tech that isn’t thoughtfully done in partnership with communities can make for a “savior” movement, rather than a “service” movement; can create unnecessary products or services that perpetuate existing harm; and can overemphasize thought leadership instead of listening to communities, which means we might miss solutions already present in communities, devalue local knowledge, and lose the trust of communities we partner with. As Sydette Harry said at the 2019 Code for America Summit, “you can only code as well as you listen.”

Learning to build with

The Community Fellowship that brought me to the Code for America Office in 2018 was aimed at applying human-centered design to transit sustainability. Stephanie and I ended up recognizing that the most powerful sustainability ideas for Hawaiʻi were the ones that were practiced by Kanaka ʻŌiwi prior to Western contact in 1778. The ahupuaʻa is a shorthand for the philosophy and practices that gave rise to pre-contact abundance in Hawaiʻi—integrated watershed management, sophisticated nearshore aquaculture, upland forest conservation and management, and careful observation of countless aspects of the natural ecosystems of which people were a part.  Being generally ignorant to those Hawaiian practices or their application to the “innovation” space where we work in civic tech, I knew I needed to learn from or partner with people who knew more than me.

When I learned about the Ka Maka ʻĪnana Program—an effort organized by the Purple Maiʻa Foundation to convene Hawaiian community members to explore cultural practices, radically re-engineer the design thinking process in an Indigenous context, and create new solutions to local challenges—it sounded exactly what I was looking for to start gaining that knowledge and understanding the role I could play in applying it.

After finishing my participation in the first cohort of Ka Maka ʻĪnana in 2019, I signed up again to participate in the second cohort. Throughout this journey I have learned from unbelievably brilliant innovators and scholars reflecting on the question of what it means to design from a Hawaiian perspective. We asked questions like: Who is this design accountable to? What are the responsibilities of the creator? Where does the creation being designed derive its power? What is the relationship between design and the past? The future? Designing from a Hawaiian perspective means thinking about more than the immediate impact of a new product or system on the existing community. It means considering the impact on land in the future, the ability of a new creation to adapt to changing needs, and the role it will play in preserving important cultural practices. The experience has been, to say the least, deeply and emotionally cathartic. Transformative.

Members of the 2019-2020 Ka Maka ʻĪnana cohort reflected on the question of what it means to design from a Hawaiian perspective.
Credit: Purple Maiʻa Foundation

It has also been profoundly difficult and at times shaken the foundations of my identity. The biggest realization I had was that the civic tech skills that I bring to Hawaiʻi might be responsible for snuffing out the possibility of Indigenous innovation otherwise. For years, the state of Hawaiʻi has pursued a high tech economic development strategy that has invested in Silicon Valley-style approaches to innovation. In doing so, the government has marginalized the possible contributions of the standard bearers of our islands’ place-based and centuries-old legacies of innovation. The continued insistence on the construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope in spite of community and cultural resistance is a case in point of this perspective on technological innovation and the primacy of western science.

As a person who has benefited from and practiced western scientific methods in the design and technology space, I have to continually ask myself about my place in this space. In Hawaiʻi, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a little about the healing art and conflict resolution practice known as “ho’oponopono.” It involves openly airing grievances, addressing injury, calls to accountability, forgiveness, and, ultimately, the restoration of health and balance. I realized that these are the things required of me—not only individually by reflecting on my own actions, but also my place in a broader view that contemplates the injuries my family, my ancestors, my country and my field may have inflicted on the culture and people of the place I now call home.

Us builders tend to think of our personal gifts as the keys to the work we are doing. After all, what is needed for our broken government and communities if not innovation in the form of newly built inventions? As much as we understand that we are here to be of service, here to help, we still hold onto the idea that we are the resource. Our skills. Our network. Our positions in the community and government. All of the things civic tech can bring to communities.

But soon, I began thinking of it the other way around: What could the community I was working in bring to civic tech?

Which brings us back to the word with.

Recognizing resources

One of the greatest gifts of these unusual COVID-19 times was the term “essential worker.” The extraordinary plight of essential workers hit close to home for me for many reasons. Essential workers are disproportionately people of color (many quite specifically of LatinX and Filipino heritage like me). Also, essential workers were disproportionately transit dependent, a service that I have been working hard to justify for years. In many other socioeconomic contexts, we have historically used other words to describe individuals in this category…

Poor.

COVID revealed to us that the “poor” are not the helpless beneficiaries of our charitable spirit. They keep us fed, they keep us safe, and they keep us healthy—they do the things we literally need to survive. By finally recognizing the people who hold up our society as “essential” we also exposed that we had not previously seen them that way.

It is not the job of these communities to prop us up while we deliver dazzling technological solutions. It is our job to give our essential workers whatever they need to thrive in their communities and keep the rest of us alive. We are not the resource. The communities we build with—the economically marginalized, those most negatively impacted by the criminal legal system, the civically disenfranchised, are, in fact, the resources keeping tech-savvy workers like me safe, healthy, and fed during the most extraordinary shocks to our system. If we are to be successful allies, we need to be the resource to the resource.

Speaking for myself, I was not ready to do that. Not only did I not know how my skills could be a useful resource, but I am also only at the very beginning of understanding my own role in my community.

This journey with Ka Maka ʻĪnana and the questions around how Code for Hawaiʻi (and civic tech more generally) can be an ally to Indigenous innovators who hold the keys to everything from climate change to education—these are all open and ongoing conversations. The same is true for innovators in other communities—no one knows best how to solve a problem than the people closest to it. The people who live it every day, whose parents and ancestors lived it, who will be there long after a volunteer clocks out and heads home.

Technologists have to first admit that we don’t hold the answers. Then we must recognize our obligation to learn.

Growing up in Texas, my family used to do a lot of driving to visit other parts of the continent. I witnessed so many beautiful places, and have yet to witness so many more. I now recognize that each of these places are super libraries of ecological knowledge and there are people, both native and non-native that know how to access it. Chances are, for all of those places, there’s a Brigade not more than a few hours away.

It’s crucial that we open this conversation about allyship to all those volunteers across the country. At Code for Hawaiʻi, in partnership with Ka Maka ʻĪnana and the Purple Prize, we will be struggling with this conversation—and recognizing that in addition to a conversation, it is a commitment, a compact between all of us to respect the voices of those born of this land and empower their resources with our own.

Whatever conversations about allyship are happening in your networks, I hope we can learn together. My most powerful experiences with the Code for America Network have all been in pursuit of an answer to the question of with. And in unpacking the with, we can change how we build—this time approaching a better definition of allyship and revealing a powerful future for the communities we stand behind.

If you’re interested in learning more about the work we are doing in Hawaiʻi, the organizations mentioned in this article (Purple Mai’a Foundation and Code for Hawaiʻi) and the nexus of Indigenous knowledge and technology, please consider joining us at Coastal Biocultural Restoration as a Nexus of Innovation, a virtual workshop taking place May 14-17, 2021 with opening day orientation on May 13, 2021. This active-participant workshop brings together Indigenous and local communities, scientists, nonprofits, corporations, government, and more to develop project ideas and define priorities for use-inspired research and application centered around the process and practice of biocultural restoration. Learn more and register at www.bcrworkshop.com

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