When a Movement Meets the Moment

How Code for America’s Brigade Network is responding to the COVID-19 crisis

There are a lot of posts out there that articulate the scale of COVID-19 the crisis and what’s at stake in this moment—from depictions of hospitals as war zones to stories of children missing out on education because they don’t have stable internet access to studies on how the pandemic is exacerbating poverty and racial inequality. This is not that post. While it’s incredibly important that we stay informed about the scale of the tragedy, it’s also important to examine the scale of the response—and what it shows us about the future that’s within our reach, if we have the courage to keep fighting for it.

Illustration of raised and clapping hands with the Code for America Brigade logo
Code for America Brigade members are mobilizing in all corners of the country to respond to community needs during the pandemic.

Showing what’s possible

At Code for America, we talk a lot about showing what’s possible in government service delivery, by creating interactions with government that are so good they inspire change. It is one of our “three pillars” that ground our strategy. It shows up on our T-shirts and in big letters on our office wall. In our weekly all-staff meetings, we shout each other out for embodying “show what’s possible” moments. At the same time, we recognize that the phrase can feel somewhat nebulous… or even a bit corny. Not anymore.

Ultimately, underlying this concept is a refusal to accept that the way people experience government services on a day-to-day basis is the way it has to be. At Code for America, that refusal to accept the status quo that gives way to imaginative, “show what’s possible” innovations in government service delivery. “Showing what’s possible” means meeting people where they are and respecting the time and dignity of those who are often least respected in our systems.

The lever of government

In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis is one giant “show what’s possible” moment. A few months ago, conversations about universal basic income were met with eye rolls and scoffs of “Yeah, but it’s never gonna happen.” Policy proposals to remove obstacles that make it so difficult for people to access SNAP benefits were seen as dreamy or politically impossible.

Now—when the need for government to help people meet their basic needs is dramatically magnified—the usual barriers to serving people with respect and dignity have begun to crumble.

  • SNAP interview requirements have proven to be a huge administrative burden that have kept millions from getting the food assistance they need. Two weeks ago, that burden was taken down with the stroke of a pen.
  • All across the country, people are being released from prisons to stop the spread of the virus—showing that incarceration does not equal public safety.
  • Last week, flexible cash hit the bank accounts of millions of Americans. And they didn’t have to jump through hoops to prove they needed it; they got it easily and automatically, because we all deserve to be able to pay for the things we need to survive.

The political, administrative, and bureaucratic barriers to getting people’s basic needs met that have felt intractable for decades are being removed in a matter of days. The rust around the enormous lever of change that is government is being brushed off. And we’re beginning to see what it looks like when we put real force on that lever —activating systems, operations, and new policies that cut through the bureaucracy and get people what they need to survive.

Strengthening a movement

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for us to deliver government services that help people stay alive. We’re getting a glimpse of what government is capable of if we truly center what people need, and deliver it. If we cut away the administrative burdens and political feasibility excuses. If we treat people with respect and dignity and meet their needs with their humanity in mind.

Code for America has been showing what’s possible for years through the services we’ve built, but we’re also showing what’s possible on a national scale through the people power of our national Brigade Network. There are more than 80 Brigades across the country, with thousands of volunteers (both technical and non-technical) dedicating their free time to improve government services in their local communities.

Screenshot of a pinned Slack message outlining channel norms and resources
Screenshot of a pinned Slack message outlining channel norms and resources

Brigade members are mobilizing in all corners of the country to respond to community needs with both technical and low-tech responses. Together, Brigades are leading the conversation on equitable disaster response and recognizing that impacted communities must be centered in their work. From getting tax refunds to helping neighbors, the projects are as diverse as the Network itself.

Brigade members are mobilizing in all corners of the country to respond to community needs with both technical and low-tech responses. Together, Brigades are leading the conversation on equitable disaster response and recognizing that impacted communities must be centered in their work. From getting tax refunds to helping neighbors, the projects are as diverse as the Network itself.

Getting flexible cash to those who need it

Multiple Brigades are raising their hands to support our newest project and help get people critical cash assistance to meet their needs. Volunteers at Code for San Jose and Brigade leaders at Code for Miami are working closely with Code for America as we work to rapidly scale GetYourRefund.org to Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) partners that have had to close due to COVID-19. They’ve helped develop VITA partner onboarding materials, created a “Partner Enablement Team” and are supporting partners through Zendesk. We wouldn’t be able to scale this pilot at the rate we’re going without Brigade leadership, and we’re immensely grateful to the many volunteers who are stepping up to help people get critical cash support during the pandemic.

This effort needs the participation of volunteers across the country. Here’s how you can sign up.

A promotional graphic for GetUsPPE.org
GetUsPPE.org is getting personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers in the San Jose community.

Rapid response efforts

We’re seeing brand new COVID-response projects cropping up throughout the Network, centering on-the-ground user needs of both impacted community members and their local governments. These range from high-tech hospital modeling projects to the lowest-tech mutual aid efforts:

  • Code for San Jose has a COVID-19 working group, and their members worked to create GetUsPPE.org, a website that’s getting personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers in the community.
  • Code for Philly helped launch CHIME, a COVID impact model for hospitals, in partnership with Penn Medicine. This open-source tool helps hospital leaders see up-to-date resource projections, including patient hospitalization numbers, ICU beds and ventilators.
Screenshot of a public Zoom meeting in New York City
BetaNYC is creating guides and resources to help New York officials run community board meetings via Zoom.
  • With community meetings and boards shifting online, BetaNYC has created essential guides and resources for community boards using Zoom, with guidance and research on everything from how to purchase Zoom to settings and guides for running meetings online.
  • Code for Baltimore, in partnership with the Baltimore Department of Public Health, created a disaster response API and a tool, Healthcare Roll Call, which allows municipalities to keep track of the status of local healthcare providers’ connectivity and emergency-related needs.
A printable poster gives people the option to sign up for help from their neighbors
  • Code for Denver kept it simple: With Dear Neighbors, they made a printable PDF poster for people (in any community) to identify themselves as helpers for their at-risk neighbors and hang in public.

Building on what’s already there

The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the importance of the work Brigades have been doing for years now in an effort to help deliver services to those who need them with empathy and dignity. Many Brigade projects that already existed are being used or repurposed to meet the challenge of this moment in local communities:

Philly Food Finder's map tool showing different places to get food
Philly Food Finder has been a resource in the community since 2014, but is now receiving 10 times as much traffic as usual.
  • In Philadelphia, Code for Philly created the Philly Food Finder to help local residents access food in their community. It’s already been a resource in the community since 2014. Since COVID-19 hit the city it has received 10 times as much traffic as usual, leading Code for Philly to rebrand, redesign, and redeploy the app.
  • Los Angeles’ Hack for LA created Food Oasis several years ago to help people find healthy food around the city. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Hack for LA held a call-a-thon to update their food listings and make the data relevant to COVID-19. We’re now seeing similar food mapping efforts are popping up in Pittsburg and Maine.
  • In Dayton, Ohio, ER nurse and Brigade captain Janet Michaelis has long focused on nurse and patient safety. Janet and Code for Dayton created the Flo’s Whistle app: a secure, anonymous platform where direct care nurses can log instances of compromised patient safety due to inadequate staffing. Now that COVID-19 is laying bare the underlying issues in staffing and patient care in American hospitals, Janet and her team are hoping to redeploy Flo’s Whistle.

These are just a handful of the inspiring response efforts we’re seeing throughout our national Network. This is an incredibly difficult moment for all of us, with the pandemic laying bare all kinds of structural inequities throughout our country. But there’s also a ton of hope to be found in the stories coming out of the Brigade Network. We often talk about the work of building a movement—this crisis proves that we have built a movement. And that movement is doing what it’s always done: leveraging people power to drive change in communities all over the country.

For many Americans, the way our government does (or doesn’t) deliver services has always been a matter of life or death. It’s thanks to COVID-19 that public consciousness has put a magnifying glass to it like never before. Collectively, we’ve “shown what’s possible.” And we can’t go back.

Many Brigade COVID-19 projects need your help to succeed. Want to get involved? Join the Code for America Slack community and read the pinned posts on the #covid19response channel to get plugged in.

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