I was on a panel yesterday at the Code for Durham Civic Spark Day with a couple awesome co-panelists, Noel Isama from Sunlight Foundation and Erin Parish from the City of Durham. We had a great conversation and a lot of fun with each other and with a delightfully engaged and energetic crowd.
Moderator Sam McClenney prepared fall-back questions in case the audience turned out to be bashful. Unsurprisingly, the audience did not and we never got to them, which is exactly what should happen. Nevertheless I was a little disappointed because one question crystallized something for me:
What’s a key philosophy, quote or lesson that guides you in your daily life, as you work to be an advocate for positive change?
A couple well-known quotes immediately leapt to mind and they would have been fine. But as soon as they occurred to me, I also realized that, while inspiring, they don’t actually drive or guide me daily. And as soon as I thought that, I thought of the words that do. You might have heard them before:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. John 13:34
The tradition out of which that quote comes is deeply important to me, but I don’t need it to be important to anyone else. What is important is what it actually means.
Figuring that out will undoubtedly take the rest of my life, but I think I’ve figured out some key elements. And in the work I do now, I think I know the most important one.
In early 2014 I had recovered a bit from my previous job and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew is that I wanted to put my energy into making a positive difference.
I’d already stumbled into Code for Asheville, but hadn’t yet realized where that would lead. In fact, I was surprised to find my path seemingly heading toward journalism (in retrospect, with the strong intersection between the goals of civic journalism and civic tech, I’m no longer surprised).
As part of a ploy to set up a conversation with Jay Rosen of NYU, I wrote a post reviewing a book that expressed “doubt … over the prospects of an informed citizenry for the digital age.” Using the same data as the authors, I proposed a different framing of citizens’ behavior, one grounded in respect for their challenges and their creativity in overcoming them and leading to quite different conclusions about how journalists might respond.
A couple months later I’d landed squarely in the civic tech movement and was well on my way down the slippery slope that now has me working as a government bureaucrat :). And I realized that the story news producers tell about their readers has a perfect parallel in how we talk about citizens in a democracy, so I wrote about that too.
Go inside the walls of any city hall and you will find similar narratives.
If I had to name one thing that we in public service need to do to transform how local government works, it would be to change that narrative. And the only way to truly change the narrative is to change the underlying relationship that gives rise to it from one that ranges between condescension and disdain to one of deep respect.
For me, that’s what that quote is about: allowing ourselves to undergo a radical shift in relationship with our fellow human beings. Some days I do that really well, some days I do it pretty badly, but it remains my primary guide.