OpenOakland’s core priorities, based on several years of member feedback, are in some ways fundamentally basic. There shouldn’t be anything groundbreaking about prioritizing inclusion in a civic tech collective. In other ways, though, the priorities are very ambitious. They require a lot of work and thoughtful implementation. Progress may feel slow to many of us, even invisible sometimes. But it’s worth acknowledging some of the incremental yet meaningful changes we’ve implemented this year as a result of establishing these priorities.
Picking the low-hanging fruit
Because all of our efforts at OpenOakland are 100% volunteer, we need to be realistic about focusing our energy to make the most of our time. With many dependencies between priority areas, we looked for some simple things we could do to address multiple priorities at once. While these are basic things (some of which should have been in place already), they start laying the foundation for the larger work ahead:
Added a contact page to openoakland.org that goes to the entire Steering Committee so the public has a clear and easy way to provide feedback.
Rolled out a blog to provide more public transparency into brigade decision-making, activity, and impacts.
Introduced a pilot Project Team Scan process to establish a more regular feedback loop and measure some basic progress like project accessibility, team health and project needs.
Compiled previous equity work done by the brigade so we can begin establishing benchmark indicators. We shared this work out within the brigade but are committing to publishing it publicly, too, for transparency and accountability.
Kicked off the Embedding Equity at OpenOakland discussion group to create a dedicated space to practice having challenging but empathetic conversations about equity, and keep this priority area consistently in the foreground of our activity.
Some of these things feel incidental, like adding a contact page to a website. But imagine you have a question or concern about something the team is working on—say, a project that may have unintended impacts on a historically marginalized community—and there’s no information on the project page or the organization’s main website. Your only recourse to provide feedback is to show up to a meeting on a Tuesday night, meet a group of people you don’t know, raise your hand at just the right moment, and tell this roomful of people your opinion. That’s a huge barrier to put in front of people and it can prevent important voices from being heard. Publishing a simple email address provides a direct, low-effort line of communication.
This sort of “low-hanging fruit” is relatively easy to implement and starts to fill in the gaps that often become invisible as we all try to cram a few extra hours of volunteer work into already busy days. That doesn’t mean we can avoid the larger effort required and it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll auto-magically hit our targets. But it does move us closer to where we want to be. And it reflects what membership has asked for.
The ongoing building blocks of long-term change
A lot of the more direct work towards OpenOakland’s priorities, like greater inclusion of underrepresented groups, is complex, long-term work. This is either stuff that’s never really done, may be less tangible or measurable, or is more challenging to implement logistically. This year’s leadership team can only help put these processes in place; it’s up to the entire Steering Committee to keep them going beyond this year’s term:
Seeking professional expertise to inform our equity and inclusion work. We’ve been searching for a partner-vendor or two to help with conflict resolution skills training and equity planning. This work costs money if we’re to compensate people fairly and there are some restrictions and implications for how we spend our limited funds that come into play. But we’ve been lucky enough to receive some generous high-level guidance already from experts like Karen Fleshman of Racy Conversations and Ellie Tumbuan of The Justice Collective (a former OpenOaklander herself, no less), among others. We offer a huge thank you to both for these generously shared consultations. We’ve also started exploring ways to fund and scale these efforts with Code for America.
Defining a more consistent project life cycle, including milestones, project tools and templates, to bake in an equity lens as a matter of course, build structured approaches to community representation and accountability, and help volunteers feel more supported and effective in their work.
Building improvements into our volunteer onboarding process. Again, smaller efforts, like updating the automated greetings in Meetup and Slack with important messages about our Code of Conduct, processes, and important resources, sets better expectations for people joining the brigade. More consistent live onboarding each week and the beginning of a volunteer relationship management system will improve our ability to track engagement and progress across volunteers and projects.
Drafting an impact measurement strategy for projects and the brigade as a whole using a results-based accountability approach.
What’s next: Keeping it all going
It’s frustrating for me that it’s taken the better part of a year to document all this work. And we still have so much more to do. As long as our volunteers share the commitment to investing in our mission, we will continue to make progress. We participate in OpenOakland to reduce inequity in our city. To do that takes a lot of hard, sometimes uncomfortable, work. But that work is also deeply meaningful and rewarding. It makes us better, stronger, kinder, wiser.
We are going to make mistakes. The reality is that we may not accomplish everything we set out to. But we’ll be honest about it—with ourselves and our community. These are some of the things I’d like to see us still do:
- Finalize the hiring of a consultant for skills training and equity planning.
- Adopt a set of basic reporting requirements for projects and actually report them publicly.
- Develop a basic data management policy that addresses both how the brigade handles personally identifiable information and principles for handling project data responsibly and equitably.
- Bring more diverse voices into our conversations by inviting speakers, hosting discussions, etc
- Provide learning opportunities for members to explore issues and perspectives new to us.
- Practice having difficult conversations with each other, learning how to call out and call in when we experience problematic behavior, and how to deliver and receive feedback and criticism in healthy ways.
- Evolve our bylaws to address challenges in the current leadership structure, process gaps, and generally make OpenOakland’s participatory governance structure more effective.
A more rigorous list of activities and initiatives are outlined in OpenOakland’s Priority Areas.
Finding the right pace of change
It’s proving to be a real challenge to make progress fast enough. Members have different levels of patience with the process and expectations of what’s reasonable. Co-leads struggle to keep up with the demands of poorly defined roles. Project leads struggle to balance their project management with brigade management.
I will admit that I’ve frequently felt like we’re moving too slow. In fact, I and my fellow co-leads have been accused of “over-processing” and I’m sure that’s true. I think this is inevitable when a team hasn’t had any process to speak of. It’s not lost on me that I’ve lodged the same complaint of other leadership teams in years past. More importantly, I really believe the extra effort helps embed these priorities more deeply into our DNA, creating a culture of accountability and self-reflection that gets passed on from volunteer to volunteer. One thing I’ve learned from our community partnership efforts on the West Oakland Air Quality project is the value of taking time to build authentic, lasting relationships. I’m hopeful that these over-processed initiatives will have lasting impacts that justify the effort beyond my term.
And I really believe in the work we’ve done so far, despite our fits and starts. Perhaps the most powerful thing is that all of this is in direct response to member feedback that until now had been largely invisible. No longer. Now it’s up to all of us as volunteers to carry it forward.