Putting the Power of Positivity Into Focus

It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”

Cinematographer and editor Codi Barbini on the Greek set of My Intention Was Not to Leave.

Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.”
Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.

What Are ‘Political Entrepreneurs?’ This Guy Believes They’re the Heroes Who Will Disrupt Washington’s Gridlock

“Political entrepreneur” is a phrase NationSwell Council member Kahlil Byrd uses to describe nonprofit leaders and techies who are tackling America’s biggest problems “in a completely innovative, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial way.” And without a dose of partisanship.  

“Their bias is to create a tool, an idea or a process that will cut through the challenge,” Byrd wrote earlier this year in Forbes.

Byrd, a Republican, has been dedicated to cross-partisan policy reform for more than a decade. He’s worked with Massachusetts’ former governor Deval Patrick and Michelle Rhee, both Democrats. And during the 2012 presidential primary he ran Americans Elect, a startup that worked to get a bipartisan presidential ticket on all 50 state ballots. More recently, in the wake of the 2016 election, he’s noticed a new league of people across the political spectrum determined to reform American policy.

As he wrote in a December 2016 LinkedIn post, political entrepreneurs are “tackling the biggest issues that directly affect citizens’ lives [and] they refuse to accept the failure, division, and deadlock that dominates our politics.”

But as an investor with deep ties to the nonprofit and tech sectors, he knows firsthand the challenges his beloved “political entrepreneurs” face in getting the financing they need to transform their civic innovations into nonpartisan policies.  

“Even the best ideas — making it easier to vote, using data to connect citizens to Congress or deploying new talent into undervalued sectors like child welfare — have profound trouble finding the capital needed to scale,” the New York City–based Byrd says.

Taking action, Byrd co-founded the Invest America Fund, an advisory firm and seed fund that supports political entrepreneurs and matches them to what he says are “the business leaders, philanthropists and others who have already succeeded and want to spend their time and capital.”

Byrd and his co-founder, Kellen Arno, believe they are among the few investors focused on creating a financing pipeline for these types of policy innovators.

One organization they back is Foster America, a startup devoted to child welfare reform founded by Sherry Lachman, a foster child herself who later went on to serve as a policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. The nonprofit’s fellowship program recruits talent from the business, education, technology and health fields, and supports them in their efforts to transform child welfare policy.

Early success has led Foster America to double its impact, expanding from eight fellows in 2016 to 16 this year. By 2020, Foster America plans to have 50 fellows working with 25 child welfare agencies nationwide.

“We are trying to bring together two groups on opposite ends of the success curve: Political entrepreneurs on one end, and on the other, successful and creative funders who can provide growth financing,” says Byrd. “Entrepreneurs are still trying to prove worth — both their own and of their ideas. Funders have sustained success and know how to build value from the ground up. Both care deeply about the country.

Kahlil Byrd is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Invest America Fund, which provides seed money to entrepreneurs working on bipartisan policy reform.

Meet the Privacy Expert on a Mission to Protect Your Digital Footprint

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new breed of nationalism took root that trained its attention on the foreigners among us. In response, the federal government adopted a set of strict policies and legislation that tracked immigrants in general and Muslim communities in particular.
“I felt like the whole country was in turmoil and at risk of abandoning its values for a false sense of security,” says Tim Sparapani, an expert in digital privacy and a NationSwell Council member. “I was always taught at moments like that you don’t look away; you get involved.”
So Sparapani did, finding his passion for social impact and public service within those tumultuous days. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union as senior legislative counsel and later helped establish Facebook’s presence in Washington as its first director of public policy. These days, the D.C.-based Sparapani leads SPQR Strategies, which he founded in 2011 as a consulting firm focused on online and digital data privacy.
It was at the ACLU that Sparapani gained his reputation as a fierce advocate for individual privacy, becoming a protector against what he says was unconstitutional policies. That included the Real ID Act of 2005, a significant piece of 9/11 legislation introduced and championed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), which required people who applied for a driver’s license or a government ID to produce five types of identification to prove their identity, such as a social security number, birth certificate, proof of citizenship and home address, and a mortgage statement or utility bill.
Democrats and the ACLU, along with moderate Republicans and a handful of libertarian organizations like the CATO Institute, thought the statute was “deeply unconstitutional,” says Sparapani. “Once you pulled back the layers, you saw it was based on nativism and ugly xenophobia.”
After the bill passed, Sparapani and his team at the ACLU spearheaded a campaign that urged states to resist the federal regulations. They made their push to the public by highlighting how the new driver’s licenses mandated under the bill — which would have electronic chips that stored a person’s name, address, birth date and social security number — were prone to identity theft, could be used to track individuals’ travel, and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
“We were able to get dozens of states to independently enact legislation resisting the federal statute. That hasn’t happened since the Civil War,” Sparapani says. “It was our strategy to have state-by-state resistance to something that was tremendous overreach.”
Though the Real ID Act is still enshrined in federal law and, starting next year, will bar certain state IDs from being used to fly or gain access to federal buildings, Sparapani credits the campaign as his “a-ha moment,” when he realized there was a need to protect all U.S. residents’ privacy, especially from a government that he saw as wielding too much power.
“There was this new opportunity in the computer-database era for the government to exercise control over people in all sorts of nefarious ways by using technology for ill,” Sparapani says, adding that he’d like to see more people take up the cause for privacy rights online. “It’s kind of up to all of us to decide the rules for how we use technology as a society and put limits on it that are aligned with our constitutional values.”


Tim Sparapani is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of SPQR Strategies, a consulting firm that works with startups, established companies, and consumer and privacy advocates on the policy challenges raised by emerging technologies.

Why Behavioral Science Has Become the Next Big Thing for Solving Society’s Problems

Ever since Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted his notorious experiment in the early 1960s, in which he asked participants to obediently administer a high-voltage “shock” to a victim, researchers have uncovered a wealth of fascinating insights into the human mind. But much of this study has been confined to laboratories and academia. As managing director at ideas42, NationSwell Council member Alissa Fishbane is bucking that trend by applying the lessons from behavioral science to the social sector. At ideas42, her team advises governments and nonprofits about how to better structure their programs in education, healthcare, criminal justice, finance and energy based on what we know about human psychology. NationSwell spoke to Fishbane at her office in Lower Manhattan.
What is behavioral science, and why is it so important for policymakers to understand?
Behavioral sciences are really pulling together all the research in social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. This field is so important because people often behave in ways that are strange and peculiar. You want to go to the gym five times a week, you want to stay on this diet and you want to save more for retirement. Why isn’t that happening? We all tell ourselves what we want to do, then it doesn’t quite happen. Why not? We as human beings struggle to follow through on certain decisions, particularly things that are very important to us. But programs and policies in the social sector are often created in ways that don’t account for this fundamental aspect, how we behave as humans. That’s really where we come in.
What’s an example of how this looks in practice?
One thing we’re looking at is how to help students complete college. There’s been a lot of great work in this area, but we’ve taken a different approach, which is the holistic student experience. How do we take the pulse of a student as they go through the process, day-to-day and semester-to-semester? How do we understand their various decisions, actions, habits? Knowing that there are constant hurdles a student needs to jump over — “Did I apply? Did I matriculate? Did I get my aid? Did I study? Did I pass?” — even a small one can trip them up. The solution isn’t any one piece; it’s creating a system that supports them throughout all of their college years.
It can be very simple, like reminders to complete the FAFSA. With something that small, we almost doubled the early application rate at one university we worked with. We also take on tougher problems, like working with a college to figure out how to keep students from dropping out in the first year. We realized a big part of the problem for students was feeling like they didn’t belong on campus. For that, we embedded a video into orientation showing how lots of other students went through similar challenges, the way they overcame them and how thrilled they are now to be there. We were able to raise the retention rate from 83 to 91 percent, which is pretty amazing, just by understanding what these students experienced.
What kinds of issues have you worked on locally, in New York City?
Summons are tickets for low-level infractions that people get for things like having an open container of alcohol in public or riding a bike on the sidewalk. Lots of people are getting these tickets — big city, you know, lots going on — but what’s really scary is that if you get a ticket and don’t show up to court, a bench warrant is put out for you. The next time you have any sort of encounter with police, you will be arrested immediately and put in jail. Almost 40 percent of New Yorkers aren’t showing up, which is an extraordinarily high number. That’s really concerning because for families that don’t have flexible jobs, it’s hugely disruptive. Even if you’re out in 24 hours, you could lose your job. And it’s even worse if you’re undocumented.
We partnered with the mayor’s office, the NYPD and a state entity, the Office of Court Administration, to change what the ticket looks like. Even changing the title makes it clearer. Before it said “Complaint/Information”; now, it says “Criminal Court Appearance Ticket.” Instead of a date and time in chicken-scratch on the back, that info is now at the top along with writing that says that you will get an arrest warrant if you don’t show up.
Then, their next touch point is 12 weeks later. Most people think they have plenty of time, but they forget, lose the ticket or don’t put the date in their calendar. We’re coupling the revised form with a series of text-message reminders. We know people need to ask for time off work, so it comes a week ahead of time to help them plan. In case they forgot, it comes three days before. Then, it comes the day before.
Are there any ethical dilemmas to watch out for in applying behavioral research to policy?
No matter how you design anything, consciously or unconsciously, you create an outcome. The way anything is built, just in its structure, is nudging people one way or another. We try to de-bias that and help people make the decision they want to be making. In the social sector, we’re really focused on how we help people move from intention to action. So we’re not trying to tell people, “Now, do this,” but rather, helping them follow through.
How do you apply these insights to your own life?
We don’t realize everything else that’s going on in the lives of others; we don’t see the full picture of anyone’s environment. It’s easy to say, “I can’t believe you didn’t make it to the gym five times,” but then you don’t either. I can make these assumptions like, “Oh, she doesn’t have discipline,” but then come up with an excuse for my own lack of discipline. Understanding human behavior makes us more generous about others and ourselves. I’ve become much more forgiving of myself, knowing that lots of these things are funny quirks about human behavior.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

For This Century-Old Civil Rights Nonprofit, the Real Work Is Just Beginning

The New York Urban League (NYUL) was founded in 1919, at the start of the Great Migration, to connect blacks who left the agricultural South with jobs in the industrial North. At the time, descendants of slaves poured into a metropolis where they had to fight against housing discrimination and boycott stores where black job applications weren’t accepted. Nearly a century later, Arva Rice, a NationSwell Council member and president of the New York Urban League, is continuing to fight for equality within New York City’s education system and job opportunities. NationSwell spoke to her recently about the ongoing fight for civil rights, as the nation’s first black president leaves office.
New York Urban League is approaching its centennial. What issues are you anticipating will be core to the league’s next century?
One challenge for us is how the conversation about race has changed over time. When I meet with others, I talk about the importance of this particular time in history. The fact that when I first came to the Urban League in April 2009, President Obama had just been elected and we were hearing, “You all have a president. That’s the ultimate level of equality.” Unfortunately, in the last seven years, we have also had Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and all things in between, like the intentional voter-suppression laws and attacks on the Voting Rights Act. The work we do is more critical than ever. There’s a generation that cares about racial equity, but we need to engage them in different ways. Maybe they want to march and be involved in grassroots movements, some want to be engaged in policy discussions and some want to become part of the establishment themselves and run for office. All of those ways are correct and right, and we have to figure out how to support that going forward.
Besides equal access to education and employment, the NYUL’s mission statement references working toward a “living environment that fosters mutual respect.” What does that mean to you?
Envisioning a world of mutual respect means that folks can not only tolerate but appreciate difference. I’m fascinated by how we define diversity and inclusion. Diversity is inviting people to a party, where inclusion is getting everyone to dance. I think that distinction is important, because to get everyone dancing, you have to think deliberately. You need to think about what is going to include people across generations, and most importantly, you need to be intentional in order to create environments that bring others to the fore. You have to be thoughtful, because it’s not going to happen by accident.
The racial biases pointed out by Black Lives Matter and the rising economic inequality in American cities were both on the minds of many voters last year. In what ways does New York reflect and buck the trends of what we expect from cities?
New York is often leading the way. We’re the ones who were really pushing for higher wages, with the Fight for 15 campaign. We’re also second place for technology and innovation. That’s why the New York Urban League is focusing some of our work on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], giving young people the opportunity to not only play with technology but also be creators. There are some folks that say, “Oh, people of color aren’t interested in tech, because it’s not cool enough.” And I push back on that. This is not about being cool; this is about being accessible. Without having somebody who you know, any experience, any interaction with someone who works at Facebook, Google, Twitter, how can they know that’s something they can do? We’re helping to break through that, and then provide skills. The fact is that people of color will be passed over if, once again, they are not included in intentional ways. The reason why I feel privileged to lead a historic black organization is because you’re constantly focused on making sure that there really is equality. Until the day we feel like there truly is real parity, we’re not finished.
What have you learned about leadership during your time at NYUL?
I have learned that leadership is about doing things that make your stomach hurt. And that just because your stomach hurts doesn’t mean that you’re unusual. If you are doing it right and pushing yourself and the people that you manage and your stakeholders and your donors, there are going to be times when it’s uncomfortable. It’s a growth pattern. The other thing I’ve learned is that the only people who don’t make mistakes are the ones who aren’t doing anything. So I need to forgive myself for those times I made mistakes, figure out what I learned, dust myself off and go on to the next thing.
What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
We have a program called Empowerment Days for our young people, which is basically Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work days. We take 200 girls and 150 boys on the first and last Friday of March, respectively. They’re able to go and meet people at places like O, The Oprah Magazine, black enterprises, the Yankees, Google and Microsoft. Basically, they spend the day with people who may look like them or have similar backgrounds and experiences, and find out how they got into those careers. And one of the reasons I’m so proud of that is because we have a level of access, as an organization that has a 97-year history of impact on communities. So I can call people and get my calls returned at a level that I wasn’t able to in any other position in my career. Every time we do an Empowerment Day, the young people are excited about a senior vice president or a receptionist that they met. That’s fantastic, because we would not be able to do that, if it were not for the relationships that the Urban League has within the city.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
Continue reading “For This Century-Old Civil Rights Nonprofit, the Real Work Is Just Beginning”

A Washington Insider’s Advice for the New Administration

President Obama confronted a number of foreign policy issues during his two terms in office: a covert mission to kill Osama bin Laden; the expansion of settlements in Israel; a failure to curb Russian aggression in Crimea; military strikes in Libya; a red line and refugee crisis in Syria; the rise of the Islamic State; the reopening of relations with Cuba; and a nuclear deal with Iran. Behind the scenes, NationSwell Council member Matt Spence worked on many of these issues in the White House’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and as head of Middle East policy in the Defense Department from 2012 to 2015. As Donald J. Trump readies to be sworn as president this week, NationSwell spoke to Spence, now a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a fellow at Stanford, about the world the next commander-in-chief will face.

How did you get interested in international policy? Why did these big global issues matter to you personally?
In some sense, it’s unusual. I grew up in Southern California and lived in the same house my entire life. I’d never been out of the country until college. But when I was born, my father was in the Army reserves, and I remember him being deployed to Korea in preparation for the first Gulf War. My mom was the first in her family to be born in the United States; her grandparents and two uncles had come here very suddenly during World War II when the Nazis took over. So, in the background, there was a strong interest in international issues. I remember my dad reading a lot of military history and international affairs when I was growing up, and I was just fascinated.

You’ve credited your first White House role to a doctorate in international relations and “a fair amount of luck.” Why did you choose to join the Obama campaign in 2008?
I got very excited about Barack Obama when he was a candidate after reading a speech he gave in 2007 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He talked about how the way to keep America safe was by pursuing smart policy and supporting development throughout the world. I’d written my doctoral dissertation at Oxford about the impact of democratization on developing the rule of law and what America could do to support that in Russia and the former Soviet Union. I was really struck that the danger in these societies was not that they’re aggressive, but that they were so weak and broken. I remember Obama at the time talking about how a starving child in the Middle East or Africa is as much a threat to the United States over the long term as the spread of weapons of mass destruction. I think we’ve seen that now with broken states, refugees, the rise of totally ungoverned spaces. Obama got that at a real visceral level, and he was saying this, by the way, when he’d only been a senator for a very short time.

Looking back on your time in the White House, what was the greatest test of your resolve?
I started at the White House on the first day after the inauguration, and I was just working all the time. I was at my desk by 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and I would leave around 10:30 or 11, as one of the last people leaving the West Wing. There is so much that is happening at the same time; the sheer bandwidth of the diverse issues is just mind-blowing. At the beginning of an administration, one of the most valuable qualities is just stamina to come in and work those types of hours. But the key, in the middle of all that, is to try to think about how to keep your head above water. What do you actually want to be doing? How do you think about history?


How did you maintain perspective amidst all the pressure?
I got a great piece of advice from my boss at the time, the national security adviser. He said, “Always make time to read history.” In the middle of these 14-hour days, I read the memoirs of past national security advisers, secretaries of state and other figures. I remember finding a passage in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoir from when, as Carter’s national security adviser, they dealt with the Iranian revolution. I gave it to the national security adviser as we were thinking through the protests surrounding Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in Tahrir Square. You don’t want to overgeneralize from history: Those were very different events in very different historical times. But there’s something humbling to think through the changes that occurred decades before. These issues appear very unique; everything looks new to you, in a sense. Essentially, how do you try to learn from your mistakes before you make them?

You had the chance to travel with and brief President Obama. What did you learn from him about leadership?
He has an amazing sense of priorities. Many times, sitting in the Situation Room, he would say very explicitly, “Look, this is a presidential-level decision. I’ve made my decision. You guys go execute and figure it out.” He was very clear on which issues rose to his level that he needed to handle and which he could delegate, which is incredibly important for an executive. There’s a lot of noise in national security or business decisions or running an organization. Given this huge glut coming at you, what are the key things you really need to pay attention to?

During your tenure at the Defense Department, what was the most important development that will shape the future of the Middle East?
When you ask anyone about the Middle East, they picture conflict, chaos, danger. We have to try to think about opportunities. We’re facing a real time of American isolationism. Americans don’t feel that the Middle East is unimportant, but they throw their hands up and wonder if there’s anything we can do about it. Can we maintain leadership without having tens of thousands of troops in the region that most Americans don’t really support?

I remember going to Jordan to lead defense talks with the government. We were in the process of providing a huge amount of military assistance, because they share a border with Syria and Iraq, they had a very serious refugee crisis and they were facing threats from neighbors. A senior member told me, “We deeply appreciate the military assistance that you’ve given us, and we need it. But what we need even more is millions of jobs.” In a sense, it sounds cliché, but as a representative of the most powerful military in the history of the world in a region that’s deeply hungry for security, these countries were thinking about how to educate and employ this next generation. When you spend your days thinking about war planning, that wasn’t what I expected. The most valuable export we have is not from these $750 billion defense budgets, but economic opportunity and entrepreneurship.

What piece of advice would you give to the incoming Trump administration?
Listen and surround yourself with good people who are dedicated, know what they’re doing and will be thoughtful about their role. Right now, there really is an opportunity to show what he’s going to do to govern, and he should show he’s going to govern in a very different way than he campaigned. He said he’s going to do that, and just match the work now.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

Building a Better City Through Big Data

In the nation’s capital, 28 percent of children live in a household that’s below the federal poverty line, and another 20 percent grow up barely above it. As executive director of DC Action for Children, NationSwell Council member HyeSook Chung studied exactly where this deprivation could be found and, more importantly, why. “What are we doing that’s not working, and why are we investing in it?” she asks repeatedly. Unlike the ideological think tanks that populate D.C.’s corridors, she’s a relentless empiricist who searches for answers in data. At DC Action, she partnered with DataKind and joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count community to publicly post a number of visuals about the city online, graphically comparing, say, youth unemployment, Medicaid enrollment or the number of parks in every D.C. neighborhood. Last month, Chung accepted a new role as D.C.’s deputy mayor for health and human services. As she makes the transition, NationSwell caught up with her to discuss the data-driven accomplishments at her last job and reflect on what her new role means for the city.
How does better data guide decision-making in Washington, D.C.?
At DC Action, we were the first ones to really look at the neighborhood level. Looking at wards — the equivalent of a county level — was too broad. As a parent, I live in D.C. and my kids go to DCPS, and I wanted to know why parents in certain areas were able to move the needle, despite the lack of support from the city’s administrative offices. With neighborhood data, we could question why a cluster of a few elementary schools were doing better than all the others in that ward. It could be race or income, but I wanted to know exactly why.
That led to visual analysis and asset-mapping that we can show a council member. “Look at grocery stores and the lack of fresh produce in Wards 7 and 8. Look at the poverty in Wards 1, 4 and 5 that’s starting to kick up.” We were able to have a different conversation with city leaders. Some of the big fights in the city are about state representation and all the things happening on the Hill, so I don’t think they were ready for an organization to show up with data on the neighborhood level. Because then, the solutions are really localized solutions, not these macro, citywide policies. That’s a different way of thinking: One solution is not going to meet the needs of all 108,000 kids under 18.
There’s been a lot of debate about how data can be misused. How do you avoid trusting misleading figures or building biased algorithms?
Data is not so black and white, especially in human resources. People dealing with people is very subjective. How can you have an automated evaluation for hiring or firing? In public education, there’s this drive for outcomes in test scores that need to be improved if the teacher is to be effective. I heard from one teacher who scored 6 percent [in his evaluations] one year, then 97 percent the next. The educator said that nothing changed; the calculations were just different those two times. Their salaries, pensions, even their jobs are determined by these equations some person is putting together. That is one thing about open data about which we have to be conscientious.
As the repository for Kids Count at DC Action, we focused on making sure we had the most up-to-date, reliable, unbiased data out there, but we also kept track of how that data is used. We all have biases that data can further or can debunk. We took our role very seriously to be as unbiased as we could, to give as much context as we could, then let the data speak for itself.
How can service providers change their operations to keep better track of their data?
I was training a few of the intake coordinators at one community-based organization, and I walked them through why everything they do is so important to track. I referenced Amazon: As a user, every movement, every click is tracked to give me popups based on what I might like. For nonprofits, the only difference is you meet families and children every day, and you have all these interactions and conversations. But none of that is being recorded or tracked. One of the pitfalls of social finance data is that we’re very great about tracking quantities and caseloads, like how many families you served or how many kids graduated, but we’re not so good about tracking progress or the quality of services. That’s been something I’ve been pushing recently: It shouldn’t be about how many preschool slots we have, because we have to narrow down how many of those are quality. They’re not all equal. We’re trying to set a new bar. Caseloads are not enough information to show progress.

HyeSook Chung speaks in 2015 on the Books From Birth Bill, which provides a free book to D.C. children each month from birth to age 5.

DC Action, in making public data widely available, is really just scratching the surface on the reams of information agencies could collect. What does the future look like if the public sector fully embraces this tool?
Can you imagine what the impact would be on the social-service sector if we had real-time data? It’s profound: Netflix and Amazon are able to adjust, in a matter of seconds, based on consumer knowledge. At nonprofits, we have a long way to go to embrace that and redefine accountability. Of course, it’s not truly transferrable from the private sector, but our decisions about service delivery could be much more engaged and responsive to live information from a family. We have to be careful; we don’t want to profile. But how do we translate, with these ethical and business questions in mind, those insights to the social sector to be more effective for families? That’s my interest. I want to get to a place where we can say, “Because of this investment here, we had this result.” It’s not about money; it’s about how we use the resources we have. If a program is not improving outcomes, have the courage and the data to adapt it. We’re not quick enough, and that’s frustrating to me. I just don’t know why we are in this rut of not giving our kids what they deserve.
How do you define leadership?
Two words come to mind: integrity and resiliency. Being an executive director is really hard work. I’ve made decisions, I’ve dealt with funding changes, I’ve let go of friends and fired people. At the end of the day, if my integrity is intact, I can go to bed, knowing I did the best I could. There were plenty of times I cried a lot and had to make hard decisions. But the work continues, because the bottom line is kids need us. The mission keeps us moving.
Why did you decided to take a new job in city administration?
At DC Action, we were called upon by the mayor’s executive offices to help make data-informed decisions. In many ways, we were partners in an advisory capacity helping departments achieve results and made decisions based on outcomes, not simply compliance. After meeting with Mayor Muriel Bowser, I knew [this job] was another wonderful opportunity to push our starting principles to a much larger scale. The mayor invited me into the administration to help highlight the critical importance of data-driven work for some of the toughest challenges we have before us as a city: homelessness and reform of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.  As a public servant, I am thrilled to be asked to think more strategically and systematically about how we can truly make a difference in the lives of our residents in need.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

Where Does the YWCA Go From Here?

After the YWCA of the City of New York sold its uptown Lexington Avenue headquarters — its home for nearly a century — and moved downtown in 2005, the organization was looking to reinvent itself. Enter Danielle Moss Lee, a former teacher and administrator with a doctorate in education and decades of experience in nonprofit leadership. After taking the reins as the YWCA’s CEO in 2012, Moss Lee expanded the nonprofit’s after-school and summer programs while redoubling efforts to reach out to girls of color in underserved neighborhoods. NationSwell spoke with Moss Lee about the new direction for a 158-year-old charity at the YWCA’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
What’s the YWCA’s biggest need right now?
Ensuring the future sustainability of the organization. We’ve been out of the game for a little bit. How do you make something that’s 158 years old new again, so that people care about it and want it to continue, in terms of manpower, woman-power, volunteerism? We’ve got 2,500 kids whose lives we hope to impact in some way. It’s not all the kids in the city, but we can do our best to do our part.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I like the questions that young activists are asking, because it positions us for a different America. We can say without a doubt that all of our lives have been materially and visibly changed by the civil rights movement. But now we’re addressing issues around institutional and structural racism that I don’t think prior generations fully understood: Health services, education, the police and the banking system all really conspire together to advantage some and disadvantage others. I’m excited about these new movements. Protesting and social media campaigns are important. I hope that, at the end of this, the way we live and experience our daily lives will be similarly transformed like they were with desegregation and all of the access and opportunities that civil rights opened up.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
The best advice I’ve gotten over my career was to be someone that I would want to follow myself. It’s been important advice because it’s made me more conscious that who I am and how I show up is really important to the people around me when I’m in a leadership role. It keeps you honest and conscious.
Where do you find your inner motivation?
It’s always different, but one thing I think about is all the kids I’m not serving. I hear lots of folks in this sector say of college-access or girls’ programming: “We have 200 girls” or “We have 1,000 girls,” whatever the number is. But then when I think about how many girls actually live in this city, that’s what keeps me going.
Years ago, I was teaching a graduate course on urban youth policy, and one day the discussion got really personal. A young woman getting her master’s degree told this story of how her family’s apartment had burned down in Brooklyn. At first, friends and family were willing to house them. As the months dragged on, they went into a homeless shelter. At some point, her mother, in a desperate attempt to provide for her kids, made the decision to join the Armed Forces. The student said, “Do you realize we lived in that shelter with no adult and nobody noticed?” And then she said, “I didn’t know that there were middle-class black people. I didn’t know for a long time that something else was possible for my life.” A lot of mentoring is focused around Manhattan. Let’s be real, people aren’t going out to Coney Island (where the YWCA has programming) or other far-flung Brooklyn neighborhoods like Flatbush, East New York and Brownsville. It’s always at the convenience of the volunteer, but that’s not necessarily where the greatest need is. I can always recall that student’s voice asking, “Where were you?” — to which I didn’t really have an answer. She said, “All these civic organizations are always talking about all the work they do in the community, but I never saw them.” Nobody asked her if she wanted to go to college. That’s our job.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently” [by Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur]. It’s really about how you develop teams with people who just think differently. I started to think about this because there’s been a lot of emphasis in some new progressive nonprofits in the sector around organizational fit and building a specific kind of culture within their organizations to drive results. There’s a value in that. But a lot of those organizations have challenges around having a diverse staff.
I was listening to two managers have a semi-debate. A young white woman was talking about two of her staff members: Her white staff member was really great with data, Excel spreadsheets and metrics — things she really valued — but this staff person wasn’t as good at relating to young people and doing outreach to families. And so while the person of color was much more relatable with the young people in the organization, it was almost like her skill set wasn’t seen as a value. We all operate predominantly with different sides of our brain. How can we tease away some of the judgment that comes with very different strengths and make sure that we’re not using this idea of “fit” really to only work with people who look like us, share our experiences and perspective? You’re probably not growing if everyone agrees with everything you say.
What’s your perfect day look like?
No bad news, and a big check in the mail — in that order.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I recently had the opportunity to have a reunion with students I previously worked with at another organization. First of all, to see them now as college-educated adults and hear all the amazing things they were doing was a reward in itself. Back when I was working that job, I was also raising my daughter and going to graduate school. I remember one of those kids saying, “I didn’t know anybody else who had a doctorate. When I came into your office and saw your degrees on the wall, I knew I couldn’t just get a bachelor’s. Tell me: What do you have to do to get a master’s degree? What’s a dissertation?”
I’m just blown away by the number of students, many first-generation college students, who have graduate degrees. That changes not just the trajectory of their lives, but also their families’ for years to come. It was nice to know that I had that kind of impact.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
Homepage photo courtesy of YWCANYC.

Harnessing the Power of Technology to Help the Environment

From a young age, NationSwell Council member Chris Thomas was interested in the way technology affects human behavior. “How does it augment or utterly interrupt our lives?” he wondered. “How does it make life better or worse?” That line of thinking took him to a series of lucrative corporate jobs. But seven years ago, burnt out on the commercial applications of tech, he took a job at Greenpeace and transitioned into advocacy. Now the chief innovation officer at Sierra Club, one of America’s oldest conservation groups, Thomas is building a tech platform to better engage the club’s members. He’s still asking himself similar questions — “How does technology get people to actually change their world?” — but they feel all the more important, as the earth warms and climate skeptics take prominent government positions. NationSwell spoke to Thomas at his office in San Francisco.

People tend to describe the public versus private sector as diametrically opposed: one’s idealistic, the other greedy; one’s slow to act, the other efficient and innovative. Did you have any difficulties in your transition out of the corporate world?
To me, it felt quite seamless. I quickly saw that a lot of what we’re trying to do in nonprofits is similar to the profit-driven world. A lot of it is about educating people, getting them passionate or interested in what you do, then converting them to — for lack of a better word — transactions, whether they’re buying something or taking action. We are idealists, but we’re also very businesslike in the way we employ technology and use data. The history of these movements is very much driven by ideology: showing up, power to the people. Those are all great constants, and they work really well. But to do them at scale and to get into the minds of a more diverse, broader group of people, we have to employ the technology in a similar way that Nike or Apple would market and convert people to buy their products.

In your experience, what’s the most effective way technology can benefit the environmental movement?
Climate change is a really big issue. It’s complex, long-term, and its urgency is hard to grasp. People feel like it’s in the hands of big corporations and governments, and therefore they’re completely disempowered by the scale of the problem. It doesn’t feel like enough to recycle or buy a hybrid car. That’s a challenge for us.

One thing we can do, using tech, is to provide people with a broad array of opportunities to take action. Traditionally, we’ve asked people to show up for meetings or rallies, and that requires a deeper level of investment than doing something online. The key thing we can do here is to turn all those transactions into data, then use that to create meaningful feedback for the user. If we can give content back to them, then that creates a much more empowered feeling: “Me and other people like me are actually moving the needle on this.” You start to close the power gap. Tech removes the vagueness of “I took an action,” “I showed up” or “I gave money.” A great example is recruiting 25 friends from Facebook, and they go out and each recruit three or four more people. We can track the different concentric circles radiating out from that one recruitment that you did, and we can show the impact you’ve had. At the end of the day, maybe you recruited thousands of people.


What’s the next generation of the environmental movement going to look like?
Older organizations, including my own, have always had this model where we’re doing the work on behalf of society, and they support us either by signing petitions or giving us money. What organizations like us need to do now is come down off that hill and actually create communities and empower people. The next generation is less interested with what you represent on some vague emotional level, but more about what you can do to help them engender change, to connect them to solutions. They don’t want to hear the talk; they want to see the action. We know what the solution can be, but we need to create tools for them to access it.

What do you wish someone had told you when you first joined the organization?
If you ask our really passionate grassroots organizers in the field, they don’t quite see how what I’m describing fits with the work that they’re doing. They’re out in the streets and working very directly with people, in a community-oriented way. When you start talking about scale and tech projects, they’re not sure where you’re coming from. And I don’t blame them! We have to figure out how it fits with the legacy models of organizing and movement-building that we’ve employed, in this organization’s case, over 125 years. Where does tech fit with that, and where does it depart from that?

In my approach, as a technologist, I started by laying out our essential problems and then trying to figure out solutions for them. One thing I could have done differently, in retrospect, is getting more familiar, at a deeper level, with organizers, understanding what their direct needs are and what they’re trying to accomplish, rather than coming at it from a top-down executive approach. Getting my hands dirty with them for some months would have been a potentially more helpful way of approaching my projects, and it would have built more connections and trust at that level. That is stuff I’m doing now. But we’re also very far along in the work we’re doing, so I’m having to put things back together: introducing stuff to them and answering questions about why we chose to make it in a certain way.

What are the most pressing environmental issues that the next administration must address
Certainly we need to deliver on the promises of the COP21 that happened in Paris, being part of that accord that every major nation on the planet has signed on to. All the leaders of the world currently believe that climate change is real, and that we have a responsibility to do something about it. Our president-elect, shockingly, does not fit with that. He’s in complete contradiction with the will of the rest of humanity, and that, to us, is really alarming, very dangerous and destructive to the work that we’re trying to do. We’re trying to find a way forward, especially in clean-energy solutions. We think this is a pivotal point for humanity, where we have a world that every year is getting hotter and hotter. We’ve got to do something about it: It’s more urgent now than ever.

This Millennial Is on a Mission to Unleash the Next Generation of Techies

In the next four years, economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics predict that the country will add more than 1.4 million new technology jobs. Yet, based on current graduation rates, there will be only 400,000 computer science majors to fill those jobs. NationSwell Council member Jessica Santana sees that gap as an opportunity for the 1 million children who attend public school in New York City. At the nonprofit she co-founded, New York on Tech (NYOT), students from more than high schools (and counting) learn the digital skills employers desire. NationSwell spoke with Santana, herself a product of the city’s public-school system who has worked in the tech industry, about how the next generation can diversify tech’s booming business.

What’s on New York on Tech’s curriculum?
From September through June, the program provides about 152 hours of training, which consists of markup and programming languages: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python. But we also realize that not every student wants to be an engineer, so they learn about project management, quality assurance, digital media — all these different career opportunities. Afterward, our students get the opportunity to do paid internships over the summer with some of our corporate partners; this year, those included The Bank of New York Mellon and Warby Parker. They get to apply their new skills in a way that’s professional, in a way that gives them the social capital to keep on getting internships after the experience.

About 85 percent of the tech workforce is white or Asian, and 74 percent are male. Do the students you meet express that they don’t see role models in tech?
At the beginning of our program, we survey how many students know somebody in the industry or participate in a technology extracurricular program. Last year, about 90 percent said that New York on Tech was the first time they ever did anything technology-related as an extracurricular program. For many, they’re the first [in their family] to go to college. There’s a huge disconnect in where they can access career advice. So while they don’t formally say they lack mentors, the information we collect shows they do.

On the other hand, it’s also important to know that some students in our program don’t realize they are the only African-Americans and Latinos in technology. We intentionally place mentors of color from diverse backgrounds into their lives, so they won’t feel alone in their journey. If we come from the school of thought that they can’t be what they can’t see, then it’s our job to make sure that we recruit mentors intentionally.

Only 1 percent of New York City students are receiving computer science education. How should public schools be teaching the material?
There’s an opportunity for schools to explore how they teach 21st-century skills outside the actual computer science curriculum. To be a real technologist, what’s currently being offered [in computer science classes] in under-resourced schools is insufficient to move the needle on diversity in the tech workforce. Schools need to ask themselves whether their lessons are industry-aligned, that they’re actually going to prepare students for jobs, as opposed to just meeting educational standards.

Tech is so often associated with Silicon Valley. How does New York’s scene, on the other coast, differ?
The biggest difference between the valley and here is that New York City has diversity. Over there, it’s very homogenous. But here, there are so many pockets of diverse talent that can be employed. Most of the engineering departments stay in Silicon Valley, so you’ll notice there are a lot of opportunities in New York in sales, media and business development, a lot of non-technical jobs, too. It’s not the biggest industry yet in New York. Do I think it has the potential to get there? I’m not sure, to be honest. FinTech (or financial technology) is huge here, and we’re seeing a move toward tech in fashion and food as well.

Jessica Santana, with her mother, at their local Univision station, where Jessica anchors a segment on technology.

How did you personally get involved in this work?
I’ve always been a technologist. I got a MacBook in eighth grade through PowerMyLearning, which was founded by fellow NationSwell Council member Elisabeth Stock. My parents were very strict. When my friends couldn’t come over, it was me and my computer. Having access to that first computer ignited a curiosity in me that wouldn’t have been possible for my friends, who didn’t have machines of their own.

I was a first-generation college student. As soon as I graduated with a master’s in information technology and started working in the industry, I was making four times my parents’ household income. When I realized that, in one year, I was going to make what my parents were making combined in four years, I asked myself, “How did I get here?” That question quickly became, “How do I get others here?” Because going into a technical program was an avenue out of poverty for me. I see how transformative it is for students, who came from communities like mine, to have these skills.

Was it tough for you to break into the tech industry?
When I was still working in the industry proper, as a technology consultant, I learned that the things that made me different made me powerful. It took me a long time to get comfortable with that. Oftentimes, I was the only woman, the only person of color, the only woman of color. As I matured, I started owning that difference: the fact that I was a Latina with curly hair and an accent who wouldn’t let those things stand in my way.

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
To this day, the greatest thing I’ve accomplished, honestly, is graduating from high school. Then being able to go to a four-year college completely transformed the way I saw opportunity, the way I set goals, the way I thought about business and the way I saw myself as a global citizen.