It is my honor this month to take over as President and CEO of Public Knowledge where I have spent the last seven years working as part of an incredible team. I’ve devoted many years to Public Knowledge because I believe it is a special institution. Under our mission to “promote free expression, an open internet, and access to affordable communications tools and creative works,” the PK team prides itself on the breadth of tech policy issues we cover, the expert analysis we offer, and the trusted resources we provide for both policymakers and the broader technology-using public. In this new role as PK President, I wanted to share why my career path has taught me that Public Knowledge’s work and expertise is needed now more than ever.
When I was introduced to politics and policymaking 18 years ago, I was driven by a simple goal: To make good laws that help people and are rooted in a sense of justice and community. This started during my final two years at Harvard after serving an internship on Capitol Hill and being bitten by the political bug. During these years, I worked in multiple programs serving young people in Roxbury, Massachusetts, including a weekly eighth grade class in civics and an after-school tutoring program. Did my presence make attending a college like Harvard seem a bit more attainable? Who knows. This was the first, but not the last time I had an African American middle schooler tell me, “I didn’t know black people went to Harvard.” As I listened to students anxiously talk about the new federally mandated tests enacted by President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, I learned how powerful decisions in Washington were to an average eighth grader, and yet how far removed from influencing that power these eighth graders felt. My Congressional internship introduced me to the power and competition of the political scene and as a lifelong athlete, I found it exciting. But my work in Roxbury reinforced the lesson that the work we do in Washington is not a game. Upon graduation, I made plans to try to get a job back home in Washington, D.C.
I grew up just outside Washington, D.C. in suburban Virginia, where we were geographically close to power. Yet as a basketball coach’s son, I was raised very far from the work of official Washington. This was clear when I started my first job after college in the U.S. Senate. Entry-level jobs like mine were for the connected, and compensated at a level that works for the independently wealthy. If not for earning my way into Harvard, I may not have had someone to call in a connection for me. If I hadn’t had family locally to provide a free bed, I couldn’t have afforded to work for so little. I don’t say this to denigrate the talents of my colleagues in the Senate. Incompetence doesn’t last long in the demanding world of Capitol Hill, and my colleagues and I took advantage of our opportunities to prove ourselves capable. However, the barriers to entry to Congressional staffing jobs prevent the policymaking circles from looking like the broader public that it serves.
In the years between my early career in the U.S. Senate and the last decade I’ve spent in technology policy, I worked as a grassroots organizer. My favorite part of this job was learning about the unique regional cultures in the various states I worked in. North Carolina loves its Tar Heels and its barbecue (eastern and western). Iowa loves summer festivals, because every town larger than 2,000 people seemed to host its own special festival with its own name, [Insert name here] Days and usually a parade (not to be confused with Ridiculous Days which also may have a parade, but is done in multiple towns). Even Richmond, Virginia was careful to distinguish itself from my home region of Northern Virginia. (You can’t quit us, RVA!) The best way to learn about a community is to meet people where they are and be willing to listen. Whenever I entered a new community, I always looked for places to meet locals to simply befriend and listen to what they could teach me about their community. Bars, barbershops, and churches were some of my favorite places. High schools and community colleges were great, too, because young people can be so candid and often think outside the box.
These conversations definitely gave me an appreciation for what made each community special, but they also showed me just how much these different communities had in common, with many expressing shared values and goals. Bringing people together across differences was an important part of producing results in organizing work. In Virginia as a youth civic engagement organizer, I created dialogues between immigrant young adults and the locals who actively protested day-labor sites frequented by immigrant men. In Iowa on then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign, I struggled with liberal white Democrats (both inside and outside our campaign) who voiced support for racial equity, but were uncomfortable with the presence of black campaign staff or an energized black electorate. In these and other situations, people never walked away agreeing on everything, but they sometimes learned to appreciate others’ perspectives when folks assumed they couldn’t coexist.
So what do these stories have to do with technology policy and Public Knowledge?
For me, these stories all reinforce what it takes to make good laws that help people and are centered on the values of justice and community. I’ve been blessed to work with dynamic leaders at Public Knowledge over the years, but those closest to the organization know that there is a “secret sauce” to our work. What makes PK go is the collaborative spirit and commitment to expert analysis that not only enhances our productivity, but also enables us to work with a diverse group of allies.
When Public Knowledge and the American tech policy world is at its best, we recognize three things:
- That Washington politics is not a sport, and even small decisions by policymakers impact real lives.
- When real people are impacted, their diverse stories and experiences must be centered in the conversation both inside and outside policymaking institutions.
- America’s diversity may mean disagreement sometimes, but when we listen to each other, we find we share values, or at least can understand each other better. We can build on that.
We have a new generation of leaders moving up at Public Knowledge. All of this is happening while we have more important issues to work on than ever before. The foundations of free expression are being challenged because of the network effects and market forces of the internet. Intellectual property and communications law are not keeping pace with the changes of technology, nor are they staying rooted in the values of the general public. And worse, a distrust of technology has festered in parallel to a distrust of political and policymaking institutions and processes. Both technology and our political institutions are tools of our own creation, and the lessons that I highlighted from my career can help us invest in improving them both. Public Knowledge will work to be at our best, so that tech policy can be at its best. The stakes for the American public are too high, and it is not a game.
Public Knowledge will continue to build ways to support a policymaking environment that is representative of the different voices and communities in our country. I look forward to developing the next phase of our advocacy training and fellowship program that has already seeded tech policy with young talent from all walks of life.
If you’d like to join us on our mission — whether you’re a stalwart D.C. insider or a young advocate from a small town in the midwest — the door is always open. And if you’re an ally, a critic, an artist, a journalist, an organizer, an entrepreneur, a researcher, or just someone genuinely interested in what we do here, you should reach out to us directly. Through these dialogues, we can find the shared values that our experts discuss and you live every day — and we can create technology policies that move us all toward a more creative and connected future.