How I Got More Involved in My Local Community and Government

Growing up, community work was always on my schedule. Whether that was volunteering as a liturgist at my church, delivering meals via meals on wheels, running behind my mom as she raised money so other kids in San Diego could get scholarships to college, I was always involved in my community. As I grew up, to address this part of my identity I conflated my work and my community service. Working in the government and nonprofit sectors made this easy to do. It wasn’t so easy when I transitioned into the private sector in 2014. I didn’t make time for this again if I’m honest until 2016 when he-who-shall-not-be-named was elected President.

I remember a rush of interest from friends and colleagues on how to impact national elections. Writing letters to Senators, signing petitions, and wearing pussy hats became normalized. It felt like I had regained some sense of community activism in my life too. This collective work felt good despite the fact that I (like many people) was put on an emotional rollercoaster. Part of the emotional rollercoaster was dedicating so much of my community service work to national causes. I didn’t realize how much this would have on my mental health, but the lack of agency that I had and the inability to see my impact on a real level made it all more exhausting.

It was around this time that I began to explore how I could become more involved in my own local government. The problems facing the entire country – 300 million people!! – are so big, so broad and so thorny that I thought maybe I could see the needle move on my efforts if I decreased the scope of the problems was looking to have an impact on. I am from San Diego, CA – a city that boasts a population of almost 1.5M, yet most of the work I did there was focused on a very small community surrounding the church I was raised in and the nonprofits my parents got us involved in from an early age. Oakland is barely 450K people so I thought to myself, of course, I could make a dent here on a community in The Town if I really tried. This effort reminded me of the bell hooks quote in All About Love where she says: “I like living in small towns precisely because they are most often the places in our nation where basic principles underlying a love ethic exist and are the standards by which most people try to live their lives. In small towns where I live (now only some of the time) there is a spirit of neighborliness – of fellowship, care, and respect.”1

I started off by joining a nonprofit board in Oakland. I found the application online! It was an interesting experience where I was able to work with Beyond Emancipation – a nonprofit committed to helping foster youth build essential skills. The impact I was able to have was amazing, but the workload was too much. After a bit of reflection, I realized that part of the reason the workload was too much is that I took on too much instead of delegating. But I needed to quit to get that perspective and I’m proud of all of the progress they’ve continued to make.

After the pandemic started I began to reconsider my relationship to public policy once more. I started by talking with neighbors about ideas to build out a mutual aid program for those in need and at the same time, I began joining in on Oakland city council meetings to listen and learn more about what our public officials did. I also spoke up during public comments to vocalize my opinions about police brutality in Oakland.

Both of these efforts led to some really awesome results. The first was that the mutual aid program gained steam and a small group of 4 helped fundraise over $10K for neighbors in need. Our giving drive even gained us a spot on local television! I am so proud of the work we were able to do. The checks we sent out allowed people to pay rent, buy groceries, pay past-due bills. It was amazing.

After joining a few City Council meetings, a friend shared that Oakland actually had a variety of public commissions and boards that allow you to get deeper engagement into city policies. The applications were online and so I applied to the Oakland Public Safety and Services Oversight Commission.

I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into and I’m grateful I didn’t (this is the story of my life honestly: pick a goal to achieve first, get overwhelmed by all of it figure out the details later). I was signing up for 2-years of public service which included, but wasn’t limited to, 1 meeting per month that lasted anywhere between 2-4 hours – this meeting was usually held on Mondays at 6:30pm, which meant that I was sometimes in meetings during a workday until 10pm at night. In advance of the meeting, you are sent pages and pages of documents to review. In order to come prepared to have a productive conversation, you needed to read these documents. The Oversight Commission I was on was tasked with reviewing $30M+ in spending a year – that is a really big deal! To honor that, I wanted to do my job well.

What I learned quickly after a few meetings, was that because the turnover of the Commission was so high, many meetings could feel like we were starting from scratch. You don’t realize how meeting only 1x per month can impact your ability to be fully prepared and present until you find yourself asking the same question across multiple months. It was at this time that I decided to build out a presentation that could tell the story and impact of the Measure our oversight commission was created to oversee – Measure Z – over its entire history. I joined the Oversight Commission almost 7 years into its implementation and so had a lot of data to work with.

A few other Commissioners and I spent 6+ months pouring over the 7 years of data to compile this presentation. We gave this presentation to the City Council in December. Looking forward to seeing how this progresses!

  1. All About Love – bell hooks. Page 100.

Who I’m Supporting on Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday is one of my favorite days. I remember running campaigns for it when I used to work in non profit at The Fund for Public Schools. It is a great day to think about opportunities to invest in your neighborhood and community. To that end, I wanted to surface the nonprofits that I have a monthly subscription to with the hopes that it will help others learn about them and get inspired to subscribe to a nonprofit that is doing work that they care about.

Chapter 510 – I learned about this organization while I was at the OMCA visiting their Afrofuturism exhibit. I loved Chapter 510’s focus on helping children dream and create art.

Capital B – I am a Pre-Seed investor by day, so it’s only right that I give to a nonprofit who is still in pre-launch phase. I love the vision for what they’re building and think that it is urgently needed. A safe and accurate place for news created by and for Black people.

Oaklandside – Really love reading the writing of amazing journalists like Azucena Rasilla and Ashley McBride who both keep me up to date on what is going on in Oakland and keep me grounded in the historical context of it all.

NPR – I recently did a review of the podcasts I listen to and almost all of them are NPR produced. Invisibilia, Rightnowish, Planet Money… I’m especially a huge fan of the work KQED is doing to elevate the voices of marginalized folks.

I’m also really grateful to be on the board of two non-profits who I also think are doing great work and I want to shout them out here too!

Colorwave – They are helping Black and Brown people access technology careers that many previously thought were unattainable by giving cohorts access to community support and technical training. I wish I had something like Colorwave when I was first transitioning into tech!

Project Include – They are helping the tech industry become more inclusive through research, training and accountability. It’s led by the inspirational Ellen Pao. Their most recent report on discrimination against disabled people was powerful – I learned so much!

How Silicon Valley Can Fight Wealth Inequality

There has been an article circulating the interwebs recently around California’s devastating poverty rate. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/05/31/number-one-in-poverty-california-isnt-our-most-progressive-state-its-our-most-racist-one/

Many are kept in poverty because affording a home – one of the biggest wealth drivers in our economy – is out of reach. Landed is on a journey to change that. They are making homeownership accessible for the most critical folks in our communities by democratizing access to a niche offering at Stanford.

I hope you learn as much from Alex as I did!

How to Tackle the Long Tail

I’m now two seasons into my podcast “Be About It” where I interview founders who are solving meaningful problems.
So far, I’ve had 15 amazing founders on my podcast. Each one is solving a real pain point experienced by 80% of the USA — individuals making under $100K and small business owners.

Across the founders I interviewed, there was a single pervasive concern. When you target such a large population, how do you actually reach them? Reaching the top 20% is not easy, but it is relatively straightforward. The toolkit for most includes some cocktail of Facebook/Google ads, App Store hacks and modern design.

Reaching individuals and small business owners located in the remaining 80% is much more complicated.

Their interests are varied, they are not all located in one online community and are very hard to please because they have to see immediate ROI in their purchases.

They do not have excess capital to be as patient as the top 20%.

I saw this first hand when I was working in the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs in the Mayor Bloomberg years. There, I was tasked with managing the product launch of SaveUSA across New York City. SaveUSA was created to demonstrate that a progressive tax policy that incentivized low-income tax filers to save some of their tax refund could impact the wealth gap.

Essentially, I was in charge of finding people to give free* money to. Easy right? No. From the marketing — where do you find low-income tax filers? — to the onboarding & engagement — how do you keep these tax filers engaged over a series of months?, my experience at SaveUSA was a deep dive into the complexities of targeting a diverse population.

In SaveUSA’s NYC campaign, here’s what really worked for us:
Meet folks where they are. I learned how to do taxes (*shout out to VITA*) so that I could help folks with their tax filing and then enroll them into the SaveUSA program. This helped us understand exactly what the main pain points were for tax-filers and address them immediately. Also doing someone’s taxes really builds their trust.
Be respectful of their time. When we incorporated an ability to sign-up for SaveUSA into the flow of tax filing — which was difficult because a critical piece of signing up for SaveUSA included opening a new bank account — we saw a huge increase in take-up rate.
Speak to their best selves. One of the selling points that worked best for us during SaveUSA was speaking to the tax-filers’ best selves. This is especially hard in a culture that treats poverty as an illness. But framing questions around: “How can we figure out how to pay the most critical bills now and save the rest?” instead of “Why haven’t you paid those bills yet?” worked wonders.

It was enlightening to hear additional techniques on how to engage this segment from the founders I talked to on the podcast.

Here are the top 3 recommendations I learned from the founders I interviewed:
Do your research. Jimmy Chen at Propel shared how important it is to conduct deep customer interviews to understand how to build the most intuitive product possible. 🎧
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Chai Mishra at MoveButter discussed how important it is to work within the ecosystems that exist for the communities you are trying to serve. 🎧
Build a movement. I learned from Beatriz Helena Ramos at Dada how to help creators build communities among themselves in order to catalyze an even larger movement. 🎧

I am inspired that people are proactively exploring the long tail wave of consumers and coming up with creative solutions. At the end of the day, it reminds me that the most important thing founders can build is a strong community.

If you’re interested in learning some of these hacks, check out the past couple of seasons of “Be About It.” You can listen to it anywhere — from Soundcloud, Breaker to Apple Podcasts.

I’d love to hear from you! What have you learned from the founders in the episodes? Do you have ideas of founders I should talk to? Leave me a comment below or reach out to the podcast on Twitter @thebeaboutitpod.

*The money was not technically free. The participants received a 50% match for every dollar they saved for 6 months, up to $500.

How to Build for Rural America

I loved chatting with Chai Mishra at Movebutter. He is building his product specifically for people outside of traditional “target geos” for most VCs. His company is dedicated to providing everyone with access to high quality and organic food – despite whether or not you have a farmer’s market within walking distance. Learn more about what he’s building here: https://movebutter.com/.

Making Homeownership Accessible Again

Catching up with Anna Roumiantseva at HomeSlice was such a treat. She is a fellow Haasie – Go Bears! – and so I’m not surprised to see her doing awesome things. In this episode, we learn more about the creative approach she’s taking to building a path to homeownership for everyone. Learn more about HomeSlice here: www.home-slice.io/

Focusing on the Plumbing

It was so great chatting with Nate Maslak, CEO and Co-Founder of HealthWiz. In this episode, we learn more about the “plumbing” of healthcare and why there’s still so much wrong with it. Learn more about Healthwiz here: https://www.myhealthwiz.com

 

Creating a New Industry from Scratch

In today’s episode, we learn from Helen Adeosun, Care Academy’s CEO and Founder. She is building a brand new industry in caregiving and she shares some awesome insight into what opportunities that presents. To learn more about Care Academy, check out: https://careacademy.com.

Marketplace Building 101

I’m so pumped to chat with CEO and Co-Founder of Wonderschool, Chris Bennett. In our conversation, we get into the nuts and bolts of building a marketplace. Wonderful is operating off of the Classic Econ 101 principle of Supply & Demand. There is limited supply and excess demand of preschool education which they are hoping to fill. This is a brillant space to be in and I’m excited to share their story with you! To learn more about Wonderschool, check out: https://www.wonderschool.com/.

How to Find the Be About It Podcast

So, I have been getting quite a few questions from folks on how to find my podcast. So here is an easy guide:

Breaker: https://www.breaker.audio/be-about-it
Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/sydney-thomas/be-about-it
TuneIn: https://tunein.com/radio/Be-About-It-p1043466/
GooglePlay: https://playmusic.app.goo.gl/?ibi=com.google.PlayMusic&isi=691797987&ius=googleplaymusic&apn=com.google.android.music&link=https://play.google.com/music/m/Ik37ohrus75gdz4bkcyl7x2nkvq?t%3DBe_About_It%26pcampaignid%3DMKT-na-all-co-pr-mu-pod-16
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/be-about-it/id1303606342
SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/thebeaboutitpod
Spotify: Coming Soon!

Let me know if I’m missing any of your favorite podcast players and I’ll add those.

Thanks for listening!