Somehow, Catherine Bracy found a few minutes to chat and a quiet office inside the Code For America headquarters in downtown San Francisco. From the sounds of it, the office is a bustling place, and Bracy is hard to pin down.
And for good reason — she is the director for community organizing for CFA, and in her nine months time in the position, she’s barely been home. Bracy travels all over the US and internationally to local CFA chapters to help monitor and run their grassroots projects.
CFA is non-profit that helps citizens and governments harness technology to solve community problems, such as allowing people to communicate with city hall via SMS messaging or meeting for hack nights to redo city websites. They’re working towards a government for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.
But when Bracy does sit still, she’ll tell you exactly how it is. Bracy is a fiercely determined woman. Her voice exudes confidence in herself and the cause she is working for: using technology to reconnect people with their government.
Bracy is in charge of the Brigade program, an international network of people that works with local governments to make their cities better. For example, in San Francisco, where housing is a pressing issue, the Brigade is working with the Tenants Union and the city’s chief data officer to surface data and utilize technology. They are trying to understand why people are being evicted from houses at unprecedented rates and are looking for a solution to that problem.
“The thing we’re doing is re-connecting citizens with their government and reigniting the idea we all grew up on, what we now think is a myth: that citizens can’t actually contribute meaningfully and actively in government — not just voting and the sort of indirect hard to connect-the-dots way, but concretely,” she said.
What Bracy loves most about this job is watching the spark ignite in these cities that causes real changes to be made at the ground level.
“You see cities have an ah-ha moment and realize how much better their systems can be working better because of the interaction they’ve had with us,” she added.
Passion for change
In college, Bracy wanted to be a journalist. She was passionate about the role journalism plays in democracy. But her romantic notions diminished after interning at Boston’s NBC affiliate — she was horrified by the world of local news.
After some soul searching, “like any good person who is on the verge of graduating and doesn’t know what they want to do with their life,” Bracy decided to go to law school. Before taking the LSAT, she interned with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. She landed there at a perfect time, she said. It was 2002, and the growth of the internet and the organization made it an exciting time.
“When digital media started transforming the journalism and news space, I realized what I really wanted to be when I wanted to be a journalist was working on how news and information powers democracy,” Bracy said. She stayed until 2010, eventually becoming the administrative director for the Berkman Center, and “basically got a PhD in the internet” from the experience.
Then Bracy decided to attend the University of Texas for a master’s degree in public policy. While in school, she ran the Knight Foundation’s 2011 News Challenge. She met Harper Reed, who would later become CTO of President Obama’s re-election campaign, and he asked her to work for the campaign with him. It was a dream come true, so she packed up and moved to Chicago before finishing her degree.
Bracy ran the Tech4Obama campaign in Chicago and then moved to San Francisco, where she launched the Obama campaign’s Technology Field Office, the first of its kind in American political history. The office was specifically for recruiting volunteers to use technology skills to produce tools and content for the campaign, rather than making calls and knocking on doors.
“Many people think community organizing and they think Cesar Chavez and knocking on doors and March on Washington kind of stuff, and it’s really a set of tactics that can galvanize individuals into a collective power,” Bracy said. “And that’s essentially what the internet is for. Individuals in the aggregate have power.”
The future for technology and democracy
Reflecting on her path, Bracy said ending up at CFA was where she always wanted to be — she just took a roundabout way to get there. After the 2012 election, she joined CFA (whose office was actually next door to the campaign office) to launch and run its international program, before becoming the community organizing director nine months ago.
Empathy is key in this career field, she said. Having a sense of a larger purpose and understanding how to connect the day-to-day work to that is one of the keys to success. It’s being comfortable with a lot of uncertainty, and rolling with the punches.
Bracy credits her success thus far to her curiosity, reliability, and presence of mind — which are also important aspects of community organizing. Right now, she is completely focused on effecting change in this space, and she isn’t looking anywhere else.
“We asked a question: ‘Is this piece of a monstrosity of a bureaucracy of government — is it possible to mold, to shift, to change?'”
The CFA team saw the slightest indication that it did, so they’re full force ahead in trying to figure out the best ways to go about building their movement.
“I’m developing some ideas now around how community organizing is central to the future of the tech industry, where the basic principles of how you build a tool or company or community on internet are very much rooted in the same ideals and values as how you build a movement offline,” she said.
In her own words
What are your hobbies?
“I think I have a British soul. I watch a lot of BBC dramas. I’m really into this show called Midsummer Murders right now, which is like a mix between Law and Order and Murder She Wrote, set in the English countryside, and its amazing. It’s so cheesy, but I love it.”
What do you like to cook?
“I really like creating things that will make the least amount of mess and aren’t wildly unhealthy for me. I’m also a big fan of Barefoot Contessa. I have like 150 episodes on my DVR, so I’ll scroll through them and find something fun to make.”
Where do you see yourself in the future?
“Sometimes when I have insomnia in the middle of the night, the thought may cross my mind that someday I should put my money where my mouth is and run for office — because we probably need a lot more people who would never want to run for office to actually run for office,” Bracy said. “So maybe when I’m like 60, I’ll consider running for school board or something.”
What advice do you have for your younger self?
“If it feels scary or hard or challenging, it’s probably the right thing to do. Feel the fear and go forward into it….and when you feel like things are safe and everything’s humming, throw some barriers at yourself.”