Pushing code and pulling communities together: how some Bay Area tech workers juggle jobs, advocacy work and public office

SUNNYVALE — Some Silicon Valley techies are trying to invest in their communities through advocacy work and engagement in local government.

When software engineer Steven Buss was looking for a job in 2012, a listing from a San Francisco Bay Area medical startup caught his eye. The company’s stated mission — to end heritable disease — was perhaps the most noble goal he’d ever read, Buss recalls.

The actual job was less sexy: automating the company’s insurance billing.

Nevertheless, Buss took it because he knew that the work would allow the company to actually function, and in turn, would help ensure that babies could be born free of genetic disease.

Today, Buss still works in tech and still hopes his actions will impact the world — but he’s now trying to do so through a different venue: local government.

Buss is angling for an Assembly District 17 seat on the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC). If he’s successful, Buss will join the ranks of Bay Area residents who are tech workers by day, and public officers by night.

While Silicon Valley has long drawn skilled workers hoping to “think different,” “disrupt,” and “make the world more open and connected,” in recent years the Bay Area’s new arrivals have been accused of enjoying lives of leisure at the expense of longtime residents and against the backdrop of increasing levels of homelessness, a housing crisis and gentrification.

But some techies like Buss are trying to invest in their communities through advocacy work and engagement in local government.

“A lot of my friends, they go to Tahoe every weekend…they go to the park, they have brunch. They enjoy themselves and — I don’t mean to criticize that lifestyle — but I find that kind of leisure boring,” Buss says.“I’d rather be working towards doing something.”

Tech workers rare in local government

Buss became passionate about San Francisco’s housing crisis through his own difficult experiences in apartment hunting. After spending more time living in the city, his irritation grew into concern about homelessness and housing shortages. Today, he spends almost all of his free time advocating for pro-housing policies.

Tech workers — especially engineers — choosing to be involved in local government is “very rare, that is extremely unusual,” says Margaret O’Mara, professor of history at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

Historically, the technology industry has dug into the stance that its role in changing the world is through invention and innovation, not politics.

O’Mara says that the industry as a whole has been marked by a “deliberate turning away from organized politics and government [led by industry leaders] saying, ‘we’re doing it differently. We’re changing the world in other ways.’”

Despite this resistance, the technology industry has had a say on the Hill about topics ranging from tax cuts intended to encourage venture capital investment, to telecommunications reform. Today, big tech is embroiled in national debates about everything from political ad airing on social media platforms, controversial military and defense contracts, and data privacy concerns.

The urgency of these national issues is why engagement at the individual worker level is crucial, says Megan Abell, director of advocacy and organizing at TechEquity Collaborative.

A Bay Area-based nonprofit, TechEquity Collaborative educates tech workers on housing and labor issues through regular events like book clubs and panel discussions, and engages techies in public and corporate policy advocacy via local campaigns and civic tech projects, all towards “a more equitable and inclusive twenty-first century economy.”

“Having companies take positions or change policy — that’s helpful,” says Abell. “But ultimately, engaging individual tech workers as voters that have constituents in their community is really core to our success.”

But there are a number of barriers to getting individual techies involved in local issues. Immigrants account for the majority of tech workers, but those who are not yet U.S. citizens cannot vote in national elections, and are generally unaware that they can engage in politics on the local or state level.

Then there’s the issue of priorities. Tech jobs are notorious for their lack of work-life balance, leaving many tech employees — especially contract workers — little time or energy to do anything after they clock out.

And then there’s the shame.

While top software engineers and data scientists fetch among the highest salaries in the US — insulating them from problems like homelessness or hunger — the booming tech industry has not led to widespread economic prosperity in the Bay Area. According to a 2018 report, over the past two decades wages have fallen for all but the top 10 percent of Silicon Valley’s workforce, benefiting mostly those in high-tech industries.

The inequality has led to a barely-simmering resentment which, occasionally, explodes into physical violence against tech companies and those affiliated with Big Tech. Justified or not, the negative sentiment against tech workers makes it even more challenging for them to get involved in local issues.

Data engineer Michael Chen is also running for an SF DCCC seat, but so far he’s avoided directly mentioning his tech background in his campaign.

“It’s usually not my first thing to say, ‘I work in tech,’” says Chen. “I tell people I’m a neighborhood organizer, I tell people about what I’ve fought for, rather than my profession. The minute I say that I’m a tech worker, I know that some people will not vote for me because of that.”

Nevertheless, it’s important for tech workers to try to reach across divides in race, socioeconomic status and life experience, says TechEquity Collaborative community member Gina Tomlinson.

Tomlinson started her career doing information technology at private corporations, but eventually shifted her work to the public sector. Today, Tomlinson runs her own consulting company, which provides technology solutions for underserved populations including homeless and formerly incarcerated people.

“Technology has changed society and changed the world, and it has brought about this incredible socioeconomic shift,” says Tomlinson. Whether the shift is for better or worse remains to be seen, she says, but in the meantime “we all have an obligation and duty to go back and try to clean up some of the mess that [the technology industry] created.”

In addition to her consulting work, Tomlinson also serves as a Commissioner for the City of Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission. She views her work both in both the public and private sectors as a responsibility, and wishes it were easier to convince the Bay Area’s new arrivals to work in the public sector.

“Use your talent for good. Use your talent for the community.”

A vision of community

For some local techies-turned-public-servants, it took current events to jolt them into getting engaged in their local communities.

The chair of Sunnyvale’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Commission, Richard Mehlinger, works as a software engineer at Dropbox by day and attends Sunnyvale city council meetings at night. Mehlinger says that the 2016 election of Donald Trump into the White House shocked him into thinking about what issues he cared about, and how he could make a difference through civic activity.

“In 2011 to 2016, my activity was complaining to friends about how expensive the rent was,” says Mehlinger.

Now, Mehlinger focuses his energy on local issues, like transportation and housing. He’d had enough of helplessly watching the rent in Sunnyvale go “from unacceptable to horrific,” and got involved in local housing advocacy groups. Soon, Mehlinger joined the local Democratic Club, became a regular fixture at city council meetings and completed a local leadership program.

While Mehlinger got involved in local government out of a desire to engage in his community, he also acknowledges that he is in a unique position to do so. Mehlinger says that he’s lucky to have an employer that values work-life balance, and a flexible schedule thanks to working on a team that is remotely distributed — both rare privileges, even among tech jobs.

“Realizing that my voice carries weight, realizing that I have the time to do this…I kind of have an obligation to be [involved],” says Mehlinger.

In San Francisco, DCCC candidate Chen invokes a similar sense of responsibility as the force driving his commission chair bid. Getting involved, he says, is his way of giving back to the city where he found a rich cultural environment, like-minded people and a job he enjoys.

“It comes from a love of place,” says Chen, who cites the LGBTQ and Chinese American communities in San Francisco as the primary reasons for settling in the Bay Area. “There’s something about the region, the city that we desperately want to call home…I feel so damn lucky to be here, and if it weren’t for a few turns of faith, I wouldn’t be able to be here. Something doesn’t feel fair.”

Balancing perceived privilege

Even with good intentions, techies working in the public sector say it’s important to be cognizant of what they can and can’t bring to the civic table. In particular, while not all tech jobs are high-paying, perceptions of privilege — and actual privilege — can make for some particularly fraught interactions.

Abell of TechEquity Collaborative says tech workers seeking to get involved need to understand why many Bay Area residents who aren’t benefiting from the tech boom might be angry at them.

“The Bay Area is a unique beast: the political dynamics here, the market conditions here, the many years of housing policy decisions that have led us to this place,” says Abell. “There’s a lot of catch up work in context that’s necessary to help tech workers understand the position that we find ourselves in as a community.”

In 2016, Buss moved to the San Francisco Mission District. He was eager to participate in neighborhood community meetings to discuss housing development, but sensed that his presence wasn’t always welcome.

Baffled, Buss sought advice from seasoned community organizers. Then it dawned on him: how might he be coming across as “this white guy, this tech bro coming into their meetings offering opinions?”

“That changed a lot about how I think about [the housing] crisis,” says Buss.

Now, Buss focuses his energies on fighting housing development exclusion in wealthy neighborhoods. And when he does work with people from a different backgrounds, Buss says he makes sure to “shut up and listen…because [my] opinion doesn’t matter as much as their lived experience.”

In Sunnyvale, Mehlinger says it’s not hard to amplify voices in a community that need to be heard, rather than speaking over or for them. Sometimes it’s as simple as prefacing speaking points with a statement in support of local labor unions, or tenants who are being bullied by a landlord.

“The thing with privilege is: you’re supposed to use it to make the world better,” says Mehlinger. “It’s not fair that you’ve got it, but as long as you have it, you have to try and use it to make the world a better place.”

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