Mourning Jake Brewer, Visionary Civic Tech and #RebelAlliance Leader


Jake Brewer speaking at PDF 2014

Jake Brewer speaking at PDF 2014

The civic tech community and our Civic Hall/Personal Democracy family lost one of its giants yesterday. Jake Brewer was killed while on a charity bike ride outside of Washington, DC. He was 34 and leaves a spouse, Mary Katharine Ham, a two-year-old daughter, Georgia, and a child on the way.

Jake had just stepped into “the job of a lifetime” as senior technology advisor at the White House. Before that he was the head of global policy, external affairs and new product development for Change.org for two years. Prior to that he was a partner at the new media firm Fission Strategy and the strategic communications director for U.S. Ignite, and in his spare time co-founded and co-chaired Define American. Before that he was the engagement director at the Sunlight Foundation, which is where I first got to know him. He also ran the National Civic Data Challenge for the Knight Foundation and the National Conference on Citizenship, consulted for the Americans Elect third-party project, and worked for Idealist.org, among many earlier endeavors. His resume is amazing but it hardly captures who he was.

Every time we lose someone it is horrible. But what makes this news doubly painful is that Jake was in the prime of his life and still on the rising arc of a career in good works that was rocketing higher with every day.

In May, he left what was already a dream job at Change to go work for the White House. His formal role was to lead efforts on immigration and Tech Hire, but Jake being Jake, that was just the beginning. His real work was community weaving and making vital connections and devoting all of his energy and substantial charisma in the service of what lifted up everyone, especially the least among us. At the White House, behind the scenes, he was helping to move mountains.

Just over a week ago he brought his boss, U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith, to Civic Hall for an informal end-of-the-day visit. “Going rogue,” he joked. While they were here, he and I had one of those great, electric conversations that Jake always seemed to generate. We were talking about how the whole field of pro-democracy work was underfunded and how we needed to catalyze a lot more money coming in, to foster a much bigger wave of experimentation and implementation. He thought he could get the President to do it, either now or after his presidency.

Later, that evening, Jake was on the train ride home and he texted me: “I keep thinking about our chat. We could do so so so many good things with $100m specifically devoted to civic tech to drive democracy in the short term. And that feels oddly achievable.” I said I was up for the challenge but reminded him that right now the parts of civic tech attracting money weren’t really about democracy improvement. He responded, “I think we can solve for both. Hard but doable.” I wrote back, “Let’s plot.” He wrote, “Yes, please :) #rebelalliance.”

Then, this past Wednesday morning, I saw a tweet from Jake in support of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Texas boy who had been arrested for bringing a homemade digital clock into school. “Hope the rest of the country fully celebrates Ahmed’s ingenuity as result of this, while his school/town failed him,” he tweeted. I replied at him, “get @potus and @nasa to speak up.” He direct messaged me in response, “That’s being worked on…Fingers crossed.” A few hours later, the President tweeted, “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House?” Jake DMed me: “Got it. :)”

There are many through-lines to Jake’s life and work and I’m sure other people will be chiming in with their own stories. But I want to especially highlight a particular passion of Jake’s—how to make digital democracy work for real. When Jake left Change.org he had been leading a team building a new elections-focused app that will rewire how elected officials and other decision-makers communicate engage directly with the people petitioning them for attention. As someone with deep experience in online politicking, Jake had long worried publicly about what he called “the tragedy of political advocacy” where the Internet makes it easier for everyone to shout louder but harder for us to listen to each other in order to get to solving problems. Here he is talking at Personal Democracy Forum 2014 about the issue.

It’s really worth stopping to listen closely to Jake’s talk. He wasn’t just trying to make it easier for activists to demand change by hitting their targets with thousands or millions of messages, he wanted to help them work with not at their targets. He also had a smart and humble understanding of the problem that not every petition was “righteous” and that we needed a new generation of democracy tools that would enable people to listen to each other more effectively.

Jake really was a visionary optimist who believed we could do this, and more. Here’s the idea he pitched me for a keynote talk at PDF this year, which I regrettably but gently rejected because we have a standing rule against someone keynoting on the mainstage two years in a row. His email’s subject was “Kinda crazy presentation idea: Founding Fathers as original startup founders.”

I started thinking about this yesterday on a walk, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. It could be so much fun! 

What I’d really like to do is pitch a TV / Netflix series at some point that puts the Founding Fathers in modern day times as startup founders. Kinda like HBO’s “Silicon Valley” mashed up with the 1770s and 80s. And… 

I also think it could be a fantastic (and funny, fun!) PDF presentation with the ultimate good message that government acting more like a startup / platform is our founding ethos, and we can bring that back (which is happening ever-so-slowly with things like USDS, 18F, etc). 

The theme and point would be making a direct analogue that helps the audience see our founding as not this austere, staid thing, but as rebellious, disruptive, experimental, visionary, and “making the world a better place” — and all the best attributes now revered (and mocked) in Silicon Valley. 

I’m thinking 15 min presentation that tells the story of a bunch of dudes in their 20s totally disrupting the status quo — pitching a crazy new idea that takes on a totally entrenched, wealthy “company” after “moving west” and bootstrapping their startup before launching. 

And then of course, once you launch and start to scale, that’s when the challenge really begins… the company has to ask all kinds of questions about its principles and identity and deal with in-fighting (1781-1789). It’s so good!  

I’d get a great designer on it, and make up slides with things like Thomas Jefferson giving a TechCrunch Disrupt talk with the little head mounted microphone and backdrop and all that. John Adams pitching French investors… 

The story has every conceivable character. George Washington: CEO. James Madison: Systems Architect. Alexander Hamilton: CFO. John Adams: Platform Policy Director. Thomas Jefferson: Chief Strategy Officer. Ben Franklin: wizened, super-quirky, philandering advisor ! 

Needs fleshing out, but what do you think? Could be something a little different up there. 

Perhaps someone can get this idea over to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton?

What I love best about this idea from Jake is that, beyond being a mensch, he was also at heart the best kind of American patriot. (He did two years of service as a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy.) He saw the American revolution as unfinished, and believed that techies and open democracy activists were indeed part of the continuing #RebelAlliance fighting the Empire. And for Jake this wasn’t just the kind of fun talk you have over beers, it was action too.

Today it isn’t just progressives like me who are mourning him, but some libertarians and conservatives are mourning too, because Jake was both personally and professionally someone who saw beyond the red-blue divide. He was searching for a way forward, not left or right. Like many of us, he felt in his gut that the Internet offered a new and better way of doing things, including government. And now the best tribute I can imagine to him is that we try to continue his work. May his memory be a blessing.

Update: Guy Benson, Mary Katharine Ham’s co-author, has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for Jake’s kids’ education.

  • Christian Elder

    You never know when that day will come. Is there a way to prepare for it? Yes, seek Christ, but not through some religious organization, seek a personal relationship. Being a young up and comer means little when eternity comes calling. Start your day off in a sincere conversation with Him, then you are prepared come what may.