Beverly Leon, Civic Tech Fellow of Microsoft Cities NYC
“The ultimate vision — the high level dream — is that every middle and high school student has access to this platform, can explore it, and have ownership over their own civic identity.”
“As an athlete, educator, and advocate I am inspired to build community wherever in the world I maybe.” Meet Beverly Leon. Beverly comes to Civic Hall as a Civic Tech Fellow on the Microsoft Cities NYC team. She is passionate about critically engaging with the civic tech community and creating more equitable channels for participation in democracy and community. Beverly earned her BA in History from Columbia University, with a focus on America’s post-Reconstruction era. After graduation, she began her professional career in equity capital markets at Morgan Stanley. Instead of continuing to climb the corporate ladder, she embraced a dream – and not insignificant risk – in deciding to play for the Sunderland AFC Ladies, a professional soccer team based in Europe. Last year she completed an MSc in Comparative Social Policy at the University of Oxford, and this past fall matriculated at Columbia Business School with a focus on social entrepreneurship. In her scant free time, Beverly is the founder of Local, which grows out of her eight years of experience as a youth educator/coach/mentor and has a goal of ensuring that students participate in every dimension of civic life.
What Does She Do?
On a daily basis Beverly juggles being a Civic Tech Fellow on the Microsoft Cities NYC team; her studies as an MBA student at Columbia Business School; while also piloting Local, a startup that she has been nurturing since she studied youth disconnect in New York and Boston while at Oxford. Together, each of these strands are complements, enabling her to bridge the academic with the empirical.
As a Civic Tech Fellow, Beverly is one of three Fellows in NYC. She is working on several projects for Microsoft Cities:
- The CivicGraph, a crowd-sourcing mapping tool to visualize the emerging field of civic tech.
- Boardstat, which makes NYC’s Community Boards accessible to constituents and allows us all to leverage open data in discussion and policymaking.
- Additionally, Microsoft Cities is collaborating with a few NYC-based educational institutions — including CUNY — to help them leverage AI to improve student assessments.
“‘Local’ grows out of my work as a youth educator/coach/mentor knowing that society dramatically underestimates young people.” Local is using gamification to enable civic learning in a way that isn’t didactic. It is mapping community boards and public libraries — surfacing civic life, from culture to volunteering, politics to sport. Local has recently completed its first sprint with a working prototype and MVP. “We’re getting ready to pilot at a school in the South Bronx with tenth graders, and are working in Harlem with ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders. We want to embed these concepts in young people’s lives early. Teens Take Charge NYC – a student-led nonprofit actively working to fight segregation in NYC public schools – they are my advisors. I look to them and ask: What are the tools to help you organize among students? How do you imagine impact?”
How Did She Get Into This Work?
“My parents encouraged me to be critical and to explore ideas. When we studied the civil rights movement [in grade school], all of the coursework was around Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to look at Fannie Lou Hamer, a name which was never even mentioned in my textbooks. My parents – my mom in particular – made sure we had access and we would go to the library for topics, not in the school curriculum.”
Beverly’s father was an engineer. Her parents moved to Boston to live the American Dream. She half-jokes, “we were all born dribbling a soccer ball.” Beverly never let her gender bar her from full participation in sport. She was one of the only girls to play Pee Wee Football. Her drive and talent took her all the way to Columbia University, where she married educational excellence with her love of the game. Her study of history began from the perspective of a First-first-generation American but quickly broadened. She began asking herself, “How does community form?”
Living abroad in the UK, Iceland, and Italy, while playing for Sutherland AFC gave her insights into the community. She considered, “I’m a social entrepreneur. What does it look like for me to create community wherever I live?” This line of inquiry became her academic study while at Oxford. Returning to NYC, informed by her years of experience working with youth for both Level the Field NYC and as a Teaching Fellow for Columbia University’s Freedom and Citizenship Civics Education Program, she sought to leverage the sum total of her experiences and launch Local: “I have witnessed how a playing field can transform our relationships with strangers: breaking down language barriers, building effective teams, and inspiring joy. Out of this came a vision for Local to build the skills and find the opportunities for young people so that they could practice thoughtful and active citizenship in all dimensions of community life.”
How Did She Come to Civic Hall?
Beverly was in the audience at Rethink Everything — a Silicon Harlem technology conference — attending that event as a Harlem resident concerned about the future of data and privacy protection. The discussion was so compelling that Beverly made contact with John Paul Farmer, a member of the panel. Now a Civic Tech Fellow for his Microsoft Cities NYC team she is working out of Civic Hall a few times a week.
The questions that were raised that night remain timely. “I’m excited to be part of both Microsoft Cities and Civic Hall, participating in these conversations that will define what civic tech is, not only in five but in fifteen, years.’
What is She Reading?
No surprise, the history Beverly consumes intersects with civics. She is currently reading Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, while re-reading Robert Putnam’s classic, Bowling Alone. Additionally, she is bingeing True Detective and has a shout out to the Bell’s Miseducation podcast.
What Is Her Ask and Offer of Civic Hall?
Offer: “I am happy to help in any capacity I can. I’m here to learn and engage with new ideas — and beyond these walls — to transform cities.”
Ask: Continue to challenge me to think creatively, so that I can be introspective about what I’m doing. I want to learn the stories of [this community] and what brought you here. Not only the work you are doing – but who are the people and stories that I need to continue to share.”
Recognizing that the work we do at Civic Hall is often silo-ed from the Ivy Tower – and vice versa – Beverly wants to bridge this gap:
“I am dying to have people doing this work to come educate us. To see what’s happening at the ground level. Some of my peers (at the B-School) will go on to run Fortune 500’s. I’m interested in how we can ensure that back of mind they are thinking of how their businesses can interact with cities and with public life. If folks have great insights and stories to share, please reach out and I’ll invite you up to 116th Street. Let’s bring your incredible work up to the classrooms.”