Jed Miller, Digital Strategist
“Anyone trying to use story to advocate, persuade, or disrupt, is engaged in a collaborative act. If you are not, you are not engaged in an authentic story and are possibly doing something worse — telling the story about someone from a community you don’t understand, in a way that serves your purpose, and just might even endanger them.”
Pronouns: He, His
Meet Jed Miller. Jed describes himself as a “digital strategist who believes strategy isn’t really digital.” He currently consults with NGOs, foundations and advocacy groups on digital strategy, civic engagement, and storytelling; has been the digital director for the American Civil Liberties Union, and served as the first interactive editor of NYTimes.com. His past clients have included Greenpeace International, The GovLab, and Open Society Foundations. Jed is a founding contributor to Personal Democracy Forum and has taught advocacy communications at Columbia | SIPA. He also continues to work with the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and Natural Resource Governance Institute on the growth of ResourceContracts.org, an open contracting platform he first developed in 2011. Fun fact: Jed once wrote a musical about tabloid television and Washington, D.C. Possibly as penance he now finds himself living there. You can follow him via Twitter or Instagram.
What Does He Do?
Jed works closely with NGOs and philanthropies to use technology projects as a lever to ask uncomfortable (but, he suggests, also fun) questions about how online work can serve their mission while centering conversation and collaboration as an organization’s first, most important tools. And, in so doing, building the scaffolding between organizations and communities, between plans and teams, and between tools and users.
“I’ve become preoccupied with how civic tech groups, academics, advocates and donors use the word “storytelling.” At its best, “storytelling” means we know how to make social challenges and policies more vivid, but at its worst, it’s a catch-all for selling ourselves, instead of letting communities speak for themselves.” While Jed first parsed these thoughts for Civicist in 2016, last year he drilled down on the topic, collaborating with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative to publish “The Story Behind the Story,” which explored the challenges for donors and NGOs seeking to tell authentic, compelling stories about their work. Jed expects to publish some further thoughts on this aspect of the report in an upcoming issue of in Inside Philanthropy. In 2019 he hopes to build on the report’s findings to see how our sector can tell more authentic stories and learn from them in order to improve both grantmaking and advocacy.
How Did He Get Into This Work?
“My two earliest memories of politics is wanting [George] McGovern to win, and watching the Watergate hearings because my cartoons weren’t on.”
Jed is a rarity, a native Manhattanite. He was raised on 100th Street and West End Avenue as the child of a teacher and a singer-songwriter. Growing up in the arts he learned at an early age that “anything that was done well was done in community.” While he didn’t think of himself as an activist growing up, he credits his parents with giving him his sense of identity as a progressive.
Jed came to the world of civic engagement and activism in his twenties and thirties through writing. First NY1 as a freelancer, leading him to work as a community moderator for The New York Times. Jed was the first person with the title “editor” to manage online community and early social media at The New York Times.
“As I looked at my work in online communities and learned what it took to advocate for digital in a big institution like the Times what interested me most — a throughline having to do with voice — was the opportunity for people to be heard and the opportunity for institutions and individuals to be in a different kind of communication made possible through new technologies.”
Jed pivoted into the world of civic engagement after the dot-com crash claimed his Personal Democracy Forum job, and ended up at the ACLU as their digital director during the Bush-era. From the ACLU he went to work in the world of government transparency and international development, as Internet Director for a Soros-founded group called the Natural Resource Governance Institute. He is currently working as a strategist and writer for non-profits and foundations in the overlapping worlds of open data, democracy, and philanthropy.
How Did He Come To Civic Hall?
Just before the first Personal Democracy Forum, a friend on the city council asked Jed for advice about online campaigning. He ended up at breakfast with David Yassky, preaching about the power of networks. The other person joining them at the table was Andrew Rasiej. “We became civic soulmates almost instantly.”
Jed was an early advisor in the creation of PDF, has been an occasional speaker at the conference and continues to be a supporter of Civic Hall as it grows and evolves. “I love how Civic Hall is expanding downtown to bring tech skills to new communities, and I was moved by the work of Danielle, Micah and Andrew did to make PDF18 more safe, more diverse and more inclusive.”
Jed is also working with The Laura and John Arnold Foundation in its efforts to help courts and advocates understand the proper role of technology in reducing incarceration and creating fairer outcomes in the criminal justice system. The Foundation talks more about that work here.
What is He Reading/Watching/Listening To?
“I’ve been reading Civic Hall friends An Xiao Mina and Sean McDonald, who are clarion voices writing about the crisis of norms in the collection, use and abuse of data by cities, corporations, and superpowers.”
Jed has also been acquainting himself with the writings of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “This is cliché, I know, but I just moved back east from San Francisco and I may miss it a little. Hanh writes about the importance of compassion even amid a life that is chaotic and a society that is often unjust. Sometimes we focus so much on fixing things that we lose track of our better selves (at least I do).”
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
“The civic tech community has shaken off a lot of our evangelism and a solutionism, but we need to keep looking beyond the tools, beyond our assumptions and beyond our own privilege for answers. On a panel at the first PDF, I heard Eli Pariser from MoveOn say that “The next big innovation won’t come from us.” That quote is a good reminder that any time we’re trying to build community, or include community, we should be listening first. The spirit of listening first and passing the microphone both outward in distance, and downward in power has never been more important than now.”