The White House LGBT in Technology Summit

A celebration of queer geeks collaborating with policy makers in the Obama White House in 2016.

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WHLGBGTQTech Class of 2016 (Photo Credit: Marisa Erin)

Last month, I had a special opportunity to support the third and final White House LGBT in Technology Summit under President Obama. This event is a unique one that our Public Engagement team established to celebrate both our diversity across minority groups but also seeks to encourage the powerhouse of innovation within us across the technology sector as well!

It was great to be back in the familiar turf of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), but it was also nice to resume a small community organizing role. Coming up through the campaign ranks in ’08, these skills of bringing people together are just baked into the DNA of Team Obama and I felt a little rush of excitement just being back in that role — however small it may have been for the day.

I saw early-bird attendees queuing up outside the security checkpoint, dressed in their fanciest outfits, and arriving super-early in order to not miss even a minute of the day. And no matter how much easier my own team’s technology contribution, the White House Appointment Center, made the security screening process, the experience of visiting the campus is still intimidating. But the look of wonder on people’s faces when they finally round the last corner, enter the building through those heavy doors, step onto the welcome mats, “Welcome to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building”, and they look up at those high ceilings is a very special moment that speaks; “I am finally here” their faces say.

As we prepared the South Court Auditorium and laid out the name tags, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of résumé across the attendees. So many sectors, great companies, non-profits, and depth of talent was represented. The make-up of the group itself spoke volumes to the diversity and tapestry of our community. And as people arrived I was immediately struck by the warmness and fresh-faces of the group. Everyone was practically vibrating with excitement for the day to get started.

We helped everyone get settled-in with coffee, making them feel welcome, and getting their bearings in the building. And especially on that day, we all knew the directions to Room 180, the All-Gender Restroom, by heart. Our tribe in particular appreciated the openness and inclusion of such a small thing as safe space like that in the EEOB and the powerful statement it makes in the current political environment.

Respect. Empower. Include.

There were 3,500 hopeful applicants this year, up from 600 over last year; the popularity of this event is growing tremendously. But as with any event like this, only a small number are able to attend due to space constraints alone. I was already humbled to be able to attend in a supporting role as volunteer and old White House hand, but my feelings were overwhelmingly shared by the group: we were most grateful for the opportunity to be there. But the proceeding of the main portion of the program were live streamed and posted to the White House YouTube channel here.

The tone of gratitude and hopeful opportunity was immediately set both by Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, the White House LGBT Liaison, and Megan Smith, the Federal Chief Technology Officer, in their openings statements and welcomes. But early on in the proceeding one of the participants framed it best:

To be in this room is the very definition of privilege. So use your privilege to help someone without it!”

And that theme carried the day.

The agenda of the day was action-packed, some opening ceremonies and updates from White House staff, a large segment spent on Ask and Offers (30 seconds on: What do you need? What can you give?) where we got to know a little about each participant, breakout sessions to focus our talents on specific topical areas we can lean-into, and the reporting back on how we continue the work after the Summit ends.

in·ter·sec·tion·al·i·ty

noun

  1. the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage

As the day unfolded, there was a lot of emphasis on intersection. Those areas of overlap where life and our worlds are just simply much more complex than things might appear at first glance. Intersections that highlight tremendous challenges and difficulties as well. The entire body of participants identified as queer in some way, but woven alongside that quality were many other intersections: African American, Latino, the Disability Community, Transgender, Youth, Seniors, folks working on LGBT homelessness, poverty, suicide, or drug addiction. All of these different areas were embodied, connected, and represented in honest ways by the participants who brought their own very unique perspectives to the work.

One particular line from the Federal Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil, resonated:

You are not an edge-case, you are a community,

with regard to our need to get better at collecting and studying data in these areas so we can make better, more data-driven policy decisions.

And the participants pushed through in an inspiring way by being just a little bit vulnerable with each other in order to make real connections that will endure. Powerful things happen when we are authentic, offer what we can truly give, and ask for what we need in return.

The breakout sessions took on a fresh energy all their own by allowing folks to self-select on topical areas of interest such as supporting access to capital, entrepreneurship, and criminal justice reform that joined like minded folks with a focus on brainstorming just a few ideas in these areas that desperately need our attention and innovation. These teams merely only formed and got started at the Summit but plan to remain a working group and keep delivering on the ideas generated while we were all together in Washington.

Later, the group reconvened and gave their breakout reports: how to get started, what we can do and where we can make an impact, how to stay connected, how to grow these networks and include others, but ultimately: how to combine all our own unique talents to a larger chorus of rainbow voices to get moving in these areas.

Just observing the participants was phenomenal. The style, the unique sense of identity, the raw emotional support from the audience was quite heartening and refreshing.

One participant shared a particularly poignant moment about only having recently come out and received a standing ovation! Those small moments of support really defined and were woven throughout the day and the assembled community.

Soon enough though, the day reached an end and the group adjourned for networking and refreshments. The Indian Treaty Room was quite jubilant for a few hours, no more so than when POTUS made a surprise early landing in Marine One for the crowd to see from the windows of the EEOB as he disembarked for the Oval after visiting Louisiana to survey the flooding.

But slowly, group by group, individual by individual, the team broke up and departed the campus after a quite intense day or focused attention and community building. But as we trickled out the campus gates, I think I speak for most of us when I say we left more inspired than when we arrived and having forged a lot of new connections that have the potential to contribute a lot to the world.

I’ve written before about what a fulfilled opportunity I’ve had as young geek from Stonewall, Oklahoma to lend my technology talents in support of a President who has in turn championed my LGBT tribe to such a great degree. But in the intervening weeks after the summit, my thoughts turned back to another LGBT technologist who was not afforded the same opportunities. A man who vastly shortened World War II with his technology and mathematical genius, but who did not have the support of his government or the country for which he sacrificed his brilliance.

Alan Turing was one of the greatest LGBT in Technology individuals the world was ever blessed with and yet he was convicted and likely committed suicide thanks to institutional persecution for being gay. The father of modern computing and a war hero was unable to live honestly or openly love whom he wanted just 70 short years ago.

(If you haven’t read The Enigma or watched The Imitation Game, I can’t recommend them both strongly enough!)

It puts sobering perspective on just how much progress we’ve made together! I think he’d be astounded that today I am able to report to the White House as an out gay political appointee, wearing a rainbow flag lapel pin, and be celebrated for my talents among a group of my peers. But beyond just being accepted, being given the space and support to expand those talents and encouraged by a presidential administration to apply my energy outwardly to help those who need it.

I am so excited to honor his memory with our collective work and to pay it forward as a movement to the next generation of queer kids who want to learn coding, data science, electrical engineering, product management, or design. We are living in quite a special time for our movement indeed.

So we have the support, we have the community, we have the talent, and we finally have our moment: let’s seize it wholeheartedly without reservation or fear!

The role of the White House in these types of events like the Summit is to convene people and start a conversation, but the real challenge, the larger majority of the work, happens long after the meetings end. What are we going to do with these connections and networks we’ve established? How is the group going to self-organize, grow to reach those who need us, and tap into the collective talent across our ranks that’s so much greater than any of us individually could ever manage alone?

We pivot now to the future. And now it’s up to us to create the world we want to live in and leave to our children. I couldn’t be prouder of this administration and all the brilliant folks I met at the Summit. But the work is just getting started.

Watch this space: #WHLTBQTech and #LGBT44 because we’re only getting warmed up. Or better yet, join the conversation, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work!

You can follow the continued efforts of the LGBTQ Obama Appointees @LGBT_44 or follow me @RPickens or work with my company, 580 Strategies, if you need digital help at the intersection of technology, government, and LGBTQ inclusion.

#Geek using my powers of technology for better government. Founder of @580Strategies - Former @ObamaWhiteHouse and @StateDept

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