How Tech Can Bring Restoration To The City

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.                                                                                                 — Zechariah 8:4-5

I love these verses because they offer a simple but compelling vision of restoration and shalom in a city. The city is peaceful and safe enough for children to play outside safely, and where residents have such prosperous lives that they live to old age. I spent five years living in inner-city neighborhoods, and while there were stalwart matriarchs and patriarchs, and children playing in the streets, it was far from ideal. Children die from stray bullets from drive-by shootings, and there aren’t many residents of old age, due to incarceration or early death by violence or drugs.

We are currently experiencing restoration of a sort in communities in the Bay Area, but it’s largely due to gentrification, which brings much-needed wealth, resources, and redevelopment to depressed neighborhoods. However, this often pushes out many original residents, who can no longer afford the rising housing costs — a family of four with an annual household income of $117,400 or less is considered “low income”. As a result, many are moving farther away from the urban core, in search of affordable housing, but now have fewer job opportunities due to the increased commute.

As a Christian, I have spent the past 20 years trying to address the growing gap in wealth and opportunity, and help restore our cities in a holistic way that benefits all residents. Here are thoughts about what I/we can do as a Christian in the tech sector:

Love Your Neighbors. This Means Know Your Neighbors.

Economic empowerment and poverty alleviation work needs to be rooted in empathy. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded a research study, The Giving Code, to understand how there could be such poverty in our region (~30% of residents rely on public or private assistance), when there are 76,000 millionaires and billionaires in the Bay Area. What the study found was that people want to be charitable, but don’t know where to give money locally and/or were not aware of the deep needs that exist in the Bay Area. In sum, the researchers found an empathy gap, which often resulted from the fact that people with wealth didn’t personally know any local residents facing poverty.

I think as Christians, we have a calling to close the empathy gap, which reflects the incarnational nature of Jesus’ experience on earth. He is Emmanuel, God With Us. In his book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen writes:

“Jesus not only said, ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate,’ but he also was the concrete embodiment of this divine compassion in the world. Jesus’ response to the ignorant, the hungry, the blind, the lepers, the widows, and all those who came to him with their suffering, flowed from the divine compassion which led God to become one of us.”

In my personal experience, after living and volunteering in inner cities, I came to personally know people who lack opportunity, and this experience informs my work now. It’s important to find opportunities to close this empathy gap — it could be as simple as mentoring a young person. If we can close this empathy gap and redirect the innovation and resources of the Silicon Valley to bring restoration to our communities, we would serve as a model for other regions in the country.

Then Create Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! (Pathways to Opportunities)

I have come to realize that the role of the private sector in bringing revitalization to our communities is crucial. Even with a vibrant philanthropic community, dedicated volunteers, and supportive public policies, people will not thrive if there isn’t a way to sustain themselves financially and for them to contribute productively.

So how can we as Christian tech workers and employers create opportunities for people to discover, hone, and exercise their unique talents and abilities? For one, we should examine and correct the implicit biases in our current hiring and recruitment practices that might give preference to, for example, college graduates from certain schools, or people who look and speak like us. How can we as believers in roles where we might influence hiring decisions, look beyond a job candidate’s resume, and see how they bear the image of God? For jobs that don’t actually require a college degree, can we advocate for job candidates from nontraditional backgrounds? (For example, I know of a coding camp graduate who was unable to find a job as a junior software developer because she did not have a college degree and came from a low-income background. Employers were not willing to take a risk on her because of her background, even though she graduated with the requisite skills.) Besides being the right thing to do, there are countless recent studies also proving why diversity is important to business. And even if a company’s hiring practices bring in more diverse hires, we should consider how we can help make the workplace more inclusive. How can we better play the role of champion, ally, and advocate for those in our midst?

I work for a software services company, Catalyte.io, which has created software career pathways for non-obvious talent for the past ten years. While it’s not a faith-based company, I believe this work is at the intersection of God’s heart for justice, shalom, restoration and vocation/calling. We help people identify, exercise and hone some of their God-given gifts and abilities (vocation) by giving them opportunities they might not otherwise have access to (justice). And by doing so, we help them improve their livelihood (shalom) by accessing middle-skill careers and living out their cultural mandate to be productive and create. Through this, they are empowered to restore their communities.

In concrete terms, we use our predictive analytics platform (a 2-hour web-based screening) to identify people with innate aptitude to learn how to code. We don’t ask for resumes or other credentials. If they pass and fulfill other minimum criteria, we train them as software developers, and then apprentice them on projects for large enterprise clients. As a result, we’ve produced high-performing software engineers from non-obvious backgrounds. A third have no college degrees. They come from a wide range of backgrounds: e.g., a coffee barista, a musician, a school teacher, a construction worker, a grocery clerk, a gas station attendant, a security guard and a food services worker.

What happens when we extend grace and give someone a chance? Here’s what one colleague had to say:

“I was stuck in the classic catch-22 of needing experience to get a job, but needing a job to get experience. Catalyte helped get me past that with their training and their client work. It changed the trajectory of my life, allowing me to get a viable career when I was struggling to figure out what to do and where to go in life. I am only one of many people who have similar stories.”

Here are more stories of Catalyte’s people. Please note that I don’t mean to say that we should blindly give people opportunities out of pity — we need to have some realistic sense of whether they have potential for a given career and set them up to succeed.

Here are some other technology platforms which are creating pathways for nontraditional workers: Jobcase (an online community which connects workers to empower them in their vocational, professional, and volunteering pursuits). LaborX (a job matching site which is the “LinkedIn for the Linked Out”), Pairin (a soft-skills assessment platform with the intent to make hiring equitable),  Blendoor (merit-based job matching), Textio (textual analysis to flag words that might introduce bias; useful for job descriptions and marketing content), and Interviewing.io (online platform to conduct anonymous technical interviews).

Finally, on a personal note, I find this poetic: in the midst of working at a company helping people discover part of their professional calling, I am now in a role where I can finally exercise my God-given talents and my experiences. My strategic partnerships role is a unique mix of my passion (economic justice); natural skills (strategic thinking, ideation, persuasion, communication); and background (tech, public policy, nonprofit, philanthropy). It feels a little bit like the fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:7 in my own life: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

As we seek the peace and prosperity of the Bay Area, I hope we will come to know personally and remember our neighbors who may not have been given the opportunities and privileges to which many of us have had access. Moreover, I hope that God will help open our eyes to the influence that we have in our workplaces to make them welcoming and inclusive for these brothers and sisters, and the courage to act.

Nancy serves as head of partnerships at software services company Catalyte.io. Previously, as a director at philanthropy consulting firm Arabella Advisors, Nancy compiled recommendations to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion in charitable giving, as highlighted in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Eliminating Implicit Bias in Grantmaking”. Nancy also worked in policy research for SRI International and the Urban Institute; was a campus ministry staff worker for the Navigators and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and held roles at Silicon Valley companies Palm, Inc. and Adaptec. Nancy was the founder of the Idea Catalyst, a volunteer initiative which provided Christian social entrepreneurs access to a supportive community of advisors. She holds an MPP from the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy and a BS in electrical engineering from MIT.

1 thought on “How Tech Can Bring Restoration To The City

  1. Carol

    I think there is a danger to think of technology as just a modern invention. I tend to think that the early technologies are forgotten about and for me the question about technology is about giving us more time and an ability to communicate with greater ease than in the past.

    Take the story of Mary and Martha being visited by Jesus. Jesus was invited to the home and as we all do we want to impress or at least make a guest feel welcome by providing a good meal. Now Mary was more interested in hearing Jesus and learning from him. Martha wanted to make him feel welcome by providing a good meal. But back then it took a lot longer to prepare even the simplest meal than it does today. To make bread, she would have had to make it from scratch. To make a stew she would have had to do a lot of preparation including building up the fire to cook and bake.

    We seem to think today that heating a frozen pizza and possibly adding a bagged salad is making a meal, and there is something to be said for the ease and simplicity but we forget that somewhere that pizza was prepared and frozen and the salad was picked and mixed before being bagged. When we can now get groceries delivered and even put away in our kitchen, we are forgetting that meal preparation takes a long time to prepare even if it isn’t us that is preparing it.

    Since we now have ease of meal preparation to save us time, we must then ask ourselves what that time is being used for. When I was growing up my mother spent a lot more time just doing basic household chores. Monday was washing day, and load after load was done starting at breakfast time and if she had finished by dinner time she was pleased. Doing laundry meant washing in our twin tub, then rinsing separately before spinning it, then hanging the clothes outside to dry. Then bringing the clothes in when dry and Tuesday was generally ironing day. Now I do a load of laundry any day and apart from changing from one machine to the other there is very little work and I am busy doing other things while the laundry is being done. This means that I have been able to do more with my time than she was with hers.

    Volunteering, bible studies, helping others are all things that I am able to do because of the technology that keeps me from being a slave to the kitchen sink.

    Going back to Mary and Martha, if Martha had sat down with Mary to listen to Jesus, there would have been no meal. We can all admire Mary for choosing to spend her time listening to Jesus and then admonish Martha for spending time preparing a meal while complaining about her sister, but to me the lesson is that we all have to make decisions of how to spend our time best. There was no choice for frozen pizza and bagged salad for Martha. However she wanted to give Jesus a satisfying meal. My mother had to spend a full day doing laundry. These choices were because of the technology of the time.

    I view technology as being something that generally makes our lives easier. I live 6,000 miles away from my mother and my sister. 30 odd years ago when I moved to America phone calls were expensive. I used to write a weekly letter to my parents and occasionally one to my sister. Phone calls were just used when news was important or something needed to be talked about. Now I can phone them and chat for as long as I like and it costs me no more than if I didn’t phone them because it is all part of my phone plan and wifi plan. This makes me feel much closer to them and my relationship with both is strong and close even though 6,000 miles separate us.

    God has given us these new technologies by allowing man to create them. The dangers are there as with anything as technology can be abused. But this is nothing new. The greatest invention of the last millennium was agreed to be the printing press. However it was used for as many bad publications as it was for good. It also necessitated that the common people needed to learn to read and write or they couldn’t use it which meant that it lead to a rise in schooling for common folk. It also necessitated that each language should have an agreed code for spelling and grammar which beforehand was not necessary. Today it would be wrong not to teach someone to read and give them the reading material that suits their personalities. We can’t teach a child to read and then as they age tell them what they can and can’t read (at least when they get older). In the same way, all technologies open the window to all sorts of uses. Most are going way beyond the motives of the original inventor. Who would have expected that the invention of the printing press would have ultimately lead to the ability of me sitting at a laptop machine on a Saturday morning being able to use my fingers to communicate my thoughts to others who would read those thoughts at their own time on their own machine without any visible form of connection. Not only would that have baffled those who lived in the middle ages, but it would baffle my own grandparents.

    The fact that I have more time in life to do what is good, and the fact that the Christian community has more time and ease with which to do good, must in my opinion be the way we can reach out and restore to the City.

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