Jennifer Pahlka is busy sticking it to the status quo. The Code for America founder and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Obama administration is dead set on making the government work for the people through improved digitally-agile services. Our own Jen Bekman describes Pahlka as one of the few people she’d call a true visionary—and for good reason! Code for America is a revolutionary organization that’s already made a huge impact at every level of government.
The work Pahlka does is a great reminder that there are still tons of idealistic civil servants busy trying to build a better, more just America (even if it seems like our country has recently taken a turn for the worse). Beyond that, pondering Pahlka’s contributions and the profound effect one person can have on the world around them is deeply motivating. Naturally, we had way too many questions we wanted to ask her (note the bonus question we snuck in). She also moonlights as an avid art lover and longtime 20x200 supporter with an intuitive, passionate relationship to the pieces she collects and covets. Below, a glimpse of her greatness... – Team 20x200
5 Perfect Picks1) Dress Like A Woman by Amber Vittoria
What to do with expectations for women around things like leg hair and femininity? For me, I gotta laugh. When I was 24 and trekking around Southeast Asia with friends, my carefree attitude towards my calves prompted my friends to give me a razor as a Christmas gift. I thought it was hysterical. The artist has seemed to make this woman comically grotesque, but really, the joke’s on you. It’s so playful; she’s poking at you.
2) Court of First Model Tenement House in New York, 1936 by Berenice Abbott
This hangs in our home by our back door, and we see it as we take the laundry out to hang on the lines in our own backyard. And by we, I mean my husband, who does 99% of the laundry in our house.
3) Behind the Bay City Log Sorting Yard, Cosmopolis, Washington by Eirik Johnson
This home seems impossibly fragile, like brittle bone, under the intensely powerful sky. And yet it's obviously not going anywhere. We persist in nature despite the odds.
4) Underwood by Andrew Miller
Words matter to me. A lot. Putting words together in your head and getting them out of your head and into some form that others can read happens practically every minute of every day now. The beauty of this machine that helps a human make words for others reminds us that it’s also a special and meaningful act. And of course the nostalgia. I’m a sucker for nostalgia.
5) Grand Canyon National Park, a free government service, a 20x200 Vintage Edition
Not only is this a gorgeous print, but it reminds us of some of what’s great about government. How else are we going to protect land like this and keep it accessible for everyone? At a time when so many people feel so embattled by our government, we should appreciate that it’s an institution that’s supposed to work for all the people, by all the people. And remember that we the people can’t take that for granted.
5 Q's + 5 A's
1) What's your favorite museum?
Some of the rooms at the Menil in Houston are perfection. The first time I walked into the Oceanic galleries, I thought to myself “Oh this is what it’s like to be in a space where every single thing around you is perfect in form.”
But I grew up in NYC and was such a nerd that when I cut school (which I did more than I should have, and regret now that I have a teenager of my own) I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I will never forget the feeling of being an angsty teen and chilling out beneath the Temple of Dendur when I was supposed to be in class. I lived up in Inwood, and sometimes I would cut school and hang out with the medieval relics of saints at the Cloisters, which is part of the Met.
2) You've got $5m to spend on one piece of art. What would it be?
Could I buy Delacroix's Jacob wrestling with the Angel for $5M? It might look a bit out of place in my home, but that mural was part of how I fell in love with my husband.
3) What's your favorite color?
Brown. I've had people tell me that's not a color. It most certainly is.
4) If you could be reincarnated as an artist, who would you want to be?
Probably Ruth Asawa. Her wire sculptures fascinate me. And she spent so much of her life teaching and fighting for arts education -- in other words, serving others. She and her family were held in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, which I don't think I'd like, but her views on the experience are remarkable: “Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.” So yeah, I'd love to be reincarnated as someone better and stronger than who I am today.
5) You worked in the White House as Barack Obama's deputy CTO (big shot!). White House photographer Pete Souza just released a book of photographs from the Obama administration. As an insider, what's your take on the importance of capturing and disseminating images from that era in our political history?
I just heard Pete interviewed by Terry Gross! I remember many of those photos and they're incredibly meaningful to me today, as they were then. My favorite is also many people's favorite: the little boy touching President Obama's head because he wants to know if his hair is really like his. I cried when I first saw that photo in the hallway in the West Wing. It's not just what that little boy must have been feeling, but what a powerfully empathetic person we had leading the country. I recently attended the Obama Foundation Summit, where everyone in the room (including me) indulged in the brief fantasy that he was our President again. I am deeply torn, because I have such strong feelings about him as a person and his family and the kind of inspiring leadership they represent, but I also know that we (the Obama Administration, Democrats, others) failed to connect with enough of the country that we find ourselves in a very different situation today, a problem we cannot solve by retreating into nostalgia. And a problem we cannot define as us vs them. When I worked in the White House, the fight for the United States Digital Service was not one of us vs them; it was the courage to do something different vs the comfort of the status quo, and Democrats then and now are as guilty of supporting the status quo as anyone. The status quo isn't worth fighting for. We have to fight for something better, something that we haven't seen before.
The people who work in government care. You might think they don't, but try doing their jobs for a year and you'll understand. It's incredibly hard. There's a great piece in The Atlantic that captures so much of what we see at Code for America working in the delivery of social services. Imagine working with an indigent client for two hours only to have the computer system shut down at the end and not save your work, and you have to start all over again. This is part of why we think it's so critical to give government the tools of the digital age, tools that really work for them and for the people government serves.
The 411 on Jennifer Pahlka
Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America. From 2013-2014, she served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she architected the United States Digital Service. Previously, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events, and prior to that, the Game Developers Conference and related properties. She lives in Oakland, California with her daughter, her husband the author Tim O'Reilly, and their six chickens. Much of the art displayed in her home is either from 20x200 or by her daughter.