Betting on the Bay with Catherine Bracy
In 2015, Catherine Bracy co-founded TechEquity Collaborative, a group organizing the tech community to advocate for a tech-driven economy that works for everyone. TechEquity Collaborative believes the Bay Area tech industry should generate widespread opportunity instead of inequality and displacement. It focuses on housing affordability and on building equity in the tech workforce.
Walter & Elise Haas Fund Executive Director Jamie Allison recently spoke with Catherine as part of our series of interviews with those leading the Bay Area towards a more healthy, just, and vibrant future. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation and an invitation for you to engage with TechEquity Collaborative’s effective work to promote equity.
Jamie Allison: Hi! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this.
Catherine Bracy: Let’s do it.
JA: Let’s start big: what do you believe makes a city or region vibrant?
CB: Diversity. That sounds cliché, but interactions with people who aren’t like you — that’s the magic of a city. And sometimes it’s challenging. Every time I walk down the street in Oakland, I’m asking myself questions about my beliefs and whether I’m a good enough person. But if you’re not living in a place where you’re being challenged in that way, then you’re probably not living in a vibrant city.
I grew up in a Midwestern college town and we rode public transportation only occasionally. Then, my senior year, I went to New York and rode the subway and — oh my god — I will never forget that feeling of recognizing that I had a lot to learn about the world.
JA: What is the link between public transportation and diversity?
CB: One can challenge long-held beliefs just by riding BART!
Public transportation is underappreciated for being a place where you come into contact with folks from different walks of life. In the Bay Area, it’s easy to stay in your own little bubble — unless you take public transportation.
JA: How does philanthropy play a role in your work and in your leadership journey?
CB: Fundraising helps me clarify my thinking and storytelling. I find it very helpful to have to sell what we’re doing to people. Making the pitch and getting someone to fund us is a very concrete piece of feedback that we’re on the right track.
JA: What was your first successful pitch?
CB: It was to Cedric Brown at the Kapor Center.
When I had the idea for the work I wanted to do, almost in the same thought was, “I have to talk to the Kapor Center.” I remember the first coffee I had with Cedric, and saying, “Here’s my idea.” And he said, “Yep, that’s a really good idea. And I’m totally on board. You just have to go talk to these two other people” — who turned out to be my co-founders; they had started a meetup group called The TechEquity Collaborative and that’s why we have our name — “and convince them to work together with you on it.”
And so, I met with them and I convinced them that this could be more than a meetup group.
JA: Why the intersection of equity and tech workers?
CB: What I chose was to tackle the problem of inequality in my community. My expertise was the connection between technology and civics, so that’s where I could affect the most change.
TechEquity is essentially trying to prove the hypothesis that capitalism, when done right, creates opportunity for all people. The opposite of what we’re experiencing now — financial-ism, corporatism— is not radical socialism, but a capitalist system that isn’t rigged.
JA: What’s possible in the Bay Area that might not be possible elsewhere?
CB: California is the fifth largest economy in the world — and the Bay Area disproportionately contributes to that economy. If you’re going to prove that capitalism can create opportunity for more people, this is the place to do it. It’s also the place to unwind the dysfunction of the economy. The industry here is forward looking. That’s why people expect more from tech than they do from Wall Street.
The Bay Area can paint a better picture of the future and provide the resources to make that vision real, more than almost anywhere else in the world.
JA: We often hear about tensions between tech workers and local residents, but what do these two groups have in common?
CB: A lot more than they think. For one thing, both groups are disproportionately made up of renters.
If you’re a 25-year old tech worker, maybe you’ve got $75,000 in student loan debt. You might make $85,000 a year but you live with three or four housemates to stay above water. That’s not the tech worker profile we normally imagine, but those people are tech workers, too — and they’re not living the dream. Tech workers might be more privileged workers, but many of them live paycheck-to-paycheck, too.
JA: What can we do to ensure that more people benefit from the tech boom?
CB: There’s a reason TechEquity Collaborative started with housing; if you can’t afford to live here, then the rest is moot. Housing is by far the most expensive thing that people pay for. Even if you’re making $150,000 a year, you’re not doing amazingly well.
It’s really hard to see how we can pull people up the opportunity ladder if we don’t figure out how to lower the cost of living here. Most people hear “tech equity” and assume that means diversity in hiring, but diversity in hiring is just a drop in the bucket. It will only benefit a very small number of people. We have to solve housing supply and affordability problems before we can get to the other stuff.
JA: What role does the tech community play in causing or solving cost of living issues?
CB: Policy decisions made decades ago brought us to the current housing shortage. Those decisions predate the internet! Tech didn’t cause that. If there was abundant housing, all these IPO-made-millionaires wouldn’t be concerning in the same way.
JA: Not everyone can or should become a coder or computer engineer. How can others benefit from the tech boom?
CB: Through tech’s investment in public infrastructure — including public education. One of TechEquity Collaborative’s big focus areas is a property tax reform bill that we’re working on. Tax policy is pulling the economy apart rather than expanding it in a healthy way. Because of current tax policy, tech boom tax yields are not flowing into public infrastructure investments at a proportionate rate.
JA: What do we need to do to create a region where there’s access to housing for all?
CB: We need to fix the broken political relationships that prevent us from getting anything meaningful done at the state level, that pit developers against anti-displacement and tenant-rights advocates.
The real roadblocks are NIMBYs and cities that don’t want to build housing. We need to build a political coalition on the pro housing side, creating a grand bargain among the production, preservation, and protection communities — instead of fighting amongst each other. We can’t protect vulnerable communities without building more affordable housing. And for that, we need people — including tech industry players — to put their skin in the game.
JA: Tell me about a recent win you’ve experienced in your work.
CB: For TechEquity, it’s a company like Square moving into the old Sears department store building in Oakland and thinking, “We need to call TechEquity.” That’s validating; and now, we’re in position to help Square make decisions about jobs and other investments that will work for everybody. Another big moment was when one of our Housing Committee members, who works for a tech company, got excited to get on a bus to Sacramento to advocate for our housing platform. I told him, “You are the physical manifestation of what I was hoping for when I started TechEquity.”
JA: Who inspires you in the Bay Area?
CB: Earlonne Woods — the guy who produces Ear Hustle.
JA: Favorite record?
CB: Haruki Murakami’s Spotify playlist. It’s his vinyl collection, digitized. I listen to it almost every Sunday.
JA: Great tip! I’ll check it out. Thanks for talking with me.
CB: Thanks for the opportunity!
Before founding TechEquity Collaborative, Catherine Bracy was Code for America’s Senior Director of Partnerships and Ecosystem. She founded Code for All and, during the 2012 election cycle, directed Obama for America’s Technology Field Office in San Francisco — the first office of its kind in American political history. Catherine ran the Knight Foundation’s 2011 News Challenge and was the Administrative Director at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. She serves on the board of directors at the Public Laboratory and the Data & Society Research Institute.