On Carl Lewis of Savannah, Georgia

I’ve found so much comfort in the memories of others (Em, Jen, Carl’s family, the Code for America Brigades), that I’m compelled to share in hopes it helps you if you’re struggling with losing Carl, too.

Carl Lewis, my friend, and founder of Code for Savannah, passed away last week. He was 30. And the world really needed him.

Photo courtesy of Jen Pahlka

Sometimes I meet young technical men who are white who come to civic tech because they have the misimpression that they’re needed to “save” the world. It doesn’t occur to them that many, many people care about these issues or have been working on them for decades, or that the people who are hurt the most by broken systems don’t look like them. They sometimes do not understand that the systemic barriers that enforce inequality do not need to be simply “hacked,” they’re not just missing a few lines of node. They don’t understand that they need to be fundamentally dismantled.

This was not Carl. Carl had a degree in Southern Studies. He knew that Savannah didn’t just need a few new apps — he knew that the city had a brutal legacy of racial inequality, one that persisted to this day.

“You can’t just shovel software patterns onto deeply entrenched civic issues with roots as tangly and deeply intertwined into the soil as a 100-year-old bald-cypress and expect fresh seeds of civic trust to sprout up in a day.” — Carl Lewis

Carl hosted me and Jen Pahlka in Savannah when I was working for Code for America several years ago. Carl and his teammates were working on groundbreaking technical problems, including fighting for accessible ways to pay water bills and for public access to reliable public transit information. But when we visited, I don’t think we looked at a computer once. He asked us to help paint banners about community feedback. He took us to the library to learn about a youth writing project. We sat in on a community meeting where we had perfect brownies and heard about concerns and ideas from people who grew up in Savannah.

It was beautiful. It was beautiful because, like so many brigade members across the country, he loved his neighbors and believed in his community. He was always like this.

“Listen more, speak less. You’re not the expert. The resident is. No exceptions.” Carl Lewis

Carl struggled with feelings of failure. He got frustrated by broken systems. He hated slack’s guts. He constantly thought of ways things could work better. He fought like hell to make them come true. He apologized when he messed up, and he took huge chances to make good things come together.

I guess I assumed I would get to see Carl grow old. To get cantankerous about more things, to get a more outrageous shoe collection, to spread his magic to more people who were on the precipice of cynicism. To mellow with age.

I will miss Carl, and grieve his loss, in ways that currently feel searingly painful. I feel incredibly lucky to have met him, to have seen him at his best and in his element. To have seen Savannah through his eyes.

The world really needed him.

America’s foremost technologist named after a Great Lake. Now @CodeforAmerica! Co-founder @techladymafia + @usds. Former @harvard @whitehouse @cfpb.

America’s foremost technologist named after a Great Lake. Now @CodeforAmerica! Co-founder @techladymafia + @usds. Former @harvard @whitehouse @cfpb.