Technology and community involvement were introduced to me around the same time. As a really young child in Detroit, my parents were very active in our neighborhood. They were the president and vice president of our block association where I lived. I saw them bringing together our neighbors and advocating for public arts projects and better utilization of public space in Detroit. I saw that as early as 4 years old. And then I got my first computer when I was 5. So I had both sides of my brain working at the same time — on one side, developing an interest in working with community, and on the other side working with this new technology. And as I matured, both of those grew, and then I added basketball around 8 years old. Each of those aspects worked on parallel tracks, and my parents encouraged me to explore all of those parts of my personality.
It led to a unique experience. As a double-engineering major at the University of Michigan, I also ran an organization for Black men on campus and helped organize our response to affirmative action and admissions policies that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2004, and I helped respond to incidents of racism on campus. I was one of very few engineering students who participated in that kind of stuff.
I always thought of myself as having a technical mind but also being really concerned about people, so after being an engineer professionally for four years I looked for a way to bring that together. So I left my good job at Microsoft — a week before I got married — to become a community organizer at MoveOn.org and to learn from some of the best organizers in the country how to do that well, and try to do it better because I knew how to use tech.
Yet that still seems a huge leap of faith. Fairly or unfairly, the tech crowd is not viewed as being particularly service-focused.
I worked in D.C. for five years working on voting rights, economic justice, health-care expansion, but when my wife and I were ready to go home to Detroit I wondered what I could do that would impact the most people. And when I thought about it, there wasn’t a company that I could work for that had everybody as their customer, and not a nonprofit I could work for that had everybody as their client. The only entity that touched everyone by definition and by design was the government. If I really wanted to be a person that could impact the most people at scale, the government was the most effective place to do that. So that’s what motivated me to enter the public sector. And when I did that, it wasn’t to become an elected official; I went to be a technocrat. I didn’t want to be in politics. I actually left D.C. to work in public service.
You hear that term, but how do you define “technocrat” in a real, practical way?
In my case I was doing super mundane stuff, but I was very happy working on transparency in data policy and transforming how we fixed fire hydrants. I made a non-emergency service phone app. I was making systems work for people, building trust in government and creating things that were not expressed politically, but just in making things work for people.
Some of the solutions almost seem obvious when you apply technology, so where is the disconnect between technology and government?
I think we’re getting better about this, but the first step is recognizing that technology is not the answer to most problems. But technology provides a way to facilitate answers. A way of working better.
And how does that hold up when applied to more complicated matters?
I’ll give you a concrete example of that: Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer has charged me with leading our criminal justice reform efforts. I did a tour of 19 cities. There was one thing I heard in every city that people thought would help move t
heir cities forward, and that was that if we could give people a pathway to clear and expunge their criminal records. They said, “If you can do this, it will make people job-eligible, housing-eligible, eligible for educational training. Right now they are blocked off from that because they made a mistake in their past and can’t get it off their records.”
We needed to make that work. Only 7 percent of people who were eligible for the program were utilizing the system, so basically it was an invisible system. Working with my team and the legislature interested in it, we said, “Let’s make this system work for people.” So we expanded it greatly, in terms of the types of offenses that were eligible. We shrunk the amount of time to be eligible from seven years to five, and most important, we automated the process — and that’s where technology comes in.
The reason why only 7 percent of people were taking advantage of the system is because it was complicated; you had to fill out all of this paperwork, you had to hire a lawyer and then you had to wait. The justice is yours — you shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to access the justice that belongs to you under law. So we connected these data systems with the record of eligibility, and now after five years that stuff just disappears from your record. We notify them, and then instantly they become job-eligible; instantly they become eligible for housing; instantly they can get into a higher-education program. It’s going to make a million people in Michigan job-eligible over the next few years. Michigan now has the most progressive and expansive automated criminal records expungement program in the country.
But the only reason why I knew that was possible is because I’m a software developer. It’s because I had to find these systems that were not connected to one another and had to see opportunities for that data to mean something to more people. That would not have happened if I were not a technologist.
I think there are opportunities for that kind of success in almost every realm.
Michigan’s historic image is that of the center of American manufacturing. How should we be thinking of Michigan in the 21st century?
I think the way to rightly understand the state of Michigan today is that we are a place where if you want to take your idea and make something real out of it, there’s no better place than Michigan to do that. Michigan has led the nation in investment in life sciences businesses over the last several years. These are people who are imagining the cures of tomorrow and making them today. Look no further than the fact that the covid vaccine is being manufactured here in Michigan at Pfizer.
But Michigan is also where we’ve grown software businesses to become unicorns over the last 10 years, and in ways that I did not perceive as possible when I attended the University of Michigan. As a matter of fact, that’s why I left Michigan, because I did not think that was true. The work has been done to make it a place for people who have ideas to come and grow those ideas.
We also continue to be a place that has manufacturing muscle. We have the highest concentration of engineers in the country in southeast Michigan and those people are not idle; they’re making things. We have a mindset in Michigan thatit is much more entrepreneurial than perhaps it was a generation ago. So my pitch to anyone who wants to build something real, something good and something great is that there is no place better than Michigan.
Michigan is a place of contradictions: a woman governor, a Black lieutenant governor, and then a part of the population that seems to want to end all of that. Does that make Michigan an outlier or just what America looks like right now?
It’s a place of complexities like any other state, but I’m not afraid to confront that. My responsibility is to every person in every community in the state, even the ones who may not like me — or the fact that I am me — in the position that I’m in. But it is still my responsibility to go where they are, and it’s a big state. I’ve gone to all 83 counties to talk to people, and there are issues that unite us, even in the face of the vitriol and the contradictions.
For instance, something near and dear to me, and that’s Internet access. That cuts across racial lines, urban and rural. So now to be in this position to work with my colleagues to actually solve that problem and to be in that generation that ends disconnected communities, that’s incredibly inspiring, and it’s something that connects us all to the future.
Why do you think you’ve been successful in selling policy in a bipartisan way?
I’m willing to be honest. Both chambers of the legislature were led by Republican majorities, and in my first meetings about the Internet issue, I think they were fully prepared to have me come in and only talk about the issue and its importance to Detroit. I’m Black, I’m from Detroit; I’m sure they thought that was all I wanted to talk about.
So coming in and being able to speak with fluency about the challenges of rural communities and being sensitive to that, I think that empathy led us to get something done.
What’s the lesson for Congress in that story?
First, it’s a lesson for us as public servants
in general. There are so many problems that seem intractable, but problems are not intractable. If you make a decision to make progress and apply resources, you can do it. If you focus on a challenge, you can make progress on solving it.
Do you want to see more people from the tech community engaged in politics?
It’s not just politics or elected service, but I think more people from the tech community should make the choice to spend time in government, whether it be in office or policy roles or just in helping to execute public policy in a smart way.
I’m an anomaly. To my knowledge I’m the only state elected official in the country with my background, and I wish that were not the case. So certainly I would challenge my counterparts to think about how you can apply your skills to help other people.
As I said, if you want to serve the maximum number of people, there is no place like the government to do it. If you want the innovation you can imagine to touch people and improve lives, this is the place to do it. It’s the big leagues for that kind of thinking.
We can do that in many ways across the board. That kind of problem-solving is the ethos that exists in the tech community. We say, “That’s broken, I can fix that, I can do it for less money or more efficiently.” We want that kind of thinking to happen in the government. But you can’t come in an arrogant way — which I do think is a risk — but come in saying, “I think I can be useful.” If you bring that kind of humility to it, you can really make a difference.
Eric Easter is a writer and producer in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.