The Future is Local
What it means to come back home
Editor’s note: Reboot is back after an extended holiday break, and like many of you, we’ve ~reinvented ourselves~ for the new year. Check out our new logo and wordmark on our website and Twitter, or the gorgeous new avatars on our Meet the Editors page (also where you can pitch us!).1 The vibe we’re going for: sunshine, growth, generation (both meanings), playfulness, positive-sum energy, boldness, new beginnings ☀️🌱⚡️
In the age of tech and remote work and air travel, what does it mean to call a place home? There is an alternative to moving to a tech hotspot like Silicon Valley or New York, however less glamorous: getting involved in your local community through politics and policy.
We explore this path through a conversation among Eliza Steffen, Charles Yang, and Ashwin Ramaswami. We examine our shared interest in technology and government, how this led us to work at the local level and contribute back to our communities, and how faith and religion has shaped this mindset.
The Future is Local
How did you become friends?
Eliza: Ashwin and I first met on this trip called Perspectives back in summer 2018, which is a ten-day trip run by Stanford Hillel to Israel and the West Bank for non-Jewish student leaders, but I don't think we talked very much on the trip. We ended up getting reacquainted last April and we both met Charles!
Charles: Right, the three of us met in Washington, D.C. this past April at a birthday party, where we basically stood in a corner for two or three hours just talking. I think my first impression of Eliza was that she described herself as someone who “grew up Unitarian Universalist but now wants to convert to Judaism,” which was an unusual combination of things to me.
Eliza: Well, it worked because we're still here.
Ashwin: Yeah! We all talked about religion, pretty much right off the bat. I talked about the work I’ve been doing with Dharmic Life at Georgetown, where we’ve been building and sustaining a chaplaincy for students from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, and other Dharmic traditions. Somebody pointed me to Charles, telling me, “Charles is a minister, you should talk to him.”
Charles: To be clear, I don’t know why people introduce me like that! I am currently in seminary school studying theology, but am by no means a minister.
Was there anything unexpected that came up when the three of you met for the first time?
Ashwin: I remember learning about YIMBY from you, Charles. So thank you for introducing a new word. I had heard of NIMBY, but not YIMBY.2
Charles: Glad I could share the good news with you, Ashwin.
I know you all have had experiences on the more national policy level, but how did all three of you come to care about local issues?
Eliza: I grew up Unitarian Universalist (UU), which is a religious movement descended from Protestant Christianity that was founded when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in the early 1960s. In practice, UUs treat civic engagement like a religious obligation. My congregation provided plenty of opportunities to explore that. I grew up very involved in reproductive rights advocacy at the local and state level, often through my church, including both Unitarian and interfaith work. So it was like very much the beginning of my development: my political motivations, goals, and community were very intertwined with my religious community.
I was a little more nationally focused in college and more recently had the opportunity to do some place-based philanthropy work on federal investments (BIL/CHIPS/IRA) in the Midwest.3 It’s been fascinating to see the parallels between that and Ashwin and Charles’ experience as they go back to their hometowns in a more personal capacity—to see what issues are the most serious, versus the most tractable, versus which ones are getting the most attention.
Charles: Yeah, I was reflecting on that in the new year because it's been a very unexpected path for me. Like most college students in the Bay Area, I came in with my own unique major and dreams (in my case, materials science and engineering) and exited as a computer science graduate, with a focus on AI. I was always a “STEM kid” growing up, but the Bay Area is a great example of how so many problems in America, e.g. housing, infrastructure, and transportation, are not ones of technology but of politics and people. At Berkeley, I, like every Berkeley student, experienced very viscerally the power that a local city council has over someone’s living conditions and what kind of housing is (or is not) available.
When I came back home after graduating, I got to know the local county Democrats club and ended up seriously considering running for state legislature, motivated both by my commitment to my hometown and my exploratory journey into policy my senior year of college. Ultimately I decided against it and decided to go into federal climate policy full-time (that story is one for another time!). But I did start a YIMBY group and a local electric bike library and non-profit e-bike rebate program.4 Although I ended up not running for office, I’d like to think I ended up just convincing Ashwin to do it, which is probably more effective anyways.
But Ashwin, I know we're a bit similar in that we both spent 18 years in the exact places we were born in but didn't actively consider local politics until later in life—tell us your story!
Ashwin: That's right. When I grew up in Johns Creek, Georgia, I didn't actively follow local politics very much; it wasn’t much on my radar. But there were a few instances that left a big impact on me.
One is that I grew up being part of a Hindu spiritual and religious organization called Chinmaya Mission. We wanted to build a community center in Forsyth County. And we had some problems and faced opposition around getting permits. We had lawyers and advocates from our end go to city council meetings, and we all showed up to protest and tell elected officials, “Hey, we want this thing to be built.” That was one big moment.
And the other moment was when I went to a charter school, Fulton Science Academy, for sixth and seventh grade. When I was in seventh grade, the charter school got shut down by the Fulton County Board of Education. So students and parents showed up at the school board meetings to protest. I remember sending cold emails to all of the various Board of Education people telling them, “Please don't shut our school down.” Though we were unsuccessful, that's probably one of my first earliest political communications that I did manifest.
One thing we realized is that, for our hometown community, it felt like we weren't really empowered to help make a difference. Rather, other people were making decisions for us.
How has religion in particular been important for all of you as a motivating factor behind your life trajectories?
Ashwin: Religion has been important because it helped form my worldview, in a way that other worldviews didn't really give me. For example, science is helpful, but doesn’t answer more fundamental questions, like, who am I? What am I here for? I needed a framework to introspect and think about these questions. In my case, I was given that framework by the Vedanta philosophy from Hinduism. In ancient India, there isn’t the same distinction we have today between religion and philosophy: it’s just a way of understanding the world.
Charles: Yeah, me too. Especially now that I'm older looking back, religious spaces are, at their best, one of the only places where as a 12 year old you're grappling with very profound questions of “what does it mean to be good?” and “how do you live your life in relation to death?” Those are deep questions to be dropping on teenagers. But that’s at least one benefit that I have gained from my faith. The other thing is that my faith is very much tied to my sense of home. A lot of the community that I grew up with is also the same community that is from my church in Richmond. And so many of my values are manifested and anchored in my hometown.
And I think that’s why, for reasons I’m still untangling for myself, I feel drawn to public service, and why leaving a startup and going into the federal government was appealing. Pursuing a startup, with the buzz of “disruption” and the genesis-like claims of creation (and sometimes, eschatological echos of destruction) stands in contrast to finding a vocation where I can serve the people and communities around me.
Ashwin: I agree. I think that's also why I went to work for the government. There’s some aspect of public service being linked to the experience of grappling with questions about life and death when you’re 12. Those questions always stay with you. You can't stay happy just by working at a tech company and making ads.
Charles: The Sunday school to federal government pipeline is very real!
Eliza: I was also very involved in youth leadership, where I was responsible for large groups of my peers, from when I was fifteen or sixteen. And Unitarians tend to love principles but not necessarily rules, so I had a lot of agency and was essentially tasked with shaping my peers—in terms of their religious development, but also their opportunities for engagement in the public sphere. That responsibility definitely shaped me early on and forced me to think deeply about things like what my obligations were to different communities, and how to resolve conflict.
Then, early on in college, a friend invited me to an event at Stanford Hillel, and then I just kept going back. I did a textual study program early on and learned about the idea of tikkun olam or “repairing the world” and Talmudic debate, which felt like it mirrored the Unitarian principles I grew up with. Getting involved in the Jewish community in college was definitely an investigation into what my religious values, rituals, and of course, actual belief systems are. And in that learning process and self-interrogation, I saw how a strong obligation to public service exists across religious communities, especially when I led an alternative spring break class and trip on religious pluralism with my friend, who was raised Reform Jewish.
Charles: Yeah I think unlike Eliza, there was always this bifurcation of the public and the private life, with the public life in school and then the private life and church, which I never had any issue with. But it was an interesting dichotomy that I'm still bridging in my social relationships today.
Ashwin: Here’s another example of that bridging. I wrote a piece while a senior at Stanford as my senior column at the Stanford Daily. In my public life, like at school, I would be a bit quieter. But in my private life, I was much more talkative. I would talk in an Indian accent in one situation, then change my accent in another situation, code switching.
But I wrote about how, after going to college at Stanford, those two things got combined, and it changed. I realized that these two parts of your life are not actually separate. They're connected. I had always felt like on the outside, I had to put on a mask or fit in with other people. And then I started to lose these inhibitions and realized that I can just do whatever I think is right—that's what changed for me.
All three of you have in your own way found approaches to getting involved in civic life that are not quite the standard path. Do you have any advice for people who might be looking at this interview, seeing the paths you’ve followed, and wanting to do the same?
Charles: It took a really long time for me. I was working remotely for an AI startup for a year and a half. And so the journey we're talking about took place over that time, when I was thinking about what I valued and how I wanted to spend my time. It was then that I realized the whole traditional trajectory I was on, starting from when I was a CS major at Berkeley, wasn't actually what I was actually interested in or wanted to do. Stepping out of that college bubble was really helpful.
It also helped that I was able to do a lot of things on the side—a lot of this advocacy work is something you can do as a volunteer and just explore. I also owe a great debt to a few friends who made the jump before I did and showed me that there was this other world, this other mode of agency, that I would not have thought of if not for them.
But while I spent time working and then readjusting my course, Ashwin jumped into running for office straight from law school! How did you think about that decision?
Ashwin: Even at Stanford, one thing I did was taking lots of other classes outside of my subject area. In fact, I took some creative liberties to count all my classes towards my graduation requirements! But that really helped me because I took a lot of the liberal arts, which a normal CS major might not have taken, but gave me a wider perspective.
I had technical experience, like working in the tech sector and startups. I loved, and still love, to code, but I really wanted to do something that would help other folks and where I was most needed. That's why I started maintaining open source software, and later joined the federal government at CISA (the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency). It was an area where I felt much less replaceable. When I was an intern at Google, I was only one among thousands of engineers chipping away at a tiny and likely inconsequential piece of code. But when maintaining a popular open source software library, or working at the government, I was really doing something that was irreplaceable.
Eliza: Wow. Unlike Ashwin and Charles, I do not know how to code.
Ashwin: My time at the government was only possible because of the pandemic, as I was able to be enrolled at Stanford, home in Johns Creek, working remotely at the federal government, and also working remotely at various startups, which could not have happened otherwise.
After the rollercoaster that was the 2020 election in November—and finding myself at the forefront of our nation’s election security efforts—I decided to dedicate myself to a career of public service. I had worked with lawyers at CISA and believed a law degree was a great way to get additional context on how our systems, laws, and government work. I studied for the LSAT in December, took the LSAT in January, and applied to Georgetown in February. Through my work in law and policy, I continued to see first-hand the impact that talented technologists could have in government and public policy, in topics ranging from open source software to AI safety to false news.
But I soon realized that I could contribute even more at the state level, which often has less resources yet more opportunities for change than the federal government. This is why I worked at the GA Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, and recently decided to run for state senate. I want to give back and be a voice to focus on the issues that really matter to my communities: fully funding our education, increasing economic opportunity, reducing prices and improving access to healthcare, and public safety. And restoring integrity and expertise to our system against an incumbent who was indicted for trying to overturn our election results.
Eliza: I now work in philanthropy, at a donor-advising firm that works with a lot of large technology funders and with the California state government. While I was in college, I was more pessimistic about the tech world, and became much more positive once I moved to D.C.—due to meeting really thoughtful, public-service minded technologists like Charles and Ashwin. And it’s been fascinating to see the ripple effects of what the tech world has changed in the past ten years, especially how the rise in funders from tech—both billionaires and smaller donors through conveners like the First Principles Forum—has shaped the philanthropic world. There’s more funding for higher risk initiatives and approaches.
There’s an increased interest in funding democracy and governance work, which is what most of my background is in. More specifically, research has shown an increase in funding for tech-related sub-issues like misinformation, disinformation, and media policy, though it’s not clear how much of that new attention is coming from tech industry donors. There’s also some adjustment—every potentially effective intervention in protecting U.S. democracy can be measured with an RCT or similar measurement. Overall, I think philanthropy is headed in a positive direction.
Ashwin: One last bit about advice. A lot of people advised me not to go to law school. Many lawyers mentioned that they regretted it, because being a lawyer requires long hours or was unfulfilling; but one mentor told me law school is amazing and that I should do it. And I listened to his advice. And a similar thing happened with getting involved with politics!
So my advice would be if you are talking to a lot of people and they give you their advice, it only takes one person to tell you that a certain path is good. You can just listen to them or just listen to yourself. It’s ultimately your decision!
Eliza: Ooh, radical advice giving.
Eliza Steffen works at the intersection of philanthropy, policy, and politics at Freedman Consulting. She previously served as a Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy on the Civic Engagement and Government team at the Ford Foundation. She has attended Stanford University and is from Columbus, Ohio. She was raised in a large Unitarian Universalist congregation and now broadly practices Reform Judaism.
Charles Yang is an Energy Supply Chain Fellow at the Department of Energy (DOE). He previously worked at an artificial intelligence (AI) hardware startup and did AI for Science research. He also started a Yes In My BackYard (YIMBY) housing advocacy chapter in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia where he was born and raised. He was raised in a small Chinese-American Baptist church and is currently in seminary studying Christian theology part-time.
Ashwin Ramaswami is an editor of Reboot and is currently running for Georgia state senate in his hometown of Johns Creek, Georgia. He has a background in technology law and policy; he previously worked on election security at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. He has a Hindu religious background and is interested in Sanskrit and Vedanta philosophy. He has attended Stanford University and Georgetown University Law Center.
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Did you know that Rep. Maxwell Frost, first Gen Z member of Congress, is also a YIMBY?
One of the first reactions Charles had when he met Eliza: “I have no idea what's going to come out of your mouth next. These are so many words and phrases that I never expected to hear in the same sentence. It's kind of like an intricate chef prepared dish. There's constantly a new flavor.”
Another big influence that showed me the importance of working in state and local government was helping start the Judicial Innovation Fellowship! - Ashwin
Do reach out to the authors via their linked Twitter accounts if you’re interested in following up or pursuing related paths!
Returning to our roots,
For our readers: “YIMBY” means “Yes In My BackYard,” a movement that advocates for abundant and affordable housing through zoning reform that helps build sustainable and inclusive communities.
BIL - Bipartisan Infrastructure Law; CHIPS - CHIPS and Science Act; IRA - Inflation Reduction Act.
Reach out if you’re interested in helping promote e-bike adoption!