Hi. I’m Noel Hidalgo and am the cofounder of BetaNYC. This month, I’m going to tell you a personal story that guides me on how I look at leadership within BetaNYC’s activities.
If you ask me how I’m doing, I will say, “Ok. I miss my family dearly, but I have hope.”
In the summer of 2008, I was a New York City yellow cab driver in the morning and part-time project manager at night. I could barely pay my rent, buy food, or spend time with my friends. On September 11, 2008, I was laid off from the project manager bit and spent the rest of that year begging for freelance jobs to buy food.
In the air that fall, HOPE was everywhere. It was on murals, t-shirts, buttons; it was graffitied across the streets in a way we could not escape. Our national economy was collapsing, and a national election was looming. Xenophobia, the loss of liberties, and 8 years of war on terror were very prevalent. Lower Manhattan’s scars were on every subway map. Yet, people who wanted change held hope close to their hearts. For my friends and I, we organized to support each other, and plan that our hope would build enough momentum to carry us forward into a new year.
That fall, my friends and I built Twitter Vote Report (TVR). It is hard to believe now, but we built a tool, on top of Twitter, that functioned as an election protection tool! Through October, we funneled our hope that everyone’s votes would be counted, an election wouldn’t be stolen, and our liberal democracy would continue. TVR generated more than 12,545 submissions, marshaled more than 7,500 contributors, and involved nearly 20 highly skilled volunteers and partners. In the dark days of October 2008, I met a cast of characters that would later on organize the first few meetups that would eventually become BetaNYC’s meetup account. That fall, we banked on hope.
The days from November till January are short. The nights are long and dark. When you don’t know when your next paycheck will come in, each day becomes more painful than the day before. I know that pain.
From September till January and unable to file for unemployment, I ate one meal a day, prayed that I didn’t fall ill, worked whatever job I could find, and biked wherever I needed to go — I couldn’t afford a subway pass. I turned 30 in 2008; the scars of that stress and those feelings of failure have never left me.
Twelve years later, my partner and I have mourned the lost friends to covid complications. We bear witness to the economic depression our family members and friends are facing. We volunteer to support the performing arts community and carefully map out which local business to support. We read daily updates on friends forced to relocate, and know many are quietly suffering. Also, we, like many of you, are burnt out by Wednesday.
The last few months, our professional and local communities have buoyed my hope. I have witnessed my North Brooklyn neighbors come together to distribute food and school supplies, clean parks, ensure our open streets program doesn’t falter, develop a neighborhood composting program, and march in unity for economic and social justice.
At the same time, BetaNYC used its limited resources to support our municipal neighbors. We retooled our post-fellowship program into a public interest technology apprenticeship. Former fellows are continuing their careers and using their skills to build tools for neighbors. This summer, we built resources with Hunter’s Food Policy Center so our neighbors could find food. We guided elected officials and community boards to use virtual meeting tools and conduct elections virtually. It is vitally important that accurate information and neighborhood issues are addressed. We helped our partners at the Department of Education’s CS for All host their third Hack League which enabled middle and high school students to express their needs with open data. We revamped our digital and data literacy trainings to serve a virtual audience and continued offering classes to CUNY students and the general public. Lastly, we reorganized our support structure to provide research and data assistance requests (RADARs) for all elected officials, community boards, and community based organizations.
Today, like the dark days of twelve years ago, I wake up with equal parts dread and hope. I mourn for what is lost and will never be replaced. Today, 3 December, we’ve reached a grim and morbid milestone, and yet the news says things are likely to get worse. New York City has lost 25,000 souls whom we have been unable to mourn through our traditional customs. My heart breaks everyday for what we are losing.
Everyday, I scour news sites to read coverage of peer reviewed experiments. I take each day as it comes, and look for the light just over the horizon. The news of three vaccine candidates in the US and six globally is great news. This month, proven vaccines will be distributed. Soon, competent and coordinated leadership will arrive in Washington. Hope is on its way.
In 2021, I have hope that I will see my parents, brother and sister-in-law, niece and nephew, uncles, and hold their hands without fear of transmitting an illness. I have hope that I will see my friends for dinner and see their smiles. I have hope that we can share in New York’s greatest joy, theater and the performing arts. I have hope that we will take concrete steps toward a stronger democracy.
In 2021, New Yorkers will have a chance to set a new direction for our municipal government. In 2018, we changed our City charter to improve our municipal democracy. In 2021, we will use rank choice voting in the primary and an enhanced public financing system to diversify our City’s leadership. On Jan 1, 2022, oaths of office will be given to the Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, District Attorneys, Borough Presidents, and over 50% of our City Council, who will themselves be selecting a new Speaker. I have hope we will elect leaders for the 21st Century and our digital era.
My hope for 2021 starts with a new cohort of Civic Innovation Fellows, our CUNY Service Corps fellows whom we introduce to the career of public interest technology. 2021 will be our seventh cohort with the Manhattan Borough President. Then, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, we will co-host Open Data Week 2021 — our fifth and first virtual week. For seven days, we will unpack the most pressing issues and demystify open data.
School of Data 2021 will be different — it will be a continuous thread inside of Open Data Week as Home School of Data. BetaNYC’s staff and our open data friends will present to you the very best of public interest technology, design, and empower you with open data classes, workshops, demonstrations, discussions, and keynotes.
I have hope for 2021. I have hope that ‘21 in ‘21 will balance our City Council’s gender imbalance. I have hope we will have an open conversation about race, gender expression, and the biases we can correct. I have hope that we will elect justice oriented district attorneys that recognize that addiction is a health issue and move resources into housing and treatment, not incarceration. I have hope that our State Legislators will act on their veto proof majority and provide much needed relief to the 100,000s across the state desperate for rent relief.
I have hope that we will elect a Mayor who has the guts to reorient our budget and invest in our communities, housing, small businesses, health, mobility, education, our public spaces, and our resilience to the climate crisis. I have hope for a new era of small, local businesses. I have hope that our next Mayor will reform how municipal technology is funded, procured, and designed. I have hope that Agency commissioners will see digital services as paramount to the services of their agency. I have hope that NYC will have a digital content management system designed for this century, not the last. I have hope that community boards will continue their digital transformations and become more representative of the communities they claim to represent. I have hope that we will build a better, more equitable mass transit system, and build an interlocking network of protected bike lanes. I have hope that we will lay out the groundwork for a municipal internet that enables all to be connected.
I have hope that the suffering of the last eight months, and that the suffering of the next, will not be in vain.
While the future is unwritten, I hope to see you soon, look into your eyes, see your smile, and say “we made it to today!! How are you doing?”
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