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6 unexpected historical figures with the civic hacker mindset

Catherine Bracy works at Code for America, where civic hackers help their cities. Here, she points out historical figures who fit the definition of "civic hacker." Photo: Ryan Lash

Catherine Bracy works at Code for America, where civic hackers help their cities. Here, she points out historical figures who fit the definition of “civic hacker.” Photo: Ryan Lash

By Catherine Bracy

Hacking has always been an important component of healthy democracies. Despite the bad connotation the word often has these days — indicating rogue criminals breaking into computer systems, stealing identities, spying or worse — hacking is really just any amateur innovation on an existing system. And that “system” doesn’t have to be a technical one. Civic hacking, then, is when citizens see something in the public realm they think can work better and decide to take it upon themselves to push for change. It’s about creating something bigger than the sum of its parts. (You can read about the supposed origin of the word here.)

Catherine Bracy: Why good hackers make good citizens Catherine Bracy: Why good hackers make good citizens In the talk I gave at TEDCity2.0, I called Benjamin Franklin possibly the greatest American civic hacker of all time — not just because he was a prolific inventor, but also because he took his curiosity for innovation into the public realm. He created the first volunteer firefighting brigade, in Philadelphia, because he saw that the city was ill-equipped to tackle its many fires on its own.

Though Franklin may be the greatest American civic hacker he’s certainly not the only one. Here are a few other citizens who saw a system in need of fixing and decided to make it better for everyone’s good:

  • Alexander Hamilton: My favorite founding father, Hamilton anticipated the biggest threats to the nascent United States and took it upon himself to make sure they were addressed. He was a main instigator for the Constitutional Convention and famously drafted the Federalist Papers, creating the political will to get the Constitution passed. After that, he set up the financial systems that allowed America to become financially independent from Europe and became our first Treasury Secretary.
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  • Johnny Appleseed: The original guerrilla gardener, John Chapman is a legend for spreading diverse apple species across the American midwest. But his movement was more than about planting trees — he was also spreading a message of civic responsibility for land and nature, and helped spawn the conservation movement.
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  • Harriet Tubman: One of the architects of the Underground Railroad — possibly the greatest civic hack of all time — Tubman was committed to ending slavery. Rather than wait for Congress to take up abolition, she and a network of hundreds freed thousands of slaves by hacking the system.
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  • Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez: The mother and father of the modern labor movement, together they basically invented grassroots, networked organizing. Any good civic hacker knows you can’t get much done without a good organizing strategy. They’re also the inspiration for some of the most empowering grassroots movements of modern times, from gay marriage to the DREAM Act.

Those are just a few of many Americans who saw a way their communities and their country could be better and decided to hack the system to make it better. At Code for America, we’re trying to inspire the next generation of civic hackers by adding technology to our toolbelt. We hope you’ll come join us.

Catherine Bracy is the director of community organizing at Code for America. Read much more about the organization, including how to get involved »