“The Unique Position Of Women In Tech To Drive Political Change”: Shawna Martell with Carta (Video + Transcript)

March 19, 2024

Politics is everywhere, but many of us feel disconnected or uncertain about how to meaningfully engage. How can women in tech bridge the gap and make a difference? Shawna Martell (Carta Senior Staff Engineer) shares her journey from novice to community leader, working at the intersection of technology and community organizing. By sharing practical examples based on her own experiences, Shawna showcases the power of leveraging technology to implement solutions for political campaigns and community organizations. Learn how women in tech can use their skills to move our communities forward today.


In her ELEVATE session, Shawna Martell, a Senior Staff Engineer at Carta and a political volunteer, shares her personal journey of getting involved in politics and how women in technology can drive political change in their communities. She emphasizes the importance of showing up, getting involved in local grassroots organizations, and using technical skills to support political causes.

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Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Shawna Martell: I want to start today with something of a disclaimer because I’m going to be upfront. We’re going to talk about politics today, and I know that can be a little bit dicey, so I’m afraid that your imagination is going to something that maybe looks a little bit like this. I love this picture because it’s completely ridiculous, and the guy on the left is really having, I think, a pretty rough day. I don’t blame you if this is what you think of when I say being involved in politics, because if you go to almost any stock art website, you’re going to get a lot of pictures that look exactly like this. Before I was involved, honestly, this was what my imagination would go to as well.

Now that I’ve been doing this work for a while, though, I can tell you it looks a lot more like this. It’s about people, community, and conversations, more spreadsheets than I ever could have imagined, and an innumerable number of clipboards, and, at least to date, I haven’t experienced any boxing gloves, so that’s good. But I want to talk to you about today is, based on my experience, how we, as women in technology, are uniquely situated to drive political change in our communities. I want to do that by taking you on my personal journey from knowing literally nothing, I’ll show you just how literally nothing I knew, to being part of the leadership team for one of the fastest-growing county political parties in the state of Illinois, and it’s been a really exciting journey.

Let me introduce myself first, though. I am Shawna Martell. I do have a day job at Carta. I want to stress, nothing I’m talking about today has anything to do with my employer. I don’t mix my work and my politics. I definitely don’t want to right now. In my off time, I am a perpetual political volunteer. You’ll find me knocking doors, making phone calls. I’m an elected precinct committee person, and I serve on multiple boards and steering committees for both partisan and non-partisan political causes. You’ll see a list of some of the places I’ve had the privilege of working with here. I also want to stress, nothing I’m talking about today should be considered as coming from any of these wonderful organizations either. We’re going to be talking about my personal experience and opinions in doing my work in politics.

At the risk of stating at least some of the probably fairly painfully obvious, I am a white, cis, straight, middle-class, middle-aged woman, and I know that that gives me a bunch of privilege to show up in places that more marginalized communities have a much harder time, and I want to acknowledge that. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have a partner who is all in on this work. I have to give a shout-out to my husband, of almost 18 years. This is Joshua. This is a picture of us at 4:00 in the morning delivering yard signs to polling locations. He is a very patient man. We don’t have any kids, we don’t have any pets, so he keeps our household running, and often you’ll find him finishing dinner, running me a plate in between finishing my day work and moving on to some political meeting in the evening.

I know that my lived experience is different and that not all of us get to participate in US elections. Maybe you don’t live in the United States. Maybe in your community, there isn’t a space that is super welcoming to you. I know that those things are real, and it’s a bunch of work and a bunch of labor, but if you can find some other like-minded folks and you’re in that situation where there isn’t a place that’s welcoming to you, I’d encourage you to see if you can take on the immense amount of labor it is to create one because our communities really, really need us and our skills.

So I told you I was going to tell you my story. I’m going to start at the beginning. For the first probably 30 years or so of my life, I was really just politically apathetic, except for this brief period in high school where I decided I was going to run for president, and I really can’t tell you why. So I decided to have a mock… We had a mock election in my high school, and I was going to run a write-in campaign against Al Gore and George W. Bush, and please don’t do the math to figure out how old that makes me because it’s distressing sometimes. It’s fine. I won in a landslide. This was not super surprising because there were only seven people in my graduating class, but after this brief foray into whatever in the world this was, I stopped paying attention, and I stopped paying attention for a really long time.

It wasn’t until the presidential election in the United States in 2016 that I decided I needed to be involved again. It wouldn’t take you too long on Google to figure out that I am now an elected Democrat. So, to put it mildly, the results of the 2016 presidential election were not exactly as I’d hoped they’d be. I wanted to get involved, and I had literally no idea where to start. Literally none. It just so happened that across my Facebook came a campaign event for a city council candidate. Great. I was going to figure out if I should vote for this city council person and maybe even figure out what in the world City Council does. I showed up to this event. I didn’t know that there were districts in the city council. Yeah, this person was running in a part of town that I didn’t live. I couldn’t vote for them, even if I wanted to.

When I say I knew literally nothing, I knew literally nothing, but I kept showing up. They were very helpful to explain to me that I probably wasn’t doing this right, but I kept showing up for events. I would literally just scroll through Facebook looking for political events that I could show up to, and I started going to this local grassroots organization in central Illinois called The People’s Agenda. They were focused on voter education and voter engagement and helping people understand how local government worked, which I knew I definitely didn’t know those things. One day, while one of the organizers was talking, they mentioned almost in passing how they were struggling with collaborating on files. They’d been using email. The organization was growing. This wasn’t working very well for them anymore. I went up to one of the organizers afterwards and I said, “I could help you set up a shared drive if that’s something that would be useful to you so that maybe it’d be easier for you to do this collaboration.”

That was a really simple conversation, and I look back on it now, it’s been almost seven years. That was the beginning of my community organizing work. It was a simple conversation about, what to me, wasn’t a super complicated technical problem. I definitely did not know about voting, or government, or politics, but I did understand how to set up shared drives, and they had people who knew all this other stuff, but they could use a hand with some of their technology. One of those organizers, her name was Michelle, and I say, everybody needs a Michelle in their life because she believed in me and she saw something in me. I don’t know why. She sponsored me in becoming the volunteer coordinator for The People’s Agenda. I was like, “Great. I don’t know what that means, but sure, yes, Michelle, I will do this work.”

It turns out a lot of the problems they were having with volunteer coordination were actually just technical issues. They needed some piece of software that would help them understand, “Okay, which volunteers are scheduled for which events? Did they show up? Do they know when they’re supposed to show up and when and where?” So I did what I do in my day job. When I’m doing a build versus buy analysis or when I’m comparing multiple vendors, I look at different software solutions, I understand the costs, the pros and the cons, and the trade-offs, and then I put together the options for a wide variety of folks, some of them more technical than others. This experience was exactly the same as that, and I brought the options to the organizers, and we were able to make an educated decision. And, then, since I’d been doing the research on these software solutions, I was able to provide training and support as we adopted them.

This is something I’m going to say several times. Having the vocabulary to take in the information about software, especially software documentation, and understand different technical solutions, these sorts of skills can be incredibly helpful to these kinds of organizations, and it’s not just when they’re getting started, because as these organizations grow, they need to change and adapt. You end up doing this iterative process over and over so that you can meet those needs as they change. So in my experience, listening to Michelle was a good idea, and she encouraged me to take the next big step in my political experience. She told me to run for office. She told me to run for precinct committee. She said, “You’re going to be a PC.” And I said, “I don’t know what that means.” And that was okay. She said I needed 10 petition signatures. I figured I could manage that, and then I was going to be on the ballot.

I did that. I won in another landslide this time because I ran unopposed, and now I was elected to a thing I didn’t entirely understand, but that was okay. I had help. I had people around me who were willing to coach me and help me understand, “Okay, now that you’ve got this job to help the voters in your precinct, what in the world does that look like?” It probably looked like what you think of if you think about doing political volunteering. It meant I did a lot of door-knocking, made a lot of phone calls, wrote a lot of letters, but I also used technology when I was doing this work as PC.

If you talk to a precinct committee person just about anywhere in the United States, they probably use a piece of software that is pretty common to manage who to talk to in your precinct and keep track of history of conversations. This software is incredibly powerful. It’s not always the most user-friendly, but the documentation is really, really nice. So I started this work as PC, and I knew I needed to learn how to use this software. I read the documentation, figured it out, and then I was able to help other PCs who needed to learn this software too. I am not a data scientist by any stretch of the imagination. I can understand a basic data set and do some very simple analysis, but that’s about it. If you do have a data science background, that sort of work is so incredibly useful when you’re doing work as a precinct committee person because you want to be able to understand what’s happening in your precinct and how is it changing over time.

This last one I end up doing in just about every organization that I work with, and I used to do web development in a previous life as a day job, but I actually tend to do stuff that’s a lot simpler for these sorts of organizations because I want to be able to pass it off. Often, a Google site with some drag-and-drop, especially for something that doesn’t have a web presence, is all you really need, and that’s something that you can easily teach somebody else how to maintain going forward. So after I’d been doing this PC work for a while, I found myself in this situation where I was literally mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to do voter registration in the county, and it was very exciting and it was very intimidating.

There were technical aspects, like the volunteer coordination work I was talking about before, that came into play here. But what I found was particularly interesting was how, at least in my experience, being a woman doing this work was really useful. I won’t pretend to understand why this is, but very practically, what this looks like is, you get a whole bunch of volunteers in a room, you explain to them the work they need to do, you hand them a clipboard, and you send them out to do the work. Inevitably, some of them have questions, and I don’t know why, but volunteers were more likely to come ask me a question or one of the other women or non-binary organizers than they were to ask the men, at least in my experience. My husband Joshua is often with me when I’m doing this work, and he is just as equipped to answer questions as I am, but he could see he was less likely to get approached. So I don’t know why this is, but this was a spot where, specifically being a woman, I found to be really helpful.

Let’s just recap. In 2016, I went to an event that was for city council, and I didn’t know what city council did or how it worked. By 2019, a friend of mine said, “I’m going to run for city council. Will you help me?” And I said, “Sure, I’ve never done any campaign work, but we’ll figure it out.” My friend AJ ran a fantastic campaign. He lost, but we all learned so much in this experience of trying to get a campaign off the ground. I’ve never worked at the very beginnings of a startup, but the entire time we were trying to launch this campaign, I wished that I had. So if you have experience getting a startup off the ground, I encourage you, find a campaign in your area. I bet they will be delighted to have you, especially if it’s one of these super local campaigns like city council or school board, because you have to set up a bunch of internal communication tools and external communication tools and a zillion other things that we just had to figure out as we went along because we’d never done this before.

In 2020, I was asked to take on, by far, the biggest challenge I had done to date. I was asked to join the leadership for the Champaign County Democratic Party. Champaign County has more than 200,000 people, and there were six of us on the executive committee. I was terrified, and I immediately started looking around for like, “Okay, what skills can I bring to bear in this role?” And it was wild how stuff I did at work came into play here again. When you’re doing county party work, a bunch of it is just really bureaucracy. Some of it’s literally in state law about what you can and can’t do and how you need to do it. We hadn’t inherited a ton of information from the previous administration. I don’t know why. So we had to figure out a bunch of this stuff on our own.

I went into the mode that I go into when I’m figuring out what we need to build in software. I started gathering requirements, I solicited feedback, and I built artifacts. In this case, the artifacts weren’t software. There were a bunch of spreadsheets and checklists, but the process was exactly the same. In the end, we were able to streamline a bunch of really important workflows to ensure that we were maintaining consistent and transparent processes. Because when you’re doing things like slating candidates to appear on the ballot or making recommendations to fill county board vacancies, you want to make sure that those processes are very clear, transparent, and repeatable. I also did some work helping them set up social media tooling.

Now, I am not a content creator by any stretch of the imagination. So if you do content creation, if you’re a graphic designer, if you like to build infographics and stuff, places will be clamoring for you. That is a really, really important skill. I can’t do that, but I could set up social media tooling to make it easier for our content creators to stay engaged. When they had trouble, I was able to help them troubleshoot the software that they were using. I did this work for about two years, and then, actually, I moved out of Champaign and I moved to the Chicago area, and I got started again up north. I’m running for precinct committee person again. I’ll be on the ballot. It’s in less than two weeks. I think I’ll win again because I’m running unopposed again.

I also have found work doing volunteer coordination for a state rep candidate in town, and I’ve been serving on multiple boards and steering committees both for partisan and nonpartisan causes up here in the Chicagoland area, and it’s been really, really exciting. Some of the stuff I love to do is train other volunteers so that they can figure out how to do their very best work. I also get to do really, really cool stuff like this. I love the opportunity to get to talk with and learn from our elected officials. I’ve gotten to meet senators and governors. One of my most treasured memories of this experience is, I was having a conversation with Illinois Governor Pritzker, and he asked me to tell him about my experience as a woman in technology. He was so interested and he was so engaged, and it’s really beyond my wildest dreams that I get to do this work.

That’s me. That’s my story. I hope that you found something in here to convince you that our skills are needed right now. The things that we know how to do today, those things are valuable to the political organizations and our communities. So I want to leave you with just a few suggestions. If you’re excited to get started, what might you do? Step zero, show up. When I say show up, I mean show up anywhere. Show up for a campaign that’s not in the part of town that you live. It worked for me. Go to a city council meeting. If you’re not comfortable going in person, find it online.

Listen to your elected officials. What are they saying? What are they concerned about? What are they doing that you want to understand better? And then reach out to them. They represent you. Make sure they understand where you are on the issues that are important to you. If you really want to jump in with both feet, join your local political party or grassroots organization. In my experience, these places are delighted to have new people, and they will be so excited to get you engaged and started right away. It could be that you end up using your special skills even sooner than you think. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I am so excited to be at ELEVATE. Thank you.

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