Rebekah Monson Connects Citizens to Their Cities to Build Better Communities

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LSU graduate Rebekah Monson, a speaker at TEDxLSU 2018, works at the intersection of technology, journalism and civic engagement. The Miami resident co-founded the media startup WhereBy.Us, which is dedicated to connecting people to their communities through storytelling, civic hacking and experiences. WhereBy.Us has two current publications: Seattle’s The Evergrey and Miami’s The New Tropic. By fostering civic engagement, Rebekah hopes to create better cities and better citizens.

We recently chatted with Rebekah to discuss her life and work. Read some of the highlights of the conversation below.

What is civic hacking?

Civic hacking is working as volunteers to make technology that’s better for your community or government in an open and collaborative way. Civic hackers are programmers, designers, data scientists, communication folks, organizers, entrepreneurs and sometimes government employees who are interested in solving problems of citizens and government.

What is WhereBy.Us?

It started as a volunteer group that was a nerd meet-up where we could find solutions to big city problems. Over time, we realized there were young people excited about working in and leading their cities but weren’t sure how to plug in. WhereBy.Us grew out of that grassrootsy, civic volunteering spirit. Now we do a daily local email newsletter to help people keep up with what’s happening in growing cities, how things are changing and how they can get involved. We also do local journalism and events to bridge communities.

How have you mixed journalism and technology?

When I was at LSU, our class built a website explaining the state budget. I was always really interested in the possibilities of journalism online, and I’ve been building websites since high school. I quit my journalism job and enrolled in an interactive media program at University of Miami because I wanted to build up my skills and use them for journalism. After that, I started Code for Miami, which is a civic hacking group. I also started a local chapter of Hacks/Hackers, which is a tech meetup for journalists, designers, developers and data people who come together to learn about technology and journalism. I was doing community engagement because I missed that part of my job. I liked keeping up with how where I was living was changing.

When I started WhereBy.Us, I put a lot more of those skills into practice. I built the sites, made interactive timelines, maps and data stories as well as games and quizzes about local news. Now we have a tech team who does all of that stuff way better than I do, but I will always love that work. All work is tech work these days, especially in fields like media, where tech dictates everything about how your users interact with your work.

What do you think is one of the most compelling stories from your publications?

In the 2016 elections, Seattle voted 70-30 Clinton and had a hard time making sense of the election, so our editors at The Evergrey organized a trip to visit Sherman County in Oregon, which voted the exact opposite in favor of Trump. It’s a rural agricultural community with fewer people. They had detailed discussions about politics and why people voted the way they did. We hear about how bad political discourse has gotten, but the Sherman County trip showed that if we facilitate conversation instead of just throwing out narratives, we can get interesting results.

How does your current work contrast to your experience in journalism?

As a reporter, you’re taught to stay back and not have any opinions. It’s interesting to hand the reins over to users and the community to drive what the story is. We’ve been able to incorporate our community into storytelling and allow them to drive what we’re writing and reporting — and we’re able to help them experience something new.

What’s your talk about?

It’s about how millennials are changing the world and how our work is trying to get them active and engaged in leading their city.

How do you prepare for big challenges or events?

I love people and new experiences, so it doesn’t take a lot for me to get excited about something new. I like having folks along for the ride, so inviting friends, making sure we’re experiencing something together gets me going.

What’s something most people would be surprised to know about you?

I’m obsessed with Harry Potter. My first dog’s name was Potter. My dog now is named Albus. I got to go with my nephew last year to Harry Potter World and I was as excited as he was, if not more.

What’s your alternate-reality career?

I’ve been lucky because my career has been multidimensional. I’ve gotten to work in tech and tell stories. Every day, I’m falling in love with some new thing. As I get older, I have more patience and interest in learning things that stretch my brain harder.

If you could switch jobs with another speaker, who would it be and why?

Juliet Brophy or Julie Butler because that work seems incredibly fascinating. Everytime I talk to anthropologists or archeologists, I think what awesome jobs they have. But then the whole science of understanding how animals communicate is fascinating too. If I could switch places with one of them for a day, I think I’d be pretty psyched.

To learn more about Rebekah or TEDxLSU 2018, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Reserve your seat now to listen to the fireside chat, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2018 speakers.