CIVICIST: Civic Hall Got Me Out of My Apartment and Out of My Pajamas

The story of how the NYC Veterans Alliance was founded was the subject of the CIVICIST blog post listed below, written by Founding Director Kristen Rouse:


Kristen, center, holding the pen used to sign legislation creating an independent Department of Veterans Services for New York City.

This blog post is adapted from a short address given by Kristen Rouse, one of four Civic Hall member-honorees, at our first year anniversary party February 1. Rouse is a three-term Afghanistan veteran who founded and runs the NYC Veterans Alliance. The other members honored for their accomplishments this past year are Chana Ewing of littlebigGirl + CO, Marek Banczyk of Cityglobe, and Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead.

I joined Civic Hall last June when I heard about the Craigconnects scholarship for veterans. I had no income from any of my advocacy work, and I was overwhelmed with writing and editing the first ever in-depth report on NYC veterans policy. It was a lonely process that mostly involved me sitting by myself in pajamas in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, feeling isolated and like I might never see any of this through.

The Craigconnects veterans scholarship got me into Civic Hall, and Civic Hall got me out of my apartment and out of my pajamas, and interacting with a community that—even though most of you aren’t veterans—could definitely understand what I was going through.

Since then, I’ve managed to build an organization and a team of veterans like Elma [Sanchez], Sam [Innocent], and Javier [Alvarado], and bring in service providers and civilian supporters, too. We now have more than 150 dues paying members—including Craig Newmark, who made all of our work here possible to begin with.

Because of Civic Hall, I learned about NationBuilder, and chose that as the online platform we’ve used for our website and for outreach to the NYC veterans community. We’ve also used it to create a consolidated Community Calendar that since August has listed more than 250 events for veterans across the New York Metro area—something that never existed before.

Civic Hall has been where we’ve brought members and stakeholders to talk about policy issues that matter to them. Last December, some of you came to our Policy Design Workshop, where veterans who’ve served in every era since Vietnam were able to collaborate in a new way to solve problems for our community. I wasn’t sure how to put on a design workshop, but when I mentioned it to [Civic Hall’s] Jenn Shaw, she connected me with Ange Royal-Kahin from Engine, who showed our team of veterans how to do it and make it a success.

We had some major wins in 2015, with our biggest being the passage of legislation creating an independent Department of Veterans Services for NYC, which we had strongly advocated for in 2015. I got to stand behind Mayor de Blasio in the signing ceremony at the Intrepid last December, and I received the first pen he used to sign that bill into law. Afterward, I was proud to come to Civic Hall and tell this community about our victory—and to show off that pen. Because this community understands how big of a win that is, and how hard we worked to get there.

But we’re not just telling you about our success—you’re taking part in it. We’re developing partnerships with [fellow Civic Hall members] Melanie [Lavelle] from Benefit Kitchen and David [Moore] from Councilmatic, and I’ve personally benefited from webinars put on by Rhize, and we’re getting involved in VoteRunLead to hopefully get women veterans into elected office. (And we want our veteran men in office, too!) All of this, I hope, is just the beginning of having veterans involved as an integral part of the civic tech movement.

Just two weeks ago, Ed Potter, Civic Hall’s Slack evangelist, got us to start our own Slack team—and I’m becoming a Slack evangelist, too. In just two weeks, we have more than 40 of our members talking about veterans policy issues on a bunch of channels, and I even have Vietnam veterans on there taking the lead on the conversation.

I’d like to give special thanks of course to Craig Newmark, and to Jenn [Shaw], Ellen [Mendlow], Marissa [Mlotek], Jo [Ladzinski], and the other amazing staff at Civic Hall for believing in me and connecting me and my team with this great community. Here’s to many more years of Civic Hall changing the game for veterans and for our city, country, and world.