I recently had the chance to speak with Brian Purchia of Act Locally SF, a website sponsored by Mayor Gavin Newsom which gives San Francisco residents a platform to share their ideas about policy and local issues. The website is brand new, it launched last week and is already filled with insightful articles and blogs about current issues including homelessness, sustainability, and public transportation.
CB: Can you tell me more about Act Locally SF and how it came about?
BP: The idea behind it is that politicians don’t necessarily have the best ideas for forming policy . We feel that average San Franciscans have great ideas and we want to get them involved in forming the policy that will shape the future. The site gives San Franciscans the opportunity to voice their opinion on a variety of issues and also come up with solutions for issues like homelessness, potholes, you name it. We’re trying to find the best ideas out there and let people decide which ideas they think we should move forward on.
CB: How are you getting people to the site?
BP: Right now we’re just starting off, we launched on Thursday, so it’s very new, we’re still tinkering with stuff, it’s like the Google beta stage, we’re adding things and taking them away. We sent out an email to San Franciscans asking them to get involved with the site, that was one way. We’ll start doing some advertising, we started on Google. Our best advertising really is the mayor, getting him to talk about it. When he’s in front of the camera or in a meeting with local residents we try to have him tell people that we want them on the site to help shape policies. But the way that we’re really going to get this to grow is by word of mouth.
CB: So you guys just launched on Thursday, congratulations!
BP: Thank you.
CB: All the content you have on the site right now, is it written by editors or…?
BP: No, all the topics and blogs are user-generated content. The idea that we don’t have the best ideas is what we believe in, so we’re reaching out to other people to write the policies, to write the articles, to write the blogs. We have two sections, where we write, (the people from the campaign), in Talking Points, Taking Action, but the vast majority of content is written by other people, who aren’t affiliated with the campaign.
CB: It’s really interesting how similar our two sites are.
BP: Yes, it’s the same concept; I’ve come to the realization that it’s the way of the future. We’re just getting started.
CB: It is about creating a community online.
BP: It is, and it’s not the easiest thing to do, as you probably know too, but you have to get started somewhere. You hope that you’re doing a good job; you hope that it grows, you hope that people like it. We think that people care about politics and care about their city so…
CB: Now, is Act Locally SF eventually going to be an “Act Locally” in every city of the US or is it specific to San Francisco?
BP: Well you know, we’re starting it here. We think it’s a great idea, and people we talk to think it’s a great idea as well. We would like it to go that route, but what we care about first and foremost is San Francisco. So we’re trying it here and hope it catches on.
CB: When you say “we” who do you mean?
BP: It’s a campaign website, it’s funded by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign. He’s a strong proponent of the idea, he’s always looking for new ideas, it’s a great way to get these new ideas in front of him. We hope that this will exist after the campaign, that it does become a model as a way to form policy.
CB: Interesting… so what’s your role specifically with Act Locally SF?
BP: Well I’m the editor of the site, so I help get content for the site, which means I serve as a policy advisor as well, trying to get people to write on different topics, and find people who have an interesting viewpoint and get them involved on the site. Same thing with bloggers, I try to get bloggers involved as well, but also what the site looks like, how it operates, how it functions, and all that kind of nitty-gritty stuff too. I also shoot the video at different events.
CB: Brian, what’s your background and when did you become involved in politics?
BP: I’ve always loved politics, it’s always been the conversation piece around my house, my grandfather and my mom talked about it, and I was always interested. When I was in college I majored in International Relations, with a Political Science minor, I graduated in 2002. It’s always something I’ve cared deeply about. I knew I wanted to work and live in DC for a while, and right after college I got a job in DC working as a broadcast journalist for Voice of America. [Here’s a story Brian did on the only African American Rugby team in the US.] I was involved in policy and media, Voice of America is a government-run agency, I’ve been in political media since I’ve started working. So I worked in DC for a little over three years, doing a nightly TV show as a reporter, interviewing senators, congressmen, going to hearings.
I came out to California about a year and a half ago, my fiancée wanted to go to law school so she brought me to California with her. I didn’t know what I was going to do out here, so I got into local TV in Sacramento for awhile, for Fox 40, I didn’t like that at all.
I got into mobile media about this time last year. A year ago, I started a job developing a mobile television network. A lot of money was being thrown at people watching TV on their cell phones, like Mobi TV. So I got a job with this company called WeatherNews, which is a Japanese company that wanted to put American content on cell phones. I was in charge of a production team and they sent me to Japan, to make American content. I was in Japan from April until July.
CB: Making American content, you mean American TV shows or…?
BP: Yes, little TV clips, or shorts.
CB: Did you have professional American actors while you were shooting in Japan?
BP: We had a studio with a green screen, that’s how their studio was set up. I went over there with an editor, a designer, and an anchor. And we would do a daily feed on weather-related topics, it was a little random but it was a fun experience. They wanted me to stay, and I decided over the summer I wanted to get into politics. I’d always known that I wanted to be on the political side of things, so I got a job running a campaign called, “Flunk Arnold,” which was an online video-driven, user-generated content site. We got college students from the CSU (California State University) system to create short 30-second commercials making fun of Arnold for not having a good education track record.
BP: It’s in the news a lot right now with CSUs and CFA (California Faculty Association) it looks like there’s going to be a strike. Anyway, I got that off the ground and from there I moved on to the Newsom campaign.
CB: So I imagine that this is one of many efforts in the campaign?
BP: It is definitely one of many, but it is a major thing, we’re trying something new that we’re trying to accomplish, a lot of energy is being put into it.
CB: Do you work directly with the rest of the campaigning efforts?
BP: I do.
CB: It must be quite a fascinating experience.
BP: It is, it’s a lot of weekend work and what have you, but it’s great, I’ve never worked on a campaign per-say before and I really wanted to.
CB: Tell me more about your experience in Japan.
BP: It was awesome! I don’t know if you follow baseball at all?
CB: Uh, not really.
BP: I’m a big baseball fan,
CB: They love baseball in Japan!
BP: Yes, they love baseball there. I was in a city called Makuhari, this is where the championship team from the Japanese baseball league plays. The former NY Mets manager is the current coach of this Japanese team, so that was pretty cool, I got to go to a lot of games. Going to a Japanese baseball game is like the happiest place on earth, it’s incredible. Everyone cheers for every single player, they all know the players, and they stand the whole time. There are beer girls that run around the stadium with kegs of beer on their back, they have fire work shows at the seventh inning…everyone lives by the book during the day, and it’s just incredible to see them going wild. There’s no negative cheering or anything like that, it’s just not allowed and not done, and after the game they have a concert outside the stadium and the players come out and they’re singing and there’s craziness and that of course leads to karaoke, it’s awesome. John Denver, they love John Denver. You wouldn’t think that but…
CB: Actually I would, I’m not surprised. I spent seven months in Vietnam last year, and the music the people loved and gravitated towards surprised me at first, but I ended up loving them as much as they did.
BP: The number of times I sang, “Country Road,”
CB: At the top of your lungs?
BP: Yeah, at 4 or 5 in the morning…
CB: Feeling the happiest you’ve ever felt…
BP: Then the next day everyone comes to work and sleeps, Japanese think that you’re a good worker because you’re always working and you’re sleeping because you work so hard.
CB: People just sleep at their desk…
BP: Oh yeah, people just pass out all over the place.
CB: That’s hilarious! They do the same thing in Vietnam, but they have official naptime. I called it “national naptime,” but it was true! You would go somewhere and people would be sleeping in all kinds of positions on any kind of surface.
BP: They stay there until ten o’clock or so, so they have to nap. What were you doing in Vietnam?
CB: I was teaching English and traveling.
BP: Ah. There were a lot of people teaching English in Japan as well. My buddy works for Reebok and he goes to Vietnam all the time.
CB: There’s a pretty significant ex-pat community both in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City.
BP: So how was that? It must have been pretty cool.
CB: It was. I have to say it was probably one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences, on many levels. So, while you were working with WeatherNews, creating American content, were you working directly with a Japanese crew as well?
BP: Yes, it was pretty ridiculous. We had a three-man crew over there, so it was me as the producer person, the host, another person who helped create the graphics and do some other things, but getting them to operate the cameras directly, it was a challenge! I learned a couple words, but it was tough, I’ll be honest, it was tough.
CB: I can completely relate to that! And on a different note, Brian, if you had one chance to do something where you knew you could only succeed, what would that thing be?
BP: One thing I could do in my life? Good question. I always go back to the idea of making sure that my family’s happy. It’s easy to think really big, but making sure that your family’s ok and that your kids are raised correctly, and that you are okay is first and foremost in my book.
CB: What you’re saying is really interesting, I’ve been doing research on my own about finances—about being more financially wise, knowing what to do with my money, where to invest and how to best prepare for the future—and one thing that really comes up in a lot of books, or from speakers, is you have to take care of yourself first. And that idea is really similar to what you’re saying about acting locally, or taking care of your family. It really comes down to the core, and before you can accomplish big dreams, it has to start with yourself and preparing your own path so that you are able to help others. That idea is prevalent in so many aspects of our lives.
BP: This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, there will always be major problems in the world, but if you can tackle your own and your family’s that is the first step to solving the bigger issues the world faces.
CB: What are you most proud of in your life?
BP: The Red Sox winning the world-series.
CB: (laughing) Something that you’ve done!
BP: Oh, personally? I was involved in that.
CB: Oh were you? Were you out on the field?
BP: I was cheering. Supporting them emotionally.
CB: Right right, sending the good vibes.
BP: I can’t say that?
CB: Of course you can, you can say whatever you want. Tell me one person you admire and why.
BP: I’d say my grandfather. He is a first-generation Italian-American, he worked in the FBI for over twenty-five years, in one of the most undercover projects to date called Operation Solo. It had a double spy-in with Stalin throughout the Cold War, which helped us get us to where we are. It’s not really talked about that much, but it was a pretty cool covert operation that the FBI did.
I’ve always looked up to him as someone who kept the family together. He was a Yankees fan, and I was ok with that. We’d always see each other, and he passed away a year ago. It was a little sad, but he was someone I always looked up to, spent summers with, spent a lot of time talking about baseball with, he was someone that was there.
CB: Encouraging people to voice their opinions about what’s going on politically, and to be pro-active in regards to changing policy, also pertains to educating kids and involving them in politics at an earlier age. What kind of efforts do you think are happening on that level, or what do you think needs to happen?
BP: It’s really tough, I go to these events we have with the Mayor and we call everyone who lives in the district, and it’s always the same age group that comes, around 55 or 60. It’s difficult; I’m trying to figure that out. One thing that was successful was the “Flunk Arnold” campaign, which was fun and involved the YouTube generation in politics through making videos and online media. We’ve only been up for a little bit but we’re reaching out to the colleges and to the editors of the different papers of the city, trying to involve them that way, but that’s something we’re trying to figure out on the campaign. We’re thinking of talking to democratic clubs at various schools, but as I said, we just started getting going. Do you have any ideas?
CB: I think, from my personal opinion, I think it needs to start even younger than that. By the time kids get to college and they start having an interest, a lot of years have past where kids could have been more intimately involved, whether that’s through mock-elections in schools or extending campaigns such as “Flunk Arnold” to high school students, and seeing what kind of content is received.
BP: I’ve been doing research about all the high schools in the area and brainstorming on how to get them involved.
CB: You know who would be good to contact? There’s a nonprofit called SF YouthWorks, under JCYC (Japanese Community Youth Council). They place high school students in paid internships throughout the city departments of San Francisco. The students attend a pre-employment training before they start their internship; this is a first time job experience for most of these students. They work for two hours after school for minimum wage, and get paired up with a mentor in the city department they work in. Another one to look into is MYEEP, (Mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program), which provides low-income high-school aged students jobs and community-involvement opportunities. Both YouthWorks and MYEEP have representatives that go to job fairs at high schools throughout the city. You could go and talk to the kids when they’re getting trained for their employment or you may get a handful of kids who are excited to do something for extra credit.
Act Locally SF will be contributing articles on a weekly basis. My favorite so far is from Christopher Gardner, author of the autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, called Homeless but not Hopeless in San Francisco.