A personal reflection on the passing of Jim Gilliam

Posted on December 11, 2018 at 4:59 PM

[My memories of Jim Gilliam. I apologize to anyone if I get any details wrong, it's unintentional, this is all just from memory. This is a long one.)


I met in Jim Gilliam in 2009 at Personal Democracy Forum, thanks to Cameron Barrett first, and then the conference founders, Andrew Rasiejand Micah Sifry. I had been familiar with Jim's work from 'White House 2' a website that was attempting to be a platform where people could submit, vote, and discuss issues that, if reached a certain point, the White house, or the federal government theoretically could take it up, theoretically with some context for what people thought, a petition platform meant to bring more people into the process. I was working on some local issues and wanted to find ways to integrate the platform into what we were doing. We spoke about it, but ultimately the project I was working on fell off.

Either that PDF or the next one, he was giving a two minute product pitch between sessions in the main hall. It was for a tool he had started working on called Pro.act.ly, that would help bring together a bunch of important functions of a campaign into one online dashboard. It seemed cool, a way to lower the barrier of entry for people to running to office, something at this time I was noodling around in my own head, especially in that moment bolstered by the jolt of inspiration I've always felt meeting people and learning about what others are working on at personal democracy forum. I noted it down and moved on with the rest of the conference.

And then in 2010, a snowball that I had started rolling a few months prior had picked up to speed, It was at the point where I realized that not only was I going to run for the chief executive position of my hometown's government, but that I would need all the help I could get, and only if I could marshal all possible resources, would I have even the slightest chance of not embarrassing myself on election day.

I emailed Jim to see how that product he mentioned was going, and if he either had something for purchase or in need of testers. It turned out they needed the latter. I made my case "I'd really be interested in discussing whether pro.act.ly might work for this campaign. Hint: It will be a campaign where I am the candidate and I'm going to need to use everything available to pull off what I think I'm going to do, and be interested to talk about anyway we can work together on this."

At this point, what was now NationBuilder was in one of the purest phases of startup... just Jim Gilliam, Jesse Haff, and Aaron Straus Garcia(we'll come back to that guy in a moment) were building this platform. It had been used on a campaign of Reshma Suijani, and I believe there may have been one or two others that were testing it out.

Jim and I had a long and engaging conversation on Skype - he seemed to see how I serious I was about getting into government, not for purposes of self-enrichment, vanity, political dynasty building or some of these more common and problematic reasons, but because I wanted to fuck it all up to help kick it all into a new, and better, era of being more inclusive and systems-level in what the goals were to improve things. I believed in working within the system to change it, not for me, or my interests, but for those who will inherit whatever we decide to leave them. I believed that in an age of new technology, people seemed surprisingly disconnected, and how could these new technologies reverse that and bring people together. And I believed that people should be able to run for office, not based on money or connections or anything like that, but because they cared about making change, and were willing to do the work to get there, and that the ability for diverse groups of people to do that was American as apple pie.

And Jim believed in me.

Not because I'm particularly special, but because Jim believed in people. He believed, so deeply, that individuals could have more power than they typically do, and he saw the internet, and the tool he was building, as a great equalizer, something that took a set of functions and abilities had really only been available to mainstream party-endorsed candidates or those who had wealth, and bring that to way, way more people, if not everyone. He believed that the more people you bring into our political system, who have a voice, the better the results could end up being.

I ended up winning that election, in 2011. And NationBuilder, a platform now used tens of thousands of times around the world to help people organize movements and campaigns, played a real role in that. Although to be fair, winning by 12 votes, I'm not sure there are any factors that can't be credited with putting me over the top.

Midway through my campaign, my main point of contact at NationBuilder, Aaron Straus Garcia left the company, and with this newfound time on his hands, offered to help bring his skills as a former field organizer to my campaign South Orange. He did, and again, probably there is no way I could have won without him and his help.

About six months later, after Aaron had ended up going to Spain to work on a parliament race, and after I had started to (sort of) get my feet under me as a newly elected mayor, we caught up at Seton Hall in South Orange and realized that neither of us had a real paying job, and we decided to put our heads, and clients together, into my company, Veracity Media, and partner up on trying to build this into a real company, which largely ended up being centered around building NationBuilder websites and campaign tools for candidates, especially those at the local level, and especially challengers and those interested in good government.

Over the next few years we got a lot of great work done in South Orange. And with our third partner and an amazing team, Veracity grew into a respected and successful consulting company, with clients around the country and a few around the world. And NationBuilder, well anyone still reading this knows they exploded, going from an interesting idea, to a 'it has promise’ tool, to a real disruptor in the field of political and digital organizing.

Throughout the next few years, as my world had been turned upside down and I seemed to moving a million miles an hour towards some distant but important goals related to finding implementing better governance models, and while NationBuilder was growing at an incredible rate, Jim and I kept in touch. If I was in LA, or he in NY, we would try to get together to catch up. But not a perfunctory catch up with a colleague you once met at a conference. These get togethers were conversations, on a few occasions which lasted 4 or 5 hours or more, where we'd be deeply present and engaged in conversations that took us to some of the most fundamental areas of interest in thinking through how to change a broken/inefficient political/electoral/public governance systems. These conversations were also helpful, I think, for both of us, and each of our cynicism about broken systems ended up being overshadowed by optimism, and faith, especially his, in people, being able to make this all better.

Jim's own unbelievable hardships or challenges in his life no doubt contributed to how empathetic he was to broad groups of people, and how much he wanted to see things better for others. I never knew Jim as well as I wish I had, now looking back, and I was by no means someone extremely close to him, but since his passing, I keep thinking back to those conversations and areas of my life impacted by Jim.

The Skype session where he believed in me, and where his belief in me helped me believe in myself.

To the campaign that changed my life and so many others, in part because of a product he created, and the team he built around that product.

To a company, NationBuilder, that constantly had good, empathetic, motivated, people in all its corners, which brought me to one of my business partners, and closest friends.

To the people he believed in, whether directly, or indirectly all across the world.

I don’t pretend to suggest that anyone can live a life free of contention or of disagreement or of issues. But, from my personal perspective, I can never forget Jim for the role that he played in my life, and I will always chose to remember him for the role that I'm sure he played in thousands upon thousands of lives - trying to find ways to use technology to equalize and empower and fighting to give a greater voice to so many good people who he always believed in.

But this story doesn’t end yet, unfortunately.

Earlier this year, the spring of 2018, I was working on a component to a big life/data/history organization project, which involved documenting and organizing all sorts of past experiences, from trips, to random but impactful conversations, to turning point moments in my life, all that. And I came across my first email to Jim in 2009 about WhiteHouse2. I wrote an email reflecting on this, and how much had happened in the preceding decade, to Jim. In the last few years, we weren’t in as close touch at all, and I was moved seeing our ten year old conversations that changed so much in my life. I tried to email Jim, but got a bounce on the two personal emails I had for him. I made a mental note to email someone at NationBuilder to pass along whatever his current email was, so I could forward this brief reflection to him and see if we could find a long overdue catch up, but I kept putting it off, and now, it’s too late.

Although I hope, and believe, that he probably knows all of this and more, I should have been more proactive with saying so, and it’s an important reminder of how valuable it is to tell people how you feel, when you feel it. Life is too short, and too unpredictable to not do so. So, even though Jim is gone, and I never got to send him this email, I hope this reflection on my experience with him reminds his friends and family not just how many people he impacted, but how important it is to live with that intentionality, and to tell people how you feel, and ultimately, how much more we have to do to create a world that would have satisfied Jim's vision for better humanity.

“Cleaning up and organizing some digital assets, old notes and various things, and came across this meeting and email thread from 2009.... Seems like eons ago doesn't it? I guess almost a decade now... kind of frightening.

I know for me, it's strange to think if I hadn't sent this, or you hadn't responded, and we didn't get to know each other.... using NB for my campaign, winning and doing that whole thing, meeting Aaron and going into business together, (we're still very close), he ended up introducing me to a woman that while we were together and since ended up changing a lot about life, so many things came from this. Crazy.

I hope all is well with you Jim, it's been a while, if you ever wanted to catch up in person or Skype sometime it would be fun to do so!