Geoff was born in New Zealand; grew up between Tennessee and Maine; and studied translation at Amherst College, in Western Massachusetts. Chattanooga, however, is definitively home, where he now serves as the Digital Equity Officer for the Enterprise Center — a non-profit tasked with establishing the city as a hub of innovation and improving people’s lives by leveraging those innovations to develop, test and apply solutions for the 21st Century. Formerly of Mozilla and the Public Education Foundation, Geoff is finding his place somewhere at the nexus of education, gigabit technology, policy and entrepreneurship; his focus continues to be in ensuring an open, equitable and inclusive future for everyone, in a place he loves. In his spare time, he hikes, bikes and runs with his girlfriend and their three dogs, as well as plays vintage base ball, which is both a real thing and a perfectly normal hobby.
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Tell me a little bit about your work here in Chattanooga and anything else you might do that I might not know about.
Well, I work for the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga. It’s a non-profit. It’s been around for 28 years. I’m working alongside the Hamilton County Department of Education to help students, teachers, leaders in Hamilton County be the best they can be, and for our school district to be the best school district in the country.
My work is in a lot of different buckets — broadly speaking, it’s about teacher voice and teacher leadership. This past year I started and manage a policy fellowship that works with educators interested in public policy — and public policy, not just educational policy. We ask teachers to do a lot more than face educational issues when we send our students to them without equipping them to deal with these other policies — and then they’re prevented from having a voice in dealing with things like poverty, housing, domestic violence, our criminal justice system, these sorts of things. Educators have a unique place in the community and a really powerful advocacy voice for their students, so being involved in more than educational policy is important.
I also manage a number of pilots and initiatives around digital literacy, digital equity, and computer science — working alongside the district. We’ve got a great community working on all of those issues — we want to know how we can do it for more students, how we keep our city from having a tech bubble, and how to leverage our infrastructure to make sure that everybody has a pathway to a 21st century career. We want to be more equipped to handle the challenges students come across. We’re really interested in the part of that pathway that involves the formal education space — how we can reach 43,500 students, and how it fits into this pipeline of a vibrant after-school and extracurricular space, higher ed, summer, etc.
We don’t all have to do the same things, but we should work together in whatever capacity we can, making sure kids don’t fall through the cracks. I’m not saying it’s the absolute curriculum you need to teach, delivered from on high — it’s working with educators to develop, to train, and leverage the expertise we have in Hamilton County. There are pockets of schools packed with innovation — we should use their models and share them out.
I also manage Teacherpreneur, our startup incubator, again, for educators. We have this really vibrant entrepreneur community. For us, I think part of that thinking is that educators are already entrepreneurs. Limited resources, big ideas, wing and a prayer to make it happen. That’s what they do in their classrooms every day, so equipping them in the same way we equip these other people with high-growth ideas. that have a real chance. In some ways, we talk more about impact and not necessarily profitability, but we have some businesses, some products that have come out of this incubator as well.
Again, it’s about asking the people who do a job every day how that job should be done, how it could be changed, and where are the places in their communities, their profession, their classroom and schools, they can make a change — a change that will matter to a lot of students, to their colleagues, to our community as a whole. That vibrant startup community we have — our educators aren’t a separate kind of entrepreneur, either. It’s important that this doesn’t happen in a bubble — that it happens the same way that all of the other events and programs and nonprofits and businesses work in this startup, tech, etc. arena. That we’re the same, and we work together on the same things. That’s, I don’t know, uniquely Chattanooga, maybe? It feels unique and special to me — the way that we all work together on that.
I do that, and then I do a lot of kind of work with this, our tech community, our startup community, looking at some specifically gigabit programs, and the work that we’ve done with Mozilla around next-generation applications. Specifically, leveraging the Gig for things that really can only happen in a Gig city, and things that matter to students, to teachers. That we’re not developing in a bubble and then shoehorning them into classrooms. That we can co-develop. That tightens up that iterative innovation process, when your user and your developer are in constant communication. That it means the impact is there from the get-go.
Some of those projects are around 4K streaming content — leveraging a community resource, in this case the Tennessee Aquarium. Bringing that content into classrooms, allowing students to have unfettered access and not just a consumer, one-time (maybe, if they’re lucky) on a school field trip-experience, but one that can happen for them over the course of their academic career, continually working with a world class educational and research facility. To have essentially 24/7 access to some of those same things — the kinds of scientific inquiry that comes out of that, the kinds of questions, the kinds of projects, the kinds of thoughts in general our students have with access to that. What teachers do with it as well, how they use it as a tool in the classroom.
It’s different from some of the technology that we sometimes ask teachers to use, that has been so sort of singularly purposed. If this is using the same kind of tech that the people in the very far end of that development spectrum are working on as well.
We’re doing that with LOLA now, as well. That project is about distributing resources in a slightly different way. We’ve got a really vibrant magnet school community here in Hamilton County. Taking the arts education at an arts magnet school, leveraging it to answer how schools without those same resources can provide a similar experience to students, get some students on the pipeline to attending one of these magnets, maybe pursuing a career in something they wouldn’t otherwise have access to thanks to the Gig backbone, thanks to Mozilla, and thanks to the kind of technology and connectivity we have here — LOLA in this case. We’re doing that with music. We’re doing it with theater. And again, we’re turning it over to students and teachers to tell us, “Well this is how we’d use it.” Ask, “Can we do this with it?” Etc. And then developing around that.
A couple things on that. Just briefly, will you tell me how you got into this? What kind of drew you to this? You have such passion, I think, for our education system, for the teachers, and for the opportunity that teachers aren’t just being told, and that they’re not in this kind of second string bubble, either from the entrepreneurs or just the tech innovation world in general. What drew you to that?
Well, thank you for the compliment. A couple of things: One, I left for college, not thinking I’d come back to Chattanooga. Through that, those four years — and, really, about three months into it, I realized that I am, in fact. from Chattanooga, that I love this city, and that it’s a place that I care deeply about. Regardless of what I ended up focusing on, the long-term health, prosperity and success of Chattanooga was going to be something at the center of it, as it turns out.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that lots of good things happen in Chattanooga, but they don’t always happen for everyone, and sometimes they happen in pretty specific locations. With the energy and excitement and the Gig, it just feels like there’s this possibility to change that dynamic, especially when you’ve got this ubiquitous connectivity. Education to me is, in some sense, long-term economic development. Having a really healthy public education system looks like success long-term for the city, and distributed success. That equity piece: It’s also a mode of equity and a means towards equity for the city.
Working specifically in education and connecting education with this, the energy that’s driving so much change at the moment, and not tangientally, but explicitly bringing them together in a number of these different ways, bringing teacher and student voice into how some of those decisions are made — that started to feel like a place where I could provide some value, something that I really cared about, and where, frankly, people were willing to let me. As you know, I worked for Mozilla way back when, which feels like years and years and years ago, and it turns out to only be two years, looking at a calendar.
I know, I think we have a question of even how you got — yeah, as you talk about that, how you got involved with Mozilla, but then how, even what your work has been a success. We can kind of continue on with how you got involved with Mozilla.
Yeah. That’s another thing that got me specifically into education. Web literacy, digital literacy, all of these kind of things that I think overlap with what I do now. I don’t see the work as especially dissimilar. It’s in slightly different veins, but it feels like a moment in time for Chattanooga as well, to set the standard as people are looking towards our city as a model. If we build equity, if we build access, if we build education into what a next-century city looks like, as other people see that, they also see that not only is that important morally, economically, et cetera, but it all works better if you do it from the get-go. If everybody is working together on these pieces, that that’s what moves a city forward. That moment in time, that’s something that Mozilla really keyed me into. That’s something kind of special about Chattanooga at the moment and why I think this work is especially important for what we’re doing.
Yeah, and what successes have you seen so far? Even though kind of your work with Mozilla and as you came back after college and have seen the growth over the past few years?
One success, and I can’t give you here’s the pre-and post-survey and all of the data on this being true, but there has been a shift in the conversation. There’s been a big shift in the conversation. That words that you would not hear — digital equity, digital literacy, web literacy — these were not things that people were talking about when I first moved back.
Or at least publicly — and I think this is true for Chattanooga, that things have been changing, but the rate of change itself is also accelerating. Seeing how quickly, when you push on pieces like equity in this technology space, that adoption and expansion occur, and new players come to the table, new work gets done.
What’s really exciting about working in a collaborative environment like Chattanooga is that you don’t have to do everything by yourself or just your organization. You’ll hear stuff that you had been hoping would happen, like somebody has just taken off and run with it and it’s happening in pockets, and they’re connecting. That’s something that the stuff that we were really pushing on a few years ago in a few little places has just expanded so much that we’re seeing it in more schools, that we’re seeing more opportunities for students, that we’re seeing more buy-in from business. That non-profits, who you wouldn’t think of as being interested in tech or entrepreneurism or anything like that, see the value in what those connections can do.
That’s something, and that feels like success to me: This collective effort continues, but expands, and that the conversation keeps pushing forward.
Right. I think that’s a really unique part of who Chattanooga is and just how we’ve changed over — yeah.
Oh, yeah. I think, too, in a slightly more specific way, we can point to success in seeing programs, our pilots with 4K, with LOLA, implemented; just seeing how classrooms have changed; how teachers’ thinking has changed. That having these conversations with students ends in, “I didn’t realize this was something I could do. I didn’t realize there were jobs like this. I didn’t realize that this technology existed.” To see that it’s actually operating in their classroom — that feels a lot more like preparing kids for the future than drawing up a set of recommendations, dropping curriculum in, etc.
What about on the flip side of this, would be some challenges that you’ve seen in your work and just in Chattanooga in general?
Well, I think this is the big picture piece. With this potential for, I don’t know, digital literacy preparedness, all of the opportunities that are out there, we have also the chance to grow that divide, because we do have these different pockets of access, of resources, and they’re not evenly distributed. That, as we do this work in some places, if we can’t figure out how to get it into the schools that don’t have the structures yet in place, we end up closing the gap for some and at the same time leaving others even farther behind because of the speed at which we’re moving and at the rate at which even the technology we’re talking about changes. That’s always a challenge.
It’s still, I think that can be a conversation that’s — when you talk to people in Chattanooga, there are a huge number of people who have still never been on the internet. It seems not the kind of thing that happens in a developed country, in a city that is the Gig City, but it’s true. If we can’t help close those gaps with all of this, then this tool for equity and the ubiquity of connectedness can grow that gap. That’s not the model we want people looking at. That doesn’t move things forward for everyone.
I think that’s a big challenge, and we’re trying lots of different things to meet that challenge. It’s hard. As I said, a lot of this is anecdotal. We’re surveying, we’re doing as much as we can, but we’re also a couple of years in. We hope we’ve made the right decisions, but there’s going to be a time ten years down the road when we’ll see just how effective we were. That’s a little scary, too, but at the same, I don’t know. There are enough smart people working on it that I like our chances.
The diversity of voices that are thinking about it, that it’s not just one person’s plan or a couple of people’s plans or a couple of people who look the same — their plans, but a really diverse chorus of intelligent, passionate people working on these issues gives me a lot of hope that the stuff that I’m afraid of won’t come to pass.
Well, that kind of leads into my next question about healthy internet, and as you talk about different voices, and I know that’s a big thing that we at least try to do here with the Gigabit Fund in bringing in different voices and not just having the same people talk about the same things all the time. What do you see as healthy internet for Chattanooga? How would you define that?
You know, accessibility is key. Accessibility without education isn’t equity, though, or isn’t as equitable, because your experience makes a difference to what that that access means to you. Making sure that there are appropriate educational opportunities around providing access is really important.
Oh, I had three very clever words that I was going to say to you. I think that it’s participatory, that, again it’s not just in the hands of a few, that it provides this opportunity for creativity, that it’s not just a consumable resource. It can even look like a lot of different things — not just news, not just a way of consuming information. I mean, as important as that is, that there’s an agency piece to a healthy internet, where you’re not only consuming, not just creating things, but have the agency to push back and change things. I know people use the example of the tool versus the ability to reshape the tool to do what you’d like it to. (So, also, that somebody else doesn’t have a way better tool that they’re not sharing with you.)
That they’re not sharing. That’s perfect as we talk about open and what that looks like.
I like to use my avocado slicer example — just think about this as technology, the internet, whatever you want to. The avocado slicer, it slices avocados. It has one function, and it does that function really well, and it makes doing that one thing easier. Yes. We also have knives. Knives cut avocados. They cut a lot of other things. There maybe a little bit more safety training with a knife. It’s not something you just hand out to eight-year-olds. But if you’re there with them, if you give them the right kind of knife, if you work with that, they learn not just how to slice avocados, but how to use a tool.
Then I think you can extend that metaphor a little bit, but does somebody have a laser that does all of the things that a knife could ever want to do? They’ve got it locked up in a cabinet somewhere that they’re not going to share — I don’t know, something like that, where from both sides we want to make sure that we’re allowing access, that we’re not using this closed system and end up with an internet that looks like a couple of apps, it looks like Facebook and Twitter, and these are the only things you know how to use. That also you can shape stuff the way you want it, and you have access, as you move along, to what people at the cutting edge are using, too. Because in the hands of users, that’s how we get to that impact piece — there’s the potential for change.
Well, and as you kind of said even with that, the different ways that you’ve been talking about the way that you do your work with technologists kind of and then with educators, how do you share Chattanooga if you’re being open about what you’re doing? How’s the best way that you share your work within the community?
I mean, anybody who’s interested, this is how we do this. All of our programs, best practices, what we’ve seen to be a challenge, what has seemed especially effective, that it can be messy — we don’t hide it. We’re talking about something big. In the case of PEF, we’re talking about public education. That’s not something that we want to be successful for a few, or that it’s our private success. Because it’s part of a much bigger picture, so sharing what’s worked for us, allowing other people to localize, that’s really important. Part of that is sharing as the process happens, and not just after we polish it up and we’ve got our, like you said, entrance and exit surveys a few times. Being really open with that part of our work.
I think the official phrase is “multi-stakeholder partnerships,” or “multi-stakeholder cross-sector partnerships.” That’s part of it, too, that this work doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens with a lot of different people who have their own networks working on it, so that’s, (a) how we get lots of new ideas in, but, also, (b) how we distribute what’s happening. These different channels into different sectors through different organizations who have different footprints, different parts of the community, different demographics.
All of the curricular pieces we make available. How we share that, we could probably be better at. Same with the tech specs for the things that we’re actually dropping into classrooms. All that is stuff that we share and are happy to share.
Awesome. I don’t think I knew that, either. Probably because I never thought to ask.
Yeah. I don’t know. It just feels like we’re happy to help people figure it out for themselves. I don’t know that we have the capacity to show up in other communities and get it going for them, in all this free time that we’ve got, but helping them as best we can and giving them the tools and resources that we’ve pulled together makes sense to us. Selfishly, I think also brings eyes back to Chattanooga and the way this model works. But again, it’s not just like, “Ah, this is the project that will, this is going to change things for you.” It is this collective community effort and the whole spectrum of work that’s happening at once, in concert and in partnership, that will make a difference.
There’s also just sharing how to do lots of the different pieces without also following the model for how the whole works. Anyway.
This takes us to our next question — we talked a little bit that you’ve been with Mozilla — or you were with Mozilla. You actually worked for Mozilla.
Yes — so starting three years ago, I was the project coordinator for the Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund in Hive Chattanooga — Lindsey Frost was getting stuff started up.
Did you know Lindsey before?
I met Lindsey through the Fourth Floor of the Public Library. I taught 3D printing classes up there. I helped to manage the Fourth Floor maker space. I think this fits into the same vein of other things that I did, this public access to what people on the cutting edge are using, to be this front door and not just to look at these things, but let’s work with them, show you how to use them, to do the education piece. To be both access and education around next-gen technology.
That’s what a library has always been, and I love what our public library was doing up there. I worked there for a little while, and that’s how I met Lindsey. When she put up a Facebook message saying, “I’m looking for some help for the summer,” I thought, “Well, I’m here for the summer, so I’ll see if I can help.” That turned into a really fun year and then a continued partnership with Mozilla.
As you’ve moved past working specifically for Mozilla into the Public Education Foundation, you’ve highlighted this a couple different times, mentioned Mozilla and next-gen technologies and gigabit and the work you’re doing with 4K and LoLa. What impact has Mozilla had, if you had to have an instance, either on your life or in your work or maybe the connections that you’ve had within the community with Mozilla?
For me, Mozilla’s focus on this pilot process, piloting with learners, with practitioners, has helped shape what I think is important when we’re talking about this. When I’m working with developers, when I’m out in the more tech side of things, and less the education side, that I’m able to be that advocate for, “By the way, this is the way we should be doing this, how we should be working with the community as a whole.”
That focus at Mozilla — on something that maybe doesn’t seem like the way it would naturally happen, away from those development cycles that happen independently, when you ship a complete product and then people pick it up and use it. Doing that with civic impact, educational impact, being really explicit about the importance of those things in the design and development phase feels like a very different way of running next-generation technology, grants, and funding, and I think has had an impact — as I’ve said, on these sorts of things that, as a city, maybe we weren’t talking about five years ago. How much more open some of these processes are, some of the work what’s happening is because of the way Mozilla laid a foundation.
Wow. That’s awesome. How can other people partner with you guys? How could they help either with the Public Education Foundation or just in general with your work in Chattanooga?
That’s a great question, because we love working with, bringing in partners. I hope at some point my job no longer exists, because I think of myself as this translator between worlds. Between the community at large, between tech and startup and education — again, as though these are somehow things that happen in separate bubbles from one another. One of my big frustrations is this weird idea that we don’t treat teachers like the same kind of professionals as we treat the rest of the world. Teachers, nurses are somehow not adults pursuing their passion through their careers in the way an investment banker, an attorney or a doctor is.
The more people who are interested — and this is another thing that came up as I was talking to a teacher the other day — it’s also really important to public education that the only people who care about public ed can’t be people who’ve been through it, teachers in it, and we non-profits who work alongside it. It requires the broader community. It requires voice, and it requires new ideas, these partnerships outside so these worlds connect all the way through. The more people from different backgrounds, especially from outside of Chattanooga, who want to be interested, want to get involved in some way, the better.
PEF does a lot of different work — we have a way to make a connection in a school that is going to fit what expertise you bring. Specifically, some of those things? You know, we’ve got Teacherpreneur coming up over the summer and the fall, where mentoring, professional services, people who have experience in these sort of entrepreneurial, startup-y areas are needed. For some of these teachers, it’s a new world. It’s not that the work is new to them, but how to make it real? They need some help. Sometimes their projects are based on building relationships outside of their schools. That’s always a place. We’ve got a portfolio now of 51 active projects.
I mean, there’s a menu of options if folks are looking for a really tangible way to get involved. That’s something that I really like about how those projects work. That it’s not abstract, it’s not just, “Oh, yeah, we’d like some money” — you can see the students, you can see how it is making a change in a very specific school, for a community, across our district. That, at the city level, the city is kind of a test bed, a pilot in and of itself. You can really see what your one voice, one action can do. I don’t know. I’m also just interested in, “Hey, I have an idea,” and talking about that and seeing — if it’s tech, if it’s on the policy side of things, if it’s social entrepreneurship, whatever it is — if we can make a connection and move something forward for our kids.
Where could people go to learn about this?
Pefchattanooga.org is our website. Teacherpreneurcha.com is our teacherpreneur portfolio.
We also have kind of a number of different, we use Twitter and Facebook and things like that, just kind of updates on what we’re doing, highlighting a lot of the great stories, not just our work, but what’s happening with our partners, in our schools, being done by our Teacherpreneurs, our Policy Fellows, our STEM fellows, our folks from any one of our programs. We’ve got a whole range of ways in and depths at which to engage. I’m also pretty good about picking up the phone.
Anything else that you’d like to share?
Well, I appreciate the magnification, the lens that Mozilla brings to the work that we do. Not just because we think it’s good work and we’d like people to know about it; because the reason we do it is so that other people will take it up and do it as well. I talk about Chattanooga as a model. I think a lot of places do look to us — we have the Gig, we have it as ubiquitously as any other community in the world, so we’ve got that right. All those other pieces we’re working on, too, and sharing that as other cities come online and think not just about, I don’t know, what 21st Century technology and next-gen look like, but also what that means for real people and everybody who lives in their city. What that economic benefit can be, what the social benefit can be, and especially how education can play a role in making it matter outside of places where whatever good thing is happening tends to. That’s really important to me, and I appreciate the lens that Mozilla brings to how we’re doing it, and I hope people will be interested, and interested in working with us on some of these big things.
Yeah. I hope so, too. I think being a southerner, I don’t know. Sometimes you get the stereotypes, but it’s been really fun to have Chattanooga pop up in so many different ways; not just the gigabit, but in other ways that we’re impacting and making an impact in our community. That’s fun.
I think I said this the other day, that I’m in the sort of wedding stage of my life, where travel is just going to people’s weddings. Again, the way conversations have changed, certainly in Chattanooga, but about Chattanooga. Where I used to get a lot of, “So where is that, exactly?” “Chatta — excuse me?” “Oh, right, the Choo Choo.” “You guys have the trains, right?” has changed to, “I am so jealous,” “I thought about moving there.” It’s a little surreal, but it’s so exciting, having those kinds of conversations, because I’m super biased about Chattanooga. I love talking to people about Chattanooga, the work we do, the city as a whole. It’s really exciting.
These are not just people I know, but people I meet, who say, “Oh, man, I would love to live in Chattanooga.” Come, please! Let me tell you about all the different things about our city, more reasons to come. The conversation has changed. It’s not “Chattanooga?,” with a question mark, but “Chattanooga!” with an exclamation point. That’s really exciting.