Communities are like muscles – the more you build them, the stronger they get.

And tech companies have the power to do the heavy lifting, shaping their community muscles along the way, a civic tech expert said during a panel discussion at True North about building an equitable tech community.

“It’s not enough to think about this work as happy-go-lucky community building or charity work. You really need to think about what you can do in your role as a citizen and what power you bring to these conversations,” said Catherine Bracy, executive director and co-founder of Tech Equity Collaborative in the Bay Area, a U.S. non-profit organization that engages the tech community in building inclusive communities for all.

True North set out to refocus the tech industry as a force for good. Along the way, the conference started conversations about how tech and those who work in the sector could help people and the planet. At times those conversations were heavy, such as a session around the role tech companies play in their respective communities.

One of the biggest ways to help, Bracy said, was for those in tech to not just show up, but also participate.

“I’m confident not another single line of code needs to be written in order to meet the needs that you’re facing,” she said.

The panel discussion, called Building an Equitable Tech Community, was grounded in four themes around how the tech community could meaningfully participate in the cities they call home – transit, places, culture and community building. It was meant to act as a starting point for how tech could help tackle some of the growth and disruption that can follow the industry.

Listen to the panel discussion on Soundcloud

Speakers addressed the tech audience on practical appeals to advocate for better transit and impassioned pleas about better support for the arts community.

Majdi Bou-Matar, artistic director of MT Space, an award-winning multicultural theatre company that also mentors and supports local artists, simply asked for space to congregate.

“We’re doing it but there’s a divide. We’re a niche community and it’s not radiating out,” he said, calling on the tech community to help sustain artists, even in small ways. “Have you thought about building a small theatre in your space or taking (an artist) in residence in at your company?"

While the tech industry is a major driver of  Waterloo Region’s economic engine, cities like Kitchener are keen to avoid the mistakes of their California counterparts. Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area face such rapid growth from the booming tech sector that people struggle to find housing and the two areas are ranked among the least affordable places to live in the U.S. That has led some to protest the tech sector as those areas gentrify and push people out.

To avoid a similar scenario here, Waterloo Region needs to build neighbourhoods and cities in a thoughtful way.

Economic diversity is why a lot of tech companies love downtown Kitchener, said Vidyard CEO Michael Litt.

“We love the space, we love the vibrancy, but if we lose that we’re going to become very similar to San Francisco where a lot of our peers still are and bemoan the lack of culture and representation of broader economic classes in that city despite the fact that they’re the ones that drove them out,” he said, adding he’s curious about what tech can do about the issue.

Intensification and growth can work if it’s for everybody, said Brandon Sloan, Kitchener’s manager of long-range planning.

“We want to have different people from different backgrounds in the same place – that’s the sweet spot . . . That’s where the innovation happens,” he said.

That sweet spot happened about a year ago for Helen Chimirri-Russell, who was living in Edmonton and thinking about a move to Waterloo Region to helm the area’s cultural services.

She said there’s an undercurrent that the area’s culture was somewhat lacking. But when she flew to Waterloo, got in a taxi and talked to the driver, it launched an impromptu cultural tour that left her impressed.

That’s when Chimirri-Russell realized Waterloo Region doesn’t necessarily follow the conventional model of what culture looks like or how it happens.

“Rather than investing in art to make our places look pretty, it’s investing in art to help us to have that critical moment and those respectful conversations, those places that can help us understand who we are in relation to each other,” she said at the session.

While those working in tech might be inspired to roll their sleeves up and jump right in after hearing passionate appeals, Bracy implored them to do the opposite.

Embed yourselves in organizations, she said, then sit back, listen and learn before offering ideas to solve problems.

And throughout the discussion, those in attendance appeared to do just that.