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August 12, 2015

By: Ben Travis

This week in Stepping Up Your Game, we're interviewing Jason Garber, a long-time DC web developer who's been organizing Refresh DC for the past 10 years. Refresh DC is a community of web professionals located in the Washington, DC, area, working to refresh their respective trades. In this interview, we'll learn what it takes to run successful local web communities and how to organize fruitful local events.

How do local communities like Refresh impact web professionals and the areas they live in?

It's hard for me to say specifically what impact a group like Refresh DC may or may not have on DC's local Web community, but I'd like to think we've in some way helped foster what is now a vibrant scene in the city. There are so many great—and often free—events for Web designers and developers of all stripes that, if you wanted to, you could attend a different event every night of the week, meet amazing and talented individuals, and learn all kinds of skills. We're fortunate in that regard to live in a city with an abundance of people willing to organize and attend events.

How did Refresh DC get started, and what role do you play?

I wrote a bit about Refresh DC's history back in March on the occasion of our ninth anniversary, but briefly:

Refresh—the movement as a whole—sprang out of a community of Web designers and developers in Dallas, Texas, looking to gather like-minded individuals with the goal of sharing what they knew with one another. Similar groups popped up in cities like Phoenix and Boston, Fight Club-style. At the time, I knew very few Web professionals outside of the handful I worked with at the time. Seeing a movement like Refresh, I was immediately drawn to the idea and knew that DC could use something like that.

So I registered a domain, put together a simple one-page website, and emailed everyone I knew, imploring them to share it with everyone they knew. We held our first meeting in March of 2006 at a bar with a dozen or so people. A few months and meetings later, we started having formal presentations and settled in on the format.

It's been a wild ride since then, but that's the basic Refresh DC origin story.

What are some of your favorite community moments?

It's difficult to pick any one particular meeting, event, or speaker; we've had so many great ones over the years. The moments I find most meaningful are fortunately frequent: month-over-month, standing in a room filled with people who are excited to be there, ready to learn, and eager to share their own experiences. That's incredibly powerful. After nine years of putting on free monthly meetings, that we continue to bring together a community of passionate individuals is incredible and something I'm grateful for.

How do you find speakers and topics?

For much of Refresh DC's history, we've leaned on community members approaching us and volunteering to present on a given topic. We've been very fortunate in that regard; our community is comprised of talented people ready and willing to share their interests and expertise. On occasion, we've invited speakers from outside the Washington, DC, area, but overwhelmingly, speakers are volunteers from the community.

This year, we've changed our approach slightly and are reaching out directly to members of the community whose work we're familiar with and are inviting them to speak. We still rely heavily on volunteers—Refresh DC is entirely volunteer-driven—but we've so far had great success this year approaching potential speakers.

How do you encourage audiences to come out to community events?

We use a couple of tools for promoting our events.

We use Eventbrite for managing event registration, ticketing, etc. We've looked at alternatives like DC startup nvite but have stuck with Eventbrite for the time being. We're using MailChimp for sending out event-related emails and managing our email list and, naturally, we rely on Twitter and Facebook (both our Page and a Group) to promote events and share news and updates.

These tools help us get the word out about our events, but primarily, we work really hard to identify local, passionate individuals who are excited to share their experiences and expertise with the community.

If you were to go back in time, what kind of advice would you give yourself around running local web communities and events?

I'd absolutely tell my younger self to find a couple of trusted co-organizers sooner. For years, I insisted on handling organizing duties myself and eventually burned myself out. Right now, nearly ten years in, Refresh DC is more vibrant than ever and I attribute a lot of that to Audrey's, Nick's and Rochelle's hard work.

To learn more from Jason, follow his personal blog or Twitter account.

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