Q&A with Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez: Leading Social Advocate and Harwood Board Chair

Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, The Harwood Institute’s newly appointed board chair, is a premier social entrepreneur and advocate for social justice. The daughter of immigrant parents from Puerto Rico, she graduated from Harvard University and has received numerous high honors for her work in the nonprofit world. Click here for more about Alvarez-Rodriguez’s work.  

In the following Q&A, Alvarez-Rodriguez talks to The Harwood Institute about what its work means to her and to the country and why she decided to join the Institute’s board.

The Harwood Institute: What first drew you to the Institute and why do you support its work? Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez: My first exposure to The Harwood Institute was as a grant-maker with the Omidyar Foundation. We were doing work in Las Vegas and a new report rated Las Vegas as having the lowest civic capital rate of any city in the United States. I found this report both informative and alarming. I decided, as part of Omidyar’s grant-making strategy, to discover the hidden community and civic leaders in Las Vegas.  As I was researching how best to do this, I came across The Harwood Institute’s work in Flint, Mich. and reached out to Rich. After reading and learning more about the stages of community development developed by the Institute and other aspects of its work, we issued a grant to the Institute to help us do this work in Las Vegas. Using the Harwood approach, we convened an amazing group of indigenous leaders and worked with them on key community needs. The impact of that work is still felt in Las Vegas today.

THI: What prompted you to join the Institute’s board? DAR: I decided to join the board after a long discussion with Rich and the profound sense of disappointment I was feeling with the direction of our democracy.  There has been much written about constituent engagement, a lot of it quite good, yet the practice on the streets was not delivering on the promise.  The vision and direction outlined by Rich and his team held incredible promise for change at scale. I was excited to help make this vision a reality as a board member and am very pleased I made this decision. THI: What does the Institute’s work mean for the country? DAR: Our communities and their citizens have the ability and desire to move beyond problem-solving and deliver on their aspirations for healthy, vibrant communities. They are hungry for an opportunity to participate and act in a sustainable way.  Communities want the tools, networks and supports to direct their futures, and The Harwood Institute is helping to make that a reality.

Communities are tired of the politics coming out of Washington, D.C. and understandably leery of many traditional organizations and institutions. All too often, we equate this lack of trust with a lack of desire to take action. This is a terrible misreading of what is happening, and the Institute is tackling this problem on multiple fronts.

THI: How is the Institute helping communities build trust and take action? DAR: First, we are working with numerous large-scale institutions and networks such as the American Library Association, United Way and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting to provide them with the tools and supports to become more relevant and outward-facing. The Institute is fully committed to helping these organizations achieve measurable impact, but not at the cost of true citizen involvement and accountability. The Institute’s customized Innovation Labs and community coaching have greatly helped reposition these organizations as facilitators of community impact.

Second, the work we do to develop public innovators, through training and coaching, is essential.  We help harness people’s aspirations so they can become agents of sustainable change and true participants in community problem-solving. The work the Institute is doing at the individual development level and in public leadership development is essential.  And Rich’s upcoming Summit in San Antonio this fall is an invaluable tool that helps leaders from all sectors become better stewards of their work.

Finally, the Institute is doing critical work in building a megaphone for a new narrative of democracy and public. The organization provides a wealth of support to communities through Rich’s Reclaiming Main Street campaign, his commentaries, books, articles, research and public speaking. This work is critical to the health of our country. We need to create a new narrative for what is possible and that goes beyond political parties and opinion polls. We need to help raise the voices of everyday people and the values of our public squares.

THI: What are your top goals for The Harwood Institute as its new Chair? DAR:  My goals are to support Rich and the team at Harwood to achieve our strategic vision, help raise connections and capital that advance the Institute's mission and goals and serve as an effective sounding board as the Institute moves forward. I also want to help build a dynamic, engaged and robust board that is passionately committed to advancing the Institute's mission.