Colin Kaepernick, 9/11 and Patriotism

By Richard Harwood

The juxtaposition of Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem and the 15th anniversary of 9/11 puts front and center the issue of patriotism. Talk radio, newspaper opinion pieces and television programs have all been consumed by both of these events. But it’s easy to lose sight of their full meaning; their coincidence yesterday helps us to hold them side-by-side and to consider exactly what is patriotism, and what does it afford us.

9/11 is always a difficult day for me. Fifteen years ago, I watched on television as hijacked planes hit The World Trade Towers and I became worried sick about the plight of my college buddy, Frank Reisman who was at the time working for Cantor Fitzgerald. Was he at work that day? Was he in the building? Could he have survived the impact of the plane? Soon, the answers were clear: Frank’s life had been taken. We lost him.

Just hours later, members of Congress from both political parties gathered on the steps of Congress to sing “God Bless America.” In the days and months to follow, patriotic hymns were sung at ballgames. People displayed flag decals on their cars. It seemed that we were one nation.

Of course, such unity can feel good after such a massive shock to our body politic. But we must not mistake such unity as the mere definition of patriotism. In 2003, not long after 9/11, I gave a speech about the meaning of patriotism, which was later published in the National Civic Review. In the speech I said:

For some in our nation, the word patriotism is a word riddled with a history of exclusion, suggesting to them that the American Dream is only for some people and not others. In times of national or community struggle, patriotism can come to mean demanding lockstep agreement, leading to a kind of myopic closed-mindedness. It can give us license to believe that anyone different from ourselves is not welcomed. We can come to view people as unpatriotic when they choose not to display the flag or a decal on their car, or choose not to sing the words to “God Bless America” at a ballgame... And I certainly do not mean the kind of patriotism that bigots and hate groups and so-called militia in this country have put forth, who have hijacked the term, angling to wrap themselves in the stars and stripes of our flag. 

Instead, to me, patriotism is about “a devotion to—a love of—country.” It springs forth from something quite beautiful—the possibility that we in this nation can move ever closer to a more perfect union. It is the possibility of what we can create together, through a common enterprise.

The story of improvement, of struggle, is central to the American experience. Time and again, we have found the courage to recognize the stains on our shared history, and have sought to redirect our course—to find a more inclusive, hopeful path. That work continues.

Genuine devotion for a partner, a child or, yes, a nation, is rooted in a sense of love so deep that it calls us to search for what is good and right, especially when such a path is the hardest to walk. It suggests that we each possess moral agency—the ability to help impact the course of our nation. Indeed, patriotism reminds us of our deepest aspirations for this nation: who we are, and who we can become.

Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players have assumed one posture of patriotism. Like so many Americans before them, they seek to make a more perfect union. This doesn’t mean that I have to like what they have done. But I should listen, I should be open-minded, I should engage.

Just yesterday I ran in the Mount Vernon Patriot race along with over 2,000 other runners. Before the race began, numerous speakers spoke about the fact that we must never forget 9/11, and that we always must honor those who protect us. I stood tall during the playing of the national anthem, and as I did tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered Frank and as my heart filled with my love for this nation. But my strong sense of devotion also tells me that I must hear those who kneel or turn away at this moment and understand their own devotion to this land. 

3 Steps to Responding to America’s Turmoil

By Rich Harwood

Earlier this week I was in Chicago, which sadly has become synonymous with gun violence. There, I keynoted a conference of 1,100 public school communications officers, who, like many Americans, are deeply troubled by the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge, Dallas and Orlando, among others. For many Americans, it feels as though the country is splitting apart. The toxic tone of the presidential campaign and our own community discourse only heighten these fears.

At issue is what will the nation and individual communities do: split apart, or find a common path forward?

There is no guarantee of a good outcome here. We must work at it. But the choice is clear: Either we will remain on the path of the status quo, which is filled with disappointment, frustration and, for too many Americans, despair. Or, we will choose a path of possibility and hope, where we restore our belief that we can come together to get things done.

More than anything, people want to know that they are seen and heard by others, that their reality is reflected and valued in our public discourse, and that we will work together to address their concerns. This is a basic human need. Making meaningful progress requires that we know this—and authentically act on it. But not just any actions will do, as many will only exacerbate our troubles. Here are three steps we should take to move the nation and our communities forward given where we are:

1.      Start with people’s shared aspirations for their community. A Texas man asked me at the school conference this week how can we find answers to our challenges when so many people see things nowadays as you are either with our side or against us? His point is important. Increasingly, we run the risk of breaking up into fragmented groups, isolated from one another. Too often discussions about tough challenges only reinforce this by asking people to talk about “problems.” These discussions soon descend into complaint sessions, where people point fingers about who is to blame for the lack of progress. In turn, we get locked into old arguments, which raise fears and push people into corners, and place us squarely on the path of the status quo.

Instead, the opportunity is to reframe our conversations in terms of our shared aspirations, revealing what we seek to create in our community together. These are not utopian wish lists, which will never come true. Nor will people agree on everything, but we already know that. People’s shared aspirations are rooted in things that are actionable, doable and achievable that we can get started on and build on, together.

2.      Allow room for different issues to rise up. It’s critical to recognize that there is no one single issue at work in the current environment, but rather a web of issues, which involve police and policing, racial equity, poor public schools, gun violence and more general concerns about community safety, among others. My own reading of the situation is that different issues in this web will rise to the top of the agenda in different communities.

And so we must resist the temptation to impose upon communities a frame for what needs to discussed and done. Otherwise, people will once again feel acted upon by the powers that be, productive work will be short-circuited, and people’s sense of possibility—and their own agency—will be dashed. This leads to mistrust, even cynicism. It is the path of the status quo that we must forcefully reject.

3.      Focus on building things together. Talk is good, but not enough, especially now. Indeed many Americans are fatigued from too many conversations in their communities that do not lead to productive action. I share their frustration. To restore our belief and can-do spirit, we must come together to build things together that move us toward achieving our aspirations and meeting current challenges.

How we do this work will be as important as what the work is. This is critical to know. We must make room for people in communities to come together and set goals, identify ways forward and implement solutions. The measure of these actions is not how grand or big or complex they are; rather, it is that people are coming together to act on their aspirations and concerns. Now is the time to build our civic confidence, which often will mean starting small and building upon our common successes. Undertaking solutions that are bound to stall out or die from their own complexity and weight is the path of the status quo.

In the rush to action we must avoid skipping over these steps, or else inevitably we will be right back on the path of the status quo. Nor should we simply rig up a laundry list of expert responses as a way to diffuse the situation and “show” progress. People don’t want to be sold yet another bill of goods. The task at hand is to understand and address what really matters to people. And people must be involved in creating and building these responses.

The issues we face are often complicated and difficult to deal with. They are highly emotional and often rooted in the nation’s history. But that shouldn’t stop us. Nor should it make us afraid. We must summon the courage to move forward and the humility to see and hear one another. But let’s be clear, a fundamental choice is before us: Either stay on the path of the status quo, or choose a path of possibility and hope. Let’s start with these three key steps to get on the right path. 


Guest Blog: Library Director's Experience at the Public Innovator's Lab

By Jos N. Holman, County Director at Tippecanoe County Public Library

This post originally appeared in Tippecanoe County Public Library's Newsletter

Many of you would not know this, but I have never been big on titles. However, recently I was recognized with a title I really like. I was dubbed a “Public Innovator.” I was officially granted this cool title by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and even have the certificate to prove it.

Not only was I granted this title, three other Tippecanoe County Public Library (TCPL) staff members became “Public Innovators.” The recognition came at the end of a three-day training in Detroit led by Rich Harwood and several Harwood staff members. The Midwest Collaborative for Library Services organization awarded TCPL a travel and registration grant for 75% of the training cost.

The Harwood Institute is a nonpartisan, national, nonprofit organization. It teaches, coaches, and inspires individuals and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together. Working in concert with the American Library Association, the institute hopes to train library staff throughout the country to thoroughly participate in and (when appropriate) facilitate efforts to transform their communities.

“Turning outward” is the core principle upon which Harwood training is based. Only by turning outward can organizations truly understand and actually listen to what others are saying. An organization’s main point of reference for actions and decisions should no longer be its internal space and processes. Instead, the community becomes the organization’s point of reference.

A clear path for action is achieved through community conversations. Once these conversations are finished, a picture of shared aspirations begins to take shape. These aspirations become the focus for making positive changes in the community. Together, we make intentional choices that influence and direct shared actions. Collectively we make a difference in the lives of other people, institutions, and civic-minded groups. By doing this we make a difference in our community.

Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate and attended many continuing educational activities. Rarely did any compare to the Harwood training. Although I was certainly impressed with their methodology, I was most impressed with the purpose and intended result of the training.

This training was not only designed to improve me, it encouraged me to look beyond myself to improve the community around me through a concerted effort. It was about changing enough in me to help change circumstances for others. The training strongly intimated that I needed to care enough to develop a deep understanding of the community, decide on the best path, and intentionally choose actions that will make a difference.

All of this is meant to be motivated through a personal covenant, an agreement with myself about doing what I can to make a difference. On a personal level, I strongly believe life is about making choices. Even as a teenager, I wanted to make a difference in the world and believed that happens by making choices. Now, with the title of “Public Innovator,” it seems I have been formally commissioned to make a difference. This just may be the title I have wanted all my life.


What to do about the crumbling world

By Rich Harwood

It can feel as if the world is coming undone before our very eyes. In just the past few weeks, alone, we have witnessed the Orlando massacre. More deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and Falcon Heights, MN. Great Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Donald Trump’s birdcalls through the use of anti-Semitic symbols. Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco and the heated political rhetoric in response to it. And then: Last night’s killing of multiple police officers in Dallas.

Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Each of these events is like an ink-blot test. Different people look at them, come up with entirely different reactions and attach to them entirely different causes. After Orlando, one could watch different news casts, and the different guests on them, and come away thinking that they were not even speaking about the same event. Some talked in terms of terrorism and the root-cause being Islamic extremism and ISIS. Others talked in terms of gun control and domestic hate. Some mentioned that this tragedy occurred at a gay nightclub, while others seemingly refused to utter the word “gay.” Still others noted that the mass shooting happened on the club’s Latin night, while others did not.

Perhaps the saddest part of this is that each group spoke as if they live in a vacuum, without any obligation or responsibility—or desire—to engage with the other. No, “the other” is the enemy now.

Meanwhile, we continue to stand witness to horrific shootings of African Americans by law enforcement, the very group that exists to protect, not kill. But just how “recent” are such shootings; is this really something new? For people of color, the fear of law enforcement is a reality that far too many individuals and communities have long lived with. Only now are these deaths something more visible to those of us whose days are not riddled by such fear. But what are the implications of this? Do we merely continue to mourn each new death without any new response?

In Great Britain, rural areas and small-towns in England overwhelmed more cosmopolitan urban areas in voting to exit the European Union. Consider this simple question: Why? What messages were these voters sending? One can argue 'til the cows come home whether it was “in their best interest” to vote for “Brexit.” But before such mind-numbing debate overwhelms our senses, or causes us to lock into a point of view, shouldn’t we first seek to better understand what is motivating their vote—indeed, what is spurring their fears and concerns? Perhaps the lesson here for the U.S. is not whether one supports Donald Trump or not, but rather, what are his supporters—our fellow Americans—trying to say through their support in these troubled times?

There’s an old country song the refrain of which is, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” What people want more than anything—what people need more than anything—is for their reality to be reflected and acknowledged in our common discourse. That requires us to face that reality, even if it doesn’t fit with our own—no, especially when it doesn’t fit with our own.

Each of us can choose to move ahead as isolated individuals, as fragmented groups, as adherents to one point of view over another, but that will never work. We cannot go it alone, on our own. Seeing our own reality, without seeing that of others, is a recipe for a further breakdown of society.

The costs are real. This isn’t political philosophy. It’s reality. 

When I’m in Orlando this Weekend

By Rich Harwood

This Friday, I’m heading to Orlando to speak at the American Library Association conference about the role of libraries in transforming communities. As I prepare for my trip, my mind keeps turning to the recent massacre there and how a community—and the nation—can respond.

Unfortunately, the current debate over guns on Capitol Hill leaves little hope for much of any response—whatever course it might take—other than more gridlock and name calling. Both the tone and substance of the debate is cause for real concern. But something even more fundamental plagues the discussion and demands our urgent attention.

The response to the Orlando tragedy is in part a function of something much larger, insidious and corrosive taking place in our society. Hate now seems to be enveloping us. Our public discourse is infused with it. A sense of common purpose undermined by it. When hate permeates a society to this extent, it must be confronted head on. Our ability to make progress depends upon making a significant course correction. We must not delay.

There are numerous examples of the spread of hate. Exhibit A is the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which continually stokes people’s fears. Meanwhile, leaders of his own party stand-by in hopes that they will not be asked to comment on the latest incendiary tactic or to take a definitive stand. Mr. Trump’s strategy of playing on people’s fears is dangerous.  

But blaming Mr. Trump alone is too easy. And if we are not careful, we will once more miss the frustration and anger that many of his supporters feel.

The problem is that across the nation, various organizations and groups, political parties and leaders from all sides are at loggerheads. We risk descending into fragmented tribes, each protecting their own good, with little regard for the common good. Sadly, the name of the game now is to push one’s opponent into a corner. Raise voices. Point fingers. Cast aspersions. Far too little listening is happening. Too many opportunities for progress are getting choked off.

Our nation finds itself at an ugly impasse. When this happens, trust disappears, fear reigns, and there is little hope for major breakthroughs.  

So what shall we do?

First and foremost, we must take a firm stand against hate. This will require that we make the choice to see and hear one another. That we commit to a modicum of empathy toward one another. That we seek to find openings for productive actions that can lead to growing our collective civic confidence that change, however small at first, is possible.

People of good will do not wish to idly stand on the sidelines and watch the ratcheting up of hate and the further fragmentation of society. They believe we can do better—that individually and collectively, we can be better. I know this because I witness such desire and the actions it produces each day in my work with people in communities across the nation.

The fundamental task here is to reclaim, together, what we value and the kind of communities we seek to create. This cannot be an exercise in wishful thinking. It is a fight—a fight against hate and the further fragmentation of our society. To battle hate, we must each examine where we stand, our actions, our willingness to truly see and hear one another, and make a firm declaration of our intentions. 

Orlando United

By Rich Harwood

Our national fortitude and belief in ourselves are being tested once more. The massacre in Orlando defies explanation and plainly reminds us that evil exists. It also raises important questions: How does the Orlando community now find a way to pick itself up after such a horrific incident has knocked it down? And what is our response as a nation?

This shooting is yet another defining moment in our country’s history—along with similar tragedies that have occurred in places such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and, more recently, San Bernardino. In the last 30 months alone, mass shooters have murdered at least 1,105 people and wounded nearly 4,000 people.

Such acts need not define us as a nation. But they do test our resolve. And we have a choice as to how we move forward.

There are those political leaders in the midst of the carnage, who are already seeking personal and political gain—before the dead have been identified, and their next of kin notified.

There are those who are already using this occasion to pass judgment on the sexual orientation of those who were murdered, or somehow avoid mentioning it at all.

There are those who are already rushing to judgment about what precipitated this event so as to advance their own pre-fixed agendas, without leaving room for the facts to emerge.

When our nation is visited by such acts of hate and terror, fear ripples throughout media coverage and daily conversations and the world around us can seem immeasurably unsafe, unsound and unreliable.

The choice before us as a nation—and as individuals—is will we continue down this path, or will we pursue an alternate path of possibility and hope. I know we can choose the latter path.

I have worked in many communities traumatized by all sorts of shocks, from massive job layoffs to mass shootings. One such place was Newtown, CT, where a 19 year old gunman named Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults.

There, I helped the community decide what to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School and make an all-important pivot from trauma and despair to healing and hope. More than anything I did personally, I learned first-hand from the good and brave people of Newtown what it means to stand back up and put one foot in front of the other despite untenable pain and raw anger.

In Newtown, a special task force of 28 elected leaders was created to make the decision about the school’s future and that of the community. I remember at the last of our meetings, one task force member said that, upon reflection, she had come to a basic but profound belief: “We must move forward as best we can.” Indeed there is no perfect solution for an imperfect situation.

What the people of Newtown demonstrated time and again—as I believe the people of Orlando will also show—was a willingness to listen to different points of view about how to move forward. They showed a deep compassion for one another, even as they wrestled with competing ideas about what to do. And they mustered a collective sense that they were all in the same boat.

Amid the tragedy in Orlando, will we, as Americans, join together in the same boat? Will we debate the issues at hand with a sense of compassion, especially for those with differing views? Will we afford people who may be different from ourselves the dignity they deserve?

There will be a robust debate in the days ahead—as there should be. Our differences on how to address this tragedy are real and we shouldn’t gloss over them. But that does not mean that the debate must be riddled by gratuitous divisiveness and acrimony. Nor that political posturing and pontificating should rule the day.

The nation’s fortitude and belief in itself now face a test. If we truly yearn for Orlando to heal, then let’s stand united with Orlando. This will require that we engage productively and exercise human love. Nothing less will do.


West Virginia Rising Up

By Rich Harwood

Last week I went to Beckley, West Virginia to keynote Rise Up Southern West Virginia, a conference of about 200 leaders committed to fighting childhood poverty. I traveled there because I wanted to make two simple and basic points: No people or part of our country should be left behind as the nation seeks to move forward, and the path forward must start with the individuals in that room.

West Virginia has long lagged behind the rest of the nation by almost every measure but is now suffering at record levels. In just the past year, thousands upon thousands of coal jobs have disappeared. More and more families have lost loved ones to the scourge of a prescription drug epidemic. And vast teacher vacancies have left public schools ill-equipped and short-handed to prepare the next generation.

This is part of West Virginia’s reality, but only part of it.

I have been to West Virginia numerous times over the course of my career, and this trip left me more committed to the state than ever before. But it was my first-ever visit that came to shape my views of the people there and help propel me to launch what is now known as The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Back in August 1985, a Union Carbide chemical plant in Institute, WV leaked toxic gases. Just months before, deadly gases had escaped at its sister plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands of people. At the time, I was working for a non-profit in mid-town New York, and we were asked to come to Institute to help the community and the chemical industry figure out how best to respond.

The work was inspiring. Residents bravely sought ways to balance their urgent desire for safety and protection with a need to maintain jobs. They were deeply proud of their state and its history and culture. What I also remember, vividly, was the reaction of my friends and colleagues in New York City and elsewhere when they heard I was working in West Virginia. Their refrains were biting: “You can’t get a good glass of wine there.” “The people there are uneducated.” “Why do West Virginians even support those chemical industry jobs, anyway?” And on and on it went.

I fear such attitudes still persist in our country about West Virginia and places like it. It’s an attitude that says that some people are worth more than others and that some of us will be left to go it alone. It’s one reason for the deep anger now permeating our political landscape. There’s no room for such attitudes if we are to find more effective and inclusive paths for moving forward.

I started The Harwood Institute because I believe every individual in America should have a fair shot at the American Dream. That each person should have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. And that all people should be afforded dignity. As I said in West Virginia last week, I believe that in order to make progress, we must make community a common enterprise again, where each of us is a part of something larger than ourselves. 

During the course of the presidential primaries, various candidates have gone to West Virginia to make pledges and promises to revitalize the state by bringing jobs back and fixing the education system, among other ideas. The people of West Virginia have heard such promises before, and little has come from them. Using the state as a convenient backdrop for campaigns only promotes more false hope and cynicism. My own read is that the people of West Virginia don’t buy it.

Instead, there is a growing desire within the state for people to come together to begin to tackle their own pressing challenges. I’m convinced more than ever that change has to start there, at the community level. Progress on this path may be slow at times, but it will be real, and matter in people’s lives. I plan to be there supporting them.

Thinking About My Dad

By Rich Harwood

Every so often I’ve written about people who have made a difference in public life and inspired me. Some of these individuals I have known, while most of them I have not. I am drawn to these stories because I believe that in an age of divisive politics, a lack of belief in our ability to get things done together and a flagging American Dream, that it’s essential to lift up ordinary Americans who help shine a light on a more positive path forward. Today, I want to talk about one individual I did know well: my dad, Gil Harwood, who passed away earlier this month.

One of his greatest gifts to me was a deep affection and love for Judaism. Upon his death, I was instantly reminded of my three favorite words in the Old Testament. They were spoken by Moses when he stood before the burning bush and God called out to him. Moses responded: “Here I am.” My dad believed that we are each called to step forward to say, “Here I am,” in our own way—to repair breaches in society and account for our daily actions. He believed how one lived their life mattered.

I saw him practice this approach first-hand time and again. When I was born, I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As a young child, I would often be up all night sick. My dad was there. He would take things out of our hallway closet and make up games. He would tell me stories. And sometimes, he would simply lay beside me to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. Oftentimes this went on night after night, but he was still there, even while working 12- to 15-hour days, often seven days a week.

When I was five, I remember him taking me to drop leaflets for political candidates in Queens, NY, where we lived at the time. It was the start of regular conversations we would have about politics that would stretch out over 50 years. What I remember most from these conversations was his deep belief that politics should be—and can be—a noble calling to pursue the common good. And he taught me that for those of us who believe it should be such a calling, that it is our responsibility to work to make politics better.

During my teens, I can remember seeing the mail piled up on our dining room table, and every couple of weeks or so a white legal-size envelope would be there from the Saratoga County Mental Health Committee. This was during the 1970s, when it was still taboo to talk about mental health issues in public, especially in upstate NY. My dad fought to make sure that any individual who needed support could get it.

When I attended Skidmore College, I did a special project on urban renewal in Saratoga Springs. I had known my dad was on the Urban Renewal Commission for the city, but I hadn’t known what I came to discover until I later talked with his colleagues and city leaders. They told me that it was my dad who insisted, over many years, that every person had a voice in the redevelopment of the community, especially those directly affected by urban renewal.

Later on, after I had moved to Washington, DC, I was invited to a reception at a national, blue-chip law firm for the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who had just joined the firm. My dad had served as Cuomo’s counsel for well over a decade. So, when the governor was told that I was there, he came over to me, and in front of his law partners and young associates, declared, “Now, your dad, he was a lawyer’s lawyer!”

What he meant was that my dad was disciplined and rigorous in his approach. But what the governor didn’t say, and what I was thinking at the time, is that my dad believed that no one in a position of power should ever use the law for their own personal benefit or political gain. The law was there to protect to the public good.

Just a couple of years ago, my dad asked me to take him back to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up. We spent three days together returning to Borough Park, which, when he was a kid, was a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. We went to Webster Avenue to his old home where he played stickball in the street with his friends. He took me to where he went to public school and to the synagogue where he went to religious school three times a week. We went to Sunset Park, where his father, my grandfather, owned his first pharmacy. What I remember from this trip, what I remember about my dad, is that he never forget where he was from, and he never pretended to be from someplace he wasn’t.

My dad could be a difficult man, often argumentative, at times biting in his critiques. For he was always pushing forward, always seeking out change, always believing that notwithstanding our human frailties and foibles, that we could do better, we can be better. I will forever be guided by these beliefs—and his call to step forward and say, “Here I am.”

Flint's Reflection in our Eyes

By Rich Harwood

There’s an old country song I often quote in speeches I give, the refrain of which is, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about that line in the context of what’s happening to the people of Flint, Michigan.

I suspect that most Flint residents can no longer see themselves in our eyes and the eyes of their supposed public “servants,” and frankly, it’s because too many people have turned the other way. Residents in this city of 95,000, once a major national industrial center and a shining example of American ingenuity, fear brushing their teeth, bathing and even drinking their own water.

Perhaps there was some good reason for switching the community’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. To me, that debate overshadows even more important questions: Why after the ill-fated change did it take months for anyone to hear the cries from Flint? And even when those cries were heard, why was there so little action to fix the situation? Many observers have said what has already gone through so many of our own minds: This would never have happened in a largely white, middle class community. But Flint is largely African American and many people there live in poverty.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s – after GM closed its plants in the area and the community was still reeling from the job losses and effects of various failed attempts at quick fixes – my colleagues and I spent a number of years working closely with people in Flint to help them put their community on a better course. It was slow, hard work; nothing came easy. Mistrust, violent crime, abandoned homes and lots pervaded the community. Hope was in short supply. But what I also came to know is that Flint residents are some of the most spirited and resilient people in all of America. Indeed, while the community certainly suffers from myriad challenges, it is rich in the kind of dogged determination that I believe is the great strength of our communities and this nation.

At the time, when I would tell people who didn’t live in Flint about our work there, I can remember having to answer the same question over and over again: Why not just let the struggling community die? Wouldn’t that be easier? More cost effective? In fact, just this past week, The Washington Post ran a front-page article with the headline: “Many in Flint wish to leave but can’t.” Darren Bently, a 33-year-old Flint native, whose parents and grandparents have called Flint home, was quoted as saying, “I never intended to leave. This is my home. This is my family. This is everything I know.” He and others don’t want Flint to die.

Many political leaders in Michigan and the federal government are running for cover as the fallout from this tragedy piles up. Meanwhile, some leaders have suddenly adopted Flint as their cause. But where have they been all these months? In all the posturing and positioning it would be easy to forget a basic truth: Communities are more than playing fields for political leaders. They’re where people make a go of life. Where families are started and reared. Where people gain a sense of belonging, safety and pride. They’re where the seeds of real change are often planted, by one person and then another making a choice to step over the threshold from their private life into public life, and to work with others to get real things done even amidst their differences. 

The truth is that Flint was suffering long before residents began to fear consuming its water. Like so many other places in America, Flint has been ignored. We go there only when we must – and dare I say, too often, we go there only when it’s advantageous.

It seems to me that to give communities like Flint a real shot, we must do better. We must be willing to do the hard work of building trust, of getting our hands dirty in the messiness that is change. And at the most fundamental human level, this requires us to be present, to see and hear one another, and to reflect the reality of people’s lives in our words and actions.

To fail to see and hear people is to deny them of their reality. When one’s reality is denied, it strips people of their basic dignity. Too many people who could have helped Flint turned the other way. In too many communities, people are fighting uphill battles to combat challenges and aspire to a better life. They want to know their lives matter and that they count. Right now, too often, they’re going it alone. They can’t see themselves in our eyes anymore. Maybe they never could. What are we going to do about that? 

Our Soldiers and the NFL

By Rich Harwood

Another Veterans Day passed last week with all the pomp and ceremonies and solemnness we have come to expect – and that many of us cherish as we honor those who have protected us, especially in an increasingly dangerous world. What I didn’t expect was to learn that the NFL and many of its teams (along with professional basketball, baseball and hockey, among others) have been paid to honor our soldiers at games.

It’s called “paid patriotism,” and it stinks.

Just two weeks ago, U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (both of Arizona) released a new report that detailed $6.8 million in payments over four years to pro sports teams to recognize and honor our soldiers at games. According to the report, teams were paid for on-field color guard ceremonies, the singing of the national anthem, ceremonial first pitches and other tributes.

The Department of Defense explained these expenditures as part of its ongoing military recruitment. Of course, we’re accustomed to the various paid advertisements we routinely see on television and elsewhere to recruit military members. “Be All You Can Be” is a slogan many of us can hear ringing in our own minds after years of U.S. Army ads.

But the U.S. government paying for tributes by sports leagues and teams, including colleges and universities, crosses a line. So, too, does the NFL and other organizations seeking payments. Clearly, this is a question of appropriateness. But it’s much more than that. It goes to the heart of the meaning of patriotism and authenticity.

Patriotism is defined as “love of country.” When we honor our servicemen and women, we are expressing that love. When we stand at ballgames to applaud their efforts, we are demonstrating our individual and collective respect and support. These actions are a sign that we are each part of something larger than ourselves. They signal our commitment to those who serve, even if, or especially if, we may not support a particular military mission or engagement.

I wrote some years ago about my experience as a season ticket holder of the Washington Capitals hockey team (which I can gladly report hasn’t taken any DOD payments for paid patriotism) when men and women in uniform were regularly honored at games. At the time I wrote:

“During many games in the Verizon Center people are asked to recognize those soldiers in attendance. A prolonged, standing ovation ensues; indeed, as opposition to the [Iraq] war has increased over the last year or two, the length and intensity of the ovation has only expanded. I cannot describe the feeling.”

As I reread those lines I am immediately transported back to those precious moments. Amid divisions and name-calling in our politics and public discourse, we Americans stood together. I went on in that piece to write about our implicit covenant with soldiers we ask to go into harm’s way and the need for us to meet our commitment to them when they return home. I have written many times on that subject.

But here I wish to focus on paid patriotism. Is there such a thing? Can one be paid to be patriotic? Should one be paid to be patriotic? Surely, love of country must come from an authentic place. It must come from a voluntary act. It comes from our hearts. As I suggested above regarding the Iraq War, such patriotism often comes even when we disapprove of what our country is doing. This is in part the definition of love: to stay attached when things are not going as we like.

Paid patriotism is at odds with genuine patriotism. Protecting the authenticity of our patriotism is a duty of citizenship. It should be a duty of our government, too. And shame on sports organizations that seek payment to express their patriotism.

The Torah on the March from Selma

By Rich Harwood This past Monday, I sat in services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, nervous about my task: to go to the front of the congregation and lift the Torah (Holy Scripture scrolls) above my head after it was read and before it was to be placed back in its Holy Ark, where it is kept.

I thought about all the things that could go wrong, and all the things I realized I wasn’t sure I was to do in performing this ritual. Why had I ever agreed to do this?

Then, all of a sudden, I was awakened from my anxious stupor by our rabbi who told the story of the Torah we were about to read from that day. On this day, we wouldn’t hear young congregants chant from our own Torah; rather, we were to use a different one. Since August 1, the Torah we were about to open had been carried for 45 days and almost 1,000 miles on an historic march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. The march, America’s Journey for Justice, was organized by the NAACP.

Our congregation, Temple Micah, had been blessed. On the only day this Torah was to be absent from the march, on this Rosh Hashanah, our modest congregation was to be its temporary home and would get to read from it. And on this day, as is tradition, we would hear the story of Abraham’s test from God, when he was commanded to sacrifice his son, Issac. Only at the last moment, after proving an abiding faith, would an angel be sent to give Abraham and Issac a reprieve.

Our own faith is tested all the time, and especially in recent time. How do we understand a rash of shootings that have taken place in our cities and towns – from Newtown to Ferguson? How do we come to grips with ever-growing gaps between rich and poor? How do we restore a belief in ourselves that we can come together and get things done?

So many things were going through my mind as I sat there in Rosh Hashanah services – which happened to be taking place in a Methodist church. You see, our Rosh Hashanah services are held in the same church each year because the over-flowing crowd is too large for our own synagogue. So, there I was sitting in a church, observing our High Holy Day services, about to lift a Torah above my head, only to find out that this particular Torah had been carried for weeks on a march from Selma organized by the NAACP.

As I sat in the pew, and heard the story of this Torah, all the anxiety that had consumed me immediately left my body. I then found myself glancing over at the stone etchings of people’s names on the wall celebrating the good lives lived by various Methodist church members over the years. I could envision people on the march from Selma, day after day, seeking on their journey a more perfect union. I could see before me row after row of fellow Jews (and non-Jewish partners) praying.

I knew then that I was in the right place. As I sat there, I was reminded of all the things that can come between us, and yet our common journey must go on.

The Fallen Soldier on my Flight

By Rich Harwood As my flight from Honolulu to Dallas pulled up to the gate, the flight attendant asked the passengers to remain in their seats. Then he requested all to observe a moment of silence as a U.S. Air Force Sergeant was to fulfill his duties in bringing a fallen soldier home.

I fly multiple times a month. At the end of each flight, people pop up from the seats to “deplane” as quickly as possible. Many can be seen standing even before the plane reaches the gate. Others, once permitted to stand, jostle for position in order to improve their place in the queue. And there are those who relentlessly nudge others along, seemingly oblivious to their own rude behavior.

This is the ritual that repeats itself daily during the grind of flying. And yet on this day, on this flight, everything changed in a moment’s notice.

Gone were people’s insistence to follow their own course. Gone was the mad rush. Gone were the complaints about fellow passengers not moving fast enough.

On this jam-packed Boeing 767 flight, people responded immediately as if they had been tipped off as to what was about to happen. But they hadn’t known. None of us did. And so happy vacationers coming from sun-filled Hawaii sat there. Not a move. Not a sound.

The Sergeant alone stood up, took his bag down from the overhead bin, and stoutly walked down the aisle, out of the cabin. Soon you could see him outside, there on the right side of the plane, with other local soldiers in salute, as the casket was removed from the plane’s stowage.

I was on my way home from a two-week business trip to Australia and Hawaii. During the Australia leg, I was asked repeatedly what our friends down under should learn from the States when it comes to strengthening communities and solving pressing problems. I found myself imploring the Australians to look to themselves first; to tap into their own ingenuity; to examine their own successes. It is also true, however, that each time I led off my response by saying: “I love my country. I am proud of its can-do attitude. I know that that we have made many mistakes over our history, and I love that eventually we seem to find ways to correct our course and continue to strive for a more perfect union.”

These thoughts of Australia rushed into my mind as I watched the series of events unfold as my plane stood at the gate and the Sergeant stood up from his seat. Amid the absolute silence on the plane, my eyes quickly welled up with tears. I did not know this fallen soldier’s name. I did not know where this fallen soldier was coming from. I did not know how this soldier fell, or where he or she was to be laid to rest.

But I felt a deep sense of sorrow for this soldier and his or her family. And I felt a deep love of country. I was proud of those on this plane who put aside all our common impulses to pay proper respect.

Yes, Our Democracy Is a Mess, and Yes, Our Opportunities Are Real

By Richard Harwood

The following article appeared in The Kettering Foundation's annual newsletter, "Connections."

As part of the Kettering Founda­tion’s efforts to take stock of trends affecting citizens and communities, I have recently held 10 in-depth conversations with leading thinkers and practitioners in the areas of democracy and American life.

In these discussions, we talked about the current condition of the country and the forces that are shaping it today. I asked those I interviewed about the positive trends they see among people engaging and working together in com­munities. I also asked how widespread these positive developments are, what is driving them, and how we can acceler­ate and deepen them. And I explored with these individuals what they believe resulted from the so-called civic renewal movement of the 1990s (the attempt to build new civic capacities and practices among organizations, leaders, networks, and citizens) and the implications of that movement for us today.

When I combine these conversations with what I have seen and heard working in communities over the past few years, it seems that the 1990s movement was simply too shallow and narrow in scope to withstand larger economic, political, and social trends, such as the Great Reces­sion and the September 11 attacks. While the leaders I interviewed differed in their interpretations of what exactly happened, there was general agreement that the ideas behind those civic activities did not penetrate American society widely or deeply enough. The innovations simply failed to be adopted and embedded into the necessary structures, processes, and organizations. Indeed, the civic renewal movement didn’t succeed in permeating our collective sense of how we want to connect with one another, work together, and get things done.

Harry Boyte, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augs­burg College, told me, “In some ways the civic impulse spread in spaces that were less structured and bureaucratized, where the politics of knowledge was not as hier­archical and rigid. But that was also the weakness because it was quite vulnerable.”

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, highlighted many of the posi­tive elements of that earlier period while suggesting that the efforts did not go far enough. She observed that while the civic renewal work “was incredibly important on shifting professional practices . . . it didn’t get embedded into ongoing medi­ating organizations in the communities it was attempted in.”

What I kept hearing, in other words, is that the civic renewal movement faded away. Without question, it made a differ­ence at the time: it changed how people, organizations, and communities worked and helped establish a foundation for many of the positive actions we see today. But it did not firmly take hold.

Read the Full Article

Why I’m for Donald Trump

By Rich Harwood Well, I’m not actually for Donald Trump, I am for someone clearly repudiating what he has said and – even more importantly – offering a true alternative that is not the result of careful focus group tests, surveying which way the wind is blowing and political consultants, but reflective of the kind of country we are trying to build together.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask. But will it happen?

Trump and his offensive rhetoric and positions have taken the country by storm, and there is growing worry about the collateral damage he’ll wreak on our politics and public affairs. And yet I don’t count myself among those who worry. Here’s why: Whether intentionally or not, Trump has set down a challenge to all those who seek to be president and those who wish to lead. The question is, “Who will answer the challenge with clarity and conviction rather than hand-wringing or even cowering?”

Trump is tapping into a reservoir of real, deeply-felt frustration within a segment of the American people who believe their country is spinning out of control, and who fear that they and what they cherish will be left behind. As he makes his way across the country, his crowds grow in number and intensity. Just a week ago in Arizona, 4,200 people waited for hours in 100-degree heat to attend his rally, with many others left outside, unable to secure a seat. This we must recognize as important.

But in his presidential campaign kick-off, he said that Mexico is bringing “drugs, crime and rapists” to the U.S. In Arizona, he doubled-down, stating: “These are people that shouldn’t be in our country. They flow in like water.” A man in the crowd then yelled out, “Build a wall!” Then let’s not forget his most recent disturbing comments about Arizona Sen. John McCain and his time as a POW in Vietnam.

It’s easy to dismiss Trump and his antics. He’s like the carnival barker whose only goal is to gain attention in order to gin up ticket sales. But before we choose to willy-nilly write-off Trump, or say his support will naturally top-out, or hope for his carnival to leave town before it causes any more damage, he deserves our undivided attention.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently called Trump in hopes of getting him to “tone down” his comments. And the Huffington Post just announced on Friday that it would no longer cover Trump as part of its political coverage and only report on him in its Entertainment section. But I say, let him go. Let him speak out. When he does, our leaders must not turn away. Instead, they must turn outward toward him – and more importantly, toward the American people.

By his words and actions, Trump is challenging all candidates and leaders to spell out their view of a changing America with clarity and conviction. If one doesn’t like Trump’s perspective, then what is their alternate vision? Who is to be part of it? What kind of America should we be seeking to create? And how is it that people’s concerns about the future can be addressed?

The debate over immigration has been driven by bumper sticker slogans and divisive rhetoric. Now Trump has generated a new opening for leaders to try to knit together seemingly disparate segments of the country to forge a more perfect union in a decidedly imperfect world.

Indeed, the goal ought not to be silencing Trump. Nor should it be simply to denounce him. Because silencing or denouncing him does not mean that a more hopeful message will be sounded; it only means that Trump will not be heard. Who will step forward, not simply to condemn Trump, but to offer a real alternative?

In Arizona, Trump told the crowd, “We have to take back the heart of the country.” It’s time for our presidential candidates and leaders to express their own hearts before too many hearts in the country harden in the midst of fear.

Charleston and Our Need for a Change of Heart

by Rich Harwood

State Senator Paul Thurmond, the youngest son of former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, once the standard-bearer of the Old South, recently stood on the floor of the South Carolina Senate and delivered a speech calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State Capitol.

He, like others in South Carolina, had a change of heart. He, like others, said it was crystallized by the horrific killings at Emanuel AME Church, in which the lives of nine people were taken, including his state Senate colleague Clementa Pinckney.

In other words, he and others had their personal walls of protection punctured, walls that often serve to keep at bay the cries and experiences of others. Only when these walls are breached can one’s heart be touched in new ways. Only when these walls come down can we truly see and hear one another.

There is something distinctly human about a change of heart. It cannot be legislated. Nor dictated. And it never can be coerced. It comes only from within us; authored directly by each of us. And yet it is often prompted by something outside of us. Something we see or experience anew. Something we come to understand differently. Something that stirs a latent feeling within us.

Indeed, it should not take this kind of senseless tragedy for such a change to occur within us. The question before us though is how do we move forward so that people continue to gain confidence that change is possible, that we can in fact come together and get things done that matter?

We have all heard the calls for action in the aftermath of the recent killings in Charleston, Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson, among other places. They run the gamut: from possible policy changes in gun laws to more support for early childhood education and mental health to shifts in community policing.

Such calls have only grown louder with each passing incident. All the while, many others in our communities continue to die each day from violence, except their plights will never be known to the rest of us. They often die alone in silence.

But as I have watched events in South Carolina over the past week, I am convinced we must do something beyond the recent calls for action: mobilize good will. In fact, this may be the most important step of all.

We have seen the power of this approach in South Carolina. The brave acts of forgiveness toward the shooter from those who lost loved ones. The rallies made up of South Carolinians from all walks of life. The change of heart of political leaders – from state Senator Paul Thurmond to Governor Nikki Haley to U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham.

When I use word “mobilize" I know that it can immediately imply organizing people to participate in letter writing campaigns or sign online petitions or become advocates for a certain policy change. Such activities have their place.

But they are not what I have in mind, at least not in this instance. Instead, our task is to produce opportunities for people to interact on a human scale. Small and local is where these actions need to start – where people can regain their footing, confidence, and ability to do things together. In the midst of all the policy debates that will undoubtedly continue, we can make this happen now.

Recent tragedies in South Carolina and elsewhere have created this opening. Only when we take it, can we tear down the walls of protection and give rise to a change of heart.

Libraries: Protectors of the Common Good

Just this past week, my colleagues and I spent three days training 100 librarians from north Texas to be public innovators as part of a partnership with the Texas Library and Archives Commission. By the end of May, we’ll train upwards of 300 librarians statewide. These librarians – already doing important work in their communities – are now equipped to go even broader and deeper in their community efforts. As I said to these librarians last week, I am convinced that at no other point in my lifetime have communities needed libraries more than they do now. So why then are they under assault? And where is our vocal, vigorous support for them? Across the country, library funding is being mercilessly cut.

In Kentucky many counties are looking at 60%–70% cuts and in Miami-Dade, Florida there is a $20 million budget deficit for the 2015 fiscal year to fund the county’s 49 branches. And in New Jersey, Governor Christie recommended the funding levels for library programs in the 2015 State Budget remain as it was in 2011.  Overall, even with signs of economic recovery, many libraries across the country continue to be faced with statewide budget cuts, branch closings, and limitations in maintaining federal funding.  These cuts lead to shorter hours, fewer services and diminished positive effects on communities and children.

Sadly, it seems many political leaders view libraries as a “nice” community amenity that is to be supported only when we can afford it. But that’s a dangerous march of folly. The reality is that libraries are an essential part of communities we can’t afford to lose.

I know making this case may sound quaint. No doubt many of us have a happy picture in our mind of the smiling librarian reading to us as children or helping us find a book deep in the stacks. But there’s nothing nostalgic or soft-hearted about the case to be made for libraries. There are more than 15,000 public libraries in the U.S., and public opinion surveys consistently show that they’re the most trusted of community institutions, second only to local police departments.

At a time in our society when we can be consumed about our own good, we need libraries as front-line creators of the common good. Indeed libraries are central to us making community a common enterprise again – where we care about the health of our community, where we innovate to create new pathways forward, and where people have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. Libraries have the potential to span boundaries by bringing people and groups together across dividing lines and helping to address common challenges in a way that strengthens the civic and social fabric of our communities.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the public library provides financial literacy classes to individuals so they and their families can become economically self-sufficient and have a real shot at the American Dream. In Burlington, KY, the library has created a EARN SPEND SAVE program to engages kids, teens and adults with a series of year-long workshops with practical financial programs.  The Spartanburg, S.C., library has a new center for local teens where after school they do their homework, learn new skills and hang out, all safe and supervised and off the streets.

In Spokane, Wash., the county library has become a convener by bringing local residents together to talk about their shared aspirations for their communities and helping people find ways to act on those aspirations; its efforts are combating the divisive and often toxic public discourse we too often experience in public life and politics nowadays. And in Washington, D.C. the new library director envisions the public library being a place for workplace innovation, meant to facilitate the creative economy at all levels.

At a time when so many organizations and groups have turned inward to protect their own good – their fund-raising, turf, and at times overly narrow agendas – libraries are a uniquely trusted local institution that has as its mission the health and vitality of the communities it serves.

They are one of the last protectors of the common good.

That’s why I’m placing my bets on libraries. In addition to the work in Texas, we also have been working with libraries from across the country over the past two years in a partnership with the American Library Association, supported in part by a grant from the Gates Foundation. And I’ve had the good fortune to speak at scores of state library association and other conferences from New Jersey to Idaho, Michigan to Maine.

Now is not the time to cut support for libraries. It should be vastly increased. This is not some feel-good cause harkening us back to a bygone era; rather it is a hard-headed, strategic investment in the common good. People want to restore their faith that we can come together and get things done; that we can produce a sense of possibility and hope in our communities for all people. Libraries are essential in helping us build this new path.

Putting Community in Collective Impact

Richard C. Harwood

There is a growing concern that the robust notions of community can sometimes be left out of collective impact discussions and implementation efforts; indeed, the very nature of community seems at times an afterthought, even sometimes an unwanted nuisance to be minimized. But collective impact efforts must be aligned and calibrated to the context of community – the “civic culture” – in which they are taking place.

This article will lay out five key characteristics of civic culture, explore why they matter, and how paying attention to them may be the difference between a collective impact effort getting stuck – even falling flat – or generating the kinds of results we seek. A collective impact approach holds enormous promise for bringing about meaningful change – but only if such action is taken with communities, not apart from them.

Read the full report on the Collective Impact Forum or download here

Why I Love Data

By Rich Harwood Not long ago I wrote a piece entitled, “An Urgent Warning about Impact,” in which I  cautioned that focusing too much on notions of “impact” can make us lose sight of our most precious mission: to help people transform their lives and build stronger communities.

That brought many positive reactions, but some delightfully negative ones too. Some people questioned if I were “anti-data,” against the use of metrics to set goals, and resistant to measuring the impact of efforts to combat social ills. Today I wish to set the record straight.

Let me say as clearly as I can: I am for the use of data, I am for setting goals, and I am for measuring impact. Phew! Now that I have said that, I want to explain my thinking.

Data – and the many new analyses and uses of it – enable us to better understand what is happening in communities and the larger society. For instance, data helps us figure out the hotspots of crime in a community, the children who are at greatest risk of falling through the cracks, and where toxic waste sites exist in relationship to population centers. These and countless other examples open a window for us to see more clearly what we need to pay attention to.

Efforts to set metrics so that we know what we want to accomplish makes imminent sense. Without knowing where we are going, it is hard to know if we have ever arrived. And measuring impact allows us to know “what works.” It’s possible to determine which interventions are successful and which aren’t. Why would we not want to know this? So, yes, let’s use data, let’s set goals, and let’s measure impact so we can figure out how best to deploy limited resources.

But this is my plea: Let’s also be discerning as we pursue this path.

Just recently, the Collective Impact Forum (an initiative of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and FSG) published an article I wrote, “Putting Community in Collective Impact.” In it, I make the case that understanding and strengthening a community’s civic culture is as important to collective efforts as using data, metrics and measuring outcomes. After all, civic culture is the container in which all change in communities occurs. A weak civic culture will undermine the best of intentions and the most rigorous of analyses and plans.

For change to happen, trust and community ownership must form, people need to engage with one another, and we need to create the right underlying conditions and capacities for change to take root and spread. It takes being aware of the readiness and appetite for change among leaders, groups and everyday people.

My urgent warning about impact is that it can cast a spell over us, where we become so consumed with data, metrics and measuring outcomes that we take our eye off of the community itself. We may fail to see people – and our common humanity – involved in this common enterprise we call community. We may forget that simply because we know “what works” does not mean that we know “how things work” – that is, how change comes about and evolves in communities.

After all, communities are organic systems. We cannot control or simply impose solutions on them. What’s more, simply because we set a shared destination does not mean that our pre-planned route is either the right one or even a good one. Changes in communities emerge over time and we must spend as much time re-calibrating our efforts as we do planning them.

So, by all means, let’s use data, let’s set goals, and let’s figure out what works. And at the same time, let’s also re-commit ourselves to be discerning in how we pursue this path.

Getting Real About Rebuilding Trust

By Rich Harwood The latest Edelman Trust Barometer – which measures levels of trust in 27 countries – reports that trust in non-governmental organizations has fallen to a new five-year low. Still the most trusted in comparison to government, media and business, this recent survey is bad news for nonprofits.

According to the Edelman research, a big factor in the decline of trust in nonprofits is people’s belief that these organizations have become too focused on fundraising and money and operate too much like businesses. A sense of the public good is missing.

This finding corresponds with my own research over the years. In a series of research studies and on-the-ground work in communities across the country, my own organization has found that too many nonprofits have turned inward, focusing on their own survival, positioning, image, turf battles and seizing credit. Many organizations believe this inward focus is their ticket to earning greater support. But the fact is that these behaviors only lead to becoming more disconnected from the very communities these groups seek to serve.

What can we do, then, to rebuild trust?

First and foremost, we must turn outward and make community, not our conference room, the reference point for our choices and actions. Otherwise, we will continue to be mired in the same old conversation. We will continue to look to things like better public relations, better branding and messaging, better indicators and metrics, and better social media campaigns like the now famous “Ice Bucket Challenge” as silver bullet solutions to building trust.

To be sure, those things are all important but by themselves will not produce the kind of trust that we need to move communities forward. Indeed, if pursued absent certain conditions, these efforts also can, despite our best intentions, push organizations and groups even farther away from people and communities.

Turning the tide on declining trust will require nonprofits to be closely attuned to the communities they serve and reflect what matters to people. Here are five important considerations for any leader who wants to get real about rebuilding trust:

1) Trust is rooted in reality. Some time ago I wrote a book, Hope Unraveled, which traced people’s 20-year retreat from community life and politics. The essence of the book was that people felt that their reality was no longer reflected in the public square. Building trust requires understanding and reflecting people’s reality in what we do and say. This is not about taking surveys or hosting town halls; it’s about gaining a deep appreciation of people’s aspirations and concerns and ensuring that our efforts actually address the realities in which people live their daily lives.

2) Trust is rooted in relationships. I vividly remember a host of people in different communities where I’ve done research and on-the-ground work saying to me: “I don’t trust that leader or group because they only come around when they need something” or “They always toot their own horn but what have they done for the community?” or “They came into our community and then left us in the lurch.” Trust is formed when people believe we have their best interests at heart – not our own – and when we engage with them over time. It requires showing up and engaging in consistent ways. Isn’t this what all good relationships are about?

3) Trust is rooted in a track record. Too often we believe that if we simply talk about trust, or create a new slogan that seeks to convey it that trust will form. Other times we can make assumptions that if we create a new initiative or program or even community conversation that these efforts by themselves will re-establish trust. And yet trust forms only when people see results; when they sense that we are living up to our pledges and promises. This requires follow-through and time. We must think in terms of creating track records, not single efforts.

4) Trust is rooted in people being engaged as “builders.” “Individual engagement” is a big topic nowadays. Nonprofits typically see people in communities as untapped resources for volunteering, advocating and donating. But often these efforts envision people as cogs in the wheels of a nonprofit; people are there to support, even serve the nonprofit. But this equation must be flipped on its head if we want to re-engage and re-connect people and generate new, lasting levels of trust. We must see people as “builders” with the intrinsic ability to get things done together. Indeed, people are now yearning to be part of a common enterprise and they will gain greater trust in nonprofits when these groups help them achieve what they hold to be valuable.

5) Trust is rooted in the common good. So many nonprofits are told they can strengthen trust if they adopt a customer service mindset. No doubt, there are times and places for this – such as how office phones are answered or how quickly requests for materials are met. But to truly build a deeper sense of trust, people want to know that a nonprofit is serving the community ­– or put another way, that it is serving the common good. People want to know that it is possible for us to solve problems together and nonprofits must demonstrate that this is their focus.

Our actions, over time, are the ingredients for trust. And trust is the glue that enables communities to work. So what actions will we take? And will we be turned inward, or outward toward our community? That is a choice we get to make.

Trust is a fragile commodity. It dissipates much faster than it is formed, and it takes time and concerted effort to create. There are no easy answers, but we can start down the path of rebuilding trust today. We can, and we must.

On Turning Outward and Being Intentional

By Rich Harwood

Turning Outward is fundamentally an orientation – it is a stance we assume, a posture, a mindset. Only when you are Turned Outward can you truly see and hear others. Only then can you have reality in your line of sight. It is when we are Turned Outward that we can discover our shared aspirations and make progress together.

But nothing is automatic. Too many of us have chosen to turn inward, away from one another. Sometimes this happens without us even knowing. The concerns and hopes of people in our communities can get obscured, even pushed aside. The desire to position ourselves or our own organization or group takes priority. Our daily lives become consumed by creating long lists of activities. At times we can lose our sense of purpose.

All of us are in search of a path that allows us to make a difference in the world, become part of something larger than ourselves. We all want to achieve a sense of meaning in our own lives. But to find that path – and make it real – you must Turn Outward. After all, you cannot pursue your true desires if you are facing in the wrong direction.

But once you Turn Outward, then what?

You must become more intentional in the judgments and choices that shape your actions. Each of us must decide whether we will pursue the path of the status quo that too often is filled by division, disappointment and frustration – or choose an alternate path of possibility and hope. For instance, will we choose to authentically engage people, or simply offer lip service to such engagement? Will we focus on issues that matter to people, or mostly pursue some other agenda? Will we produce positive impact in people’s lives, or become consumed by endless activities? This alternate path is about stepping forward and accounting for the pledges and promises we make.

Being intentional means becoming more deliberate in your actions. It is to make choices about whether to take one course over another. It is to be more attentive to your surroundings – that you hold a greater awareness about who we are, who we want to become, and the kind of change you seek to generate. In these ways, being intentional is about being more directed.

But I am moved most by the following definition of intentionality – which comes in two parts. The first involves what I think of as “wakefulness.” I love this word. I encourage you to consider its meaning and potential for your own engagement. Wakefulness suggests that we are alert. That we come to the world awake! Our eyes are wide open, our hearts are open, and we are willing to see and hear that which is around us. In being wakeful, we are ready to engage, to be with others.

Such wakefulness stands in direct contrast to the blinders we sometimes put on so that we don’t have to worry about certain issues or matters, and the great lengths we sometimes go to take-in only that information that confirms what we already know or believe. Wakefulness is the opposite of inwardness. It is about being present, especially for those things we may not like or want.

The companion to wakefulness is “moral accountability.” All actions have consequences and ramifications. So, while we cannot control everything in our lives, we must recognize – and embrace – that we actually exercise power over much of what we do. This isn’t an absolute power, of course, but enough that we must account for our actions. We must know that we have the potential to positively (or negatively) impact people and our surroundings. That each of our small efforts matter and have ripple effects. So, it is with each judgment and choice you make. One reason why I so cherish the notion of moral accountability is, that when we live into it, we begin to see our own potential to shape the world around us. We become actors, not mere spectators; shapers, not bystanders; builders, not complainers or claimants.

Each day we make scores of choices, and while we cannot control everything, if we become more intentional about the choices we do make, then we can have far greater impact and fulfill our own personal desires. There are six “Intentionality Tests” that sit at the core of Turning Outward:

  • Turn Outward: Am I turned outward toward the community?
  • Aspirations: Are my actions rooted in people’s shared aspirations?
  • Authority: Could I stand up on a table and talk to people about their community, their aspirations and concerns, and would they believe me?
  • Authenticity: Do I reflect the reality of people’s live and do they believe I have their best interests at heart, even when we disagree?
  • Accountability: Am I living up to the pledges and promises I have made?
  • Urge Within: Am I staying true to my urge within?

The idea and practice of intentionality lives throughout the Harwood approach. It is about what we choose to make of ourselves; about what we choose to do with ourselves. It is about how we bring our full selves to be in relationships with others. In this spirit, when I speak of intentionality, my goal is not for you to adopt wholesale my ideas – or anyone else’s. That would be the very antithesis of intentionality. Instead the process of deepening your own intentionality requires you to take ownership of the judgments and choices before you. You must find, and declare, your own sense of purpose. You must choose your own course of engagement with those around you.

What I am asking you to do is to seize this intrinsic power within you.