Rich Stonestreet: Public Innovator Pick

This edition of The Harwood Institute’s newsletter features Rich Stonestreet, a volunteer with AARP for the past 10 years. Since March, he has served as president of AARP-West Virginia. Rich participated in the organization’s Volunteer Leadership Institute (VLI), an AARP training program that provides volunteers opportunities to take their service to higher levels. Part of the training includes Harwood coaches guiding people to use the Harwood practice to better engage communities as well as guide them to discover and act on their aspirations. In 2013, Rich was the West Virginia recipient of AARP’s Ethel Percy Andrus Award for Community Service.

The Harwood Institute: How did you come into contact with The Harwood Institute?

Rich Stonestreet: My first contact with The Harwood Institute was in 2009, when I participated in a Harwood Lab along with staff and other volunteers of AARP from around the country. At the time, I had been volunteering for the AARP-West Virginia for about five years. Because I had done some work as an organizer in the past, I was selected by AARP-West Virginia to attend the lab, along with the Associate State Director for Outreach. More than 30 years before, I had been trained in organizing principles and techniques, but I realized that the political and social landscapes had changed, and, along with them, the principles and techniques that organizers need to employ.

THI: What were your major takeaways from attending a Harwood lab? RS: Of all the takeaways from my Harwood training, the one I constantly refer to is Rich Harwood’s statement that "There is more that unites us than separates us." We all need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact because of the toxic political atmosphere in which we find ourselves.

THI: How has the Harwood training changed the way you work?

RS: I attempt to incorporate Harwood principles in everything that I do. As a participant in AARP's 2014 Volunteer Leadership Institute, I have been reintroduced to The Harwood Institute, the principles and techniques of which saturate virtually everything that we learn and do at the VLI. Also, as AARP-West Virginia president, I have posted on the wall of my office six Harwood principles as a constant reminder to apply them in my work:

(1) Start small;

(2) Turn outward;

(3) Look, listen, learn and leverage;

(4) Practice authority, authenticity and accountability;

(5) Always remember that there is more that unites us than separates us; and

(6) Share aspirations, work and stories.

One major change I’ve made in the way I operate because of my Harwood training is that I listen. For the 25 years that I was a teachers' union staff representative, we almost never asked our members what their aspirations were. We (elected leaders and staff) met, strategized and decided what the goals and objectives of the organization would be. In other words, we "knew" what was best for the members. For the first time, I now participate in listening sessions, determining what it is that people really want instead of telling them what they want.

For example, when I speak to a group about Social Security, I don't tell them how to protect and strengthen Social Security. Instead, I ask them whether it should be protected and strengthened, and, if so, how they think that can be accomplished.

THI:  Are there any projects or initiatives you've undertaken as a result of your training with The Harwood Institute? RS: My Harwood training has been particularly useful to me as a volunteer, and, since, March 1, as a state president with AARP. The organization has adopted the Harwood approach for most of what it does. To be specific, I cite the emphasis on fraud prevention, which is a perfect example of our being more united than separated. Protection against fraud is neither Democratic nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative. In addition, in West Virginia, the State Legislature in 2015 will be controlled by the Republicans for the first time since the early 1930s. Always remembering that there is more that unites us than separates us will serve us well in dealing with new legislative leadership.

THI: Do you recommend the lab to other people?

RS: I absolutely recommend the Harwood training. It is the best approach I have encountered to break down the political and social barriers that separate us and to move this country in the direction that it needs to go.