I first heard Rich Harwood, of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, at the 2013 NELA Annual Conference in Portland, ME. Harwood is working on a project with ALA on transforming communities. Rich Harwood went to high school in Saratoga Springs, NY. He has worked with many distressed communities in the U.S., including Newtown. One of his themes is "turning outward."
Harwood believes that we need libraries more than ever before in our communities. He believes that our civic health requires libraries. We can blaze a path of possibility and hope. Libraries historically have been a gateway for people and communities improving themselves.
We are builders by nature. We have built this country and communities. We are ready to build again. Libraries can and should be part of it.
In Newtown, the question was whether the community could turn from despair to hope. How could the move forward the best that they can? They decided to put their differences aside and put themselves on a new path.
We spend more time talking about what is wrong, than what is right.
Will we be face outward towards our communities or turned inward toward our organizations? We need to make our communities the reference point for what we do.
What libraries can do to help our communities to move forward:
- We need to focus on our shared aspirations for moving forward. We tend to ask people about the problems in the their communities. People don't want to talk about pipe dreams, but about those things that matter in their daily lives. Rather engage the community in talking about their shared aspirations for their community. Then work on those shared aspirations. Libraries are trusted agents in our communities, who can facilitate these conversations.
- We need to do shared work together. That is how trust gets built. This is also how we demonstrate our willingness to do. It is also a way of building trust. We need to restore our belief in ourselves that we can come together and get things done.
- We need to pay a lot more attention to the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and our communities. Is our narrative working against us? We need to generate new, authentic narratives. These are the stories from people who gather together and are doing the work. We need civic parables, recognizing that the work (the key point of the parable) is never done, never complete. Libraries are about telling and capturing stories. Libraries can help us tell our stories to one another. We need to be able to see ourselves again in each other's eyes.
Harwood ended his talk by talking about why he does this work. His life and early years in Saratoga laid the foundation for the work that he does. He understands what it is like to be invisible, to be without hope. We are more than just numbers.
"Our collective strength and resilience will be an example to the rest of the world." - Newtown. He dreams that sign will hang in communities across our nation.
Question - Advice for a library that is in the midst of controversy? Put the building and fundraising plans off to the side. Engage the community in a conversation about its aspirations and plans for achieving the aspirations. Talk first about the community, then ask how the library can help.
People are tired of just paying taxes, when they don't believe we're on a better path. Help the community understand how it can get on to a better path, and how you can support them.
Question - How to do define the community? How big or small is it? K-12 schools are a reflection of their community. They are a proxy for their community. Whee does education fit into the aspirations for their community? Need to engage parents and other people in the community. Through conversations,find like-minded people to work with.
Turning outward will spark internal change.
Question - How would you structure the conversations? Informal? Formal? Small? Large? Harwood said to never start with a large town hall meeting. He believes that you should start small, so you can begin tho hear the conversations, concerns, and aspirations. Think about who actually lives in the community and go to where they live.
Harwood believe that the work should not be done alone. Find partners and form relationships with them. Build allies.
How many community meetings do you need to do? How many bases do you need to touch, so that people recognize that you have engaged the community? Are you hearing the same info over and over again? Can you reflect back to the community its shared aspirations and their challenges?
"Our community is supporting these programs and they are here for you."
Question - How does the day to day person find ways of speaking up? Our systems have become impenetrable. People need to find someone in the school that can be an ally, guide, or run interference. "What is it that we are trying to achieve?"
Helpful to engage in larger community conversations.
Addendum (11/11/2014): It has been pointed out to me that many of Harwood's tools are available - free of charge - to libraries through ALA's Libraries Transforming Communities initiative. There are worksheets, conversation guides, and a series of webinars created specifically for libraries.