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January 26, 2005:


Richard Harwood *84’s organization has helped develop community leaders in Flint, Mich. (Courtesy Richard Harwood *84)

Getting people to work together
Richard Harwood *84 inspires civic engagement

After working on 23 political campaigns by the time he was 23, Richard Harwood *84 decided he was sick of politics as usual. “For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why yet another campaign was about dividing people, striking fear into their hearts and manipulating people,” says Harwood, who had been working on Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign.

In 1988, against the advice of nearly everyone he knew, the then-27-year-old Woodrow Wilson School graduate with a master’s in public affairs started a one-man consulting firm that would eventually grow to become the Harwood Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring a new civic-mindedness in leaders, the media, and communities.

“We are told [by public officials and the media] that we are divided between red and blue states, so there is a narrative of division that has taken over the country,” Harwood says. “I don’t think we are really that divided. If leaders, for instance, were willing to step forward and talk about real issues and lay out a plan and call for people to make sacrifices, they would.”

Today Harwood’s Bethesda, Md.-based organization develops civic-minded organizations, runs education programs, and conducts research in cities around the country to rejuvenate civic leaders.

In Flint, Mich., for example, the institute has worked with community members and leaders since 1995 — shepherding them through nine-month seminars and helping strengthen community networks and civic organizations. The institute doesn’t dictate change, but tries to help community members articulate their aspirations and concerns. “People have the capacity to solve their own problems,” says Harwood. “We help them create the right conditions to do that.”

The effort seems to be working. Seven new community organizations have formed in Flint since 1997, and the number of residents the community has identified as “leaders” has jumped from just seven to 27. These community members are addressing a number of areas: creating more affordable housing, developing new after-school programs, working to create a job-training program, and trying to improve race relations. The new leaders are working together, says Harwood. “That really helps move a community forward.”

In other cities, Harwood has worked with reporters and editors of major newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, helping them develop the mind-set to report and write stories without a preconceived slant and to discover what is important to community members. In a low-income St. Louis neighborhood, education reporters often quote residents responding for or against what the school board is doing — as if they are spectators of what happens in their community instead of active participants. That type of coverage implies that residents are “powerless and simply victims of the school board,” says Harwood. A better approach, he says, would be to ask people what they want for their schools. Some reporters and editors he’s worked with have been receptive, says Harwood. But others have been “tremendously resistant to change,” he says, because his approach goes against conventions and habits of many journalists.

By Justin Nyberg ’01

Justin Nyberg ’01 is a reporter in San Francisco.