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How Harwood Institute's Founder Wants To Heal America's Divides


It's no secret that we are approaching this Election Day, just over two weeks away now, as a country that's deeply divided over a lot of things, everything from how policing should happen to how voting should take place to whether people should be required to wear masks to keep other people safe during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic. These divisions run so deep that many Americans are concerned about what could happen if the outcome of the vote is delayed or disputed. So no matter what happens on Election Day, we've been asking how the country can find common ground again. Last week, we told you about how truth and reconciliation commissions have provided a venue for healing in some circumstances.

Today, we've invited Rich Harwood to join us. He is president and founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's a nonprofit dedicated to building community and effecting positive change across the country and the world. And he is with us now. Rich Harwood, welcome once again to the program. Thanks for joining us.

RICH HARWOOD: It's good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, in your mission statement for the institute, you say you're dedicated to bringing people together to, quote, "work across their differences to solve the challenges that affect us all." And I just need to point out that you've been doing this work for a long time, like well before, you know, the current political environment. So I just wanted to start by asking why you needed to set up this organization to begin with.

HARWOOD: You know, I set it up when I was 27 years old over 30 years ago. And I had worked on 20 political campaigns. By the time I was 23, I had worked for a couple of wonderful nonprofits. But I thought that our politics even then, Michel, were about dividing people, striking fear into people and winning at any cost. And I was frustrated by what I was seeing. And I thought that at the time, too many nonprofits and groups were just sort of going about their business. But they were afraid to get dirt under their fingernails and really dive into the challenges that we face as a society about, how do we come up with a culture of shared responsibility that enable us to move forward together? So I struck out at 27 and decided to try this.

MARTIN: So one of the challenges you and the institute took on was helping the community in Newtown, Conn., figure out how to move forward after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. I mean, who can forget that that, you know, 26 lives were taken at the school, mostly children, just 6 and 7 years old, and and, of course, the teachers who had tried to protect them? What was the challenge there? Because I think some people might think, well, gosh, they all went through this terrible thing together. You know, what did they need you to help them with?

HARWOOD: Well, look. I mean, when I was asked to go in, it was about whether they should rebuild the school where it is, start on some other site. And what I discovered really quickly was that the challenge is much more profound. The challenge is whether or not the community could pivot from trauma and despair to healing and hope. And there were lots of different views about whether or not they should even be talking about the school building at that point. Different people had fundamentally different views about what should happen.

And so when I went in to help the community move forward, the chief executive officer of the community had pulled together a task force of 28 elected officials from four different governing boards. It was a recipe for political disaster, for tension, for acrimony, for divisiveness. And so it was not a foregone conclusion at all that the community could reach an agreement about how they wanted to move forward about the school building, but more importantly, about how they wanted to move forward as a community.

MARTIN: So how would you describe what the country needs now? I know it sounds like a big question, but one of the things about the moment that we're in now is a lot of people feel like they've been victimized by the current political environment. A lot of people feel like they've been demonized and stigmatized and kind of made to feel small and unimportant. And other people's reaction to that is to say, well, that's because that's how you made me feel to begin with. Right? So how would you describe what you think the country needs to move forward?

HARWOOD: First, I think we need to understand the human dimensions of this. Why do divides exist? I think they exist because people feel aggrieved, because they haven't felt seen and heard, because they feel as though their dignity has been stripped from them, that they feel trapped. And when people feel these things, they hunker down and protect themselves, build walls and form smaller and smaller groups that they belong to where they want to fight it out with other groups. I think people move forward. You can think about yourself as an individual. We all sort of are willing to come forward when we believe that someone hears us, when there is room for us to express the sorrow and the pain and the rage that we feel.

So I think we need to not simply sit in that pain and sorrow, but think about how it is that we're going to reimagine and recreate who we are and who we can become moving forward. And then I think we have to begin to identify the small steps that we can take to rebuild trust and confidence and get on a better trajectory of hope. There is no magic answer here. There's no magic wand that we can wave and correct all of the challenges that we face today. It's going to take us taking small steps forward, rebuilding our trust, restoring our belief in ourselves in one another that we can get things done together.

MARTIN: I'm just trying to figure out how somebody listening to our conversation could think, gee, I know there's some things in my community that need repair. How can I start? And I just think for some people, the idea of just being sort of invited to a broad community conversation would be so upsetting that they would just be like, oh, no. I'm not doing that.

HARWOOD: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of two women I met in Clark County, Ky., who were sitting in their local church listening about drug addiction. They themselves were in recovery. They then went from their church to a conference in Louisville about this. And what they discovered was that they had the innate capabilities to create a new program where they created coaches who would meet people at the emergency room who overdosed. And in developing these coaches, there were people who had empathy for what those who had overdosed were going through. And they were able to help people move through the recovery process, to get the treatment they needed, to get the jobs they needed. Now, these were just two women who knew that there was a problem in their community. They came together and created this effort. And now drug treatment in that community is happening at much higher rates than ever before.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, do you have any kind of final word of wisdom for those who are listening to our conversation and are just kind of wondering how they can get started?

HARWOOD: You know, right now, we face these four crises, right? A global pandemic, economic upheaval, systemic racism and social injustice and a political crisis. They're all happening simultaneously. If we believe that somehow we're going to be able to fix these problems and just go back to normal, then I think we're sorely mistaken. Normal, as you know, wasn't all that great for a whole lot of Americans. It wasn't great for Black and brown people. It wasn't great for people who suffered from mental health. It wasn't great for people who didn't have access to health care. It wasn't great for a lot of people in coal country who feel left behind and left out.

The opportunity that we face today is whether or not we can recreate and reimagine who we are and where we're going and begin again in terms of how we move forward as a country. You know, we did a questionnaire of 300 frontline civic leaders and asked them about what they were learning in combating COVID-19 and systemic racism and other issues. One of the questions we asked them was, what's your greatest fear about what we're facing right now? And what they told us was their greatest fear was that we would lose the opportunity to remake who we are and to actually address the underlying issues we face as a country and move forward in a fundamentally different way. That's the challenge we face today. And simply going about it by trying to go back to normal is not going to get us where we need to go.

MARTIN: Rich Harwood is president and founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, which is based in Bethesda, Md., which is right outside Washington, D.C.. Rich Harwood, thank you so much for talking with us once again.

HARWOOD: Great. Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.