About my Harwood Experience: From Sit-Ins to Conversations

About my Harwood Experience: From Sit-Ins to Conversations

I didn’t expect to cry when I stood up in front of 125 people in Atlanta, Georgia last week. It wasn’t until I was handed the microphone and opened my mouth to speak that I realized that tears were trying to spring forth. I had to pause to stop the croak of sobbing which tried to come from my throat. I had to pause several times. I want to cry now as I am writing this to you—to you, my community. 

Taking Action from Your Sphere of Influence

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An important ingredient to creating impact is being clear about your sphere of influence and taking action from it. Seems obvious, right? 

Perhaps so, yet from what we have seen at The Harwood Institute over the years, people often fail to take their own sphere of influence into consideration when planning for action. The result is typical: Larger-than-life ideas that sound great, and possibly could do a lot of good, except for the minor detail that there is no clear path to actually executing those plans. 

These plans are wonderful if people and organizations surround you with the influence, time, energy and resources to make it happen.  But what if your community doesn’t have those kinds of resources or relationships or norms for working together? And what if you aren’t in a position to make such a plan happen? 

What we find is that there are many people in communities that lack the capacity for grand plans and that there are even more people ready to make a difference but are not in positions to drive such plans. The solution to this is to take action from your sphere of influence. 

When you do that, you are more likely to get results. And when others see results, it can ignite a sense of hope that change is possible. Igniting this sense of hope is more important than ever, given how divided we are, and how cynical people have become to the idea that progress can be made on so many important issues. We have a chance to change that story. 

And people are changing that story, demonstrating what’s possible when you act from your sphere of influence. It’s happening in Clark County, Kentucky, where we are partnering with The Greater Clark Foundation to support leaders in strengthening their community: 

Leeds Center for the Arts, a local performing arts organization, has been putting on a community production of the musical Hairspray, which focuses on issues surrounding the racial integration of a television dance show in the 1960s. In a community that is predominantly white and where there are race and class divides that many people would like to address, the simple act of bringing people across race together to put on this production in and of itself is having a positive impact. Additionally, community leaders are looking for ways to use the production to have conversations in the community about what other practical things people and groups could do to bridge race and class divides. 

Will any of these efforts by themselves tackle the systemic and structural impediments to racial equity? Of course not! But those grand plans that often inadvertently squeeze out what our President and Founder Rich Harwood calls “human-scale actions” won’t achieve a full result either. We need people to contribute at all levels. And anyone can absolutely contribute; we all have agency in our lives and the power to make a difference.

Another example is in Columbus, Wisconsin, where we worked with the Columbus Public Library to transform the way in which it engaged with and worked to strengthen the community:

By leading community conversations to understand the kind of community people wanted and the challenges faced in making progress, library staff learned that people wanted stronger connections to one another and that the fragmented nature of the community was making it hard to come together and get things done. 

So rather than develop a 50-point systemic change plan for the community, staff at the library took a few seemingly small but hugely important actions to bring people together. One was simply hosting a potluck dinner. People came, broke bread together, started talking and actually came up with a number of things they could do together that were concrete, completely doable and addressed a number of other issues the library found in listening to people.  As a result people are seeing that things can happen, which is energizing the community to step forward to do even more. 

The next time you feel compelled to develop grand plans, take a step back and ask yourself if what you’re planning is doable. Then ask yourself if there are things you can do, within your sphere of influence, that would start to put your organization or your community on the path toward achieving those results you long for. 

Then get moving.