A Call Back to Our Better Selves

By Rich Harwood

I am repulsed each day by what I read and hear on the news about what’s happening in our country—and to our country. Outright lies about political issues, deflections over personal responsibility, and bait and switch arguments over reality have left many of us bewildered about the state of America. In these troubled times, we must guard against cynicism and turning against one another.

The ongoing health care debate is only one example of our current maladies. There is a variety of legitimate or reasonable arguments that can be made against Obamacare: how it was passed along a straight party line; how the market exchanges have fallen short; and how the Medicaid expansion added billions of dollars to the federal budget, among others. 

But the Republican “repeal and replace” option offers little hope for Americans. Truth be told, scant discussion has been heard about what matters to Americans; how to improve their lives; what happens to the estimated 22 million people who will be left without coverage, or the ability to pay for ample coverage. 

There are real debates to be had about health care. The same is true regarding environmental policies, immigration, Russian interference with the 2016 election, housing and poverty policies, and a host of other issues. But those debates are nowhere to be found. We do not hear them. Instead, we live in a house of mirrors. Bombarded by noise. Overwhelmed at times by hate. 

We must find a way out.

Each day when I receive calls from associates, or am on the road, I hear sheer anger expressed by people on different sides of the political divides in our country. Such anger leads to outrage. Outrage left unchecked produces disgust. Disgust leads to bitterness. And bitterness can yield the perpetration of scapegoating and indignities. The result is for one person to turn against the other. To stereotype and demonize “the other.” To question one another’s motivations and intentions. Self-righteousness can preclude self-reflection. Such divisions produce no good—at a time when it is the common good that summons us. 

David Brooks, in his newspaper column today, quoted a moving excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville writing about what happens to people when society splinters:

“They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself along and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” 

The Institute recently launched new initiatives in Winchester, Kentucky, which sits on the edge of Appalachia, and in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, in the Delta. We are working in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, Florida, in Denver, and with a multitude of groups all across California, Michigan and Indiana. What I know from these and many other efforts is that we Americans do not believe we owe nothing to any other person; nor do we wish to stand alone. 

But we do fear these omens. Our politics today embolden those who seek to manipulate, lie and fan the flames of derision. It is one thing to be angry or repulsed by what we see happening—as am I; it is yet another to allow this anger to turn into bitterness, self-righteousness, even demonizing others. 

Don’t fall for it. Don’t turn on those different from yourself. Don’t become bitter. We are better than this. American history is stained by mistakes and injustices; and yet, we have time and again set a new course, a more hopeful direction, one filled with possibility. This is our task today. Start where you can—in your families, your workplaces, your places of worship, your community. Amid all the noise, find a moment of quietude in your day, and refuse to stand alone and owe nothing to anyone else.

Call yourself and others back to our better selves.

A Tribute to Newtown’s Leader

By Rich Harwood

While we watch in disbelief the unfolding White House drama, congressional members scurry for cover, and everyday Americans continue to lose faith in leaders of all sorts. There is one individual in America today who represents the kind of leadership we need: Pat Llodra, the First Selectman, or mayor, of Newtown, CT, who recently announced her retirement. Pat helped guide Newtown after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of twenty first graders and six adults. 

I talked with Pat just a handful of weeks after the December 14, 2012 tragedy. She had asked me to help design and lead a process by which the community would decide the fate of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I soon came to realize that while this effort was about the future of the building, it was in reality about much more: whether a community that had experienced inexplicable trauma and despair could pivot to healing and hope. 

Pat had set up a special task force of twenty-eight elected officials from four different town governing boards, raising the potential for political infighting and grandstanding. The community was reeling. People were at odds over what to do. Gridlock was predicted. Many argued this discussion should wait for another day.

But Pat persevered, guided by a steadfast belief that the community had experienced a defining moment, but that the community would not be defined by that moment.

I watched as Pat, together with others, steered the community forward. She is tough as nails—demanding, exacting, and unrelenting. I had to earn her trust. But she used her persistence to give others strength. She never wavered or whimpered when things got tough. She did not cower in the face of resistance, push back from the community, sheer despair from the families who lost a loved one,  or from survivors and their families. She embraced people, never ran, never hid. She was present, near, always there.

On the day we had planned that a decision about the school’s future would be made, a group of thirty or so Sandy Hook teachers released a public letter declaring that they would never go back to the school. The only private meeting we held was that evening. Before the public meeting, we cleared the room of hundreds of residents and scores of news media and invited the teachers to speak with the task force. 

It was one of the most harrowing experiences one can imagine. Amid the teachers’ shock and tears of recounting their stories of hiding their students in bathroom stalls and supply closets, hearing gunshots echo through the building, and watching loved ones lose their lives, there was Pat: no posturing, no speeches, no demands to reverse the letter. Even though she was sitting across the room from the teachers, I could literally feel her embrace their sorrow and give them the confidence that no matter what she would be there for them. It was not an act of leadership as often written about in textbooks; it was an act of humanity. 

One year after the massacre, Pat called a news conference to implore the news media to stay away from Newtown on the day that marked the tragedy. Most leaders would have wilted in the face of the mounting press deluge and the intense pressure for round-the-clock coverage. Others might have chosen to publicly complain and seek to score political points by bashing the press. Still others might have felt a victim of circumstance with little recourse. I suspect none of these options ever occurred to Pat. Instead, she called the news conference, took her place at it, and spoke clearly and forcefully. She did so not to position herself, but to act as an unwavering, resolute steward of a community about to re-experience its trauma.

The first time I met Pat in-person, I flew up to Hartford from Washington, D.C. and then drove to Newtown. When I walked into the town hall, I saw Pat’s office to my right along with the council chamber where we would eventually hold all the public task force meetings. Before making my way to Pat’s office, I turned to my left and saw two signs on an interior glass wall, both of which I now have hanging in my office. The first read: “We Are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.” The second was: “Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world.” 

Despite the persistent sorrow, grieving and challenges, the people of Newtown have made good on both these powerful messages. My respect and admiration for the community is unending. Pat Llodra helped to lead this effort. She would be the first to say, and rightly, she did not lead on her own; there are many, many individuals in Newtown who helped lead the way. And yet, on this day, I wish to single out Pat as an individual of uncommon integrity and decency; she is steadfast in her beliefs and yet open to hear those of others. She is steady when the winds blow the hardest; and compassionate in the comfort she offers to others. 

America needs examples of good leaders today. We yearn to restore our belief and can-do spirit that we can get things done, together. Pat Llodra is such an example, and she knows what it takes to meet this yearning. She is the best leader I have ever worked with. 

God bless and keep you, Pat Llodra. 

Our First 100 Days Test

By Rich Harwood

President Trump’s first 100 Days is fast approaching, and he and his administration are racing to get things done in order to declare success. Many Americans, the news media and political pundits, among others, will offer their own opinions on his performance. But here’s a different question to consider at this juncture of the new president’s term: What about “our” first 100 days—how are we responding to the challenges around us?

There was both extreme anger and elation after the president’s election. Those emotions have only deepened since Election Day. But let’s face it: They alone will not get our communities—our society—where it needs to go. They alone will not help us to find a path to create what we seek. Instead, they pose real and potent dangers to our society.

These emotions lock us into knee-jerk reactions when we hear the sounds of our “opponents” voices and perspectives.

They create a fear of the other—where we inevitably, oftentimes without even realizing it, demonize those who are different from ourselves.

We form lines of resistance as if merely blocking action will lead to the creation of something better.

We raise our voices to advocate as if that will convince others to come to abandon their own view and adopt our own.

We professionals often think that the answer to the conditions the country now confronts is to double-down on our well-worn professional responses. If only we had more data we could solve the problems at hand. If only if we set better metrics and measure more outcomes more precisely. If only if we craft more sophisticated projects. If only our advocacy takes on even more sharp-elbowed techniques.

Of course, these and other responses all have their place in a complex, pluralistic society; but they will not produce the actions we need. They do not tell us anything more about people’s lives and their lived experiences. They do not help us to better understand different perspectives, what different people value, and their real motivations. They do not lead us to open our eyes and ears and hearts so that we may see and hear others. They do not enable us to heal the wounds that people bear and find new solutions to old problems. They do not ask us to set aside our instinct to demonize others and instead see their humanity.

I grew up in politics and political campaigns. I remember canvassing the streets of Queens, New York when I was five years old with my dad. I worked on 20 political campaigns by the time I was 23 years old, the last one a U.S. presidential race. I understand “political battles.” But those political battles have become endless. Politics has become a game that is about winning at any cost. Fear is now the coin of the realm.

This is not a path to a better society; we can and must choose a different path.

Let me be clear: Our differences are real and big, and we can’t simply sweep aside or ignore the policy debates currently raging. Many people’s livelihoods are at stake, and in some cases even their health and lives. We must make choices about these policies.

But there are fundamental choices that relate to something even more basic which will affect our ability to make policy choices and create a good society. These deal with how we choose to engage in our community life and politics. They are about what kind of country we as Americans are creating through our own reactions—and interactions—to the things that we hear and confront each and every day. They speak to whether we will be brave enough to stand together amid our differences with the faith that we can create something better.

There is no magic wand to wave or wish away the challenges we face. Instead we must make the choice to engage—differently.

My time at Dachau and the stolen entrance gate

My time at Dachau and the stolen entrance gate

Just last week, the infamous main gate through which prisoners were herded into the Nazi death camp Dachau—with the words, “Work will set you free” inscribed on it—was found in Norway and after being stolen back in 2013. This was the same entrance gate that I once gently pushed on early one morning, only for it to open, and for me to find myself alone for hours inside this vast site of despair.

5 Key Steps for Trump to Bridge Divides

By Rich Harwood

In some ways it can feel like the country is splintering after the recent presidential election. Protests against President-elect Trump are now taking place in cities across the country. Vandalism of churches and physical violence in the name of Trump are emerging. The nation seems to be fracturing along lines of smaller tribes, where people are divided by race and ethnicity, where they live and who they routinely talk with. One question is: What should Mr. Trump do now?

Let me acknowledge first that one-half of the country is still celebrating a victory, while the other half worries deeply about exactly what might happen as the Trump presidency takes hold. But this much I also know from my ongoing travels in working with communities across the country from Kentucky to Washington State and everyplace in-between: Americans are yearning to restore a sense of belief that we can get things done together and re-ignite a can do spirit.

Of course, this won’t be easy, especially now, when the rawness of the election season is still with us. Nevertheless, restoring a sense of belief in our ability to come together and get things done is perhaps the most important task that all of us—including our new president-elect—must do. Thus amid all the choices he must make over the coming weeks, Mr. Trump must also choose whether he wants to demonstrate, as he says, his desire to be president of all of America. If so, here are five immediate steps he should take to make a down payment on that goal:

1) Go to a defamed church and emphatically denounce such actions. Across the country, stories are emerging about churches and other buildings being vandalized with defamatory statements. Just down the road from my office in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland the racist message of, “Trump nation. Whites only.” was painted across a church banner advertising a Spanish-language service. Mr. Trump should come to Silver Spring, and others communities where similar vandalism has occurred, and in no uncertain terms denounce such actions.

2) Make cabinet appointments that demonstrate crossing dividing lines. Given the deep divisions in the country, Mr. Trump has the opportunity to make at least some cabinet and senior-level appointments that signal that he is willing to bridge dividing lines. Early signals suggest this won’t happen; that would be a mistake.

3) Visit publicly with Muslim Americans and others. The presidential campaign was nothing less than nasty and bitter, and many Americans—including Muslims, people of color and the disabled, among others—were often singled out for derision. Now, Mr. Trump should publicly engage these members of our country and demonstrate that he sees and hears them and that they are each and all valued.

4) Find near-term actions rooted in common ground. In such a divided time—when so many people feel that Washington, D.C. is broken—Mr. Trump would be well advised to find at least some early policy initiatives that bring Republicans and Democrats together. There are any number of places where this might be possible, including infrastructure.

5) Remind us of core American values. There are values that bind our nation together, such as opportunity for all, fairness and liberty. Of course, people have different views—and lived experiences—with these values. But Mr. Trump should speak to his understanding of these values and call Americans to fulfill them.

Equally important to taking these steps is that he must take them with sincerity and a real affection for all people—not simply as a publicity stunt. He must accept that taking such steps will be met with skepticism but have a willingness and the conviction to keep at it.

This presidential election revealed deep divisions in the country. In a recent NPR interview, I said that many Americans, who voted for either candidate or who chose not to vote at all, feel that they are not seen and heard. That they are not valued. That their future is in jeopardy. Mr. Trump is now the president-elect of our United States. Despite policy differences that exist, and which now must be argued out, he must takes steps to help bridge the divides in the nation. Now is the time. He must not wait. 

Guest Blog - To My Community

By Marti Fiske

Marti Fiske is the Director at Dorothy Ailing Memorial Library in Williston, VT. It was orginally published in the library’s November newsletter and features his experience at the Harwood Public Innovators Lab.

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. 

I was responding to a request for comments about the workshop we had just completed. For the last two and half days I was with librarians from all over the country at a workshop called the National Innovators Lab for Libraries taught by the Harwood Institute. The institute’s webpage says, “Learn how to make the community - not your conference room - the reference point for your choices and action.” I had gone to the workshop with the goal of finding a tool to make the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library more responsive to the needs of Williston residents. I expected that the workshop would also be useful for the other nonprofit groups I volunteer with. What I experienced was far more than that.

The Harwood Institute calls the process they teach “Turning Outward.” The process starts with asking people, “What kind of community do you want?” Follow up questions help to clarify their answers. “Why is it important?” “How is it different from the way things are now?” The idea is for public organizers to think beyond themselves and the organizations they work for. They need to ask members of their communities for their aspirations in life as a whole. The goal is to hear from enough people to understand the common threads in a community and use those aspirations to organize work toward accomplishing those aspirations.

aspiration[as-puh-rey-shuh n]   noun

1. a strong desire, longing, or aim; ambition: intellectual aspirations.
2. a goal or objective that is strongly desired: The presidency has been his aspiration since boyhood.

I knew the definition of the word aspiration. I understood it from an intellectual point and a personal point. I had previously used the community’s aspirations as a tool to create the library’s strategic plans. I had always treated aspirations as a goal. What I had not understood was that it was really an emotion as well.

The reason I was crying was that I had turned the question about what I had learned in the workshop fully outward. I had asked myself the question “What kind of community do you want?” on a worldwide scale. I thought about topics which have been in the national and international news reports. I thought about race relations, the national elections, religious divisions, the wars throughout the world which were forcing people to move to foreign countries where they were still living in fear. When I attended the workshop, I had not expected to find a tool which could heal our nation’s rifts within one generation. If it was applied throughout the world, within two generations it could end wars and prevent wars from ever happening again.

My realization was confirmed soon after. My partner, Andy, had traveled with me to Atlanta. He toured the area historical sites while I was in the workshop. Over the week we discussed things we learned and experienced in the diverse southern city. After the workshop ended, we enjoyed the weekend in the home of a couple who live near Atlanta. I had met Shirley and her husband, Bill, about six years ago when they came to the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. They were visiting the area and needed to use a computer. Shirley and I struck up a conversation which lasted nearly a half hour. We exchanged contact information and “friended” each other on Facebook. Shirley extended invitations to visit them several times and it finally happened that I would be near her home.

Over the weekend our discussions with Shirley and Bill returned several times to race relations, politics and history. They were able to give us information and their experiences and perspectives as blacks born and raised in the South. They had been born in the 1940’s and Bill had participated in the Greensboro sit-ins. His two arrests for those sit-ins were still on his record, fifty-six years later. Differences in our experiences were exposed and sometimes explained. One evening their neighbors came over for drinks and dessert. We talked about the economy, the opportunity for their son to study agriculture and business at one of the historically black universities of the 1890 land grants, the loss of three quarters of the bees from the hives behind their home after a neighbor sprayed for fear of the Zika virus, genetically modified foods and the lack of fresh vegetables on too many peoples’ plates.

All around the world, people are gathering with friends to discuss the issues affecting them. At first glance those groups seem more different then alike; different issues, different areas of the world, different races, different religions, different political parties, different generations. However, we all have the same aspirations. We all want to be safe, well fed, healthy, financially stable, success for our children and able to reach our personal goals.

Black/White, North/South, American/Mexican, Christian/Muslim, Republican/Democratic, Poor/Wealthy, Ill/Healthy, you name it. Don’t focus on people’s concerns, their complaints, their fears or their differences. Focus on our common aspirations to solve problems we face. It’s that simple.




What we must know today

By Richard Harwood

As I wrote this late last night, it was not yet clear who would be the next president of the United States, and it didn’t matter in terms of what we need to understand today. The actual results only make this clearer. Huge underlying cleavages exist within the nation, and they do not have to do so much with partisan polarization as they are about a large swath of the nation feeling forgotten, no longer seen and heard, left out and left behind.

I encountered these deep-seated sentiments in my travels across the country when I listened to Americans in places like Mississippi, where I was last week, or eastern Kentucky, or the interior of Washington State, or even Hawaii, and many other places along the way.

Too many kids feel they do not have a shot at the American Dream and feel abandoned by adults, their schools and even their own families. Too many adults have fallen victim to an opioid and heroin crisis and have lost hope and that has left their families in disarray. Too many people are working two or three jobs and are still unable to make ends meet. 

And make no mistake – too many false promises have been made to too many people, leaving in their midst growing cynicism and disaffection.

Meanwhile, there are those who live in more vibrant areas of the nation who too often turn their noses up at those who feel left behind, wondering aloud how people can be so “stupid” to support one candidate or another; who sneer at the anger; who dismiss people’s concerns about the changing nature of communities.

Our task is not so much to somehow bridge partisan polarization as some would have us believe. It is more basic than that; something more humane. It is to see and hear one another. To seek to understand how people can feel their lives are spinning out of control. To find ways to re-invigorate and support families. To bring some modicum of hope back to struggling and dying towns.

As I have traveled the nation, the number one issue I hear consistently is people’s yearning to restore a sense of belief that we can get things done together and a “can-do” spirit. Yes, this requires that we learn to “talk” with one another. Even more, it demands that we find ways to build a common future together—to do things together. Talk is not enough and it is not the magic elixir so many think it is.

I watched in horror as this presidential campaign unfolded and our now president-elect attacked women, people of color, the disabled and many others. I condemn those statements and beliefs.

But, I also know that so many Americans who cast their votes yesterday did so with pain in their hearts about where their lives stand and with utter disdain for a politics that does not heed their calls for help and hope.

We can no longer afford to point fingers of blame, cast aspersions and question one another’s motivations. It’s time to get to serious work.


The Campaign: Is this really happening to us?

By Rich Harwood

As election day fast approaches, all of a sudden it feels as if a deep lull has swept over the nation and halted us in our very steps. People are asking a simple question: Is this really happening to us? At times the presidential campaign has brought out the worst of America, and left us bereft. Sadly, no matter who wins, we can expect more ugliness.

What are we to do?

Over the past handful of months, I have crisscrossed the nation too many times to count—from Yakima, Washington to Sarasota, Florida, from Hawaii to Mississippi, and from Denver to Kentucky and West Virginia, and assorted places along the way. My trips have been physically exhausting, and yet emotionally uplifting.

No doubt, at each stop, no matter where I have gone, and with whomever I’ve spoken, people have been dismayed by the toxic, corrosiveness of our national politics. They abhor the name-calling. They detest the shallowness. Embarrassment and disbelief prevail. I often hear people ask, “How can we ever get out of this mess?”

What’s clear is that our leaders in Washington, D.C., will not be leading the way. Don’t hold your breath waiting for effective action to come from the nation’s capital. Nor should you expect inspiring acts of leadership. Sadly, we are now witnesses to a woeful march of folly—until it bottoms out. In time, it will.

But we needn’t acquiesce to this path of the status quo. There is an alternate path in front of us; we must choose it. This is a path of possibility and hope. Such a path is not one of nice sentimentality, or blindly rooted in nostalgia, or based on hype and false promise. In our heart of hearts, we know better.

Instead, the path of possibility and hope is closer to you than you might think. It’s more doable than what could seem possible. How? It comes from within us. And from among us.

Amid the rancor and silliness of our national politics, resides a deep yearning within the American people to make community a common enterprise again. To build greater trust, forge deeper relationships and grow our civic confidence that we can come together to get things done.

I hear people speak of this yearning as I travel the country, do on-the ground work in communities, and lead rigorous research efforts to understand Americans’ attitudes and beliefs. It exists. It is real.

All we must do to tap into this yearning is actively make the choice to turn outward toward one another and take small steps forward together. Such steps might be as simple as shifting our usual conversations from one of complaints to expressing the kind of community we want to help create. It could be finding places where you can take action with others—in your place of worship, local school or running group—and naming out loud with them why that action gives you a sense of progress and hope. Another step might be going the extra mile when seeking someone in need and helping them out—acting as the Good Samaritan—especially when you are more likely to turn away.

Of course, we need to do bigger things together, too. I have in mind everyday people in Spartanburg, South Carolina, who built and now run a medical equipment exchange that makes equipment available at no cost to residents and where people often donate something they found in their home when they return their loaned equipment. Or, the group of residents and police officers in Hartford, Connecticut, brought together by the local library, who are working to build stronger community-police relations.

Whether the actions or big or small, they all count, more now than ever. When we each of us steps forward, we reaffirm the goodness that exists within and among us—especially when we see and hear those who look or sound or seem different from one another. Then, we can reclaim the potential for coming together. And then we can gain the confidence to take on even more systemic challenges.

Most of all, by tapping into this yearning, we restore the human element to our common lives.

Make no mistake: What emerges will not immediately change policy or discourse in Washington, D.C. Nor will it transform our national leaders anytime soon. Or end hunger or stop killings.

But we’ve already proven that the path of the status quo will not get us there either. Instead, let us start down a different, better path. One of our own choosing. One where we choose not to contribute to the toxic climate but rather combat it through our daily actions. Indeed a first step on this path is to reclaim something else that we already know, but which has been overwhelmed, even sullied by recent events: We are better than this.

Colin Kaepernick, 9/11 and Patriotism

By Richard Harwood

The juxtaposition of Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem and the 15th anniversary of 9/11 puts front and center the issue of patriotism. Talk radio, newspaper opinion pieces and television programs have all been consumed by both of these events. But it’s easy to lose sight of their full meaning; their coincidence yesterday helps us to hold them side-by-side and to consider exactly what is patriotism, and what does it afford us.

9/11 is always a difficult day for me. Fifteen years ago, I watched on television as hijacked planes hit The World Trade Towers and I became worried sick about the plight of my college buddy, Frank Reisman who was at the time working for Cantor Fitzgerald. Was he at work that day? Was he in the building? Could he have survived the impact of the plane? Soon, the answers were clear: Frank’s life had been taken. We lost him.

Just hours later, members of Congress from both political parties gathered on the steps of Congress to sing “God Bless America.” In the days and months to follow, patriotic hymns were sung at ballgames. People displayed flag decals on their cars. It seemed that we were one nation.

Of course, such unity can feel good after such a massive shock to our body politic. But we must not mistake such unity as the mere definition of patriotism. In 2003, not long after 9/11, I gave a speech about the meaning of patriotism, which was later published in the National Civic Review. In the speech I said:

For some in our nation, the word patriotism is a word riddled with a history of exclusion, suggesting to them that the American Dream is only for some people and not others. In times of national or community struggle, patriotism can come to mean demanding lockstep agreement, leading to a kind of myopic closed-mindedness. It can give us license to believe that anyone different from ourselves is not welcomed. We can come to view people as unpatriotic when they choose not to display the flag or a decal on their car, or choose not to sing the words to “God Bless America” at a ballgame... And I certainly do not mean the kind of patriotism that bigots and hate groups and so-called militia in this country have put forth, who have hijacked the term, angling to wrap themselves in the stars and stripes of our flag. 

Instead, to me, patriotism is about “a devotion to—a love of—country.” It springs forth from something quite beautiful—the possibility that we in this nation can move ever closer to a more perfect union. It is the possibility of what we can create together, through a common enterprise.

The story of improvement, of struggle, is central to the American experience. Time and again, we have found the courage to recognize the stains on our shared history, and have sought to redirect our course—to find a more inclusive, hopeful path. That work continues.

Genuine devotion for a partner, a child or, yes, a nation, is rooted in a sense of love so deep that it calls us to search for what is good and right, especially when such a path is the hardest to walk. It suggests that we each possess moral agency—the ability to help impact the course of our nation. Indeed, patriotism reminds us of our deepest aspirations for this nation: who we are, and who we can become.

Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL players have assumed one posture of patriotism. Like so many Americans before them, they seek to make a more perfect union. This doesn’t mean that I have to like what they have done. But I should listen, I should be open-minded, I should engage.

Just yesterday I ran in the Mount Vernon Patriot race along with over 2,000 other runners. Before the race began, numerous speakers spoke about the fact that we must never forget 9/11, and that we always must honor those who protect us. I stood tall during the playing of the national anthem, and as I did tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered Frank and as my heart filled with my love for this nation. But my strong sense of devotion also tells me that I must hear those who kneel or turn away at this moment and understand their own devotion to this land. 

3 Steps to Responding to America’s Turmoil

By Rich Harwood

Earlier this week I was in Chicago, which sadly has become synonymous with gun violence. There, I keynoted a conference of 1,100 public school communications officers, who, like many Americans, are deeply troubled by the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge, Dallas and Orlando, among others. For many Americans, it feels as though the country is splitting apart. The toxic tone of the presidential campaign and our own community discourse only heighten these fears.

At issue is what will the nation and individual communities do: split apart, or find a common path forward?

There is no guarantee of a good outcome here. We must work at it. But the choice is clear: Either we will remain on the path of the status quo, which is filled with disappointment, frustration and, for too many Americans, despair. Or, we will choose a path of possibility and hope, where we restore our belief that we can come together to get things done.

More than anything, people want to know that they are seen and heard by others, that their reality is reflected and valued in our public discourse, and that we will work together to address their concerns. This is a basic human need. Making meaningful progress requires that we know this—and authentically act on it. But not just any actions will do, as many will only exacerbate our troubles. Here are three steps we should take to move the nation and our communities forward given where we are:

1.      Start with people’s shared aspirations for their community. A Texas man asked me at the school conference this week how can we find answers to our challenges when so many people see things nowadays as you are either with our side or against us? His point is important. Increasingly, we run the risk of breaking up into fragmented groups, isolated from one another. Too often discussions about tough challenges only reinforce this by asking people to talk about “problems.” These discussions soon descend into complaint sessions, where people point fingers about who is to blame for the lack of progress. In turn, we get locked into old arguments, which raise fears and push people into corners, and place us squarely on the path of the status quo.

Instead, the opportunity is to reframe our conversations in terms of our shared aspirations, revealing what we seek to create in our community together. These are not utopian wish lists, which will never come true. Nor will people agree on everything, but we already know that. People’s shared aspirations are rooted in things that are actionable, doable and achievable that we can get started on and build on, together.

2.      Allow room for different issues to rise up. It’s critical to recognize that there is no one single issue at work in the current environment, but rather a web of issues, which involve police and policing, racial equity, poor public schools, gun violence and more general concerns about community safety, among others. My own reading of the situation is that different issues in this web will rise to the top of the agenda in different communities.

And so we must resist the temptation to impose upon communities a frame for what needs to discussed and done. Otherwise, people will once again feel acted upon by the powers that be, productive work will be short-circuited, and people’s sense of possibility—and their own agency—will be dashed. This leads to mistrust, even cynicism. It is the path of the status quo that we must forcefully reject.

3.      Focus on building things together. Talk is good, but not enough, especially now. Indeed many Americans are fatigued from too many conversations in their communities that do not lead to productive action. I share their frustration. To restore our belief and can-do spirit, we must come together to build things together that move us toward achieving our aspirations and meeting current challenges.

How we do this work will be as important as what the work is. This is critical to know. We must make room for people in communities to come together and set goals, identify ways forward and implement solutions. The measure of these actions is not how grand or big or complex they are; rather, it is that people are coming together to act on their aspirations and concerns. Now is the time to build our civic confidence, which often will mean starting small and building upon our common successes. Undertaking solutions that are bound to stall out or die from their own complexity and weight is the path of the status quo.

In the rush to action we must avoid skipping over these steps, or else inevitably we will be right back on the path of the status quo. Nor should we simply rig up a laundry list of expert responses as a way to diffuse the situation and “show” progress. People don’t want to be sold yet another bill of goods. The task at hand is to understand and address what really matters to people. And people must be involved in creating and building these responses.

The issues we face are often complicated and difficult to deal with. They are highly emotional and often rooted in the nation’s history. But that shouldn’t stop us. Nor should it make us afraid. We must summon the courage to move forward and the humility to see and hear one another. But let’s be clear, a fundamental choice is before us: Either stay on the path of the status quo, or choose a path of possibility and hope. Let’s start with these three key steps to get on the right path. 


Guest Blog: Library Director's Experience at the Public Innovator's Lab

By Jos N. Holman, County Director at Tippecanoe County Public Library

This post originally appeared in Tippecanoe County Public Library's Newsletter

Many of you would not know this, but I have never been big on titles. However, recently I was recognized with a title I really like. I was dubbed a “Public Innovator.” I was officially granted this cool title by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and even have the certificate to prove it.

Not only was I granted this title, three other Tippecanoe County Public Library (TCPL) staff members became “Public Innovators.” The recognition came at the end of a three-day training in Detroit led by Rich Harwood and several Harwood staff members. The Midwest Collaborative for Library Services organization awarded TCPL a travel and registration grant for 75% of the training cost.

The Harwood Institute is a nonpartisan, national, nonprofit organization. It teaches, coaches, and inspires individuals and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together. Working in concert with the American Library Association, the institute hopes to train library staff throughout the country to thoroughly participate in and (when appropriate) facilitate efforts to transform their communities.

“Turning outward” is the core principle upon which Harwood training is based. Only by turning outward can organizations truly understand and actually listen to what others are saying. An organization’s main point of reference for actions and decisions should no longer be its internal space and processes. Instead, the community becomes the organization’s point of reference.

A clear path for action is achieved through community conversations. Once these conversations are finished, a picture of shared aspirations begins to take shape. These aspirations become the focus for making positive changes in the community. Together, we make intentional choices that influence and direct shared actions. Collectively we make a difference in the lives of other people, institutions, and civic-minded groups. By doing this we make a difference in our community.

Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate and attended many continuing educational activities. Rarely did any compare to the Harwood training. Although I was certainly impressed with their methodology, I was most impressed with the purpose and intended result of the training.

This training was not only designed to improve me, it encouraged me to look beyond myself to improve the community around me through a concerted effort. It was about changing enough in me to help change circumstances for others. The training strongly intimated that I needed to care enough to develop a deep understanding of the community, decide on the best path, and intentionally choose actions that will make a difference.

All of this is meant to be motivated through a personal covenant, an agreement with myself about doing what I can to make a difference. On a personal level, I strongly believe life is about making choices. Even as a teenager, I wanted to make a difference in the world and believed that happens by making choices. Now, with the title of “Public Innovator,” it seems I have been formally commissioned to make a difference. This just may be the title I have wanted all my life.


What to do about the crumbling world

By Rich Harwood

It can feel as if the world is coming undone before our very eyes. In just the past few weeks, alone, we have witnessed the Orlando massacre. More deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and Falcon Heights, MN. Great Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Donald Trump’s birdcalls through the use of anti-Semitic symbols. Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco and the heated political rhetoric in response to it. And then: Last night’s killing of multiple police officers in Dallas.

Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Each of these events is like an ink-blot test. Different people look at them, come up with entirely different reactions and attach to them entirely different causes. After Orlando, one could watch different news casts, and the different guests on them, and come away thinking that they were not even speaking about the same event. Some talked in terms of terrorism and the root-cause being Islamic extremism and ISIS. Others talked in terms of gun control and domestic hate. Some mentioned that this tragedy occurred at a gay nightclub, while others seemingly refused to utter the word “gay.” Still others noted that the mass shooting happened on the club’s Latin night, while others did not.

Perhaps the saddest part of this is that each group spoke as if they live in a vacuum, without any obligation or responsibility—or desire—to engage with the other. No, “the other” is the enemy now.

Meanwhile, we continue to stand witness to horrific shootings of African Americans by law enforcement, the very group that exists to protect, not kill. But just how “recent” are such shootings; is this really something new? For people of color, the fear of law enforcement is a reality that far too many individuals and communities have long lived with. Only now are these deaths something more visible to those of us whose days are not riddled by such fear. But what are the implications of this? Do we merely continue to mourn each new death without any new response?

In Great Britain, rural areas and small-towns in England overwhelmed more cosmopolitan urban areas in voting to exit the European Union. Consider this simple question: Why? What messages were these voters sending? One can argue 'til the cows come home whether it was “in their best interest” to vote for “Brexit.” But before such mind-numbing debate overwhelms our senses, or causes us to lock into a point of view, shouldn’t we first seek to better understand what is motivating their vote—indeed, what is spurring their fears and concerns? Perhaps the lesson here for the U.S. is not whether one supports Donald Trump or not, but rather, what are his supporters—our fellow Americans—trying to say through their support in these troubled times?

There’s an old country song the refrain of which is, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” What people want more than anything—what people need more than anything—is for their reality to be reflected and acknowledged in our common discourse. That requires us to face that reality, even if it doesn’t fit with our own—no, especially when it doesn’t fit with our own.

Each of us can choose to move ahead as isolated individuals, as fragmented groups, as adherents to one point of view over another, but that will never work. We cannot go it alone, on our own. Seeing our own reality, without seeing that of others, is a recipe for a further breakdown of society.

The costs are real. This isn’t political philosophy. It’s reality. 

When I’m in Orlando this Weekend

By Rich Harwood

This Friday, I’m heading to Orlando to speak at the American Library Association conference about the role of libraries in transforming communities. As I prepare for my trip, my mind keeps turning to the recent massacre there and how a community—and the nation—can respond.

Unfortunately, the current debate over guns on Capitol Hill leaves little hope for much of any response—whatever course it might take—other than more gridlock and name calling. Both the tone and substance of the debate is cause for real concern. But something even more fundamental plagues the discussion and demands our urgent attention.

The response to the Orlando tragedy is in part a function of something much larger, insidious and corrosive taking place in our society. Hate now seems to be enveloping us. Our public discourse is infused with it. A sense of common purpose undermined by it. When hate permeates a society to this extent, it must be confronted head on. Our ability to make progress depends upon making a significant course correction. We must not delay.

There are numerous examples of the spread of hate. Exhibit A is the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which continually stokes people’s fears. Meanwhile, leaders of his own party stand-by in hopes that they will not be asked to comment on the latest incendiary tactic or to take a definitive stand. Mr. Trump’s strategy of playing on people’s fears is dangerous.  

But blaming Mr. Trump alone is too easy. And if we are not careful, we will once more miss the frustration and anger that many of his supporters feel.

The problem is that across the nation, various organizations and groups, political parties and leaders from all sides are at loggerheads. We risk descending into fragmented tribes, each protecting their own good, with little regard for the common good. Sadly, the name of the game now is to push one’s opponent into a corner. Raise voices. Point fingers. Cast aspersions. Far too little listening is happening. Too many opportunities for progress are getting choked off.

Our nation finds itself at an ugly impasse. When this happens, trust disappears, fear reigns, and there is little hope for major breakthroughs.  

So what shall we do?

First and foremost, we must take a firm stand against hate. This will require that we make the choice to see and hear one another. That we commit to a modicum of empathy toward one another. That we seek to find openings for productive actions that can lead to growing our collective civic confidence that change, however small at first, is possible.

People of good will do not wish to idly stand on the sidelines and watch the ratcheting up of hate and the further fragmentation of society. They believe we can do better—that individually and collectively, we can be better. I know this because I witness such desire and the actions it produces each day in my work with people in communities across the nation.

The fundamental task here is to reclaim, together, what we value and the kind of communities we seek to create. This cannot be an exercise in wishful thinking. It is a fight—a fight against hate and the further fragmentation of our society. To battle hate, we must each examine where we stand, our actions, our willingness to truly see and hear one another, and make a firm declaration of our intentions. 

Orlando United

By Rich Harwood

Our national fortitude and belief in ourselves are being tested once more. The massacre in Orlando defies explanation and plainly reminds us that evil exists. It also raises important questions: How does the Orlando community now find a way to pick itself up after such a horrific incident has knocked it down? And what is our response as a nation?

This shooting is yet another defining moment in our country’s history—along with similar tragedies that have occurred in places such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and, more recently, San Bernardino. In the last 30 months alone, mass shooters have murdered at least 1,105 people and wounded nearly 4,000 people.

Such acts need not define us as a nation. But they do test our resolve. And we have a choice as to how we move forward.

There are those political leaders in the midst of the carnage, who are already seeking personal and political gain—before the dead have been identified, and their next of kin notified.

There are those who are already using this occasion to pass judgment on the sexual orientation of those who were murdered, or somehow avoid mentioning it at all.

There are those who are already rushing to judgment about what precipitated this event so as to advance their own pre-fixed agendas, without leaving room for the facts to emerge.

When our nation is visited by such acts of hate and terror, fear ripples throughout media coverage and daily conversations and the world around us can seem immeasurably unsafe, unsound and unreliable.

The choice before us as a nation—and as individuals—is will we continue down this path, or will we pursue an alternate path of possibility and hope. I know we can choose the latter path.

I have worked in many communities traumatized by all sorts of shocks, from massive job layoffs to mass shootings. One such place was Newtown, CT, where a 19 year old gunman named Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults.

There, I helped the community decide what to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School and make an all-important pivot from trauma and despair to healing and hope. More than anything I did personally, I learned first-hand from the good and brave people of Newtown what it means to stand back up and put one foot in front of the other despite untenable pain and raw anger.

In Newtown, a special task force of 28 elected leaders was created to make the decision about the school’s future and that of the community. I remember at the last of our meetings, one task force member said that, upon reflection, she had come to a basic but profound belief: “We must move forward as best we can.” Indeed there is no perfect solution for an imperfect situation.

What the people of Newtown demonstrated time and again—as I believe the people of Orlando will also show—was a willingness to listen to different points of view about how to move forward. They showed a deep compassion for one another, even as they wrestled with competing ideas about what to do. And they mustered a collective sense that they were all in the same boat.

Amid the tragedy in Orlando, will we, as Americans, join together in the same boat? Will we debate the issues at hand with a sense of compassion, especially for those with differing views? Will we afford people who may be different from ourselves the dignity they deserve?

There will be a robust debate in the days ahead—as there should be. Our differences on how to address this tragedy are real and we shouldn’t gloss over them. But that does not mean that the debate must be riddled by gratuitous divisiveness and acrimony. Nor that political posturing and pontificating should rule the day.

The nation’s fortitude and belief in itself now face a test. If we truly yearn for Orlando to heal, then let’s stand united with Orlando. This will require that we engage productively and exercise human love. Nothing less will do.


West Virginia Rising Up

By Rich Harwood

Last week I went to Beckley, West Virginia to keynote Rise Up Southern West Virginia, a conference of about 200 leaders committed to fighting childhood poverty. I traveled there because I wanted to make two simple and basic points: No people or part of our country should be left behind as the nation seeks to move forward, and the path forward must start with the individuals in that room.

West Virginia has long lagged behind the rest of the nation by almost every measure but is now suffering at record levels. In just the past year, thousands upon thousands of coal jobs have disappeared. More and more families have lost loved ones to the scourge of a prescription drug epidemic. And vast teacher vacancies have left public schools ill-equipped and short-handed to prepare the next generation.

This is part of West Virginia’s reality, but only part of it.

I have been to West Virginia numerous times over the course of my career, and this trip left me more committed to the state than ever before. But it was my first-ever visit that came to shape my views of the people there and help propel me to launch what is now known as The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Back in August 1985, a Union Carbide chemical plant in Institute, WV leaked toxic gases. Just months before, deadly gases had escaped at its sister plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands of people. At the time, I was working for a non-profit in mid-town New York, and we were asked to come to Institute to help the community and the chemical industry figure out how best to respond.

The work was inspiring. Residents bravely sought ways to balance their urgent desire for safety and protection with a need to maintain jobs. They were deeply proud of their state and its history and culture. What I also remember, vividly, was the reaction of my friends and colleagues in New York City and elsewhere when they heard I was working in West Virginia. Their refrains were biting: “You can’t get a good glass of wine there.” “The people there are uneducated.” “Why do West Virginians even support those chemical industry jobs, anyway?” And on and on it went.

I fear such attitudes still persist in our country about West Virginia and places like it. It’s an attitude that says that some people are worth more than others and that some of us will be left to go it alone. It’s one reason for the deep anger now permeating our political landscape. There’s no room for such attitudes if we are to find more effective and inclusive paths for moving forward.

I started The Harwood Institute because I believe every individual in America should have a fair shot at the American Dream. That each person should have the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. And that all people should be afforded dignity. As I said in West Virginia last week, I believe that in order to make progress, we must make community a common enterprise again, where each of us is a part of something larger than ourselves. 

During the course of the presidential primaries, various candidates have gone to West Virginia to make pledges and promises to revitalize the state by bringing jobs back and fixing the education system, among other ideas. The people of West Virginia have heard such promises before, and little has come from them. Using the state as a convenient backdrop for campaigns only promotes more false hope and cynicism. My own read is that the people of West Virginia don’t buy it.

Instead, there is a growing desire within the state for people to come together to begin to tackle their own pressing challenges. I’m convinced more than ever that change has to start there, at the community level. Progress on this path may be slow at times, but it will be real, and matter in people’s lives. I plan to be there supporting them.

Thinking About My Dad

By Rich Harwood

Every so often I’ve written about people who have made a difference in public life and inspired me. Some of these individuals I have known, while most of them I have not. I am drawn to these stories because I believe that in an age of divisive politics, a lack of belief in our ability to get things done together and a flagging American Dream, that it’s essential to lift up ordinary Americans who help shine a light on a more positive path forward. Today, I want to talk about one individual I did know well: my dad, Gil Harwood, who passed away earlier this month.

One of his greatest gifts to me was a deep affection and love for Judaism. Upon his death, I was instantly reminded of my three favorite words in the Old Testament. They were spoken by Moses when he stood before the burning bush and God called out to him. Moses responded: “Here I am.” My dad believed that we are each called to step forward to say, “Here I am,” in our own way—to repair breaches in society and account for our daily actions. He believed how one lived their life mattered.

I saw him practice this approach first-hand time and again. When I was born, I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As a young child, I would often be up all night sick. My dad was there. He would take things out of our hallway closet and make up games. He would tell me stories. And sometimes, he would simply lay beside me to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. Oftentimes this went on night after night, but he was still there, even while working 12- to 15-hour days, often seven days a week.

When I was five, I remember him taking me to drop leaflets for political candidates in Queens, NY, where we lived at the time. It was the start of regular conversations we would have about politics that would stretch out over 50 years. What I remember most from these conversations was his deep belief that politics should be—and can be—a noble calling to pursue the common good. And he taught me that for those of us who believe it should be such a calling, that it is our responsibility to work to make politics better.

During my teens, I can remember seeing the mail piled up on our dining room table, and every couple of weeks or so a white legal-size envelope would be there from the Saratoga County Mental Health Committee. This was during the 1970s, when it was still taboo to talk about mental health issues in public, especially in upstate NY. My dad fought to make sure that any individual who needed support could get it.

When I attended Skidmore College, I did a special project on urban renewal in Saratoga Springs. I had known my dad was on the Urban Renewal Commission for the city, but I hadn’t known what I came to discover until I later talked with his colleagues and city leaders. They told me that it was my dad who insisted, over many years, that every person had a voice in the redevelopment of the community, especially those directly affected by urban renewal.

Later on, after I had moved to Washington, DC, I was invited to a reception at a national, blue-chip law firm for the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who had just joined the firm. My dad had served as Cuomo’s counsel for well over a decade. So, when the governor was told that I was there, he came over to me, and in front of his law partners and young associates, declared, “Now, your dad, he was a lawyer’s lawyer!”

What he meant was that my dad was disciplined and rigorous in his approach. But what the governor didn’t say, and what I was thinking at the time, is that my dad believed that no one in a position of power should ever use the law for their own personal benefit or political gain. The law was there to protect to the public good.

Just a couple of years ago, my dad asked me to take him back to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up. We spent three days together returning to Borough Park, which, when he was a kid, was a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. We went to Webster Avenue to his old home where he played stickball in the street with his friends. He took me to where he went to public school and to the synagogue where he went to religious school three times a week. We went to Sunset Park, where his father, my grandfather, owned his first pharmacy. What I remember from this trip, what I remember about my dad, is that he never forget where he was from, and he never pretended to be from someplace he wasn’t.

My dad could be a difficult man, often argumentative, at times biting in his critiques. For he was always pushing forward, always seeking out change, always believing that notwithstanding our human frailties and foibles, that we could do better, we can be better. I will forever be guided by these beliefs—and his call to step forward and say, “Here I am.”

Flint's Reflection in our Eyes

By Rich Harwood

There’s an old country song I often quote in speeches I give, the refrain of which is, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about that line in the context of what’s happening to the people of Flint, Michigan.

I suspect that most Flint residents can no longer see themselves in our eyes and the eyes of their supposed public “servants,” and frankly, it’s because too many people have turned the other way. Residents in this city of 95,000, once a major national industrial center and a shining example of American ingenuity, fear brushing their teeth, bathing and even drinking their own water.

Perhaps there was some good reason for switching the community’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. To me, that debate overshadows even more important questions: Why after the ill-fated change did it take months for anyone to hear the cries from Flint? And even when those cries were heard, why was there so little action to fix the situation? Many observers have said what has already gone through so many of our own minds: This would never have happened in a largely white, middle class community. But Flint is largely African American and many people there live in poverty.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s – after GM closed its plants in the area and the community was still reeling from the job losses and effects of various failed attempts at quick fixes – my colleagues and I spent a number of years working closely with people in Flint to help them put their community on a better course. It was slow, hard work; nothing came easy. Mistrust, violent crime, abandoned homes and lots pervaded the community. Hope was in short supply. But what I also came to know is that Flint residents are some of the most spirited and resilient people in all of America. Indeed, while the community certainly suffers from myriad challenges, it is rich in the kind of dogged determination that I believe is the great strength of our communities and this nation.

At the time, when I would tell people who didn’t live in Flint about our work there, I can remember having to answer the same question over and over again: Why not just let the struggling community die? Wouldn’t that be easier? More cost effective? In fact, just this past week, The Washington Post ran a front-page article with the headline: “Many in Flint wish to leave but can’t.” Darren Bently, a 33-year-old Flint native, whose parents and grandparents have called Flint home, was quoted as saying, “I never intended to leave. This is my home. This is my family. This is everything I know.” He and others don’t want Flint to die.

Many political leaders in Michigan and the federal government are running for cover as the fallout from this tragedy piles up. Meanwhile, some leaders have suddenly adopted Flint as their cause. But where have they been all these months? In all the posturing and positioning it would be easy to forget a basic truth: Communities are more than playing fields for political leaders. They’re where people make a go of life. Where families are started and reared. Where people gain a sense of belonging, safety and pride. They’re where the seeds of real change are often planted, by one person and then another making a choice to step over the threshold from their private life into public life, and to work with others to get real things done even amidst their differences. 

The truth is that Flint was suffering long before residents began to fear consuming its water. Like so many other places in America, Flint has been ignored. We go there only when we must – and dare I say, too often, we go there only when it’s advantageous.

It seems to me that to give communities like Flint a real shot, we must do better. We must be willing to do the hard work of building trust, of getting our hands dirty in the messiness that is change. And at the most fundamental human level, this requires us to be present, to see and hear one another, and to reflect the reality of people’s lives in our words and actions.

To fail to see and hear people is to deny them of their reality. When one’s reality is denied, it strips people of their basic dignity. Too many people who could have helped Flint turned the other way. In too many communities, people are fighting uphill battles to combat challenges and aspire to a better life. They want to know their lives matter and that they count. Right now, too often, they’re going it alone. They can’t see themselves in our eyes anymore. Maybe they never could. What are we going to do about that? 

Our Soldiers and the NFL

By Rich Harwood

Another Veterans Day passed last week with all the pomp and ceremonies and solemnness we have come to expect – and that many of us cherish as we honor those who have protected us, especially in an increasingly dangerous world. What I didn’t expect was to learn that the NFL and many of its teams (along with professional basketball, baseball and hockey, among others) have been paid to honor our soldiers at games.

It’s called “paid patriotism,” and it stinks.

Just two weeks ago, U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (both of Arizona) released a new report that detailed $6.8 million in payments over four years to pro sports teams to recognize and honor our soldiers at games. According to the report, teams were paid for on-field color guard ceremonies, the singing of the national anthem, ceremonial first pitches and other tributes.

The Department of Defense explained these expenditures as part of its ongoing military recruitment. Of course, we’re accustomed to the various paid advertisements we routinely see on television and elsewhere to recruit military members. “Be All You Can Be” is a slogan many of us can hear ringing in our own minds after years of U.S. Army ads.

But the U.S. government paying for tributes by sports leagues and teams, including colleges and universities, crosses a line. So, too, does the NFL and other organizations seeking payments. Clearly, this is a question of appropriateness. But it’s much more than that. It goes to the heart of the meaning of patriotism and authenticity.

Patriotism is defined as “love of country.” When we honor our servicemen and women, we are expressing that love. When we stand at ballgames to applaud their efforts, we are demonstrating our individual and collective respect and support. These actions are a sign that we are each part of something larger than ourselves. They signal our commitment to those who serve, even if, or especially if, we may not support a particular military mission or engagement.

I wrote some years ago about my experience as a season ticket holder of the Washington Capitals hockey team (which I can gladly report hasn’t taken any DOD payments for paid patriotism) when men and women in uniform were regularly honored at games. At the time I wrote:

“During many games in the Verizon Center people are asked to recognize those soldiers in attendance. A prolonged, standing ovation ensues; indeed, as opposition to the [Iraq] war has increased over the last year or two, the length and intensity of the ovation has only expanded. I cannot describe the feeling.”

As I reread those lines I am immediately transported back to those precious moments. Amid divisions and name-calling in our politics and public discourse, we Americans stood together. I went on in that piece to write about our implicit covenant with soldiers we ask to go into harm’s way and the need for us to meet our commitment to them when they return home. I have written many times on that subject.

But here I wish to focus on paid patriotism. Is there such a thing? Can one be paid to be patriotic? Should one be paid to be patriotic? Surely, love of country must come from an authentic place. It must come from a voluntary act. It comes from our hearts. As I suggested above regarding the Iraq War, such patriotism often comes even when we disapprove of what our country is doing. This is in part the definition of love: to stay attached when things are not going as we like.

Paid patriotism is at odds with genuine patriotism. Protecting the authenticity of our patriotism is a duty of citizenship. It should be a duty of our government, too. And shame on sports organizations that seek payment to express their patriotism.

The Torah on the March from Selma

By Rich Harwood This past Monday, I sat in services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, nervous about my task: to go to the front of the congregation and lift the Torah (Holy Scripture scrolls) above my head after it was read and before it was to be placed back in its Holy Ark, where it is kept.

I thought about all the things that could go wrong, and all the things I realized I wasn’t sure I was to do in performing this ritual. Why had I ever agreed to do this?

Then, all of a sudden, I was awakened from my anxious stupor by our rabbi who told the story of the Torah we were about to read from that day. On this day, we wouldn’t hear young congregants chant from our own Torah; rather, we were to use a different one. Since August 1, the Torah we were about to open had been carried for 45 days and almost 1,000 miles on an historic march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. The march, America’s Journey for Justice, was organized by the NAACP.

Our congregation, Temple Micah, had been blessed. On the only day this Torah was to be absent from the march, on this Rosh Hashanah, our modest congregation was to be its temporary home and would get to read from it. And on this day, as is tradition, we would hear the story of Abraham’s test from God, when he was commanded to sacrifice his son, Issac. Only at the last moment, after proving an abiding faith, would an angel be sent to give Abraham and Issac a reprieve.

Our own faith is tested all the time, and especially in recent time. How do we understand a rash of shootings that have taken place in our cities and towns – from Newtown to Ferguson? How do we come to grips with ever-growing gaps between rich and poor? How do we restore a belief in ourselves that we can come together and get things done?

So many things were going through my mind as I sat there in Rosh Hashanah services – which happened to be taking place in a Methodist church. You see, our Rosh Hashanah services are held in the same church each year because the over-flowing crowd is too large for our own synagogue. So, there I was sitting in a church, observing our High Holy Day services, about to lift a Torah above my head, only to find out that this particular Torah had been carried for weeks on a march from Selma organized by the NAACP.

As I sat in the pew, and heard the story of this Torah, all the anxiety that had consumed me immediately left my body. I then found myself glancing over at the stone etchings of people’s names on the wall celebrating the good lives lived by various Methodist church members over the years. I could envision people on the march from Selma, day after day, seeking on their journey a more perfect union. I could see before me row after row of fellow Jews (and non-Jewish partners) praying.

I knew then that I was in the right place. As I sat there, I was reminded of all the things that can come between us, and yet our common journey must go on.

The Fallen Soldier on my Flight

By Rich Harwood As my flight from Honolulu to Dallas pulled up to the gate, the flight attendant asked the passengers to remain in their seats. Then he requested all to observe a moment of silence as a U.S. Air Force Sergeant was to fulfill his duties in bringing a fallen soldier home.

I fly multiple times a month. At the end of each flight, people pop up from the seats to “deplane” as quickly as possible. Many can be seen standing even before the plane reaches the gate. Others, once permitted to stand, jostle for position in order to improve their place in the queue. And there are those who relentlessly nudge others along, seemingly oblivious to their own rude behavior.

This is the ritual that repeats itself daily during the grind of flying. And yet on this day, on this flight, everything changed in a moment’s notice.

Gone were people’s insistence to follow their own course. Gone was the mad rush. Gone were the complaints about fellow passengers not moving fast enough.

On this jam-packed Boeing 767 flight, people responded immediately as if they had been tipped off as to what was about to happen. But they hadn’t known. None of us did. And so happy vacationers coming from sun-filled Hawaii sat there. Not a move. Not a sound.

The Sergeant alone stood up, took his bag down from the overhead bin, and stoutly walked down the aisle, out of the cabin. Soon you could see him outside, there on the right side of the plane, with other local soldiers in salute, as the casket was removed from the plane’s stowage.

I was on my way home from a two-week business trip to Australia and Hawaii. During the Australia leg, I was asked repeatedly what our friends down under should learn from the States when it comes to strengthening communities and solving pressing problems. I found myself imploring the Australians to look to themselves first; to tap into their own ingenuity; to examine their own successes. It is also true, however, that each time I led off my response by saying: “I love my country. I am proud of its can-do attitude. I know that that we have made many mistakes over our history, and I love that eventually we seem to find ways to correct our course and continue to strive for a more perfect union.”

These thoughts of Australia rushed into my mind as I watched the series of events unfold as my plane stood at the gate and the Sergeant stood up from his seat. Amid the absolute silence on the plane, my eyes quickly welled up with tears. I did not know this fallen soldier’s name. I did not know where this fallen soldier was coming from. I did not know how this soldier fell, or where he or she was to be laid to rest.

But I felt a deep sense of sorrow for this soldier and his or her family. And I felt a deep love of country. I was proud of those on this plane who put aside all our common impulses to pay proper respect.