About my Harwood Experience: From Sit-Ins to Conversations

By: Marti Fiske, Director
Dorothy Alling Memorial Library

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.