By Sterling E. Freeman
On November 28, a group of North Carolina leaders talked about civic engagement and the public good with Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute of Public Innovation.
Harwood shared wisdom gleaned from 15 years of listening to citizens across America express their hopes, concerns, fears and frustrations about public life and their willingness, or lack thereof, to participate in it.
Harwood’s research, based on interaction with real people in communities across the U.S., reveals that the gulf between the glaring need for an engaged citizenry and the dismally low level of engagement is a manifestation of a sense that people’s realties are inaccurately represented in public life, if their stories are told at all.
Given his analysis of citizens’ anemic response to the call for public participation, Harwood offers several suggestions to catalyze folks into public activity.
First, people must be rallied to embrace the notion that we hold in common fundamental aspirations for a good civil society and the flimsy veil of “red and blue” states theory should not so easily obstruct our view of it.
We are not as divided as a slither of irresponsible media persons, a smidgen of power hungry politicians and a smattering of self-proclaimed “community spokespersons” would have us believe.
Second, Harwood suggests we must invest in civic-change organizations and that these organizations must be innovative.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful for XYZ organization, charged with offering creative programs for guiding African-American males into productive lives in the mainstream, to make it a practice to not only hire the Ivy League educated researcher to do a study, but also employ the local expert on the “hood” with a GED, or equivalent of a high school diploma, who is intimate with the existential ills that hijack black-male social integration into society?
Third, Harwood challenges organizations and individuals to act to make a material difference.
This translates into a willingness to make the long-term investment through conversations and experiential immersions in communities.
It is important to know the community that one is trying to serve.
Too often individuals and organizations swoop into communities bearing chests emblazoned with a BIG S under the illusion that they will save the benighted masses.
We ought to lend credence to the masses, encourage and acknowledge their capacity, competency, obligation and right to help save themselves.
Harwood’s offerings come as a set of tools to help communities proactively restore hope and create a civic mindset amidst the demands of a ubiquitous consumer culture.
Often our preoccupation with the material crowds out our sensibilities to act for the common good.
Time for reflection leads me away from the conversation with the following thoughts.
I must be willing to consciously identify and pursue aspirations hewn out that most basic element – our common humanity.
I must be willing to hear and respond to the complex cry for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by the multitude of voices that wail for a better way of being.
I must be willing to respect the power that I do hold and realize that all I have is not all there is.
Others have power, too; it might be my job to help them recognize and use it.
Sterling E. Freeman is executive director of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C.