Photo: 2020 Fall Virtual Lab participants

Harwood Virtual Lab Reflections: Thought-Provoking Conversations

Posted on April 14, 2021 by Carolina Franco, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading & Kiarra Louis, consultant with The Patterson Foundation
In the fall of 2020, seven individuals had the privilege of participating in the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation's Virtual Lab. For eight weeks, we engaged with the content and immersed ourselves in thought-provoking conversations. A significant aspect of the Harwood practice is turning outward to be more present and aware of the needs of those in our communities. One of the best ways to learn about people's realities and needs is through community conversations where people can openly share their thoughts, concerns, and aspirations.

During our post-Harwood Lab meeting to reflect on our experiences, our cohort expressed interest in having our own community conversation. It was an opportunity to bring the Harwood practice to life as emerging public innovators.

On January 22, 2021, we facilitated a virtual 90-minute community conversation with our peers. After starting with a question of the day in true The Patterson Foundation (TPF) fashion, we dived into a discussion covering a series of questions. For example, we asked the following:
  • What kind of community do you want post-COVID-19?
  • How do issues in your community affect you personally and the people around you?
  • What will help us make progress and move forward?

Carolina Franco, Lead Facilitator
While planning for our first community conversation as alumni, I didn't notice the timing would coincide with such a historic week, as the U.S. inaugurated a new president. It was not until the moment I asked the first question that I realized the week's events could make our conversation more interesting than I had expected.

We wanted to put our knowledge into action to talk about the challenges in our community and identify opportunities to make our community a better place.

The result? The conversation was so powerful! After a few days full of so many emotions, it was so nice to see how despite different points of view, our community's well-being matters the same to all of us. The group agreed that this past year had taught us a lot; things can change overnight, and we need to be ready for change as a community. Diversity and digital access for all were mentioned several times, but communication and trust definitely were the highlights of the conversation.

Being on the other side (moderating the conversation), I realized that sometimes the power of listening is so much stronger than participating. As facilitators, the more neutral we are, the better the experience. This is such a great exercise to practice listening and empathizing, but most importantly, to prove how everyone shares the same aspirations for our community. I felt the passion participants had when they talked about their beliefs. Certain questions took the conversation to an emotional place. This touched me because I saw the magic of fully connecting with them, which I think is the first step to community growth.

I look forward to more experiences like this, where we all respect each other, where we remember that challenges are opportunities for us to work together toward great outcomes, and where we are all "possibilitarians" of the world.

Kiarra Louis, Co-facilitator and Notetaker
The opportunity to co-facilitate a community conversation was a privilege. Naturally, you expect differing views as you learn more about each other, especially how we see the world. As the notetaker, it was my responsibility to actively listen to capture the essence of the conversation while preserving the words and the voice of each speaker. To create a whole picture, I observed what they said, but also how they said it. Woven together, these detailed notes reveal a story with larger themes worth exploring.

If asked, "What did we learn?" there is so much I could say.

COVID-19 reminds us not to take anything for granted. Our sense of normal can change within a few months or even in the blink of an eye. Although bringing challenges and posing dangers to us all, the pandemic has created a positive trend. Our peers observed more collaboration among individuals, communities, and organizations who may not have worked together before. There have been creative innovations for people to work, connect, and interact remotely in the spirit of collaboration and inclusion. What seemed impossible before is now part of our everyday routines, with room to continuously improve quality and inclusivity.

Our peers' main concern was the lack of a safe, healthy community. They feel that people don't trust each other and aren't willing to work with each other. Generally, there is a strong focus on what an individual wants rather than what the community wants, a spotlight on what divides us rather than what unites us, and a simmering fear of what is different and unknown. Underlying these concerns is a lack of active listening to understand a different perspective.

Emotionally, I witnessed vulnerability, fear, hesitancy, reflection, and hope. Our peers were vulnerable when sharing their thoughts and personal stories highlighting how the pandemic and recent events impacted them. Our peers were hesitant as they struggled to find the "right words" to voice what they felt and transform their abstract thoughts into concrete words without unintentionally offending another person. Our peers were fearful of tomorrow yet hopeful as they wait for a global sigh of relief.

I am thankful for the reminder that it is still possible to actively listen and learn from others with empathy and understanding, even if they see the world differently than I do.

Final Thoughts
Although our Harwood Lab is over, our experiences will live on through our intentional decisions to turn outward in our personal lives, our work, and in our communities.

We look forward to more conversations with our larger community members to explore different perspectives, understand people's experiences and needs, and learn about opportunities for collaboration.

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