Photo: Kiarra Louis

Harwood Virtual Lab Reflections: Community and Public Knowledge

Posted on February 05, 2021 by Kiarra Louis, consultant with The Patterson Foundation

Editor's Note: TPF Fellows Abby Rolland, Hannah Saeger Karnei, and John Ferguson invited seven curious, committed individuals—Clara Alvarez, Carolina Franco, Joni Hansen, Jake Hartvigsen, Kiarra Louis, Laurie Miller, and Ben Tollefson—to participate and engage in the Harwood Institute’s Fall 2020 Virtual Lab. After completing their final session with Harwood, each share how they plan to implement their learnings into their work.


Through the Harwood Institute's Virtual Lab, I learned a great deal about community and what it means to me, which is great because to say I love learning and exploring what community means would be an understatement. I do have to admit that defining my community was challenging. In reality, I found myself pulled in so many different ways, but I was comforted by the fact that I was not alone. Other people were in the same boat. It was a bit funny to see how a question that seems so simple was able to stump many of us.

Upon reflection, I discovered that I am part of many communities, more than I thought. However, for the Virtual Lab, I chose to define my community as the four-county region that the Digital Access for All initiative, which I work on, is focused. I chose that community because that is where I see I can have an impact with my role as a research assistant and communications & engagement associate.

When it comes to the community, what draws people together are aspirations. I don't think I understood that word or heard it as much before I started the Virtual Lab. Now, it is part of my vocabulary. I quickly saw the benefit of using aspirations rather than visions. I know some people see it as semantics, but I did not. When I think of visions, I think of wish lists and what I would like to see if reality wasn't a thing, as if I could pick and choose how life is. However, that is not the case. Aspirations focus on what we all want in the community, given our resources, skills, and knowledge. It is based on reality. Personally, I know I would like to stand behind something grounded in reality rather than dreams and fantasies. The latter leads to disappointment and broken hearts, which can damage trust in a community.

Why do I prefer aspirations? An aspiration feels more achievable.

From the Virtual Lab's Making It Stick exercise, I realized that people are rarely asked about their aspirations and are more forthcoming than I expected. Gaining insight and public knowledge is valuable for connecting, building trust, and truly making it a community effort.

As a research assistant, my goal is to learn as much as possible through interviews and analysis. The best way I can interact with the community that I am trying to serve is to take advantage of the opportunities I get to speak to them, rather than only communicating with the organizations that serve them. For example, I am looking forward to the return of the Pop-Up Neighbor through Laundry events. I have to admit that I am nervous. It has taken me years of personal growth and development to get to the point where I am comfortable talking to people I don't know. I am still very much introverted. So, the thought of talking to what Harwood would refer to as the "unusual suspects" makes me anxious. Yet, I plan to step out of my shell and make the most of that event by listening, creating an engaging conversation with no judgment, and coming from a sincere place of learning and curiosity.

Instead of telling them why they need digital access or why they should get connected, I will focus more on their aspirations and realities and explore how having or not having digital access impacts their everyday lives!

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