As Fellows at The Patterson Foundation (TPF), we are often given the opportunity to participate in exciting experiences and trainings in an effort to develop more knowledge and hone our skills as we prepare ourselves to advance our respective careers within the philanthropic sector. For both of us, our first such experience was participating in the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s Virtual Lab to become public innovators, a part of TPF’s Aspirations to Action initiative. We learned and grew alongside six amazing individuals from Manatee County.

Due to COVID-19 and other life circumstances, instead of starting this adventure together and in-person, one of us moved to Sarasota in early April and started officially with TPF prior to the beginning of the Virtual Lab (John), while the other (Abby) ended up moving the week of the final session. Our circumstances affected the lens through which we each understood and participated, which ultimately informed our unique experiences while simultaneously bringing us closer together.

While we shared much in common as new TPF Fellows, our experiences within that 10-week journey included not only the Harwood Institute’s public innovator curriculum but also getting to know our new community at different times while learning how to Turn Outward. Above all else, Harwood is about community. Among the many valuable lessons learned, building trust, listening deeply, being authentic, and laser-focusing in on our shared aspirations rose to the top.

We each learned the same lessons but applied them to very different contexts. Both unique. Both immensely valuable.

And we each found that Harwood was not limited to a professional lens. In fact, our experiences in the Virtual Lab have helped us become better humans in many different aspects of our lives, especially with regards to our relationships with others.

Abby’s Experience
While in the Virtual Lab experience, I was wrapping up my old job in higher ed, finishing my master’s degree, and was preparing to move. Needless to say, it was quite a busy time!

Living and working in one physical community while being in the process of moving to and working in a completely different environment offered a unique way of understanding the lab experience. Questions about community, connecting to community, and working with people and organizations in a given community are deftly woven into the Harwood curriculum.

So how does one fully engage with these questions when her, his, or their physical and work communities change? I didn’t know which community to use—my then-current one in Indiana? The Sarasota one that I would be moving to shortly?

I realized that regardless of my physical location or my current employer, the Harwood Institute’s Virtual Lab lessons about intentionality, building community ownership, and developing trust and shared aspirations can be applied wherever I live. I think I benefited from living in a changing environment, as I analyzed not only how these tools and practices would work in Indy and in higher ed, but also how the application of the principles would change in Sarasota and with TPF.

Within the context of multiple events and changes in my personal life, the world during this time, specifically the U.S., was facing multiple crises. Between unprecedented health, safety, and economic challenges caused by COVID-19, the shocking death of George Floyd, the recognition of institutional racism that pervades our society, and the November presidential election, to say society was/is divided is euphemistic.

Feeling lost and unsure about how I could be a changemaker, the Harwood Institute helped center me. It helped me realize that these lessons of trust, shared aspirations, community ownership, and intentionality are more important than ever in building personal and community relationships.

John’s Experience
My experience began about a week after moving to Sarasota, and in only my 4th full day as a TPF Fellow. Therefore, the Virtual Lab functioned as a unique way to begin connecting with a new community while sheltering in place in my new apartment in a brand new city.

Building meaningful relationships with my fellow participants from TPF and Manatee County government has been quite helpful in assimilating into a vibrant new community culture and beginning to understand how it operates—and how I might fit in here. More broadly, sharing this experience while dealing with a global pandemic, coupled with the emergence of multiple crises including economic turmoil, police brutality, and systemic racism, resulted in deep connections to be formed within our small group and within the entire cohort of participants.

To the credit of each participant, our coaches, and the Harwood Institute itself, the remaining curriculum was not only framed within the concurrent crises we as humans were (and still are) facing, but specifically and thoughtfully tailored to address them. By using the tools provided by the lab and creating a space for raw and authentic communication and vulnerability, our lab experience was strengthened beyond what any of us could have imagined.

Personally, it allowed me a new outlet for dealing with my own emotions as well as a new way to engage with others in my various communities (family, friends, work, etc.) in approachable and meaningful ways—even with such difficult circumstances surrounding us in so many different ways.

It impacted me not only as an emerging leader in our field, but more importantly, as a human being. Building relationships with new colleagues and maintaining/deepening existing relationships with friends and family have taken on a whole new level of intentionality and importance.

Somehow, even in these challenging times, even being 1000+ miles away from most of my friends and family, my relationships have become stronger. How? By applying the core principle from Harwood to my day-to-day life.

I am forever grateful for this experience at this time in my life and in the world. It was and continues to be invaluable.

Focusing Forward
In many ways, our experiences were very similar. We were both living or had lived in Indiana for a number of years. We both have degrees in philanthropic studies. We both worked in the nonprofit sector, albeit in very different environments. We would both be 2020/21 TPF Fellows. And we both came with open minds and the desire to learn more.

There’s beauty in diversity—we are different people, with different backgrounds and experiences. We had different mindsets when we took the lab and had different communities in mind. But we realized that we are stronger, better aware, and more conscientious of what we need to do to Turn Outward and listen deeply to our new communities. Completing the Harwood Institute’s Virtual Lab was a critical step for us to become smarter, more empathetic, and more effective philanthropists and community members.

Our shared aspiration for the future? To positively impact each of our new communities throughout our respective careers. To authentically connect with others within our communities. To see and approach the challenges of the world through aspirations over barriers. And to help create new realities as a result.

And we look forward to realizing that future together.

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