1. How do communities thrive?
  2. How do people with opposing views find shared aspirations in the same community?
  3. How do communities invite deeper investment of their members?
  4. Where do the conversations begin?
I've often wondered how communities with members who disagree find shared aspirations and move the community forward. Fueled with curiosity, a diverse cohort of colleagues from The Patterson Foundation (TPF) joined me on a journey through The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, where we explored these questions and more.

The Harwood Institute's teachings are at the core of TPF's Aspirations to Actions initiative, which endeavors to provide space for the first step in building trust – strengthening connective tissue. From uplifting people to facilitating community conversations, Aspirations to Actions is an adaptive and innovative initiative working to keep time with the ever-evolving challenges of today and tomorrow.

Representing our Harwood Institute cohort were community members with different perspectives on the most pressing issues of our time from varying faiths, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, genders, languages, cultures, politics, and life circumstances. Our mission was to learn more about becoming Public Innovators.

Public Innovators are pragmatic idealists. They seek to understand the realities of their community on a deep level while simultaneously imagining a brighter future. Public Innovators know that real, sustainable change only occurs in a community over time as the effects of small civic actions ripple out and eventually reach everyone. They fundamentally believe in the possibilities for change through democracy and civic participation and in every community member's ability to self-discover their potential to make a difference and work with others towards a common future. In short, anyone can be a Public Innovator, and it begins with turning outward to find shared aspirations (Harwood, 2021).

When we turn outward, we engage our community in questions to give their voices a platform to express themselves and be heard. In so doing, we check the vitals of a community and evaluate its "Stage of Community Life," of which there are five.

In the first stage of Community Life, the Waiting Place, people sense that things aren't working right in their community, but they cannot clearly define the problem. Community members feel disconnected from leaders, organizations, and processes, making the community fragmented. Discussions about common challenges are infrequent and/or highly divisive. Yet, people don't act, choosing to hope that "everything will be better once they get the right mayor, senator, congressperson, governor, or president to save the community" (Harwood, 2021).

Impasse is the second stage. At Impasse, the community has hit rock bottom, and people feel they have had enough and that the situation is not tenable. Unlike the Waiting Place, there is a sense of urgency in this stage as people's voices grow tired of waiting. People may still disagree, but they realize how counterproductive it is to be disagreeable, and the community still lacks the capacity to act (Harwood, 2021).

In the Catalytic stage, small, imperceptible steps are taken. Some people and organizations begin to emerge and take risks, experimenting with ideas and actions that challenge existing norms and how the community works. While exciting, a key challenge in this stage is the emerging conflict between the nascent story of hope and the ingrained narrative that nothing can change (Harwood, 2021).

The fourth stage - Growth - shows clearer and pervasive signs of how the community is moving forward. Networks grow, and a sense of purpose and direction take deep root. In this stage, people on the street can be asked what kind of community they live in, and their answers will be similar, indicating a common story of community has emerged (Harwood, 2021).

In the fifth and final stage of Sustain and Renew, the community is ready to take on the tough, nagging issues that may have been flagged before but were not adequately addressed. Change on these issues requires sustained, long-term efforts. Lessons, insights, and new norms that emerged over time now pervade the community. There is a push and pull in maintaining momentum as community members must find new ways to bring along new leaders, civic groups, and active citizens as others tire or move on. While there are persistent challenges, shared aspirations begin to materialize (Harwood, 2021).

To progress through the five stages of community life, Public Innovators must uncover the shared aspirations of community members. Those shared aspirations are revealed when Public Innovators meet with community members and engage them in the following questions:
  • What kind of community do you want to live in?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • How is that different from how you see things now?
  • What are some of the things that need to happen to create that kind of change?
Responses are gathered and compared to see what shows up for each member and where commonalities lie. The responses are the building blocks to gaining public knowledge to share in order to build trust and foster dialogues that inspire hope and possibility. Change begins to happen, but only at the speed of trust. Over time, the Public Innovators become the trusted leaders.

In a world where politics divide at a degree so unfathomable, uncertainty in our nation and our world is increasingly felt. People and communities are living through unsettling times, and many feel stuck and unheard. Each of us has the power to be a Public Innovator, to show up with questions that drive change, to listen to people's aspirations, identify what's shared, and strive for a better world where we can feel safe, connected, embraced, included, loved, and appreciated. As 2022 unfolds, we can elevate our awareness as we encounter unique opportunities to engage those around us in questions that lead to finding shared aspirations.

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