Rich Harwood On Future Opportunities For Communities To Cooperate & Apply Innovative Practices — Impact Boom | Social Impact Blog & Podcast | Global Changemaker Community | Social Innovation, Enterprise, Design

Where are there opportunities for governments and large businesses to foster innovation in the communities they co-exist with?

We’re working with one of the largest companies here in the States that has facilities all across the United States and the world. It’s interesting because they have a very active corporate social responsibility program, but what they’ve come to realise is they’re not creating any social impact. They’re not laying the groundwork for any social innovation. One of the things I really admire in this particular company is they have decided to really examine their assumptions about how they invest in communities, not just their dollars, but their expertise, resources, credibility, relationships, and how they can use those assets to help spark and catalyse change in these communities. This is in ways that is not just brand positioning for this corporation, but it is actually creating healthier, thriving communities in which these corporation’s employees live and want to grow their families and hopefully even retire in. They want to make sure their children stay in these communities when they graduate from high school or college and want to make a life there. Lots of large corporations can be thinking about the relationship they have with society, yes, to make money and provide value for their shareholders, but also to provide value for society itself by using their assets to do that in ways that sit at the intersection of who they are as a brand, what their mission is, and how they can contribute to society by aligning those things. I think it’s possible and we’re seeing it happen.

What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently creating a positive social change?

I just got off a call with people in Reading, Pennsylvania, which is a town that 10 years ago was declared the poorest community in America. It was a white working-class community and is now 65% Hispanic, and before people think that’s homogeneous, it’s folks from 5-7 different countries, that all have different dialects, heritage, history, and customs. It’s actually more diverse than ever before. At this time (at least in the States), where we have been enveloped by debates in education about what’s called critical race theory, banning books in schools, upheavals on school boards; nasty debates about whether or not kids should wear mask in classrooms because of COVID-19, this community at the very same time because of fundamentally different conditions created an educational equity agenda for their community. They not only created that agenda, but local funders came together and said to a national funder in India, “we don’t want your national money, we want to fund this locally.” They funded this social impact innovation initiative. It’s the largest initiative they’ve ever funded, and not only did they do that, but now they have all these folks developing into innovators, forming action teams and taking action on three priorities in the community, to ensure that every young person can fulfill their potential and be, in this case, part of America’s Promise.

I’m so inspired by the work these individuals and groups are doing, not because they happen to be working with The Institute, that’s the least of it. It’s because they decided to step forward, push away all the negative narratives about their community coming in from the outside, marshal their collective resources (which aren’t a whole lot by some measures, but are enormous by their own measures) and actually set out and create change in real ways. I just find that so incredibly inspiring, I’ve been doing this work for 30 plus years, and I still get goosebumps when I listen to the progress that people are making, the faith that they’re growing in themselves and in one another. They actually can be part of creating the change they want to see in their own lives and community. I still find it remarkable.

There’s some stuff on our website about it, but this is another thing, they don’t have a name, any letterhead, or phone number. It’s just different groups that have come together to take shared action, innovate together and produce real impact in people’s lives. They’re tossing away all the things I was talking about before that get in their way. People often think these things have to look, sound or be a certain way, and I just have so much admiration for the folks who have stepped forward to do this.

To finish off, what books or resources would you recommend to our listeners?

I will talk about a couple of few books I just finished reading. I’m really interested right now in the intersection of how communities can move forward through trauma, loneliness and mental health. These are all undercurrents in our work wherever we go now. To an earlier question you asked, they are increasing undercurrents that need to be addressed. One book I just finished that I think is really remarkable is called Healing by Dr. Thomas Insel, he’s the former Head of the National Institutes for Mental Health (in the States). It’s a really good book, in part because he talks about the three P’s, People, Place, and Purpose, and says that all the professionals in the world can’t solve the mental health crises that we face. It takes people, a commitment to a place, and purpose in people’s lives. Those are all things we can create together along with mental health professionals.

A second book I would recommend is called, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals by Mark Edmundson, a professor at Princeton University. It’s just a wonderful, accessible book, an is really for people trying to create a social impact. It’s a book about journeys and how we imagine ourselves on this journey. Is it simply about ourselves, or is it something larger about our souls and connection to others? How do we comport ourselves into the world as we make our way through this journey? It’s a great book for folks in the social impact world. Lastly, what I would say, just because it’s fun, is reread all the Harry Potter books. I love fables, they’re really instructive to people on journeys, and I read them with my kids when they were younger. Now they’re grown up, and I still find them equally inspiring, with new insights now as an adult.