Opinion: Harwood hopes to lead revival

Last week, nearly 200 people from across the local business, government and nonprofit ranks gathered at the Pinery at the Hill to hear a pep talk from Rich Harwood, arguably the nation’s leading crusader for community action.

Pikes Peak United Way, trying in various ways to engage residents throughout Colorado Springs, brought Harwood here in hopes of succeeding where other efforts have fallen short. We’ve seen various attempts to galvanize the public and instigate lasting change, often with plenty of early fanfare and grandiose plans. But then nothing happens.

Harwood wants to be different. As he’s doing in many cities through his Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, he’s determined to help create a success story here. In a fervent, no-nonsense talk of about 30 minutes, followed by a two-hour workshop with about 150 staying to attend, Harwood talked about what has worked for other cities and situations. He saw Colorado Springs, like other places across the country, as having reached an “inflection point” with the theme of “enough is enough” and people figuring out “how to fix our public discourse.”

His observations are worth considering, especially for many who weren’t participants in this introduction. One of the comments that echoed repeatedly: Wouldn’t it be nice if all the naysayers and pessimists could be hearing this?

We need a “different breed of leader,” he said, actually using a new term for them — public innovators. The difference, he stressed eloquently, is that they have to be “turned outward, facing the community, instead of inward.”  Harwood’s goal is to identify 5,000 such public innovators in America by 2016.

We need to repair our discourse, he said, by focusing on shared aspirations, not differences, and building on “what we agree on” to improve our community.

We need a greater sense of shared responsibility, Harwood emphasized, by setting goals together and tackling them or, as he put it, “stop talking and get to building.”

We need to pay attention to the stories we tell about ourselves, focusing on positives. We need to “cultivate a new, can-do narrative,” he said, tossing out another fresh term for it — civic parables. By authoring the next set of parables, he added, we can change ourselves and our image.

We need to reclaim a sense of hope, he said, using a sign from an office in Newtown, Conn., where he has been helping people overcome the tragic mass killing there at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That sign’s message: “Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world.”

Colorado Springs hasn’t been through anything like Newtown. But what we have, Harwood believes, is enough people who want to do something about widespread frustration caused largely by having so much negativity, so many personal agendas and so much unwillingness among certain elected leaders to work together — much less listen to the people.

Rich Harwood’s basic idea is to find new leaders who will “blaze a different path” and share a “better, stronger shared story.” Idealistic, sure. But it’s not about throwing millions of dollars at the problem. It’s about everyone pulling together.

Shared aspirations. Different breed of leaders. Public innovators. New terms for changing times. Why not?