Do you think that public institutions belong to the public? The Harwood Institute does. This nonprofit, nonpartisan organization—founded by Richard C. Harwood in 1988—holds the driving belief that “as a nation, as communities, and as individuals, we can do better.”
One of Harwood’s most active initiatives is the Reconnecting Community and Schools program, which aims to infuse citizens with civic awareness through involvement in public life and politics. Through political engagement, the organization believes that communities can begin to address the problems of their educational systems.
Of course, most busy parents, forced to juggle one or more kids and a full- or part-time job, would never think of joining the fray of local school district politics. Many feel that there is little they can do to effect change, and have little faith or interest in available conduits for political expression. The Harwood Institute works specifically to cut through such cynicism and apathy.
Their approach is one of patience and pragmatism. David Moore, Director of Community Initiatives and Project Manager of the Reconnecting Communities and Schools program, maintains that “[P]ublic schools are fundamentally democratic institutions.” He goes on to explain that these institutions shouldn’t be separated from “aspirations for our communities and our country.”
If tools are provided to strengthen the relationship between communities and their educational institutions, citizens will be able to regain their “‘ownership’ of public schools.” It is this feeling of ownership, Moore says, that communities have lost or given up.
“We have come to treat the school like a gas station,” says Moore. As a society, he believes, we have developed the habit of dropping off our kids in the morning and expecting them to be “fixed” or “tuned-up” by the end of the day. From Moore’s perspective, this cycle forms an insidious social pattern: “The problem with treating our schools this way is it leaves public schools burdened with all the work of raising kids. But we know that can’t work. We can either keep on praying that it will work, or we can actually become proactive.”
For anyone who has even tried reaching a live person at our increasingly impersonal and corporate school systems, the Harwood Institute’s initiatives to overcome the alienation of schools from communities hold some hope of change. The Reconnecting Community and Schools program has grown in communities in South Carolina, Ohio, and Alabama, providing tools and advice on everything from how to get involved with pre-existing community groups to setting up long-term goals, conducting penetrating program reviews, and managing civic conversations.
In late February, the Institute held a small meeting in Washington, D.C. for a group of 20 educators to discuss the work that has been done in Medina, Ohio, and Mobile, Alabama. Moore claims that communities like these have already achieved tax measures to help increase funding to their local schools and, in one instance, forced a secretive zoning board process to become more transparent.
“These are just small examples of the kinds of very real changes that come out of this work. We know that people not normally involved in community life are getting involved,” Moore notes. “We know that professionals and policy makers change their perspectives on community and on issues as a result of this work.”
For more information, visit the Harwood Institute at www.theharwoodinstitute.org, or call 301.656.3669.
Previously published in Comfusion Magazine: Spring 2003