As a Beacon Community, Battle Creek can show others how change happens

Ordinary citizens can make positive change happen.
This is the premise of an ambitious plan undertaken by residents, businesses and organizations in Battle Creek, says Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute based in Bethseda, Md.  
Battle Creek is the first in the United States to be named a Harwood Beacon Community--a place where an emerging group of organizations and public innovators, those who inspire, guide and equip others to make change, are committed to working in a new way to understand what it takes to bring about change in a community.
"Our approach is about how we can develop leaders and organizations and citizens to turn outward to communities and how we can build trust and get these groups to work together," Harwood says. "What’s taking place in many cases is a lot of finger-pointing and demonizing.
"We need to see how we get past that gridlock to get things done and what is the current condition that is preventing a lot of communities from moving forward."
The ultimate goal in Battle Creek is to create a critical mass of people, organizations, and the entire community who value public and private knowledge, says Chris Sargeant, chief operating officer of the United Way of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.
In turn, Battle Creek would become a model that demonstrates to people across the country that if they come together change can take place -- the community will help restore the belief in others that they can be the ones that bring about positive change.
"We want to see engagement at different levels and spaces for the public to come together," Sargeant says. "In Battle Creek if money was the solution we would have solved many issues years ago.  We are fairly resource-rich financially.  We’re not connected around engagement."
The Harwood Institute’s relationship with Battle Creek began four years ago with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Harwood says he initially worked with an ad hoc group of organizations who were interested in including the Institute’s work in their work with vulnerable children and families. 
Through this process a lack of resources for the city’s Burmese population was identified. Today more than 1,100 natives of Burma currently live in the Battle Creek area. The group's work resulted in positive changes including the translation of informational material into Burmese, coaching and support services for parents, and connecting the uninsured or underinsured members of this community to health insurance. "Many people in our community don’t know a lot about our Burmese community," Sargeant says.
Harwood founded his Institute 25 years ago. He was 27-years-old and had worked on 23 political campaigns and also worked with some nonprofits. He says he found that nonprofits weren’t addressing issues that needed to be addressed and did not have ideas to center around.
"I had instincts from working with communities on a lot of different challenges what would bring about change," Harwood says.
In addition to working with United Ways around the world, his Institute also has worked with Public Broadcasting and communities in other cities such as Las Vegas and Memphis. He has a full-ltime staff of 11 plus 20 certified coaches in the United States and Canada, all of whom teach people to work in different ways to make choices in their communities.
The Harwood model encourages the dedication of space and opportunities to gather public knowledge to make community or social changes. Individuals representing different socioeconomic areas of a community are the ones charged with identifying an issue and developing creative ways to find solutions.
The dialog and subsequent focus on the Battle Creek’s Burmese community was an approach that caught the attention of community leaders who told Harwood they wanted  to scale this type of work throughout the whole community.
As  financial resources at the local, state and national level continue to decline, Harwood says the responsibility for finding solutions is increasingly falling to individual citizens.
"I recently completed a 'Work of Hope' which was a yearlong look at where we are in the country," Harwood says. "The core of what I found in those conversations was the need to restore the belief that we can actually get things done together. People said they believe we live in a kind of Tower of Babel right now where people place blame and point fingers about why things aren’t getting done."
Sargeant says it will be up to the community to identify the issues it sees as critical to Battle Creek’s future success.
"All communities struggle to tackle issues they feel are important," Sargeant says. "We’ll decide what the issues are. This approach lets us ask the community what the end goal is and what are the aspirations we have."
This approach will call for more collaboration from all sectors of the community.
"We want to look at ways the community can wrap around an issue," Sargeant says. "There’s a strong diversity and inclusion piece to this."
The first six months of the process calls for collaborative thought and action. It focuses on gathering information on what is known, identification of common themes, and gauging the level of willingness to work together. 
Sargeant calls the process that will follow a "long-term effort." The notion of quick fixes to many of the issues identified will likely be dispelled quickly.  
"We need to look at why it is that people actually need the resources identified and ask how complex that is," Sargeant says. "We need to look at those issues and see what’s really going on."
Harwood reels off a long list of things that need to be dealt with in order to make this new way of problem-solving work: "There is a desire for instant gratification in our society and people are seemingly unwilling to invest in long-term solutions. We’ve adopted political campaign tactics to get ahead and claim turf and credit while demonizing our opponents. There’s a conflict approach to news and  there’s an inwardness among organizations and leaders who are supposed to be serving public interest who are more interested in their own interests. We spend more time in a conference designing strategic plans that are untethered from our communities."
"All of these things exist in Battle Creek," he says. "One of the things that comes through in this community is a strong desire to move past these things."
In the initial work with the Battle Community four years ago, the inclination was to start a new non-profit, Harwood says.
"As they started to use our approach people said we don’t need another nonprofit or programs. We need a clear demonstration that something will change," he says. "The culture of the community was not there to launch something that big." 
Ultimately, the goal is making tangible progress on a community issue and building community conditions for sustaining change: a new civic culture of norms, networks and relationships, and a can-do narrative that encourages action and organized spaces for interaction.  
"Communities need to pick off a pocket of change and demonstrate what that looks like," Harwood says."They need to identify a pocket of change they could make change on."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 
Photos by Erik Holladay

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