Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives

Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives

by Richard C. Harwood


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The Hope We Share

How do we bring people together when our society is breaking apart? What will it take to bridge our divides, overcome mistrust, and restore our belief that we can get things done together as Americans? How do we bring out the best in us? In Stepping Forward, Richard C. Harwood gives us a new and inspiring blueprint to rediscover what we share in common and actively build upon it. As a trusted civic voice, he argues that to get the country moving in the right direction, these efforts must start in our local communities. 

Harwood shows us how we can reach within and beyond ourselves to address our shared challenges and create more purpose and meaning in our lives by—

• Being a part of something larger than ourselves and truly making a difference in our communities

• Refocusing on the desire for good in each other

• Unleashing a greater sense of shared responsibility 

• Finding the courage and humility to take such a path

Americans are yearning for answers to the country’s rampant polarization, hate speech, and gridlock. Stepping Forward shows us how to channel our frustrations, energies, and aspirations to get on a more hopeful path.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626346765
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 870,971
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Rich's perspective is unique--and urgently needed today. For over 30 years, he has invested his career in revitalizing the nation's hardest-hit communities, transforming the world's largest organizations, and re-connecting institutions like newsrooms and schools to society. He has been recruited to solve some of the most difficult problems of our times, including being called into Newtown, CT after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rich has innovated and developed a new philosophy of Civic Faith and the practice of Turning Outward for how communities can solve shared problems and create a civic culture of shared responsibility. Thousands of community leaders, officeholders, foundation and corporate executives, clergy, journalists and government officials around the globe are using his approaches. He is an inspiring, sought after speaker, who regularly keynotes major conferences. He appears regularly on major media outlets, He has written several books and numerous ground-breaking reports. 

Read an Excerpt


Part I



On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, massacring 20 first graders and 6 adults. It was an unthinkable tragedy that rocked Newtown and the nation. President Barack Obama said it was the most difficult day of his presidency.

Just weeks after the shooting, I received a phone call from Patricia Llodra, Newtown's first selectman, the town's chief executive. She asked if I'd design and lead the process by which the community would decide what to do with the elementary school building where the tragedy occurred.

I weighed the decision for days. My initial instinct was to Call Pat back and decline. The task seemed overwhelming. How would I even go about it? There was no road map, no known process for a situation like this. I was filled with self-doubt.

But when I really thought about it, I felt I had little choice. I had to step forward. I was not powerless to act. I had worked extensively with other severely hit communities, and I knew instinctively that this experience would draw upon lessons and sensitivities I had gained from my own childhood traumas. So I accepted. And I learned very quickly just how challenging it would be. This was a discussion about the future of a school building, but it was also about so much more. Could the Newtown community pivot from trauma and despair to healing and hope?

Newtown provides a window into what we, as people and communities, are capable of under the worst conditions. It shows that we can rise above our instincts and impulses to separate from one another, to go it alone, to cast aspersions of blame, and to doubt one another's motivations. We can take hope from Newtown.

This story also illustrates a sharp juxtaposition to where we are as a nation today. In our lives and communities, various forces are working against us — many that we created ourselves — and we must understand these forces if we wish to find a more hopeful path.


Focusing on the future of the school building would be the first significant public decision the Newtown community would have to make after the shooting. Many residents argued that it was too soon to hold this discussion. The wounds were still too raw, and they needed more time to let things settle. This debate went back and forth until Pat, who I would come to know as the best public leader I have ever worked with, made the choice to move forward.

She appointed a 28-member task force made up of individuals from four different town-governing boards, including the town commission, the board of education, the finance commission, and the parks commission. The task force was to decide whether to renovate the existing school, rebuild on the same site, or start fresh on a new property.

I came on board to guide the task force in early February. We had until May to make a decision due to various timelines, including that of the state legislature, which needed to know if it had to appropriate any new dollars for the school project. During that time, the task force evaluated some 40 alternatives and weighed the pros and cons of their choices and the trade- offs of each option.

I feared the setup was a recipe for political disaster. Long- standing tensions riled the governing boards. The community was divided not only on whether to hold this discussion but also there was disagreement about what to do with the school building. Should it remain or be torn down?

Adding fuel to this highly combustible situation were the national and state political figures, organized interest groups, and news media swarming all over the community. Political grandstanding, positioning, posturing, and gridlock were all in the offing.


I remember vividly the first day I met Pat in person. It was in the conference room of her small office suite. About a dozen other community leaders, some of whom would later serve on the task force, were also present. At issue was how to shape the task force goals, the overall process, and its individual meetings.

People disagreed about what to do. Frustrations ran high. I wrestled with whether this group was actually ready to take on such an emotionally charged discussion. Were the trauma and despair just too great to deal with? Could people be flexible enough to hear one another? Could I devise an approach and strategy that could work given the level of trauma?

I also needed to find a way to earn Pat's trust, which required a leap of faith on her part to entrust me to guide this process. Plus, by the time of this first meeting, I had developed fairly strong views on how the process should unfold. She pressed me hard that day — and every day after that.

I also remember the first time I met the task force members. It happened literally minutes before our initial public meeting was called to order. All the members were positioned behind the formal task force table at their appointed places. I went up to each one, extending my hand out across the table to introduce myself. Some thought the community needed my help; others did not.

Each task force meeting was held in public in the city council chamber. Families of victims and survivors, Sandy Hook teachers, local businesspeople, and community residents attended the meetings, and they were covered by a barrage of media, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, numerous New York City radio stations, and local media.

As I said, there was no blueprint for how to design and lead such a process. So at the first meeting, I laid out three guideposts for the task force and community. I made clear the basic steps we would follow. Because this was unchartered territory, I presented a clear plan for how we would move forward. People needed to feel a sense of security that they were in safe hands. I then told people that, notwithstanding our timeline, nothing would be rushed. We must be willing to return time and again to issues we once thought we had resolved.

Finally, I named out loud what I suspect many people were already thinking. Even if we reach an agreement on what to do, there's no reason to believe any one of us will feel good about it. How could we? There is no good solution for a situation like this.

Thus amid all the differences, people's individual pain, the community's suffering, and the enormous potential for division, my job was to guide the community to work through their emotions, identify their shared values, and reach a common decision.


After months of deliberation, the task force was ready to make a decision. On the day we had planned to decide on the school's future, The Wall Street Journal and various other news outlets ran articles announcing the final task force meeting. The process was finally coming to a close.

That morning, as I was reading the news accounts, I received a phone call telling me that a group of 30 or so Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers had just released a public letter declaring that under no conditions would they go back to the school. The question was what to do in response to the letter.

All of our meetings thus far had been held in public. Absolute transparency was a central operating principle of the task force. After flying from my home outside Washington, DC, to Newtown later that day, I met with Pat and we decided to make an exception to our rule. The teachers needed to be heard.

That evening would be the only private meeting we would hold throughout the entire process. We chose to go into the closed session because of the enormous stress and strain the teachers had experienced, and because we wanted them to feel they could fully and openly express themselves without the media and others looking on. Just as the public task force session was set to begin, we cleared the standing-room-only crowd of hundreds of residents and scores of news media and invited the teachers to speak with the task force.

The only people left in the room were the task force members, the teachers, a couple of mental health professionals, and myself. One teacher after another told their stories of hiding students in bathroom stalls and supply closets, hearing gunshots echo throughout the building, and watching loved ones lose their lives. They pleaded with the task force not to have them return to the school building.

As we listened to the teachers tell their stories, I closely watched Pat: no posturing, no speeches, no demands, not even a gentle attempt to reverse the letter. Sitting across the room from the teachers, I could feel her embrace their sorrow and give them the confidence that, no matter what, she would be there for them. Hers was not a political response. It was an act of pure humanity. After each of the teachers got to say what was in their hearts and on their minds, we took a break.

When we reconvened, we invited the rest of the public back in. Townspeople and news media refilled the room, awaiting the final decision. Once the meeting began again, I stood among the restless crowd and announced that no decision would be made that night. The session with the teachers had left too many task force members emotionally shaken. As I said that evening and in media interviews that followed, the closer you get to a final decision about something so important and emotional, the more the implications and consequences of such a decision make themselves clear. This was the ultimate example.

During that tumultuous night, I led the task force members in a discussion about a variety of outstanding issues, save the final decision. We set another time to meet in two weeks. At the end of the meeting, I implored them not to become isolated in the intervening time before our next meeting.

During these two weeks, I told them that their most important tasks were to seek out fellow task force members to talk to, to find other community members and explore their views with them, and to work through the emotions and choices at hand. This was all in hopes of coming to terms themselves with moving forward.

I reminded them that there was always the option of calling off the decision entirely.


When we reconvened for what would be our last meeting, I began by asking the task force members what they had been thinking about over the prior two weeks. One by one, they talked about their conflicting emotions.

One individual who had expressed certitude about what we should do throughout the entire process — at times wondering aloud why we had to talk so much about the ins and outs of the choices we faced — said that he was now confused and scared and no longer sure about what to do.

As different task force members spoke, I remember another member in particular, Laura, sitting to my right. I had met Laura in Pat's conference room on my initial visit to Newtown. She had always been warm and friendly and supportive of my efforts. But that night she was subdued and quiet and withdrawn. She appeared to have something she wanted to say, but she nodded me off each time I motioned to her to go ahead.

Finally, she raised her hand, and when I nodded to her to speak, she gently sat up in her chair. She leaned her elbows on the table, and then, in a low voice, said that she had been thinking a lot about the process, our discussions, the community, the tragedy — and she uttered this handful of words that I will never forget: "We must move on as best we can."

For the next three hours, the task force debated what to do. Clear divisions existed. We seemed destined for gridlock. I kept working the group through areas where they already had reached agreement, seeking to help people to see old arguments anew, discover new options, and come to terms with various trade-offs.

After three incredibly long, tense hours, the conditions eventually emerged. The task force rejected options to move the school to a new site. Instead, the decision was made to raze the current structure, build anew on the current site, and alter the footprint of the building so that it was clear this was a new day.

The vote was unanimous.


In spite of the emotions and all the difficulties their community faced, the people of Newtown found a way to come together. At times, the process felt like it might fall apart. People became entrenched in their pre-set positions, and some would have a hard time listening to each other. Still, in the end, everyone banded together. Newtown serves as a reminder of our human capacity to overcome obstacles, find what we share in common, and gather our collective will and resources to act, even amid our real differences.

Today, in our country, we are at a crossroads. But rather than come together, our public discourse only coarsens, divisions grow, trust in leaders plummets, and everyone seems to be going their own way. Newtown faced this danger too. And as in Newtown, when everything feels so fragmented, we can feel at a loss. At times, our lives and communities can seem to be spinning out of control. A larger sense of purpose and connection go missing.

During these times, we want to know that we are not stymied or stuck. Despite the odds stacked against us, we want to believe we can make progress. Can tomorrow be better than today?

In order to know where you want to go, you must know where you are. In Hopeful Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes, "the discernment and presentation of the new depend profoundly on knowledge about the old." By "knowledge about the old" he means that you must face reality for what it is.

This was a prerequisite in Newtown. We could not move ahead without first acknowledging the harsh reality of the situation. The same is true when it comes to our personal lives and in our society as a whole. If your goal is to create a different future, then you must face reality. It's that simple — and that difficult.

Today, I see four trends at work in our society that create unyielding noise and confusion that we must face and address before we, like Newtown, can move forward. They are —

1. Our politics and public life have become about winning at any cost.

2. Our society is separating at the seams.

3. More voices make up our public discourse — and many are aggrieved.

4. There is a profound loss of trust in our leaders and institutions.

Each of these alone, and in combination, makes it hard for us to make sense of where we are and how to get out of this mess.

Winning at Any Cost

First, our politics has become about winning at any cost. There is a dangerous tribalism at work today, where partisan and group loyalties now trump any sense of the common good. These days, our approach to politics is more like rooting for different sports teams than about finding some sense of common purpose, and anyone who doesn't wear our team's jersey is the enemy.

This leads to endless division, and reaching any notion of the common good or any compromise seems increasingly impossible. Writing in The New York Times, Amanda Taub observed, "... Americans have become more willing to defend their party against any perceived threat, and to demand that their politicians take uncompromisingly partisan stands."

Political parties are fragmenting, and each faction has their own view about what's gone wrong in the country and what should be done. New political organizations are popping up each day, funded by millionaires and billionaires, seeking to influence what issues we're paying attention to, to who runs for office, and who wins. Groups like the alt-right, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and others have all sought to shape and control public discourse. Corporations and unions can operate as political battering rams. And there are a burgeoning number of special interest groups that now actively pursue their own narrow agendas. It's all a chaotic, messy, loud fight. A free-for- all, where winning for your side is the only thing that seems to count for anything.

As I mentioned in the Introduction, I worked on many political campaigns when I was a young man, the last one when I was a young aide on a US presidential race. I left party politics because of my profound frustration that campaigns had little to do with what I had learned from people like Mr. Rivers, Mr. Petker, and Mr. Brundidge. Politics failed to reflect what matters in people's lives. This obsession of winning at any cost now drives so much of politics and public life, not just campaigns and elections. It permeates all facets of governing, our public debates, and interest group maneuverings.

But winning for what, for whom? Is there some larger common purpose in mind? Are we working toward creating some kind of shared lives?

I was once asked in a magazine interview what my ideal notion of politics is. The interviewer was surprised when I said that the public square would be filled with competing ideas, with diverse people and groups arguing for their perspectives. The goal was not to find agreement on everything, I argued, but to figure out enough of what we share in common so we can make progress together. But we are a far cry from that idea. Winning, at any cost, has taken over, holding hostage our politics and community life, damaging our collective ability to solve problems, and undermining our spirit.


Excerpted from "Stepping Forward"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Richard C. Harwood.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

A Reflection: Here I Am 1

Introduction: Awaken 5

Part I Trapped 13

Noise and Confusion 15

Part II Shared Responsibility 33

Principle 1 Turn Outward 35

Principle 2 Discover What We Share 43

Principle 3 Value the Human Spark 57

Principle 4 Pitch a Tent That's Open on All Sides 71

Principle 5 Build Together 87

Principle 6 Remember, Communities Are Alive 115

Principle 7 Grow Our Can-Do Narrative 129

Part III Welcome Home 145

The Choices We Make 147

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly 159

The Rediscovery 167

About the Author 169

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