by Scott London
Over the past year, I led a fascinating research project for the Harwood Institute on a group of changemakers we call “public innovators.” We looked at who they are, how they do their work, and why they are one of the keys to bringing about the change we need in America’s communities.
Public innovators are stewards of change in the community. They are not quite civic leaders, not quite community organizers, and not quite social entrepreneurs, but something of all three. Their work is aimed at engaging people, catalyzing conversations, articulating questions and common concerns, and aligning people, organizations, and resources to achieve real impact.
Sometimes they are leaders in the formal sense — city managers, school superintendents, chamber of commerce directors — but just as often they are people whose only credential is a passion for change. They may be neighborhood activists, church leaders, nonprofit directors, schoolteachers, or simply concerned citizens.
What sets their work apart is that they are not just committed to advancing the common good but to serving as agents of meaningful change and lasting impact. They act as a kind of leavening agent in the community that helps to mobilize people from engagement to action on pressing issues.
My report on the study, just released, is called Public Innovators: Forces For Social Change and Civic Renewal. It looks at how public innovators see themselves and their work, how they think about change, what drives them to take on intractable problems, how they mobilize people and generate impact, and what keeps them going in the face of inevitable frustrations and setbacks.
One of the most significant findings was that the public innovators in our study made no distinction between the community and the people of which it is made up. If there is something wrong with the community, they told us, the remedy always has to involve people. It’s not enough to make structural changes or implement new systems in the community, in other words. At its core, the work they do is aimed at building relationships and developing people. It is about helping individuals grow, cultivating new capacities, and learning together.
They stressed again and again that change and renewal in the community is meaningless unless it is rooted in some deeper and more fundamental change in the human condition. For this reason, their work focuses not just on making change in the community — important as that may be — but on the deeper work of elevating and transforming people.
The report goes into further depth, describing ten remarkable individuals who are making change happen in ten communities across the country — exemplary changemakers who are defining a new kind of civic activism for our times. Please read the report, share it with others, and let us know how the ideas resonate. Download a copy of it at the Harwood Institute’s website here.