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SARATOGA SPRINGS>> Rich Harwood has devoted his life to changing communities for the better, but he said he owes much of his success in that endeavor to his hometown of Saratoga Springs.

“Saratoga had a huge influence on me professionally, in terms of what I’m doing,” Harwood said Thursday on his visit home to deliver the keynote address at the New York Library Association’s conference at the Saratoga Springs City Center.

Harwood is founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a national nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Maryland. The institute teaches and coaches people and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together. Because of this successful effort, he has been called a “national community change expert.”

Now an international figure, Harwood was first intrigued to do this type of work while growing up in the Spa City.

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Harwood was originally born in Queens, but at 6 years old he moved to Saratoga Springs with his family and grew up on Nelson Avenue.

“I love this town,” he said. “I have a deep affection for Saratoga.”

He first attended kindergarten at School No. 4, then went to Caroline Street School, and on to Saratoga Springs High School, where he played tennis, basketball and soccer and served as student government president. Even as an adolescent, Harwood was interested in community and politics, he said.

After graduating from high school in 1978, Harwood stayed local to study at Skidmore College, where he studied political economy and graduated in 1982.

“I went to Skidmore thinking I would transfer out after my first year,” Harwood said.

But after becoming student body president and active in school community, he decided to stay. “It was the best education in the world for me,” he said.

Then Harwood left Saratoga for the first time, to attend graduate school at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Harwood’s sense of philanthropy can be credited to his parents, Gilbert and Selma Harwood, who still live in Saratoga today. They were heavily involved in the community when Harwood was growing up. His mother started a transition home for deinstitutionalized patients called Hammond House, and his father served on the Urban Renewal Commission. Both helped build Temple Sinai on Broadway.

“I just grew up with this stuff,” Harwood said. “This is what was sort of in the water at our house.”

The economically mixed community of Saratoga Springs “taught me a lot about working with different people,” Hardwood said, “and it gave me a really strong sense of community.

“I came out of Saratoga with an incredibly strong sense of community and what communities are capable of doing together.”

Harwood has continually revisited his hometown throughout adulthood, and is impressed with how it’s changed.

“It’s amazing how much it’s grown and developed and how beautiful it is,” Harwood said on his most recent visit home. “When we moved here in the mid-’60s, the town was very different. There were a lot of businesses that were boarded up downtown. The west side was not nearly as developed as it is now. The racetrack was having economic problems.”

Now, when he comes home, Harwood loves doing things like walking down Caroline Street, roaming around Congress Park and working out at the East Side Recreation Park.

In Harwood’s most political chapter of his life, he worked on 20 campaigns by age 23. The last was a U.S. presidential race in 1984, in which he aided Vice President Walter Mondale.

But during that 20th campaign, Harwood thought of something more meaningful to do with his life. He came up with the idea of starting the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

But first, he did some nonprofit work for other organizations. Though he found their missions laudable, “I felt that they were afraid to get dirt under their fingernails,” Harwood said. “I was frustrated that too many nonprofits at the time were living off of soft money, weren’t creating enough impact and were afraid to tackle really tough challenges.”

So, at 27, he made the bold move to start the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

“Everyone told me not to do it,” Harwood said, but he went with his gut.

Initially, it was a for-profit endeavor, serving as an example of social entrepreneurship.

“I wanted to demonstrate that you could do something that was highly entrepreneurial, highly public-spirited and was guided by a strong set of ethics and morals and still make money and make impact,” Harwood said.

The venture successfully ran that way for a decade, during which he transformed some of largest newspapers in country and did work around healthcare issues at the time.

But when companies were interested and couldn’t afford to invest, Harwood flipped the switch, making organization a nonprofit, as it operates today.

“We’re a catalyst for change,” Harwood said. “We teach and coach people how to use this approach in their own communities.”

As an author and public speaker, Harwood’s main message to any organization or effort is to turn outward, not inward, when seeking to implement change.

“We need to make our communities the reference points for what we do, not our conference rooms,” he told the group of librarians Thursday.

He asks leaders these questions: “Do you have a deep understanding of the community in which you work in? Do you understand the essence of the challenges that are really at hand? Do you understand the critical levers that would bring about change?”

Harwood doesn’t have a complex plan for community change, instead he often suggests “clearing the brush and making things less complicated.”

“It’s not about how sophisticated you sound and how much money you’ve raised, which I think is getting us into a lot of trouble in the country right now,” Harwood said.

With this simplistic guideline, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is a sought-after resource that’s currently working in thousands of communities in 30 countries worldwide, training people on how to improve their communities. Harwood even assisted in helping Newtown, Connecticut recover from the tragedy at Sandy hook Elementary School. Most recently, the institute just launched a three-year initiative in Australia.

The four largest nonprofits in the world, United Way Worldwide, Public Broadcasting, the

American Library Association and Goodwill Industries, have adopted Harwood’s approach and practice.

On what he’s most proud of in his career, “I think our work has spread to these thousands of communities and 30 countries because it’s touching something deep within people about the kind of communities and societies they want to build, and they want to play a role in building it,” Harwood said.

Harwood’s future goals include training new public innovators. Public innovators are people with the mindset and skills to tackle problems ranging from gaps in education and low school graduation rates to poverty and inadequate health care. “The change has to start from within communities by people who live there,” Harwood explained. His job is to inspire and coach people and teach them ways of doing creating change. By 2016, harwood hopes to train 5,000 new public innovators and grow his overall network of people using the program to 100,000. “I want to create as many public innovators in as many communities as we can, so we can change the path of this country and give people more opportunities in other countries,” Harwood said.

Today, Harwood lives in live in Bethesda, Maryland, right outside of Washington D.C., with his wife, Jackie Harwood. He has two children. His daughter, Emily Harwood, 24, works at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., and his 21-year-old son, Jonathan, followed his footsteps in attending Skidmore College, where he studies art and English. In fact, Jonathan was inexplicably assigned to the same exact dorm room his father once lived in on campus.

As Harwood has gone on to do big things, many in Saratoga are proud of what he’s doing. Rich Johns, a Saratoga Springs tennis coach, remembers Harwood as a kid and is impressed with all he has accomplished since his high school days. Johns was a mentor to Harwood when he was growing up, and to this day.

“I took Rich under my wing, as his athletic ability and his eagerness to learn were evident from the start,” his coach explained. “I taught him the game and coached him throughout high school. He was an outstanding player.”

Beyond athletics, Johns recognized potential in Harwood at a young age.

“Even as a high school student, Rich was wise beyond his years,” Johns said. “A born leader, he showed signs of being a visionary dissecting larger issues that faced our school, community, state and country.”

The two remained connected over the years, far beyond Harwood’s high school graduation in 1978.

“Rich is a great example of following his dream,” Johns said. “The Harwood Institute has given him the vehicle to follow his mission in life. It is truly a calling.”

Lauren Halligan may be reached at 290-1443.

Source : http://www.saratogian.com/article/ST/20141106/NEWS/141109695

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