The Suncoast is finding ways to come together

Richard Harwood
Richard Harwood

Conventional wisdom tells us we’re too polarized to make progress on the issues that matter to people, let alone for people with different views to see and hear one another. But there’s good news. The Suncoast is proving that it is possible to overcome division and move forward – and even to create renewed hope.

Let’s be clear: the challenges are real.

Constant battles at school board meetings are pitting neighbors against each other. Parts of the Suncoast are beset by rapid growth and skyrocketing home prices. The pandemic exposed education gaps for students and families. Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on people and communities. People tell us they trust only themselves, God and those they know personally.

Later this month I will travel to DeSoto and Sarasota counties to speak about our recent report, "Civic Virus: Why Polarization Is a Misdiagnosis." It shows that the unrelenting noise, fears and isolation that people are experiencing in their daily lives is causing them to separate into smaller camps or retreat entirely from civic life. Do we as a society hold anything in common anymore?

For 35 years I’ve been helping communities, across all 50 states and 40 countries, come together to create community-driven change. I’m certain that under the right conditions, people can forge common ground and produce practical change. In fact, the solutions are right here, and they’re already happening.

In April, The Patterson Foundation – along with community leaders – began engaging DeSoto County residents in 11 community conversations, including one in Spanish. The conversations included students; parents; local business leaders, nonprofit agencies, health care professionals and clergy.

Instead of getting stuck on divisive issues, people focused on their shared aspirations. These different and diverse groups soon discovered that what they wanted for the community was strikingly similar. They sought more after- and out-of-school activities for students. They wanted to rebuild trust between the community, teachers and school leaders after the pandemic separated them. And they saw a need to expand access to technology for families and students.

Rather than halt the small steps they were taking when Hurricane Ian struck, they put their new relationships and connections to work to forge local recovery groups to help their neighbors after the storm. Indeed, their work wasn’t just about education; it was about strengthening the civic culture of the community. They are now starting to return to their earlier education efforts.

There are other signs of progress. The community has come together to build the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The initiative has won awards for marshaling the capacities and resources of a wide array of groups, organizations and residents to put all students on a path to grade level reading. Now they’re working to address the digital divide that’s left too many students relying on cellphones for internet connections to do their schoolwork. Their goal: bring low-cost, high-speed broadband service to residents in rural areas.

Make no mistake: we cannot talk our way to the future we want. Instead we need to identify and carry out concrete, achievable projects – starting at the local level – to restore belief that we can get things done together.

This community has what it takes to make progress. The Suncoast can be a beacon for the rest of the nation, reflecting the innate potential within us. The trajectory of our community is in our hands. We need you.

Richard Harwood is the president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Bethesda, Maryland. You can join Harwood and The Patterson Foundation on Tuesday, Nov. 29 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at DeSoto Middle School in Arcadia and Wednesday, Nov. 30 from 8 to 9:30 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota in Sarasota (breakfast provided). To register for either event, visit:

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: When the Suncoast community works together, great things happen