It's a June morning in Flint, Michigan. In a windowless conference room, two dozen community leaders have gathered to plot their city's future. Or rather, to debate it: Is Flint finally pulling out of 30 years of stagnation, or is it stuck in neutral?
"I hear about all these programs, all this work to change the community, but it feels like so little has happened," argues Martres Brown, communications director for the Teen Empowerment Commission. Brown is 17, too young to remember when Flint was a prosperous city fueled by the auto factories that now sit silent in this community 70 miles north of Detroit.
Her bleak critique sparks debate. "There is an awakening here in Flint. There's goodness and hard work going on," counters Katie Wolf, president of Wolf Communications Inc., a marketing firm in the town made famous by Michael Moore's documentary Roger & Me (and again by his current Fahrenheit 9/11).
This perceptual rift is exactly where the leader of the day's activities wants the group to be. Richard C. Harwood, the 44-year-old president and founder of the Washington, DC-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, has been working with the support of the Flint-based Mott Foundation since 1995 to train leaders who can help lead the beleaguered city out of decades-long stagnation. The idea: to build new "center of strength" organizations, networks, and relationships that will help Flint move itself forward.
Harwood brings with him a pronounced grassroots orientation. Rather than amassing enough power and presence to drag Flint out of stagnation, he argues, leaders would do better to listen — to hear what people in their communities want to make of the city. He calls it "creating a new story."
Back in 1995, Flint was at an impasse, divided over what it wanted for the future and led by people acting to further their own interests, not the community's. Nearly a decade later, Harwood says, Flint has reached "an early catalytic stage, where you have all kinds of change bubbling up. But you still have pockets of stagnation. There is a real battle going on over whose reality you're going to believe."
That battle is starkly revealed on Flint's main drag, Saginaw Street. At its southern end, Saginaw is abandoned. Weeds grow through the sidewalk in front of abandoned storefronts. A few blocks north, though, stores are open and people are browsing. The Flint Farmers' Market, farther downtown, has been renovated with the help of more than 240 volunteers from around the city. Flint is clearly still a sick city, but it's starting to attract new jobs in education and finance.
Harwood cautions against two mistakes many leaders make at this stage: combining forces with other groups to push change forward — "Innovation doesn't happen with coordination," he says — and publically embellishing all the great changes before large parts of the community have had a chance to see the "new story" being written by Flint.
That's tough for many community leaders to swallow, Harwood admits. Traditionally, "we want leaders who oversee and coordinate. We want leaders who find the magic bullet and make all the problems go away." But magic bullets can send a community hurtling backward instead of forward, a problem many community leaders have experienced before. "We are always putting a nice coat of paint on the problems, instead of rebuilding the foundations," Brown says.
Rather than crowing about the progress, Harwood suggests a healthy dose of humility. "Acknowledge the reality of the community," he says — like the boarded-up storefronts of Saginaw Street. "Then tell small stories, everyday people's struggles to make good things happen." It's modest leadership, and change in baby steps.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.