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Richard C. Harwood Headshot

Next Steps for Sanford, Fla.

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Trayvon Martin's parents, along with local religious and civic leaders, pleaded with Sanford residents to react with calm to Saturday's verdict. The community has done just that. Now, what comes next for Sanford? How can the community pivot to a better future?

The community already has made efforts to come together rather than split apart. For example, on Monday, local religious leaders, the mayor, the police chief and others attended a midday prayer event held at New Life Word Center Church sponsored by Sanford Pastors Connecting.

Sanford now faces the same intrinsic challenge as do all communities affected by major events such as shootings, plant closings, and hurricanes: a desire to return to "normal." But "normal" has been disrupted, altered and changed forever. There is no going back.

And moving forward productively is not guaranteed either.

It's one thing to maintain calm in Sanford, or rebuild homes after a natural disaster, or provide mental health services to individuals and families after a mass shooting. But it is something else entirely for a community to re-assert itself once again as a community. That is easier said than done.

For a community to come together and move forward, certain things must happen.

One key to positive movement in Sanford is not to simply hope that somehow Trayvon Martin's death and the subsequent trial can be erased from the community's collective narrative. These events happened and there is no turning back the clock. Instead, the goal is to find ways to incorporate these painful experiences into the community's story without allowing them to define its narrative.

It's also clear that many Sanford residents are frustrated, angry and deeply saddened over the verdict, and these emotions are connected to long-festering issues in the community. Such feelings cannot be swept aside, nor can people simply keep a lid on them. There must be room for people to express their views and for others to hear and feel them.

But the conversation must not stop there, or the community will end up wallowing in its despair. The residents of Sanford must create a sense of possibility about how the community can move forward. This will come when people articulate their shared aspirations for the kind of community they want. This is not "visioning" (which often bears little relationship to reality) or defining a community's "problems" (which embroils communities in finger-pointing and blame-placing) or merely asking individuals to talk about what they want (which creates individual claims and demands on limited resources, with no shared sense of how to move ahead).

Shared aspirations are rooted in people's experiences and reflect the direction they want to take -- together. Such a discussion naturally leads to another about the practical steps necessary to move toward people's shared aspirations -- and what individuals, groups and organizations can do.

A community re-asserts itself at the critical nexus point at which people move from despair to healing and gain a renewed sense of possibility about the future. Such a pivot only occurs if a community is paying attention and makes the intentional choice to act on it.

The alternative in Sanford is to allow underlying issues and resentments to fester, anger to build, and divisions to grow. Only more pain and sorrow will come from that. The community of Sanford can choose a different path.