New Winthrop Rockefeller Institute CEO and Executive Director Janet Harris said the nonprofit that sits on top of Petit Jean Mountain is ready to take its mission further in the wake of COVID-19.
After an abundance of caution to limit public gatherings, WRI – whose mission is to convene groups to solve problems – is ready to get back on track with its long-term strategic plan. Harris said Rockefeller’s primary legacy was his ability to bring people together.
“I think his legacy, especially as a convener and a transformational leader, is probably as much or more relevant today as it was back in the 60s and 70s,” Harris said. “We’re in communities and societies that are deeply divided. We have different ideas about how to solve our problems. Our problems have become more and more complex with technology, and the changes that happen in our communities and systems over time. And so for Winthrop Rockefeller to have taught us that we have a responsibility to be thoughtfully concerned, to come together and try to connect with each other across divides, and to work towards consensus, I think we need that now more than maybe we’ve ever needed it before.”
Harris was recently selected to replace retiring executive director and CEO Dr. Marta Loyd. Harris said the board and leadership of WRI has laid out a solid plan for growth and action.
“We practiced collaboration in writing a strategic plan a couple of years ago for the future of the Institute, as we brought together partners, employees, donors, stakeholders that we had worked with at the Institute, and people within the University of Arkansas system, and just said, ‘How can we use the Rockefeller ethic to improve Arkansas? And how can we become a more impactful organization?’” she said.
“My goal is to not only practice the Rockefeller ethic here on the mountain and support groups who do that, but for us to be able to teach other people how to have these purposeful and productive convenings, where we can get work done, even across silos, even across divides,” Harris said.
A new biography of former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, written by UA Little Rock professor Dr. John Kirk, is now available. It focuses on his early life, which shaped him before he came to Arkansas. Harris said it has been fascinating to learn more about the formative years of the young Rockefeller.
“I was kind of a student of Arkansas history even before coming to work on the mountain about seven years ago. I knew quite a bit about Winthrop Rockefeller’s legacy as a transformational governor and his impact on Arkansas. It’s my home state, so I’d always heard the stories. What I didn’t know about him was his life in New York, growing up as a Rockefeller, the way that he had this deep, deep love and concern for humanity, and how he just enjoyed working with his hands and being outdoors. He enjoyed building relationships with people. And he took a little bit of a different path than the rest of his family,” she said.
“He’s an extraordinary person with an extraordinary story, but he was also an ordinary guy with human aspirations and interests and values and failings like the rest of us. There’s just a lot to learn from his own reflective leadership journey, I think,” Harris said.
You can view her full interview in the video below.