October 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 5 »

The Frontlines of Democracy: Compassionate Community Engagement

September 23, 2015
Diana Brawley Sussman, Carbondale Public Library

Remember the dress?  It was all over the Internet last winter, and you either thought it was blue and black, or it wasn’t.  It was blue.  I was wrong.  We’re usually pretty sure that things are as we see them, but given the chance to zoom out to a bigger picture, another perspective, it might all look different.  If I was blind to the black and blue of that dress, then what else have I failed to see, and then, hopefully, begun to see?  As it turns out:  a lot.


A year ago, Ferguson, Missouri, right across the river, made national news when contentious social justice issues, smoldering for years, caught fire and flared to light.  That light was cast on the entire nation, and kept shining, sometimes painfully, throughout a nonstop, year-long, national conversation about race, inequality, white privilege, freedom of assembly, media bias, and policing.  I’ll admit, I’ve learned a lot in this past year, which is to say that a year ago there were things I did not see.

My vision was clarified by my community, and my library.  I learned by consuming media, but more importantly, I learned by processing that media, and the issues themselves in honest discussions at library programs.  Those programs began prior to, and continued past, the events of Ferguson, giving me a foundation to better understand those events and the very serious issues surrounding them. 

In fact, in the past year, my perspectives on race, poverty, homelessness, police, even veterans, have been shaped by library programs.  I attended documentary screenings, author visits, large group conversations, and one-on-one talks with “Living Books” at a “Human Library.”  The library was always involved.  The programs were either at the library or elsewhere in the community—bolstered by the library’s involvement or co-facilitation of community initiatives, because libraries are turning outward.  None of these programs were pulled off by the library alone.  They all required partnerships with individuals and organizations in the community.

You can learn about turning outward at the 2015 Illinois Libraries conference.  At “Turning Outward:  Community Engagement and Strategic Planning,” librarians from three Illinois libraries will present their experiences with listening to the aspirations of their own communities and turning those aspirations into meaningful strategic action.  David Seleb, executive director of the Oak Park Public Library, and four of his staff have attended the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, encouraged by the American Library Association.  That training helped them to host community conversations over the last two years.  They learned what kind of community people want to live in and developed a strategic plan to meet those aspirations.  Their community wants learning opportunities, dialogues, opportunities to come together to solve problems, and good stewardship of resources.  Seleb says that if libraries are looking for a way to have meaningful conversations, Harwood is a great resource.

Such resources are vital because those conversations, if they are to be meaningful, are sometimes hard.  The problems people want to solve are not easy.  They often broach issues of “social justice,” a hot button phrase for some, as if by dealing with “social justice” issues, we may be telling people what to think.  On the contrary, the point of discussing issues such as race, poverty, and equality in libraries is not to tell, but to listen.  Libraries are a place to hear free speech, to provide access to local voices, and to all available information.  Like any great educational service, we provide those we serve with opportunities, not to develop and further our thoughts, but to develop and further their own.

Gail Bush is a professor emeritus at National Louis University, and a former ILA president.  She has edited more than one book with “social justice” in the title, and when asked about the role libraries play in social justice issues, she said, “There is no role.  They are social justice.”  Bush explains that if you have equity and access at the core of what you do, you are creating communities with a disposition toward open-mindedness and fairness.  She is emphatic:  “Our toes are on the frontlines of democracy.”


Getting back to the color of that dress, Kevin Loria published an article in Business Insider last February:  “No one could see the color blue until modern times.” Apart from Egypt, other ancient cultures had no word for blue, and it is scientifically plausible that, without language to describe the color, they could not see it.  Without language, without story and description, we cannot accurately see things.  When we provide opportunities for people to tell their stories, our communities expand their vision.

Films can serve as common ground to elicit local stories and issues-oriented conversations.  Community Cinema grants feature free screenings and resources for discussions of Independent Lens documentaries.  A panel of local experts can serve as discussion facilitators.  Gathering those facilitators strengthens new and existing partnerships.  When the grant is written with a local public radio and/or television station, the programs are promoted by the station, ensuring a substantial audience.  Libraries can also host PBS POV documentary screenings and discussions, or explore TEDx in libraries, locally organized events based on the TED Talks model.

There are many ways to engage a community in conversation.  Look up “community engagement,” and you’ll find hundreds of ideas.  Attend a presentation on “Voices of Race: Bringing Communities Together” at the 2015 Illinois Libraries conference, and you’ll learn how Skokie and Niles Township libraries have done this on a community-wide scale with sixty-six programs on topics of race.

The Carbondale Public Library has worked through a group called Nonviolent Carbondale to lead community-wide initiatives called “11 Days.”  Starting with “11 Days for Peace,” reflecting on the ten-year anniversary of September 11, the library has now co-facilitated five “11 Days” initiatives.  In 2012, “11 Days for Compassion” was funded by a grant from the American Library Association (ALA) and the Fetzer Institute as part of an initiative called Building Common Ground:  Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion.  That effort won the library the 2013 ALA Excellence in Library Programming Award of $5,000, which is being used for further compassionate programming, with the ultimate goal of officially becoming a Compassionate City. The value of partnership cannot be understated.  The most recent “11 Days for Compassion” brought together thirty-six organizations to host forty programs in twenty locations.

The Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin also received a Building Common Ground grant for a series of programs called “An Opportunity to Seek Common Ground Around Gangs and Violence:  From Turfs to Common Ground.”  Project Director Miriam Lytle reports that the project “was a springboard for Elgin becoming a United Nations City of Peace.”  Lytle says this is a “powerful movement taking place, with lots of social justice issues beyond gang involvement.”

Libraries can play a vital role in local problem solving initiatives.  Through involvement with the Sparrow Coalition, a local effort to find real solutions to poverty and homelessness, the Carbondale Public Library is partnering with Southern Illinois University (SIU) to bring a student from their master’s of social work program into the library for a nine-month internship.  The student will study local issues and resources, improve the library staff’s knowledge and the library’s presentation of resource information, help patrons to access resources, develop a model for social work access in the library, and help the Sparrow Coalition to identify, understand, and alleviate service gaps. 


Even if hundreds, or thousands, attend compassionate solutions-oriented programs, we can’t reach everyone.  Then again, maybe we can.  In his blog post, “The Lazy Way to an Awesome Life:  3 Secrets Backed by Research,” Eric Barker examines research from author and Yale University professor Nicholas Christakis, and other sources, showing that our attitudes are deeply affected by our friends, their friends, and their friends—people we don’t even know.  Every person we reach will affect many others, potentially thousands of others, ultimately shaping the attitudes and behaviors of entire communities. 

Compassionate community engagement doesn’t have to be huge.  You don’t have to initiate a slew of community-wide programs, hire a social worker, or try to become a Compassionate City.  You don’t have to open an emergency school in your public library while your community breaks into protest on national news—although I hope we could all be as courageously responsive as Scott Bonner at the Ferguson Public Library—and, by the way, he’ll be at the Illinois Libraries conference, too!

You can take small, meaningful steps.  For example, you can gather donated prom dresses from young women who’ll never wear them again, and distribute those dresses to young women who don’t have a lot of money to spend on prom.  As young adult librarian Becca Boland explains, the Hinsdale and Forest Park public libraries did this, together creating delightful programs for the teen volunteers who collected and sorted the dresses, and the teens who chose one to wear.  You can organize a cross-language book discussion group, each person reading the same book, each in their language of choice, as the Albany Park Branch of the Chicago Public Library did.  You can simply collect non-perishable food donations at library programs to be delivered to a local food pantry or shelter.


Whatever we do, it should be something that’s right for our own communities.  To promote true learning from one another, we need to listen to local voices and local stories.  Those words will shed light on the unseen.  To stay relevant, we need to listen to our communities’ aspirations and concerns.  We need to ask:  what do you want to see in our community?  There may be difficult issues, unseen tensions, so we must also ask the people in our community: what do you want our community to see?



Libraries Transforming Communities:  Communities have challenges.  Libraries can help.

https://www.ala.org/tools/librariestransform/libraries-transforming-communities. Learn more about the national Turning Outward initiative.  The site’s “related resources” links to the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, as well as several other community engagement models.  The site includes the free “Step-by-Step Guide to 'Turning Outward' to Your Community."

ALA Ethnic Materials Information Exchange Task Force (EMIERT) provides a great list of resources for meeting the needs of diverse populations: www.ala.org/emiert/usefullinks/links

ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table www.ala.org/srrt

Find library programs on community engagement and more:  www.programminglibrarian.org/ 

Coming Together in Skokie & Niles Township http://comingtogether.in/. Be sure to check out their tool kit and resources for exploring issues of race.

Nonviolent Carbondale’s 11 Days Initiatives on Peace and Compassion with the Carbondale Public Library, dozens of community partners, and the entire Carbondale community:www.nonviolentcarbondale.org

Charter for Compassion: International Campaign for Compassionate Communities:http://charterforcompassion.org/cities

International Cities of Peace: www.internationalcitiesofpeace.org

Community Cinema communitycinema.org  “By igniting conversations around issues that affect us all, Community Cinema creates real and lasting change — both at home and around the world.”

“The Lazy Way to an Awesome Life:  3 Secrets Backed by Research,” by Eric Barker.www.bakadesuyo.com/2015/07/awesome-life

TEDx is a model based on the original TED Talks, "ideas worth spreading."  It supports independent organizers who want to create a TED-like event in their own community. www.ted.com/about/programs-initiatives/tedx-program

iREAD Summer Reading Programs

Since 1981, iREAD provides high quality, low-cost resources and products that enable local library staff to motivate children, young adults, and adults to read.

Visit the iREAD website »