April 2018 | Volume XXXVI. Issue 2 »

Partnering for Social Justice: Libraries Working with Other Organizations to Reach Out to Diverse Communities

March 26, 2018
Ladislava Khailova and Kathy Ladell, Northern Illinois University Libraries

With the change in national leadership and the issuance of new policies aimed at reducing the number of diverse newcomers in the country, 2017 was a divisive year. For instance, within a few weeks after taking office, President Trump signed an executive order banning entry by citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days, as well as shutting down the Syrian refugee program indefinitely. Despite these actions, American libraries continue to state strongly that libraries are for everyone. Accordingly, in January 2017, ALA expressed its renewed commitment to supporting diversity. Specifically, the organization stated, “Our nation’s 120,000 public, academic, school and special libraries serve all community members, including people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities and the most vulnerable in our communities, offering services and educational resources that transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.” ILA released a statement as well, noting that “No matter who you are or what you need, we are here for you.” It is in line with these ideals that Ladislava Khailova and Kathy Ladell, subject specialists at Northern Illinois University (NIU) Libraries, created a series of library literacy workshops for recently immigrated Latino families participating in Universidad Para Padres, a program administrated by the Northern Illinois P–20 Network. The following sections outline the explicit benefits of the academic library’s partnership with the community-based organization for the success of the library literacy workshops. Best practices for establishing and maintaining such partnerships are also discussed.

Khailova and Ladell partnered with Universidad in a rather serendipitous way. Susana Das Neves, the program coordinator of Universidad and a doctoral student in NIU’s College of Education, was receiving research assistance from Khailova regarding the resources for her dissertation. Ladell knew Das Neves from her previous campus workshops on undocumented students. After learning from Das Neves about Universidad, Khailova and Ladell agreed that this was a great opportunity to revive a library family-literacy program for local Latinos that Khailova had offered repeatedly several years ago. The goal of Universidad, which started as a pilot in fall 2016, is “to provide a learning community” that enhances the Latino “parents’ personal, professional and leadership skills to support and encourage their students’ academic success and transition to post-secondary education.” The goal is based on the participants’ potential cultural, financial, and language barriers that prevent them from accessing local resources to be fully involved in their child’s education. Universidad spans the entire academic year, with weekly meetings from 6 to 8 P.M. and the parents deciding on the curriculum. In the recent past, its topics, covered by experts from Das Neves’s broad-based network, have included immigration, resume building, job searching, college applications, scholarship availability, and healthful living. At the end of the class cycle, participants receive a certificate of completion at a graduation ceremony at Northern Illinois University. Khailova and Ladell loved both the goals and the format of Universidad, while noting that its participants could become further empowered by learning more about the academic libraries’ collections and services freely available to them.

Accordingly, having joined the ranks of Das Neves’s local network of professionals, Khailova and Ladell developed a series of workshops for them that were conducted in Spanish and English and offered on the premises of the NIU Libraries. The first part, offered in fall 2017, focused on the importance of reading for the Universidad families’ preschool and elementary school children. Despite the early age emphasis, the organizers also aimed to explain how each family could read and enjoy books together. Specifically, Khailova and Ladell spoke to parents about ways to foster the love of reading in their children and introduced the families to the library’s bilingual juvenile collection, while highlighting that the collection was available to them for checkout. The parents and children also participated in literacy activities structured around Monica Brown’s bilingual Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina (Lee & Low, 2011). The fall sessions are followed by a spring 2018 sequel that targets the information literacy and general college-preparedness skills of the participants’ middle- and high-schoolers. Teens are shown the academic databases available to them through the Libraries, as well as being introduced to the institution’s resources on college scholarships, career paths, and common standardized tests.

The outlined 2017/2018 NIU Libraries’ literacy workshop series represents a continuation of previous efforts to partner with on- and off-campus entities to reach out effectively to the multicultural “communiversity.” The Libraries’ first partnership-based bilingual family-literacy program was launched by Khailova in the summer of 2010, with viable allies including NIU’s Division of Student Affairs and Latino Resource Center, as well as smART, a local nonprofit creative education group. Advertised under the title “Off to a Good Start,” the program consisted of two identical two-hour workshops, aimed primarily at the DeKalb area’s Latino families with children aged birth to five. In view of this child age focus, the program’s overarching goal, similarly to the fall 2017 series, was to introduce participants to the academic library’s Spanish/English juvenile collection and to explain the general importance of the parents reading to their young children, with Khailova as the program’s coordinator and Rebecca Martin as its English-Spanish translator modeling related effective reading techniques. Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents in surveys, the program was offered under the same leadership, but in an altered format in the fall of 2011. With the title changed to “Starting Ahead, Staying Ahead,” the initiative grew to comprise three interconnected 90-minute sessions, with a fresh focus on continuity and providing immediate feedback to parents on their increased direct involvement in their children’s emergent literacy development. A powerful new partner, Kishwaukee College (DeKalb County’s prominent community college), helped achieve continuity with previous programs by utilizing its connections to its large and diverse student population. Taking into consideration the attendees’ satisfaction with the extended format of the workshops, the 2017/2018 partnership effort has also emphasized having the participants attend more than one literacy session in a given time period, with the Libraries now aiming to cater to the age-specific needs of the families’ children across the entire pre-K–12 spectrum. 

Throughout the library literacy workshops’ evolution, Khailova and Ladell repeatedly witnessed the positive impact of partnerships. In fact, they both concluded that networking with non-library entities is essential for any outreach academic library program intended for the broader community’s minority population to be successfully launched and sustained. Areas of direct benefit include primarily the recruitment and retention of participants, as well as the sharing of resources—whether monetary, personnel, or spatial.

As for recruitment and retention, Khailova learned early on how indispensable partnerships with organizations and programs that had already established solid ties to the targeted population really are. Since she initially acted mostly alone, it proved quite difficult to find participants for the 2010 workshops, even though she advertised them in what seemed as if were the right places (e.g., local churches and grocery stores serving the Latino population). The issue, as she later learned, was that she lacked the trust of the targeted group, since she is not of Latino origin herself.
In fact, mistrust proves to be a reported challenge for many new multicultural programs where the program coordinator is not a direct member of the minority population served. This applies especially in situations when the intended program recipients have not utilized the institution previously. Often, immigration policy issues play a role here, since undocumented participants may worry that they will be stopped and asked for identification by the campus police. Partnerships with local organizations already offering services to them can help alleviate such anxieties, as these organizations can attest to the trustworthiness of the academic library. Accordingly, after Khailova partnered with entities such as smART and Kishwaukee College that have long-term positive relationships with the DeKalb Latino community, recruitment and retention stopped presenting a major challenge.

The positive impact of partnerships on finding participants manifested itself again this academic year when Khailova and Ladell reached out to Universidad. In accordance with its outreach mission, Universidad has been able to provide a sizable group of motivated and steady attendees.

Apart from recruitment and retention, partners can also significantly help libraries with gathering the resources needed for the success of the pro-diversity program. In terms of financing, the workshops can prove relatively expensive, especially if the library decides to offer multiple attendance incentives to participants, such as refreshments, books, or other literacy prizes. At the same time, the current economic situation contributes to the high competition for any grants that could be used to finance the efforts. Initially, Khailova was lucky to have been able to secure needed funds through the Illinois Reading Council’s Adult & Family Literacy Grant. After the program lost in the grant race to its competitors several years later, however, she had to look for alternative solutions. Universidad has represented such a solution. Sponsored by the Regional P–20 Network, an organization including 11 community colleges and 30 school districts and based at NIU, the outreach program has access to enough funding to accommodate the financial needs of the Libraries’ workshops as one of its sub-programs.

Universidad has been similarly instrumental in helping the workshop organizers with personnel needs. In the past, Khailova was responsible for making spatial arrangements for the literacy workshops and for hiring literacy assistants to engage the attending families’ children, while the Kishwaukee College coordinated transportation. After partnering with Universidad, the situation further improved, since Das Neves made provisions for child care. In return, Khailova and Ladell secured two library spaces for the workshops, a large computer lab for the parents to utilize during class and a separate room where student workers attended to the children. By pooling resources and working together, the academic library and Universidad could furnish high-quality literacy instruction to families.

Based on the various workshop iterations, Khailova and Ladell concluded that there are several best practices to follow for creating and maintaining partnerships. As mentioned previously, working with organizations that have an established relationship with a given population eases potential questions about institutional trustworthiness and encourages participation. Therefore, libraries need to survey their community, both inside and outside of the university campus, to locate the best matches for entities already serving the target population. Subsequently, a discussion needs to occur to establish if the entities’ missions and goals are compatible with those of the library.

After establishing the partnerships, there are additional guidelines for libraries to follow to maintain good working relationships with others, including clearly outlining responsibilities of each participating entity, so that all those involved understand how they will contribute to the project. Accountability is also essential. A lack of good follow-through on the part of certain partners can result in the overburdening of others, challenging their trust in the team. As a result, an organization can become hesitant to collaborate on future group ventures. Along the same lines, libraries should always acknowledge the contribution of their partners on promotional materials in order to elevate the general recognition of all entities involved and their partnership. Such practices result in positive publicity for all, encouraging further cooperation. Likewise, upon the completion of a joint effort, libraries and their partners are advised to share assessment data that can assist with future planning and overall improvement of the pro-diversity programs.  

When based on these best practices, off- and on-campus partnerships help academic libraries reach out to underserved user groups from the broader community, much like public libraries have traditionally done. In the present sociopolitical climate, such efforts carry special significance. Many members of minority populations, including recent immigrants, are likely to feel unwelcome. Library programs created especially for them can increase their sense of belonging, while providing them with tools further helping them to succeed. Along these lines, those participants who may not previously have dreamed of attending college can create their own pathways to enrollment through such supportive programming. Through collaboration and resource sharing, libraries and their partners are thus extending their reach in ways consistent with the profession’s long history of commitment to empowerment through inclusivity.

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