The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities: A Presidential Initiative

(From left) Rich Harwood, Carlton Sears, Tim Henkel, and ALA President Maureen Sullivan discuss libraries as change agents as a Presidential Intiative.

ALA President Maureen Sullivan moderated “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities,” a panel of three civic innovators held Saturday morning at Midwinter in Seattle. The panel served as a first step in building a sustainable, scalable national plan for library-led community engagement. The speakers brought both experience and first-hand stories about how their work at a local level has united communities on common ground.

Rich Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute and a leader in civic engagement conversations, said, “People are looking for trusted organizations in their communities to come together, to focus on our shared aspirations and not just our complaints. I think libraries are uniquely positioned in the country to do this.” He called on librarians to accelerate and deepen the work they already do to move their communities forward.

Also on the panel were two leaders who have used the Harwood civic engagement tools in their own communities to lead change.

Carlton Sears, former director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, offered a number of humorous moments as well as serious insights. A dozen years ago, he said, corruption and politics permeated institutions. “Prosecutors went to jail, judges went to jail.” The library was one of the few institutions that wasn’t tainted by that. Unfortunately, though the library was nice, he said, it wasn’t necessary.

“It dawned on the strategic planning committee that the library could take action to build civic capacity. [They thought] Let’s find the ways to move from ‘nice’ to ‘necessary.’” They did this by opening up meeting rooms and facilitating space, and the first sessions they offered filled immediately. Before the conversations at the library, narratives were negative and the community racially segregated. But the library became a place for people to find commonalities. The library became an “informal village green” where people could get together, and the mayor and council members saw that benefit.

Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County (Wash.) United Way, began his career as a community organizer, eventually joining the United Way. He found the Harwood approach reoriented the work that his organization does. “It’s all about how an institution can turn outward and be a part of the community in looking at what we do internally. It’s hard, but once you step out, the community will reach out.”

One of the initiatives in Spokane was to improve the high school graduation rate. They identified three different programs to fund, focusing on attendance and behavior of middle school students. “We opened the door, and said we welcome proposals in these middle school areas and said these are the things we’re looking for,” he said. There was a marked improvement in the graduation rate, from 49% to near 80% over the last four years. “Grab hold of those aspirations, see where you want to go, what’s getting in your way, and how to make it happen,” he said.

Harwood recognized the hard work that librarians are already doing. “Librarians have said to me how hard you work, how fast you’re running, how you’re under siege. When people are doing this work [of community engagement] their sense of self-confidence to make decisions rises. They don’t have to run as fast as they used to.  [It’s about] How do we run a little less hard, but with greater purpose?” he said.