Kian Flynn

Why is it important for you to engage your community in voter and civic engagement and how can your library do this? On this show Kian Flynn, Geography and Global Studies Librarian at the University of Washington in Seattle, talks about National Voter Registration Day and the opportunity it provides each September for libraries to help strengthen our democracy. He includes a myriad of resources that all of us can use for planning and implementing successful voter and civic engagement activities for the benefit of all.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Why is it important for you to engage your community in voter and civic engagement, and how can your library do this? On this show Kian Flynn, Geography and Global Studies Librarian at the University of Washington in Seattle, talks about National Voter Registration Day and the opportunity it provides each September for libraries to help strengthen our democracy. He includes a myriad of resources that all of us can use for planning and implementing successful voter and civic engagement activities for the benefit of all.  Enjoy the show!

Kian, welcome to the show.

Kian Flynn:

Thanks for having me on. I’m happy to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Thank you for being here to talk with me about promoting voter and civic engagement. As we begin will you please tell me about National Voter Registration Day—what it is, and why this is important for libraries? 01:33 

Kian Flynn:

National Voter Registration Day has been around since 2012, and is a nonpartisan civic holiday that takes place every September. The goal of the event is to reach the nearly one-fourth of voter eligible Americans who are not registered to vote. This event has had some success in the past. Nearly 4.7 million voters have registered to vote on this day in the past decade. The event is endorsed by a number of different organizations, including The National Association of Secretaries of State—with support from both democratic and republican secretaries of state.

This event is important to libraries because it’s a great opportunity whether you work at a public, academic, or other type of library, to engage with your communities and make sure that they are ready to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: It has long been said that libraries are cornerstones of democracy. How does this play into connecting with our communities to promote voter and civic engagement? 02:38  

Kian Flynn:

Libraries are part of our civic fabric just like voting is. It has been a tough year—a scary year, nationally, for libraries. Many of the values that we hold dear as libraries and librarians are under attack in ways that we would have found hard to imagine just a decade ago.

I did a webinar earlier this month on this topic of voter and civic engagement, and talked about our civic engagement efforts at the University of Washington Libraries where I work, and through the American Library’s Association’s Government Documents Roundtable, which I’m the current chair for. There were a number of librarians at the session who wrote into the chat during the presentation expressing fear and uncertainty about promoting activities related to National Voter Registration Day at their library because of the political climates in their state, or communities. 

I was clear that this day is nonpartisan, that our civic engagement efforts are nonpartisan, but that in the most recent midterm election half of the voting eligible population did not vote. So it is vitally important that we are providing our communities with the information and educational resources to encourage them to exercise their franchise.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: What resources can you share to help librarians lead the way in these efforts? 04:06 

Kian Flynn:

I think I highlighted a pretty thorough collection of the top resources in the webinar that I gave which you can check out on the FDLP Academy Training Repository, but I will highlight a few of the top ones now.

Our GODORT Voting and Election Toolkits are a great starting point for librarians looking to point their communities toward civic engagement resources. There are links to national level resources and also state by state resources on the guide.

A number of the national level resources point to organizations that are doing civic engagement work directed toward specific communities. There’s the Federal Voting Assistance Program that connects military and overseas citizens with resources on how  they can exercise their right to vote while serving and living outside of the country. There’s VoteRiders which provides information and services for voters who may be confused or overwhelmed by voting ID requirements, which vary greatly state by state.

There’s Vote by Mail in Jail from Spread the Vote, which provides free tools to eligible incarcerated individuals to help ensure this population does not lose their franchise. Spread the Vote estimates that nearly half a million incarcerated Americans are at risk of being disenfranchised each election cycle. 

There’s Vot-ER, which integrates voter registration into the health care delivery system, providing voter registration information at health care facilities, much in the same way that libraries, DMV’s, and schools already do in reaching a part of the population—the ill and elderly that may not come across voter registration resources otherwise.

We know that certain populations are much less likely to vote. Young people vote at significantly lower rates than older people. Those with higher education levels vote at higher rates than those with lower education levels. So there is value in targeting your civic engagement efforts to communities that are at the greatest risk of being disenfranchised.

There are also general federal government resources for voting that are great too., and being the two big ones, and we point to those resources on the voting and election toolkits as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: What advice would you give to librarians who are first-timers at helping their communities in promoting voter and civic engagement? 06:24 

Kian Flynn:

Reach out to your library community, and then reach out to your broader community. You likely have unique ideas for civic engagement that you can bring to the table, but you’re not the first one, ever, that is looking to promote voter and civic engagement in their community. So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with this type of programming. 

Go to the GODORT website where we have our voting and elections toolkits that you can reuse on your own web guide. Better yet, join our GODORT community and attend our twice monthly Friday Chat series where you can learn in conversation with other librarians about their experiences on these other topics. There’s ways to promote civic engagement outside of voting and elections, too. We have some resources for commemorating Constitution Day on that site as well. 

Once you’ve reached out to your library community I think the next best step is to reach out to your broader community. For someone like me at an academic library that might mean reaching out to student-led groups on campus like Greek Life, the Student Senate, The Black Student Union, athletic teams. It may mean reaching out to nonpartisan groups in your area dedicated to engaging students in the political process. It may mean reaching out to other stakeholders at your school. 

For example at UW we have a Community Engagement and Leadership Education Center, and an Ethnic Cultural Center that have been great partners in collaborating on programming related to civic engagement. You’re not going to be able to successfully do this work alone, so partner up and take advantage of all the shared passion that is out there on this topic.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Are there any examples that you have seen or heard about from librarians in the field who have found success in this area? 08:10  

Kian Flynn:

Well, I hate to use my own library as the example here, but it’s the one that I can speak to in the most steps. At the UW we have all seen the statistics about low voting rates among college students. That was one of the reasons that a group of my colleagues, both staff members and students, joined forces in the lead-up to the 2020 election to form the group Democracy Dogs that put on civic engagement programming in the lead-up to that election. The dog in Democracy Dogs is related to our mascot since we are the University of Washington Huskies. 

One of the exciting things about this collaboration was that going into it each of us knew that lots of folks on campus were excited about this work and that it aligned with the university’s mission, vision, and values to develop and educate a student body to become responsible and informed citizens. But, we were all concerned before creating the group—about duplicating efforts elsewhere on campus, and how we would be able to create partnerships on campus to work together in a coordinated non-siloed way. At UW, our Democracy Dogs collaboration featured representatives from the UW Libraries, our Ethnic Cultural Center that I mentioned, our Community Engagement and Leadership Education Center that I mentioned, King County Elections, our Washburn Student Group, and the nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington Bus. 

Going into this collaboration we all had our own individual plans for election-related programming, but by collaborating we were able to all play off each other’s strengths and reach a wider audience on campus in a more thoughtful and coordinated way. We have a student group in Washburn that was helpful in peer-to-peer outreach to encourage attendance at events. We had an off-campus group in the Washington Bus whose mission, specifically, was to engage college students in the political process. We had a representative from King County Elections that could provide authoritative info on the election, and we had campus partners like the UW Libraries who could offer resources like our spaces and our web presence to host and get the word out about events.

For 2020 we ended up hosting presidential, and vice-presidential debate watch parties, which were better attended than when we had hosted them in the previous election cycle without collaborations from campus partners. We helped coordinate and advise on a King County Elections sponsored student engagement hub on campus where students could register and vote up to when the polls closed on election day. 

We connected with specific campus communities like the Athletic Department and the Greek Life community to encourage members of their communities to register and vote. We had a coordinated social media campaign, complete with Democracy Dog’s graphics, and advised on campus-wide emails that went out from UW leadership that pointed to some of the resources we had created. And of course, the libraries took the lead on an Election Look Guide with resources targeted to the UW student community.

The long-term goals for our group going forward include making voter engagement efforts institutionalized throughout campus, increasing voter registration and voting rates each year until they are at 95, and 90% respectively, establishing Democracy Dogs as a well known collation across campus that serves as a hub of voter and democratic engagement efforts—encouraging students to engage in civic, and other ways besides just through voting, for example, letters to representatives , etc.

As a group we have a lot of documentation on our work to date, and our action plans going forward so if anyone who is listening is interested in taking a look at those reach out to me via email and I can likely share some of our documentation and materials with you. My email is [email protected].

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books or resources, and why? 12:23 

Kian Flynn:

I may be in the minority here, especially for folks that have been on this podcast, but I’m personally not a big fan of the how-to leadership books. I’ve always been someone who has learned more by doing and by observing. I think the best leadership lessons I’ve learned have been from leaders in my own life. I’ve been fortunate enough, and I’ve had a variety of jobs dating back about fifteen years now, in a couple different fields to not have any terrible boss stories to tell. In fact I’ve had a lot of great supervisors, colleagues, and coaches in my life, and while they’ve differed in numerous ways, they all have a few important traits in common that I try to emulate in my own work style.

One, they care deeply about the people that they’re leading or supervising, both their lives at work and outside of work. They make an effort to learn about and understand the people they’re working with. I think this has been especially important during these pandemic times when people are in a bit of a reset and reevaluating what is meaningful to them and how they do, and do not want to spend their time. As a leader in a workspace you need to make the case for why people should spend their valuable time in your organization. I think an important part of that is showing that you care about the people in your organization.

And two, they don’t pretend to know everything. One of the key pillars of our strategic plan at the University of Washington Libraries is to grow as a learning organization, and what that means in practice is that we support our communities and do our best work as a library when we grow and learn together and from each other as a staff. It shouldn’t be about our egos. It should be about collaboration. This isn’t a leadership book, or resource but one of my favorite leadership anecdotes that I always return to, and it has the bonus of featuring government documents, which I work with a lot at UW, is President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. Nearing the end of the thirteen days in October Kennedy and his administration received a letter from the Soviet Union leader, Khrushchev on Friday night that strikes a conciliatory tone and presents an avenue for a peaceful conclusion to the crisis. The next morning before they can respond they receive a follow-up letter from Khrushchev that strikes a more aggressive tone and opens up the possibility of an escalation of the crisis. Kennedy and his administration, after much deliberation, famously decide to ignore the second combative letter and only respond to the first. In doing so, end up winding down the peak of the crisis within the next day or so. 

Obviously few of us feel the stakes that are that high, but I think on a smaller scale the take-away lessons of assuming the best in people, de-escalating conflict, deliberating instead of knee-jerk responses, and communicating clearing are applicable and will serve us well in just about any leadership position that we find ourselves in. It’s similar to that golden rule of letting angry emails sit in your draft folder for a day before reflecting on whether you want to hit send. Most of the time you end up not hitting send, and you let cooler heads prevail. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Kian, in closing what do libraries mean to you, personally? 15:56 

Kian Flynn:

I appreciate this question because I’ve now spent, including my work as a student employee in a library, almost fifteen years working in libraries—as a result going to the library on an almost daily basis for fifteen years, but I don’t often have the time, or the opportunity to reflect on that simple question: what do libraries mean to me? 

I think at their simplest libraries are the places we go to get help with our questions. As an extension of that perhaps, put in a more elegant way—they are the place we go to understand our world. Each library offers a slightly different approach to offering up that understanding, whether it’s through innovative collaborative study spaces, or through unique collections that provide access to information that can help us answer those questions that can only be answered through one particular item and one particular library, or through challenging programming that makes us think about our world differently. I consider myself incredibly lucky to go into work each day to a place that offers those possibilities to our communities.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Kian, thank you for being on the show. You’ve provided excellent information that libraries can use to jump-start efforts in supporting our communities in voter and civic engagement. I really appreciate you being here.

Kian Flynn:

Thank you so much for having me on, Adriane.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.