How can we lead with compassion? On this show Carey Hartmann, Director of the Laramie County Library System in Cheyenne Wyoming, talks about compassion as a fundamental element for how we serve our communities. I hope this episode of Library Leadership Podcast inspires you and touches your heart as much as it did mine.
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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.
When was the last time you thought about compassion—maybe more than usual lately? We’ve been through a year in which social distancing became the new vocabulary and took on meaning that none of us could have imagined.
On this show, Carey Hartmann, Director of the Laramie County Library System in Cheyenne, Wyoming, shares information about an award called Compassion-In-Action. The award, which seeks to recognize organizations or individuals who are helping foster compassion throughout their communities, acknowledged her library’s efforts to welcome and support every single member of the Laramie County community.
As numbers of COVID cases decline and we dare to begin to think about a future where we can be back together more safely, talking about compassion feels especially poignant, and timely. I hope this episode of Library Leadership Podcast inspires you and touches your heart as much as it did mine. Enjoy the show.
Carey, welcome to the show.
Great to spend some time with you, and thank you for the invitation.
Question #1: Thank you for talking with me today about Compassion-In-Action. Your library recently won an award that celebrates compassion. Can you tell us what this award is about, and where it came from? 01:56
A local group came together to promote civil interaction in our community following a TED talk by Karen Armstrong, and the national movement with the Charter for Compassion. Compassionate Cheyenne formed in 2015.
They worked with local entities to sign on to this charter, and they’re doing wonderful things in our community. It was one of those amazing grass roots efforts that coalesced with those from many walks of life seeing the need to recognize and promote compassion and civility as a core value for our community. When they decided to give a Compassion-In-Action Award they thought of the library due to the dignity and care with which we serve everyone who uses the library. Something that several members had witnessed first hand because they were avid library users.
That level of service is not always provided to those in our communities that are experiencing homelessness, have mental health issues, are in extreme poverty, or just other things that may make it easy for some to exclude or marginalize them. It was a real honor to be given this award.
What a wonderful thing to recognize in a community. Congratulations on the honor.
Question #2: What were the efforts in your library that this award specifically acknowledged? In other words, what were the things that you did that made this organization want to recognize you with this award? 03:22
I’ve worked for the library for over forty years. In the early 1980’s, the United States stopped institutionalizing those with mental illnesses. This was a good thing as their treatment could often just be horrendous. However there was no plan in place, nor adequate funding for those individuals to receive the care they needed. The fact is that hasn’t changed much since then. But, libraries at that time saw a huge increase in people experiencing homelessness using their libraries in the 1980’s because of mental illness, and addictions that weren’t being treated well in our society, or treated for those people.
Unfortunately, some libraries at that time had governing bodies, or members of the public that wanted the policies in place that excluded these individuals from libraries. But, Laramie County Library Systems was not one of those places. We’ve always had the philosophy that those in our community who may not always be treated with respect, such as children, or a person experiencing mental illness, or homelessness, or someone with a disability, should be treated with the same dignity that we treat the mayor or any person who walks in the door. They’re all members of our community.
We also went by the philosophy that being fair is not always the same as ensuring equality. For example, a teenager who is still developing their frontal lobe in their brain should not be expected to always behave the way an adult should. It would be unfair to hold them to that standard without some coaching and training, and expectations of the behaviors first. So our library’s culture, and the training that we’ve done with our employees for many years is the primary reason why Compassionate Cheyenne thought of the library for this award.
Then right before the nomination, the library had stepped up with some programming and events that we were doing around really difficult topics. We utilized the National Issues Forum to discuss immigration and mass shootings. We had at least—yearly have, usually a forum exploring various religious beliefs around civility and the treatment of humans. So, we have local clergy, rabbis, and imams, who are generally on the panel to help us with that.
We also had a table set up in the library entrance with a space for the local Veterans Administration, so that they could assist homeless veterans in finding services to assist them.
Then, a local free clinic was parking it’s bus unit in our parking lot once a week to work with those who are experiencing homelessness, and to assist them in getting, especially, diabetes and heart disease under control for them. But, they helped anyone who came to the clinic while it was in the library parking lot.
Then finally, the other catalyst for the award was a partnership that we were in the process of creating, with the local homeless shelter. When the pandemic hit we were in the planning stages of a program that would show the movie, The Public twice in one day, in April 2020. This shelter was going to make sure that their clients were here for the afternoon showing and there would be a facilitated discussion with all who attended because it would be absolutely open to the public.
Then between the two showings, their team was going to serve a meal that would share with the communities, so that the community could see first hand how a person experiencing homelessness receives the basic necessity of food. Then the evening showing of the movie included a panel discussing set up with representatives from the shelter, local mental health professionals, and the police department to discuss the film, and situations in our local community. We will make this happen once restrictions have been lifted and in-person programs are once again safe. So, that’s what really led to our nomination.
Question #3: Oh, Carey, that’s just marvelous. And, I think most of us in this field know what that movie is that you’re talking about, but for anybody who doesn’t, can you share just a little bit about what that film is? 07:31
Emilio Estevez, when he was researching the role of Robert Kennedy in the movie that he was in, spent tons of time in the Los Angeles Public Library. In that experience he saw how librarians were helping the homeless every day. I think he wrote the film. Maybe he wrote it with someone, but he does star in it. The basic story is— think it’s Cleveland, and it’s subzero temperatures, and some of the homeless who regularly use the library have lost some of their friends to—because they died from the cold. A group of homeless people take over part of the Cleveland Public Library. It’s the story of how the police deal with that, and the mayor deals with that, and then how the librarians do what they can, sort of, stuck between the rules and their compassion for the homeless. It’s a really wonderful movie.
Question #4: It is. Thank you for sharing. And, if anyone hasn’t watched it. I highly recommend taking a look at that one. So, why is compassion important in libraries? 08:52
The joy to me in working in a public library is that you see your entire community at one time or another. So, that child that’s learning to read could very likely become that seventy-year-old who is so excited to discover a new book. Or, could be your superuser on an ebook platform in the future. We also see people at their very best, and at the lowest point that a human can experience. So if we, as librarians, are not compassionate, and our policies aren’t based on compassion, and how we carry out the things that we need to do to enforce codes of conduct are not compassionate, then we cannot be that safe place for someone like a teen who has chaos in other parts of their lives. Or, we cannot be the solution place for that person who lost their job, or just found out their loved one has cancer. And, we cannot be that escape place that everyone needs at some time or another.
So to walk with someone on their journey in life, and I believe that most of us who work in public libraries—we walk with the people that we encounter in terms of their lives. We need to build relationships, and that relationship and trust are just absolutely critical. Relationships cannot be formed without compassion, or without that active listening that is necessary for even a basic reference interview to occur.
So, libraries are more than that neutral place that ensures all sides of an issue are represented. We are the cultural, intellectual, and leisure hubs of our community. I think another way to put this, or a way to think about it; is that we may be the only nice, clean, safe place that some people in our communities ever feel welcome.
The librarians and library workers who treat everyone with respect, and want the best for that individual, and show it in their actions and words can sometimes be a brief, sort of, respite from whatever shame a person’s birth, or choices, or society may place on them.
I think it is a very rare person who can dig themselves out of a hole that they’re in on their own. So no matter if they created the hole themselves, or it was given to them, we need each other.
I had the honor of hearing Father Greg Boyle speak. He was instrumental in the 1990’s in one neighborhood in Los Angeles where he formed HomeBoy Industries. He’s the author of a couple of books and I highly recommend them. One is called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, and Barking to the Choir:The Power of Radical Kinship. His work transformed neighborhood rival gangs into neighbors who could work together for a common good.
One of his quotes is just soul shattering to me. It’s: gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope. He worked to assist these people in overcoming the shame of poverty and want by creating opportunities where they could feel proud, feel like they belonged to a community, know that they had value, and then see that their hard work could achieve good for themselves and their families. Libraries should always be places of hope, and promise, and compassion is the key to that.
Question #5: What advice would you give to other libraries that want to create compassionate organizations? 12:34
I’ll give you some examples of how we build that culture with our employees. So, new employees are given four documents that assist in understanding the basic ideals underlying all library service, but a lot of them call for compassion.
One is organizational philosophies. That talks about how our organization really wants quality over quantity. We want to make sure that organizational knowledge is invested in numerous people so that we’re all sharing in the process, and no one’s like, withholding information so that it becomes power.
We also really want multiple people to work on any project that’s going on and provide feedback, because working together we’re going to get a better product all the time, and that happens at every level of the organization.
Then, we always want to ensure when an employee presents a problem—and we want them to present those problems that are a challenge to us, that they also present a viable solution, so that they’re being part of a solution at all times that they’re working. So that’s the organizational philosophy.
We then borrowed a document called Marketing from the Heart. It was used by the Tattered Cover Bookstore down in Colorado in the late 1980’s. Pat Wagner actually is the person who developed the Marketing from the Heart document. But, we’ve adapted it to the library, and it talks about how generous we want our employees to be with the public.
One of the things that we talk about is that libraries are everyone’s second living room, and that we should treat every person who walks in our door as an honored guest in our
home. I used to use an example that when my mother would have someone come visit that she hadn’t seen in years, an old friend, or you know, someone she hadn’t seen from college—our house would always be perfect. She wanted everything perfect for this person because they were going to be honored in our home. And that’s part of what we talk about when we talk about Marketing from the Heart in the library.
We then have an expectations document that is an expectation of performance. There are several sections in there that apply to compassion. We expect employees to be pleasant and cheerful with each other, and with the patrons that come in, and with volunteers. To offer assistance—to always put the patron’s needs above their own needs when they’re on duty. A lot of that document calls to, again, that compassion that needs to be in place. So, new employees get those documents from the minute they walk in the door. They also are used at every annual evaluation. They’re asked to go back and read through those documents because some of the things in those documents may be wording that we’ll use in their annual evaluation to help them get to that point where they’re the best compassionate person that they can be.
We have several training modules for new employees that include webinars on customer service, how to work with patrons that exhibit difficult behaviors, and then for co-workers, managers, and administration. We expect them to model those good practices for new employees.
We have about sixty percent of our employees that have worked for the library for five years or more, and thirty-five for ten years or more. So, we have lots of people that have, I guess, bought into being compassionate and generous, and are modeling that for other employees.
Then, training is ongoing. We have employees take webinars whenever we see something that might be of assistance to employees. We make sure that they have the ability to take those webinars. We do inservice training. And, we’ve done things like training in conflict management. We’ve done, of course, ongoing training in how you deal with difficult employees.
But one of the things that we did, for example, was that there was an expert in the local police department on mental illness, and working with people who have a mental illness. So, we did a day-long seminar where the police officer came in and did de-escalation training for all the staff. Then, we did role-playing with a local person in the community that had sensitivity training in terms of how a person with a mental illness might react. The employees actually got to go through that role-playing of someone who has schizophrenia—how they might behave when they’re talking to you. It was very helpful for the employees, but it also grew their compassion and took away some of the fear, I think, that happens sometimes when we’re working with people that are outside our norm of behaviors.
Then we feel strongly about, really strongly about, giving employees the tools and training that they need to ensure that they can act compassionately when a patron’s behavior may unnerve them, or cause that fight or flight reaction to come into play. So, I think that’s really critical to ensuring compassion can happen in difficult situations.
The key is to be intentional. You need to make sure that you clearly understand that compassion doesn’t make you wishy-washy. That you still must have consistent and firm rules about what behaviors are, and are not tolerated. If you don’t have a code of conduct that applies to all staff volunteers and patrons, that’s a really good place to start to make sure that compassion doesn’t, sort of, slip over into just letting people get away with not following your policies and your rules. Getting a good grasp on how to be firm about behaviors, and yet ensure your actions are compassionate, and that you’re ensuring dignity for the other person, I think that’s really critical to get your team on board.
And then, evaluate your onboarding practices and ensure that you’re doing specific training that leads to that—how to be explicitly in a state of compassion, and how to treat others with dignity, how to assume the best of others, how to have consistency and kindness in enforcing codes of conduct. And then, respecting everyone who walks through the door. It is just how you do business. That’s really what you need to put in place. Then those in leadership really have to model those behaviors towards each other, towards employees, and toward the public that they serve. Your employees need to see that compassion in action happening with you.
Again, that ongoing training and utilizing experts is really critical. There is real fatigue that comes to library employees who may work regularly with some of our patrons whose behaviors can be frustrating or demeaning, and training, and re-training on these critical skills. Refresh staff, and show staff how you value them. And almost always, bring new learning on the topic for even the most experienced employee.
And then evaluate your hiring practice in light of these changes that you’re making. There are really some good tools out there. There’s a tool called Bookmarks HR, which is a survey that your applicant takes so that you can see if they would work well within a library environment. There’s some reference survey products out there that are sent to the references of an employee that actually look at soft skills that an employee has.
Are you reviewing your job descriptions regularly after every resignation? When you’re building your job postings, are you clearly stating in those—what that work environment is like, and that your candidate needs to be compassionate? And then, have you updated your interview questions? Because some of us who have been in the field for a long time we just, sort of, use the same ones all the time. So that, you could ask yourself, Are you trying to address getting to some of those soft skills necessary to become compassionate?
Question #6: Those sound like incredible ways to implement this in our organizations. How can we help our teams understand the importance of implementing services that embrace compassion? 21:07
I had to think about this one for quite awhile, because it’s really very ingrained in our library’s culture. To start, or grow this kind of culture, I would first identify employees who do this naturally. Knowing who might be champions for a paradigm shift is always helpful. And before you form a committee to work on implementation, you may want to do a survey of all of your employees to see where their current state of readiness is to change regarding this concept. This will then assist you in how heavy the lift might be, or what work you may need to do to get buy-in, because buy-ins are really critical.
Then what leadership is willing to invest time and money in sends a huge message to employees. So in planning, be open and transparent about the time and money you are investing in your employees to assist them in growing in these skills.
We recently did work with employees on an employee ethics document. It took a total of about four months for our eighty employees to get to completion. We sought input from all employees in terms of what an employee’s ethics document might look like. We found samples from other libraries and institutions. Then we met in small groups to discuss those samples. We took input from those meetings to draft a document for our organization. We then sought input from the employees again on that drafted document and did revisions prior to adopting the final document. And a similar process may work if you’re starting from scratch on compassionate service if nothing else to help define what that means. Your employees are a great resource and can help you get there.
Question #7: How can libraries lead the way in creating compassion in our communities? 23:05
Well first off, the library’s standing in most communities is that it is the most trusted institution. And, librarians are the most trusted figures—after firefighters, in any community. That was from a Pew study that they’ve repeated several times that show that we’re still very trusted in our communities.
So, that’s really something to be proud of and to use for the betterment of where we live. With that trust we can be a leverage to get people of diverse views to come to the table. Codes of conduct should include good behaviors that we all can exhibit in the library to remind people of compassion and civility. There’s a great little book called, Choosing Civility (Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct) by P. M. Forni. It might assist you in things that you could add to your codes of conduct that are positive comments about behaviors.
I think our collection development needs to be respectful, diverse, and inclusive so that no matter who walks through our doors, they find images and words that remind them of themselves. And, events and programming can have a really large impact on how we lead in our communities.
If you can send employees to the Harwood Institute for Public Libraries programs, or something that helps employees who work directly with community entities, that do library events and programs to help turn outward, and start looking into the community, and be a help for part of the solutions in that community, I think that’s really critical. Another tool to use to help with this is called the National Issues Forum. It’s a great place to look to have difficult conversations on topics that are volatile, complex, uncertain, and ambiguous. They have really excellent guidance on how to ensure civility. We’ve used their talking points a couple of times and their process, and it was amazing bringing together people of very different views, held very strongly on things like immigration. And, we were able to have a civil conversation about it.
And then also, there’s a really—I just love this tool, it’s called Conversation Cafe. If you have employees trained in that process you have another opportunity to do these pop-up gatherings for just discussions in a formatted, but less formal manner that still assists in having those difficult conversations—and fun conversations, because Conversations Cafe has a huge variety of guidance on various topics.
And then, encouraging professionals on your team to join and be active participants in community groups where they exhibit those compassionate action behaviors as they serve the community, and can also ensure that the library is at that table where critical issues are being discussed in our communities, and then always employees modeling what compassion looks like in how they serve the people that walk in the door.
Question #8: Anything else you’d like to share? 26:24
Well, after the Spanish Flu ended, our nation experienced the roaring twenties. And, the need for gathering will mostly likely come roaring back. I think that’s just really important for us to think about. We should be ready for that. We should be planning now for people wanting to use our meeting rooms, and be part of the excitement that libraries are. I think libraries should be looking now at what they can, and should be able to do once people are able to meet. We will all want to attend everything because we’ve been so starved for that human connection.
And then, I think our country has its eyes open to the divisions in our society that it really didn’t have even five years ago. I think that will be our time to shine in terms of making library gatherings celebrations, when that’s appropriate. Or, also being willing to continue those stalled in-person conversations that provide honest, direct, and meaningful discussions about really difficult things. And, if we don’t want to talk about those things civilly, progress may never be made at any time soon.
Question #9: Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 27:35
Okay, I have two. Radical Trust: How Great Leaders Convert People to Partners, by Joe Healy. He describes leadership as relational, and how critical it is to be open, honest, and clear in expectations, as well as how critical it is to be respectful and treat others with dignity.
And then the second one is The Answer to How Is Yes, by Peter Block. This book helps you reframe your approach to new ideas, change, and challenges by ensuring that you’re bringing your personal values into the pragmatic workplace.
Question #10: Thank you. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 28:17
Libraries, along with journalism, are a cornerstone of democracy. Without an educated electorate democracy does not function. To be educated you must know how to read, have a love for reading encouraged in you, remain forever curious, gain knowledge, verify facts, think critically, and have the skills to assess the source of information for its authority or authenticity. Our public libraries provide a place for all of that to occur every day of every week in our communities through expertly developed collections of materials, in all formats, interesting, engaging programs and events, through computer access, but most importantly through one library employee working with one patron at a time to assist them with whatever they need. As expert navigators of information, libraries are key to ensuring that all people have the opportunity to pursue their goals and strive to reach their full potential.
I truly believe that if libraries fail, so falls democracy. So, we are critical to our community and our society in ensuring that we can move together forward, positively.
Carey, I have to say, talking with you today has truly warmed my heart. And, as a number of COVID cases decline and we dare to begin to think about a future where we can be back together more safely—talking about compassion feels especially poignant and timely. So, I am incredibly grateful for this topic and for all that you’re doing in this area, and for sharing it with all of us. Thank you.
Thank you, Adriane. It has just been lovely to spend time with you.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you 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.