Have you ever experienced in your library parts of the community that are struggling with literacy or perhaps even kids who arrive too hungry to engage? These are just a couple examples of the kinds of things that we all know, as librarians, we can’t solve by ourselves.
It’s best if we work with communities to build coalitions to meet unique needs. On today’s show we talk with two guests who have a program that can help. It’s called Communities + Libraries and begins with the premise that each community has the potential to thrive and that libraries are ideal for helping communities come together to reach their full potential.
You’ll learn about this model that any of us can use to design programs with partners that work for a community’s particular needs. Tune in as we hear from Erica Freudenberger, Outreach Consultant with the Southern Adirondack Library System, and Margo Gustina, Trustee Development Consultant with the Southern Tier Library system, both in New York, about their work, developed by a team, called Communities + Libraries: A Community-First Process. Enjoy the show!
Nate Vineyard: This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas; and by the Park City Library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.
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.
Have you ever experienced in your library parts of the community that are struggling with literacy, or perhaps even kids who arrive too hungry to engage? These are just a couple of examples of the kind of things that we all know as librarians we can’t solve by ourselves. It’s best if we work with communities to build coalitions to meet unique needs.
On today’s show we talk with two guests who have a program that can help. It’s called Communities+Libraries and begins with the premise that each community has the potential to thrive, and that libraries are ideal for helping communities come together to reach their full potential. You’ll learn about this model that any of us can use to design programs with partners that work for a community’s particular needs. Tune in as we hear from Erica Freudenberger, Outreach Consultant with the Southern Adirondack Library System. And, Margo Gustina, Trustee Development Consultant with the Southern Tier Library System, both in New York, about their work developed by a team called Communities+Libraries: A community-First Process. Enjoy the show!
Welcome to the show, Erica, and Margo. You’re implementing a program called Communities+Libraries that begins with the premise that each community has the potential to thrive, and further that libraries have a responsibility to facilitate realizing that potential within the community.
I know many librarians who’ve felt this way, actually, but I haven’t seen this done with such clarity. It’s fantastic.
Question #1: First off, let’s start with you, Erica. Will you share with us the philosophies of this program? 02:21
Yes, I’d be delighted to, and thanks so much for having us on the program. So, Communities+Libraries is a Community First initiative developed by Eli Guinnee, Margo Gustina, and myself, that brings together strands from community engagement, sustainability, regenerative development, social justice, and community organizing to address the question, What skills does a library professional in any position, at any library—any library type, in any community need to help their community be a better place?
So, at its core the Communities+Libraries programs believes that sustainable libraries begin with thriving communities. It’s a twelve to eighteen month project-based program that builds local capacity while leveraging local expertise. It raises up local leaders as trained mentors in a cohort model. It creates strong local teams of library professionals and community partners. It pairs those teams with local mentors, then trains the teams in community engagement, whole systems thinking, and regenerative design. It develops a realistic local project for, and with the team to implement, provides resource identification and acquisition required to accomplish their project, and values inclusion diversity, and local realities.
Question #2: So, Margo, how did the program come into being? 03:52
Yeah, Adriane. So Erica, and I met at a library association committee meeting on sustainability. We realized immediately that we were of similar mind in our approach to sustainability. That any work that needed to be done in this area needed also to be nonhierarchical, diverse, just, and built out of the community’s wants for itself.
One of Erica’s favorite phrases at the time was, don’t make decisions about me without me. We soon began to work together. With guidance from others we pulled in Eli Guinnee, who you interviewed last month, to help us find a way where we could start teaching sustainability. That was actually our original focus and goal. What we realized really quickly is that we couldn’t. You can’t actually if, what we’re talking about when we talk about sustainability is a system of health where people interact with their environment and their living systems, and each other in a way that’s sustainable and good, you can’t just teach that. That’s not like a one-off thing. What we needed to design was a learning process that helped libraries and their community partners work together in their own communities to develop their own projects grounded in the place where they live.
Question #3: Fantastic. Sounds like a great program. And, I’m excited to talk to you about it today. So, tell me, what is the Communities+Libraries process? 05:31
The process actually begins before the cohort meets for the first time, and maybe even before you send out a call for applications to the program. It begins with the hosting organization. We’ve built a process that has a lot of open framework possibilities, so that each hosting organization can design its implementation to be right for the region where it will be done.
Let’s take Utah as an example. You’ve got like sixty-something libraries and systems. We are—I’m not like…[laughter] I’m not even going to use it as an example. But, we’re not currently planning an implementation there. So, if this Utah State Library wanted to implement Communities+Libraries, they would first engage with your sixty-something libraries and library systems to see who is interested in doing a project-based, twelve month, cohort learning program in their region.
Let’s say, for example Summit County, and Salt Lake County systems both expressed interest. The state library team would use any of the resources we provide in our guidebook to examine their internal capacity to do the program in those regions. They’d see the county systems as partners with assets to do the work. Who on their staff can do this kind of training? Who has the capacity to engage in a training program for twelve months? What have they got going on, and who do they know?
Then, we provide sample budgets. We provide resource assets, inventory guidance sheets, and implementation worksheets to help organizations structure that implementation—so it’s right for them. It’s the right size. The geography is correct, and they know where and how they’ll host it.
We call it a process because at its heart, Communities+Libraries was designed to help library organizations and the communities they serve, including other libraries, to identify and utilize their current strengths in a way that builds their skill and operational capacity in the future—through a process, what I think of as recursive engagement and power sharing.
So, it’s not community engagements, and engagement that we have with our members and our branches, and our community of partners—is not like a one time, I’m going to go like, do a survey with you. It’s a way of sharing power around decision-making and our future.
I’m going to talk. I’m going to ask you what you need, and what you want. Then I’m going to come to you with ideas and we’re going to make decisions together. It’s not a one directional thing. This recursive engagement, and power-sharing is how we hope hosting organizations will also build out their implementation.
So, let’s say Summit, and Salt Lake counties decide to go for this. The state library’s program coordinator would invite mentors to participate in a full state’s mentor training with the county and state library program people. They do like, eight-hourish retreats in the core curricular threads, which is whole systems thinking, change agentry, community engagement, partnership building, and a thing called regenerative project development, from a mentoring perspective.
We designed this session for any institution that wants to do it. We can do it. They can do it themselves, or they can design their own thing as long as it teaches these core learning threads from a mentoring or coaching perspective.
The retreat focuses, really, heavily on reflective questioning to help teams get to the mindset they need to be in, in order to do the program work aligned with Communities+Libraries principles. Then they’ve done that. They seek community partner teams to apply to the program, and each team gets a mentor. Then once the cohort launches that library partner, community partner, and mentor—each participating community meets with all of the other participating communities monthly via phone call, and then around five times in person.
We’ve designed five, live, in-person session plans for hosting organizations to use—or not use. We recommend at least five, but some places may only be able to do four if the geography is really spread out. Some places—we’re currently working on an implementation in New York, where they’re thinking about doing ten in-persons because the geography is really small.
So, it depends on the region’s implementation design. The cohort training program design relies, really heavily on constructivist learning theory—that a learner can only understand deeply that new knowledge which they constructed for themselves. So, each month has recommended experiences, and detailed session plans so that the learners—those teams are always placed in situations where they can experience the practice we want them to know how to do, like community engagement, or partnership building, or design principles from—or, project management design principles, from a whole systems perspective. Or, how to manage change within their organization and also within their community.
Question #4: It sounds incredibly dynamic with lots of give and take between the partners. 11:18
Oh, yeah! Yeah, so what we’ve seen in the past is that when partners work together—so a mentor, a library partner, and a community partner—that also goes through a sort of trust process, right? People come to the program with a variety of backgrounds and background relationships. Some people have been working together for a decade. Some people started working together, like three weeks ago. Digging into learning together is a really vulnerable space. They either sort of, surrender to that venerability, or they don’t.
What we notice is that teams are most successful when they give themselves over to the learning process. We are pretty intentional in the design of sessions, so that we leave enough space for the cohort to work together and for teams to have time and space to work directly with their mentors in person, to build that trust and rapport, and allow them to ask difficult questions, and to hear challenging reflections back to them when their practice starts to get—starts to move away from the principles we want to see them practicing.
Like sometimes when you’re doing something hard, like designing a project for your community, you do it like that, Well I’m going to write this project. And you’re going to like it, gosh darn it, because this is what you need. That is what we typically do. It’s easyish. It has its own challenges. But, it’s our comfort zone to be that kind of leader in our communities.
What we’ve found though is those kinds of problem/solution paradigm offerings that libraries produce, and then give to their communities, have short-lived effects—sometimes they have deleterious, unintended consequences. And, they don’t make the deep, lasting impactful changes we want for communities. The only way those changes are made is if the community itself owns the change, and owns the process.
So, yeah, project-based work, and project-based learning, is always a little bit more dynamic, and it comes with it’s own challenges. But the results in research, and education research, and then in community organizing research, bears out over and over again that the results are more long-lasting, understandings are deeper, and we see better stuff happening for people. And the side consequences are great. People actually have agency over their own lives. That’s pretty exciting.
Question #5: So, wow. This is incredible—deep, long, impactful process, and outcomes. That means getting really engaged people around the table. What does the program seek in terms of community members and partners, and who do you anticipate getting involved? 14:47
Yeah. So, as Erica mentioned earlier, the program looks like our next thing—looks like it will be implemented regionally with teams specifically for whom community engagement and sustainability are interests. We have found that those are like—those are the concepts that are most easily attached to, by community members, and library partners. They’re like, Ok, I get that. I’m into community engagement. I want to do that.
One potential partner that we heard from said, This is like community engagement 2.0. Like, this is what we do with all that community engagement information, after we gathered all this stuff we didn’t actually know what to do with it. So, that’s how we see this going over the next eighteen to twenty-four months. Overtime, what we hope to see is neighboring communities noticing participating communities’ positive experiences and wanting to engage in the process themselves.
Question #6: Sure, are you seeing nonprofits, or governments, or… 15:57
For community partners—yes, we see as potential partners our typical community anchor institutions like eds and meds—so educational institutions, institutions of higher ed who have community engagement written into their strategic and sustainability plans, but have a hard time attaching themselves to actual, widespread, outside of the campus, community engagement programs.
We see partners in small municipal governments, small town mayors, and medical institutions, a community health officer at a hospital, or a health clinic, these literacy partnerships, as well as PTA, and PTO partnerships. Those people who are in institutions who already have sort of a community-wide focus, or charge, are those that most easily find themselves able to commit to the time required to do this work. There is a significant time lift in community engagement. We expect teams that participate in this program to spend, on average over the course of the year, something between three and seven hours a week on this work. So without really strong institutional support, and we usually see that in those positions that are already community facing, this work is really hard to do for people.
Question #7: Erica, will you share the specific tools and resources that make this happen? 17:40
Absolutely. The curriculum brings together a bunch of our favorite tools—including asset-based community development, regenerative design theory, appreciative inquiry, some of the Harwood Institute tools that were used in the American Library Association’s Transforming Communities Initiative, and others.
It’s a chance for the teams to put theory into practice, and work with their communities to create change. The process definitely requires a big commitment on the part of all involved, from the program coordinator, to the mentors, to the teams that make up the cohorts. It’s designed to be iterative. We’re learning as we go, kind of building the road as we travel in real time with our partners, who are the teams and the community partners.
The process absolutely demands authenticity. We don’t have any experts—and, or if people think that they’re experts in something, we don’t expect them to maintain that status for long. We kind of, come face to face with our own vulnerability as we work through problems, and learn to work with others in new ways. It can be challenging, but we heard from teams in our first iteration that it was incredibly rewarding, and really helped them move forward in their work at libraries, and also in their communities.
Question #8: Erica, why is this important for library leadership? 19:06
Well, back when Eli, Margo, and I were first talking about what this would look like, I was thinking about what my ideal leadership program would include. Like, what would I want to take if I were doing a leadership program? We were all, kind of, on the same page that it would have to be practical rather than theoretical. We all really value project-based experiential learning, and we wanted to create an opportunity that gave people a chance to try out different tools, learn how to manage change, identify resources, understand regenerative design theory, and work with a partner.
So, we developed five core learning threads, which we believe are critical to leading a 21st century library. And those threads are: whole systems thinking; changes agentry; community engagement; partnerships and collaborations; and project development.
Question #9: So, libraries helping these outward facing community organizations make positive impacts in the community, which libraries have always made positive impacts in the community. But, it’s like everyone working together to expand reach. What are the expected outcomes? 20:06
So, each organization that hosts a Communities+Libraries program would grow in regional capacity to facilitate this kind of positive, long-lasting change in the communities they serve. In a way, specifically, that empowers community members and library professionals. So that the future of each of these communities is owned by its own members.
So, libraries I’m working on—working with, right now, that has been piloting this curriculum locally, have now become part of a network of agencies working on trauma-informed services to students, and literacy outcomes. So, it’s a coalition of the library, and four other community, and social wellbeing agencies in their school district, which is an eight municipality town.
That’s the kind of work that we see which comes out of this process. So, when you take a slower approach you’re able to build stronger, broader coalitions that can have deeper impacts, because they can touch more parts of the community. When we talk about literacy, one of the key factors in literacy is whether or not a kid has access to reading outside of school. Well, how do we get that kid reading outside of school? We get it through the library. How does the library then engage kids whose families are afraid of fees and fines? How do they serve kids who are coming to the library hungry and don’t want to stay because they’re too hungry to learn?
So, this takes a broad coalition. The library can’t actually do all these things. It cannot be the social stopgap for all of our problems. It has to do it in partnership with others, and help those other organizations find that they can improve their capacity to serve their community in partnership with the library.
Question #10: Margo, do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 22:35
I love the book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane McAlevey. It’s about leadership in that it goes into theories of power and how power works in communities. And that a good leader, a strong leader is someone who helps people find their own power, and facilitates collective decision-making in a way that helps everyone. I’m pretty jazzed about that. I’m pretty jazzed about the book.
Question #11: Erica, do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 23:28
So, one of the books that has most influenced my approach to leadership and life in general is The Collaborative Habit by the choreographer, Twyla Tharp. I love this book because she talks about the power of partnership in collaboration in the work, and what’s involved in being a good partner, or collaborator. What I’ve always taken away from that is that she reminds us that in the end all collaborations are love stories. And, I think that’s a really great way to approach work.
Question #12: Okay, so I always like to close the show by asking our guests what being a librarian means to you, personally. So, let’s start with Erica. Erica, can you answer that question for us? 24:05
Well before I was a librarian, I was an independent bookstore owner, a community activist, and journalist. For me, being a librarian is a continuation of that work, and it’s all about my passion for empowering communities by providing, or guiding them toward the information and resources they need to make the changes they want to see in the world. I feel like public libraries have a huge role to play in transforming society. It’s a really exciting, trusted position to have.
Question #13: What does being a librarian mean to you, personally Margo? 24:49
There was a time when I worked as a Section 8 caseworker, and I inspected homes, and I processed paperwork, and I was the regulator of people’s lives, [laughter] and it always felt like a trap. It always felt like I was a cog in a degenerative system where I wasn’t really supporting people. In my work as a librarian, I’m no one’s regulator. I do this work to facilitate your discovery, and your power, and your ability, even if that ability is to write an angry letter to your ward captain about a missing stop sign. People need to own their own future and that’s what being a librarian means to me.
Thank you. It’s been great having both of you on the show.
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.