Library Leadership

44. Leading Community Change with Barbara Brattin

Barbara Brattin

Have you ever been asked to step up to the plate and show leadership in an unexpected way in your library? Barb Brattin, Director of the Kenosha Public Library in Wisconsin, was and hit it out of the park, both literally and figuratively.

In 2018, her library won the “Power of Libraries Award” from SirsiDynix for important work that involved a broad city initiative to end violence in city parks by making them places where positive activities engaged the community.

It’s a huge success story involving many partners and headed up by a library that was willing to take on the challenge of connecting people and resources for dynamic results. 

Transcript

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.

Adriane:

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 been asked to step up to the plate and show leadership in an unexpected way in your library? Barb Brattin, Director of the Kenosha Public Library in Wisconsin was, and hit it out of the park, both literally, and figuratively. In 2018 her library won the Power of Libraries Award from SirsiDynix for important work that involved a broad city initiative to end violence in city parks by making them places where positive activities engaged the community. It’s a huge success story involving many partners and headed up by a library that was willing to take on the challenge of connecting people and resources for dynamic results.    Enjoy the show!

Welcome to the show, Barb.

Barb Brattin:

Thanks, I’m so glad to be here.

Adriane:

Question #1: And I’m excited to talk to you today, because Kenosha Public Library won the Power of Libraries Award from SirsiDynix for a project involving a city park in 2018. I’ve heard about this project and it seems like important leadership work. Will you start by describing what was going on and how the library got involved? 01:42 

Barb Brattin:

Sure, thanks for the opportunity to tell this story, Adriane. It’s a story I love to tell, because it’s a story of a library revitalized by leading a community in a very different way than the traditional library.

When I began leading the Kenosha Public Library I was excited to meet with our mayor on day one. I’d long been a fan of Kathleen Pena’s work she called, A Place at the Table, meaning the library, as an equal partner in local government. Kathleen called her libraries to take their rightful place. At the mayor, or the county executives, or whatever government you respond to—roundtable, so to speak, actively engage in the conversation, and the solutions to the communities most pressing problems. 

For me, this was a real opportunity to practice Kathleen’s philosophy, because this was the first time I’d work for city government. Before that it was special districts and those kinds of arrangements. But in Wisconsin, we’re all city government. I think there’s one exception, there’s a county government.

The first question out of my mouth when I met the mayor was, What are the city’s biggest challenges, and how does the library fit in? Unfortunately, my question was met with a long silence, clearly I had a lot of work to do. When the new mayor was elected in 2016 I walked into his office with the same question. But before I could ask it, he asked me to be on his executive team. This is what he says to me: If I ask a question of engineers and lawyers I get a black and white answer. If I want a creative answer, I ask the library and the museum. 

So, I faithfully attended his executive team meetings. And, it wasn’t but two months after he was elected that he announced to the group that he was concerned about youth violence that had escalated in the city park, called Lincoln Park. So, I’m thinking, Well he’s going to hash it out with the police chief who’s there. The park in this particular Lincoln Park is a real jewel. It’s just beautiful—these magnificent gardens, it’s the largest park in the city. But the neighborhood around it has been in decline.

Things got so bad in that park in 2015 that the police closed down the basketball courts. The youth had no place to convene, nothing to do. The mayor stated he believed that if positive activities were provided for youth in the park, we would see an improvement. Then he turned to me and said, And I’d like the library to coordinate those activities.

This might be a little confusing to some people because I think a lot of cities have parks and rec departments. In our city, parks means they mow the grass, they take applications for people to play baseball, and that kind of thing, to have activities in the parks. But they don’t coordinate any kind of activities through the city. This is something that was a long time ago, cut from the budget a long time ago. The mayor’s coming back. He had been a mayor before. He comes back to the city and says, We need to do this all over again. Let’s get started. The library should do this.

To his surprise, I looked him straight in the eye and said, Okay. Now you can understand I didn’t even know where Lincoln Park was. I’d gotten to the city just a year before him. I wasn’t really familiar with every little part of the city, I’m like, Where’s Lincoln Park? I didn’t know what organizations were around the area.  I didn’t know what we were going to do, but I wasn’t going to pass up on this opportunity.

The mayor caught me after the meeting and asked if I was surprised, and I said, Not at all, that libraries are the perfect organization to lead this effort. We already do children’s, and adults programming. We have outreach staff. We have a robust summer reading program in place. We have lots of connections to the community, lots of partners that will help us.

The next week he introduced me to my saving grace, a woman named Kathy Marks. Kathy was a former alderperson who lived in the neighborhood, who’d grown up there. There began my real education, because Kathy introduced me to so many people I would never have met otherwise. Together we pulled together a summer camp, run by the Boys & Girls Club, and all kinds of community-driven programs for kids and families. That was two months later, he told us to do it in April and we had to have it ready to go in June. 

By the end of the first summer, the residents in the surrounding neighborhood reported on our survey, which we did hand-to-hand. We just walked around and asked people at one of the large events, How are you feeling about this? 

Some of them said it had been twenty years since they’d gone back to their park and they finally felt safe there. The police chief reported no youth violence in the park that summer, which was staggering in one summer that we could pull this off. Mission Accomplished.

Adriane:

Question #2: Incredible. And you know, I’m not surprised. Those of us in libraries know that through our programs and resources, we’re positioned to help in so many ways to make our communities vibrant.  But, we also know that we can’t do this kind of work alone. You said you had Kathy involved. What partnerships and alliances did you form to enable you to do this work? 07:13 

Barb Brattin:

We had a long history of partnerships with other organizations because we are the leaders to get the NEA Big Read almost every year here in Kenosha. When we do the Big Read we pull together a lot of groups, but they’re typically very similar to our mission on the surface. For instance, the University of Wisconsin has a campus local, and Gateway Technical College is in a town, Carthage College is in town. So, those are typical partners when it comes to a library program. But, our leadership in the parks really opened up our eyes to the other kinds of partnerships we were missing out on.

Ideas for continued partnerships sprung up long after that first iteration of summer parks programs. We had to coordinate immediately with people who knew how to do rec programs. You know, we don’t know how to run tennis camps. But, we knew there was a Kingfish. It’s adorable, it’s called Kenosha Kingfish. It’s one of the summer leagues for college players, baseball programs. They have their own little stadium in town and all. They really wanted to be involved in the community. So we brought them in to do those kinds of programs for the kids—teach them baseball skills, right?

There was already a group in the park for disk golf. We just reached out to them. There was a chess club. So we reached out to them, and asked them to do chess nights in the park. The mayor hinted around how much he loved Shakespeare, so we reached out to local theatre groups to do Shakespeare in the Park, which he was delighted that we did.

Other kinds of partnerships that we wouldn’t have thought about before, the YMCA has become one of our strongest partners in this, alongside the Boys & Girls Club. We have some Lutheran outreach groups that do summer programs as well. All these groups that we really didn’t think about and now every time we meet someone new whether its at a community event or just at the library, one of the first questions we pose is, How can we partner? What are the similarities? What are the community’s needs and how can the library leverage those programs that you offer through the library to reach so many more people that you’re not reaching?

Adriane:

Question #3: And oftentimes leadership requires bringing others forward into your vision. Did you get any push-back on this project, and how did you bring people along as you dove into this important work? 09:55 

Barb Brattin:

You might be surprised, or maybe not, but the only push-back I got was from my board. Our relationship in Wisconsin is that the mayor—we are a city department, but then the mayor doesn’t have any authority over us, really. What he does is assign and appoint our board members, and that’s it. Otherwise I have a governing board. Of course, he assigns them. But it’s their decision about how we spend our money, what we do. That is a very interesting and dynamic relationship then. The board sometimes questions. Under my tenure they’ve questioned quite a bit why I do so much, for what they see as a city project. 

They wonder why. I don’t think they constantly understand the relationship between the city’s progress and the library’s progress, which I don’t see any difference at all. For me, I have to speak about this a lot. For those who are concerned on the board that I spend too much time working directly for the mayor’s projects, and not for—they’re worried I won’t have enough time to administer the library. I constantly have to massage that and just help them understand that the city’s progress is all of our progress, and it’s a wonderful role for us. And then in the end, we will have some good happening to us. 

The last budget round—I think it’s finally gotten through because the last budget round I said that the mayor had given us some concessions here and there on our budget. One of the board members says, I’m sure that’s a result of the relationship that you’ve built with the mayor so that we are in favor. That isn’t exactly what I was after, but for some board members that’s what they need to hear that somehow diving into politics means that if we do it well, then the political favors will come back to us.

Adriane:

Sure, and I can see why they’d have these questions. Libraries are changing. We’re taking on new and dynamic roles. And, I get a lot of questions like that myself. We’ve created a new 21st Century Library and we’re doing a lot more than we ever used to do in creating resiliency, and long-lasting impact. But, it’s a new way of thinking, right? 

Question #4: I’m curious about the planning engagement pace of this project, which I’m sure took a great deal of cooperation and understanding of the community. What did it take to pull everything together and to create and maintain momentum? 13:03 

Barb Brattin:

I think Kathy really helped me understand that we weren’t going to be able to do this solo. Even though I knew that in my head, I wasn’t quite sure how to begin. She’s got all those relationships. What she did was pull together a lot of people and she said, We need to call this something. So, we decided that we would call it, The Kenosha Parks Alliance, which means it’s not the library doing it, and it’s not the city doing it, and it’s not the Boys & Girls Club doing it, or the Y doing it, it’s everybody together doing it. And, we each have a part to play.

We have regular meetings of The Kenosha Parks Alliance and each one is an equal member. We have, not just the different pieces of all of this, but we have grand opening events, and then we have a kite fest at the end of the summer. We pull all the partners together and say, What will you do, what will you do, what will you do? So, everybody’s on the same page. The money comes from a special fund in the city. The paperwork and all of that is done by Kathy and me. We do all of the contracts and that kind of thing. We look for new partnerships and that kind of thing. We approve the different events that might happen, and all of that. It’s everyone’s responsibility to do this together. 

The membership has changed. We had a lot of faith-based organizations coming together at first and actually providing volunteers who would help at the parks programs to make sure there were a lot of adults, because we had no idea how many children would show up. They were there just in case they needed more hands on deck, to make sure everything would be very successful. 

Now we have different partners. We have the Evangelical Lutheran community, which is—the Lutherans are very strong in our area and they have a very robust outreach program. And, they’re at the table. And like I said, the Shakespeare group is at the table. The faith-based group has morphed more into backpack give-aways, and food distribution, and that kind of thing. They developed into a different area. We have the schools more involved than we did before. They’re doing educational events all year long, which is really, really helpful.

The University of Wisconsin teacher education group has committed twice as many students as they did before to do all year tutoring at the middle school next to the park, and that kind of thing. The membership has changed. Everybody’s still a member. But who is active, and who is not has changed a bit, as it should in a growing organization. This is our fourth summer that we just completed, so, pretty exciting.

Adriane:

Question #5: Very exciting. Please share with us the results of this project, and how are things going with the park today? 16:25 

Barb Brattin:

We, like I said, just finished up the fourth year and we have four different locations. What’s exciting about it is when we started talking about this—clearly because of the violence issue, we from the very beginning wanted to target the middle schoolers. That’s the age group that we knew was on the street, with nothing to do, and was getting into trouble and were very, very vulnerable to gangs.

That’s where we wanted to begin. The first couple of years we just couldn’t attract them to the parks programs that covered all age ranges. So, the Boys & Girls Club came out with a program from five to fifteen-year-olds. The fifteen-year-olds just didn’t really want to hang around with the five-year-olds in one building. So, that didn’t work very well.

This past summer was really where our vision became a reality when we decided that we would cluster a couple of the younger kid’s groups into one school, and then use the other funds to start a program just for the middle schoolers at the middle school. 

We held our breath, thinking, Oh, gosh will they come, will they come? Well, they did and they came consistently, and the energy and the engagement was fantastic. The Y was the one who brought the right leadership to the table, the right counselors. The kids are really engaged, and their capstone project, which the Y always requires, is some kind of community service. That capstone project was to engage around the issue of teen suicide, because enough of the kids’ friends had talked about suicide or actually committed suicide. That was such an emotional issue for them. They really wanted to do some education for their peers and help with that issue. So, we were super excited about that to be able to really reach that middle school group. 

Next summer we’ll be going into a fifth location, another middle school. We’re going to try and replicate that same program for the kids at that level. So hopefully, we’ll be reaching the group that needs it most right now, but also building up a strong program for the small ones so that when they reach that middle school they won’t be tempted by all the bad things out there, too.

Adriane:

Question #6: It’s such important work. In the video I saw about you getting this award. The mayor said that parents had thanked him and said, I think you kept my child out of gangs.

Barb Brattin:

Gangs at these big city levels—Kenosha’s about 100,000 people. But, we’re halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. A lot of bad activity comes together in the middle. There’s a lot of temptation. There’s a lot of poverty. Fifty percent of our kids of color are below the poverty line—a lot of residual effects of discrimination still here, yeah.

Adriane:

Question #7: This isn’t isolated. What would you recommend to other libraries that may want to duplicate this type of work? 19:46 

Barb Brattin:

I think that some libraries might shy away from doing something like this because they’re so focused on the day-to-day, they’re thinking, That’s not what libraries do. But, it is what libraries do because we have for a century or more. We’ve been the foundation, that community center, the foundation of the community. We build community. If this is one way, or whatever way your mayor asks you to lead, be the leader, don’t sit back and wait for somebody else. It’s those relationships that make us so strong. 

We already know people. We know who to connect. I was joking the other day. Just tell me what you need and I can connect you with somebody, or some organization, that I know. We find this to be true no matter where I work, or who’s on staff. There’s always somebody who says, Yeah, I know who does that, or I know who has that need, or  whatever. So, we’re the great connectors.

Adriane:

Question #8: Absolutely, and libraries have been doing that forever. Anything else you would like to add? 20:55 

Barb Brattin:

I always joked about being a social worker. I remember going to a conference a long time ago. We went around the room and said, Why are you a librarian? I talked about the social aspect, and he said, You should have been a social worker. I just blurted out, I am. At that time I was working a reference desk. Yeah, I mean, not quite a social worker—not exactly what they do, but we’re all in this together. What a powerful place we’re in, in libraries to improve our community.

Adriane:

Question #9: We are all in this together. Do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 21:36 

Barb Brattin:

I think the book that’s really always been my guiding light is actually about organizational development. It’s that book by Daniel Pink. Years ago he wrote this book called, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I’ve always used this wherever I go. My leadership is those three tenets that Daniel Pink talks about that motivate us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

To start with purpose, take a look around in your staff and figure out who doesn’t have purpose because, gosh, if you’re making widgets I can understand why you don’t feel the purpose of your work. But, if you’re not feeling the purpose of working in a public library no matter what role you play on staff, something’s really wrong [laughter]. Talk about purpose as much as you can by sharing your successes, your stories, who’s coming, how the library is changing their life. Making sure that everybody understands that no matter what role they’re playing, it’s really critical to what you’re doing. That purpose thing–it should be a given.

The other two—and I’ve seen this botched by so many leaders, is the autonomy piece. I guess this always speaks to me because I’m that person, the youngest child who didn’t want to be told what to do from day one. [laugher] So, give me autonomy and I’m happy, happy, happy. I’ve seen that struggle with managers saying, Here’s how to do it, and you have to do it in steps one, two, three in that order, and that’s how you have to do it. I think that sometimes, it is a big mistake. So, step back and make sure that you’re not providing oversight that’s unnecessary. Let people achieve things the way that they can, based on their strengths, right?

And then, mastery—I spent most of my career as a reference librarian. The worst feeling is when you have absolutely no idea what people are talking about, or what they’re asking for, or you’re incompetent because you can’t figure out how to use a database, or you don’t have the tools you need for whatever reason, because you weren’t provided the training, you didn’t take it upon yourself to train yourself. That feeling of incompetence is awful. It’s something that makes your life as a library staff person very uncomfortable. Mastery. Give people the opportunity to be good at what they do. Support their continuing education. Encourage them, and make it their responsibility as well to be good at what they do. 

So, that autonomy, mastery, purpose, if you follow those three tenets in leadership and provide that for your staff and nurture that in your staff, then you have a thriving organization.

Adriane:

Excellent tenets, and excellent leadership skills. I always like to say if you’re waiting to be somebody’s boss to think of yourself as a leader. Wait no more, because we all can step up to the plate with this. I really like that resource, so thank you for sharing.

Question #10: In closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 25:17 

Barb Brattin:

So many things, but my personality profile is, Myers-Briggs is INFJ, which makes me laugh when I look at it because what that means is I’m an optimistic advocate. There’s nothing I enjoy more, and nothing that makes me happier than inspiring someone to believe in themselves, and reach for their dreams. Whatever the dream that is. I’ve been pointed out as someone who will help someone become something that they can’t do at a library [laughter] you know? I will help people become an artist, or I guess that could be something that you could do at a library, but an auto mechanic if that’s what their dream is. Or, if they want to be a director somewhere else, I’m not going to do everything I can to keep them in my management team. They should reach for their dreams and I’m here to help them.

For me, a library is that place of limitless possibility. All the inspiration you need to live the life you are intended to live is inside a library. It’s not just the information, it’s the human story, that hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell talked about. That deep connection with that flawed hero, who must persevere. It’s the story of each of us as we face the challenges of life. 

Literature inspires us to be the hero that perseveres. What a wonderful role to play. The librarian who builds and nurtures that place of limitless possibilities. I can’t think of a better place for me.

Adriane:

An optimistic advocate. It sounds like you were perfect to do this work. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Barb Brattin:

Thank you for having me.

Adriane:

It’s been my pleasure. 

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 https://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.

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