A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the importance of equality. But what does equality really mean in the context of a community partnership?
Mostly, it means power sharing. Because when we library folk enter into a partnership, particularly a micropartnership with a small, grassroots organization, there will almost always be an imbalance of power that favors the library.
I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but generally, public libraries are respected organizations. They are highly visible to funders and politicians. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) more or less who we are and what we do. Grassroots orgs, on the other hand, may have less name recognition in the community at large.
Also, libraries have mad bank–relatively speaking. As thinly stretched as we often feel (and are), libraries usually have at least some small degree of budget stability. We have assets like buildings, which tend to come equipped with computers, meeting rooms, and at least a couple of people to staff them. Our partners, on the other hand, may be working with shoestring budgets, few (if any) full-time paid staff, and a whole host of other constraints on their time and resources that are not necessarily visible to us.
And more often than not, the staff who are leading the partnerships on the library’s side are white, middle class folk (like me)—in other words, part of the dominant culture.
In order to make our partnerships truly equal, we have to make it easy for grassroots organizations to work alongside us. That means conscious power-sharing on our part. It’s up to us to create the time and space for partners to tell us what their organization and their clients need out of the partnership to make it worthwhile for them. And then of course, it’s up to us to deliver what they’ve asked for–or to be up front about why we can’t.
We also have to be serious about sharing our concrete resources: budgets, staff time, building space, marketing channels, and more. It’s not enough to show up to a grassroots organization and offer a few resources that are easy for us to deliver, or to occasionally reach out to community groups to ask for feedback on an existing plan. Partners should be working with us to create the plan.*
After all, these orgs are helping us do something that would be incredibly difficult or even impossible without them: provide quality library services to the communities they work with. Community-based orgs are well-known and well-trusted in those communities in a way the library often isn’t, and may never be.
For example, think about how difficult and expensive it would likely be to use a traditional marketing campaign to reach a population of underserved immigrants in your town. Or to convince low income teens to come to a drop-in digital literacy workshop.** By working with community partners, you can reach those audiences at their point of need. Working together, you can create services that are tailored to their specific interests and goals.
When you look at that way, an investment in micropartnerships starts to look like a screaming bargain.
* A non-profit leader in my city has a great and also very funny blog post addressing this issue from the community-based org’s point of view. I highly recommend taking a look.
**If teens in your area would show up for a digital literacy workshop on their own time and without incentive, please know that they are magical and should be treasured.