A recent report from America’s Promise Alliance looks at four communities who strove to expand opportunities for their underserved students. With support from the Ford Foundation, these communities leveraged local resources to expand opportunities in a variety of ways.
America’s Promise Alliance is an organization, founded in 1997 with the support from former Secretary of State Colin Powell and previous presidents: Nancy Reagan (standing in for her husband Ronald Reagan), Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. The organization strives to create places and situations for students to succeed.
Since ALA Mid-Winter was conveniently located in Chicago this January, I decided to make the trip and attend the conference on Saturday. I had been to professional conferences before, but all for writing centers, not libraries. My first thought upon walking into the conference center was the same familiar feeling I got in writing center conferences: a bunch of people who are all passionate about one thing: libraries. I always love the energy at conferences; the energy that helps renew your passions and reminds you why you do what you do day in and day out.
My focus at Mid-Winter was seeing how ALA and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation worked together to promote libraries to work with their communities to affect social change. They believe that public libraries should use their position in a community to help facilitate conversations that could lead to effective change. This is all under the ALA umbrella of Transforming Libraries. I was interested in these sessions because during my first semester in graduate school, I found myself drawn to and working with communities (both talking about community ideas in class and then working with a community for my assistantship). I’m currently taking a community engagement class and was interested to see Harwood’s spin on engagement.
After some freight congestion, I was able to attend two out of the four sessions: intentionality and sustaining yourself. Intentionality focused on the three As: authenticity, authority, and accountability. They wanted to make sure you deeply knew the community you were working with and followed through on promises. The final session, on sustaining yourself, focused on knowing personally what keeps you going (ways to destress and relax) and who you can talk to about frustrations and triumphs. Both sessions stressed small group discussion, which gave me the opportunity to meet other librarians (in all variety of roles). There was good discussion all afternoon however I left wishing I could have heard more from the pilot libraries who were coached by Harwood. Two different libraries gave short intros to start the sessions, but in five minutes, you can’t learn much about all the successes (and also the roadblocks).
In some ways, I felt out of my element at ALA. I was simply a student, one who didn’t have any long term experience in libraries. I could listen to conversations but sometimes felt I had nothing to add. However, at the same time, I got this great sneak peak into the professional world I’m preparing to jump with two feet into. Public libraries and communities are a big deal right now and if I can present a resume with experience in working with and for communities, then I help to separate myself from the rest of my peers competing for the job opening. What ALA and Harwood are picking up on isn’t a new concept — public libraries have been working with communities since they first began. These sessions serve as reminders that we as librarians are serving our community and should be an open, safe place to have tough conversations and conversations that begin to work towards social change.