I’ve let too much time go in between blog posts so now I have lots to say. Part of the reason is that my family moved in October to a new community after living for 13 years in Oak Park. I spent much of October getting settled and reflecting on what it means to be part of a community. What a perfect question to reflect on for a Community Engagement intern.
On October 25th, along with members of the SPL management team, many of us in the Community Engagement department went to a Harwood Institute workshop at Evanston Public Library. What’s the Harwood Institute? In a nutshell (and from their website), “The Harwood Institute teaches, coaches and inspires individuals and organizations to solve pressing problems and change how communities work together.” The workshop was led by Cindy Fesemyer, Director of the Columbus Public Library in Columbus, Wisconsin. Ms. Fesemyer spoke succinctly about how she came into the small town of Columbus as an outsider (from Madison) and has used Harwood tools to turn outward to the community in order to discover what it is that those who live and work there really want for their community. Hearing her process over the past couple years at Columbus Public Library was very inspirational and a great example of how the Harwood tools are effective in fostering community engagement.
The event was a great place to network with fellow community engagement librarians and library directors and it was a pleasure to go through some exercises on how we can begin to turn outward in our communities with like-minded colleagues. I found myself thinking about my move, our new community and the important role that our new library plays for our family. The library is my safety net in my new community, somewhere that I know I can go with my family and immediately feel included and familiar. We have already visited twice in 3 weeks and are planning on attending programming in the month of November.
On November 1st, I attended a session of the ESL cafe held in the Radmacher Room where I found over twenty patrons in attendance. They were from Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Ecuador, Nigeria, Romania, Taiwan, Syria and Iran- among others. Most of the students in the cafe were in their 50s – 70s but there were also a couple of women in their 20s and 30s and it was heartening to see them all together sharing the same purpose.
The structure of the meeting was for the students to introduce themselves by name, country of birth and how long they had been in Skokie. Some shared additional information- usually something completely endearing, such as the Nigerian gentleman who said he was here to visit his daughter (yet found himself at SPL in the ESL cafe!). After introductions, the patrons would pose a question to their neighbor. Some questions were, “What is your favorite holiday in the U.S.?” or “What do you like to do on the weekend?” Another student asked her neighbor “What do you like to cook?” It was so fun to hear the answers and to begin to get to know the participants through their replies. Some had better English speaking skills than others, some needed help translating and responding and it was nice to see them help each other, intuitively grouped together by language (not always by culture).
After the introductions and warm up questions, we broke into smaller groups discussions that were facilitated by volunteers from the ELL parent center. In these small groups, we took turns talking about a theme. The first centered around making friends with questions such as “How do you meet new people?” and “How can you make new friends?” One of the women in my small group is a recent widow and she talked about how hard it has been to get out of her home since her husband died. Another woman in my group was from Syria. She has only been in Skokie for a short time and speaks Syrian, Arabic and Kurdish. She is at the very beginning stages of learning English and told us that how she passes her day with her Syrian friend. They cook, go to church, go to Walmart and then come home to cook and do it all over again the next day. She smiled and laughed as she told us her routine. I felt very humbled sitting in a small group with women from around the world, telling me in a second, third or fourth language what they are doing to meet people in Skokie, their second, third, fourth or who knows what number home. While I have been grieving the community we left behind and slowly opening up to a new community, I had everything to learn from these cafe goers. It was a transformative exercise for me.
I have also had the great pleasure of going to a couple daycare centers to read stories, sing songs and champion our library to toddlers and preschoolers throughout the community. Even as young as 2 and 3 years old, these younger learners recognize our library and love to share what they enjoy most when they come to visit. I have really had fun finding my rhythm (in storytelling and in singing songs in front of a crowd) and bringing happiness in stories, songs and movements to toddlers and preschoolers. Reading stories to children and hearing what they love about the library is an amazing feeling.
On November 4th I took part in a family event called “Celebrate Space.” The purpose of the event was to do just that- as well as to teach kids, teens and adults something new about space through hands on activities and crafts. I signed up for the event what feels like 87 weeks ago, but according to my email archives it was only September 12th. Aside, this event title reminded me of “Space is the place” by Sun Ra, a film I’ve been meaning to watch for about 22 years.
Coming into the library on a Saturday was new to me as I work during the day, Tuesday and Wednesday. I enjoyed meeting patrons at my galaxy pinwheel station, where we cut, punched holes and assembled pinwheels to resemble one of the pinwheel galaxies that loom 21 million light years away. The craft was a fun way to get to interact with patrons and to see the beautiful faces of our youngest. It was also an exercise in planning for youth programs. Amy K. and Amy H. were great mentors in getting this off the ground, and I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t work for a massive audience. I’m not sure if I would do this exact activity again as the construction of the pinwheel was very delicate and maybe too advanced for younger kids. Lesson learned!
As I drive away from my new community and toward my academic year adoptive city of Skokie, I reflect on the meaning of community and how I will serve SPL patrons during each shift. Even if it’s not home, and even though it might be 1 light year away from my new home, I find ways to reflect as well as look outward on the meaning of community daily, and feel that perhaps my current situation has made me more aware of just how special a place a library can be to the community.