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Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy

Public Libraries lead Public Conversations

Can we talk? -- a catch phrase of the late comedian Joan Rivers -- could prove an apt slogan to a group of librarians in Johnson County Library (JCL) who promote quality community conversations.  Ashley Fick, JCPL’s lead engagement librarian, is one of 64 staff who have taken public issues facilitation training from K-State’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy (ICDD) since 2013, and she puts it to work in a rich array of community programs and initiatives.  She and other staff make the most of a diverse calendar of events, planned and sometimes spontaneous, to make conversation a key part of their users’ takeaway from the libraries.

JCL staff from the Central Resource Library and its several branches have long been pro-active, as well as responsive to their public’s need for constructive conversation in a safe space.  Even before the “crisis of civility” became codified during election campaigns, JCL took the lead in hosting America Speaks  and National Issues Forums, allowing area residents to participate in events structured to generate exchanges of ideas, not shouting matches.  Interest in staff development in facilitation and applying models of discussion internally led the Library’s Learning and Development department to schedule a series of biannual workshops from ICDD.  Each successive workshop has included some new staff, but many return with requests for more skills development to meet new challenges.  Immediately following the 2014 shooting at a Jewish community center, JCL launched discussion forums to help the public learn what happened and share their thoughts about hate-crimes. The Library also featured a community dialogue following the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin verdict in 2013.

“The community discussion following the verdict from the trial of George Zimmerman was one of the most moving conversations I’ve had the privilege of leading. Community members discussed issues surrounding the justice system and race. Before the conversation everyone was stiff and nervous, but once the conversation concluded everyone continued chatting over cookies,” explains Ashley Fick.

A project that began with a book-talk with Tanner Colby, author of “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America” led to a coordinated high school bus tour of historically red-lined districts and shared lunch-time discussions of race, housing and education in the Kansas City region. The tour explores the story of segregation, integration, and the lasting effects of both in the Kansas City metro area. JCL recently received a grant funding the creation of guidebooks for the tour, which are forthcoming this fall. The Library is also working towards creating a version of the tour utilizing the app, Detour, which will become available for download in January or February of 2018.

“For many students this tour is the first time they learn the history of segregation in Kansas City and it’s often their first time visiting certain parts of the city. It’s also their opportunity to talk about race in a safe space with other young people,” states Ashley Fick.

This fall, JCL hosted a panel discussion exploring protest, which featured two local protest organizers, a professor of philosophy, and a police officer. On Wednesday, October 25th JCL is hosting a World Café discussion titled, “Civility and Civic Engagement,” to examine civility in politics and the local community. These days it is often easier to argue or unfriend than listen and seek common ground, JCL hopes that through a community dialogue we might help ourselves develop a deeper understanding of the “other side.” JCL will also host “Gather at the Table” on Tuesday, November 14th, in an effort to encourage relationships with community members who otherwise might never interact. The event should be good practice for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Civic Engagement team at JCL is also launching popup community conversations this fall. Ashley Fick states, “The popups will engage our community in conversations about current events and issues in a landscape where fewer and fewer people interact with people of different viewpoints.” Each popup will take place during high traffic times at libraries throughout the JCL system for two hour period of times and will engage anyone who happens to drop in. Topics planned for the fall include asking what every American should know, protest in America, and an exploration of fake news.

“Public programming in libraries is a natural bridge to facilitating certain types of group interaction, whether it begins with a book club, or an invited speaker or exhibit,” according to Donna Schenck-Hamlin, ICDD Projects Coordinator.  “The networking and creativity that Johnson County librarians devote to engaging the public in current issues is a model I think a lot of other public agencies could learn from.”