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A Conversation about Sandy Hook

Johnson County Library, KS
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Innovation Summary

On January 10th, 27 days after the Sandy Hook shooting, the Johnson County Library hosted 94 community members to come together to listen and share their initial reactions of shock and helplessness, current questions, and next steps they would individually commit to taking in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Problem Statement

Joco1) An increasingly polarized civic life. Most of us, most of the time, are surrounded by like-minded individuals. We read and watch news that agrees with us ideologically. We filter our Facebook walls. We are forgetting how to respectfully engage with those with whom we disagree and work together to build consensus. Public libraries are neutral community spaces where we can come together to discuss the real, hard, and difficult issues that are too big, too divisive, or too controversial for any one of us to solve on our own. 2) Quick turnaround civic engagement. Thoughtful preparation and careful structuring are hallmarks of civic engagement. Historically, Johnson County Library deliberative forums were planned 6 months in advance. Active conversations about topics like Sandy Hook happen in the space of days and weeks not months. SOPA (the Stop Online Privacy Act) was Google’s 7th most popular search for 2012, peaking in March. By our September 11th National Issues Forum on internet privacy though, community interest had substantially declined. 3) Neutrality in emerging conversations. In the weeks following Sandy Hook, many argued that to even set a topic such as gun safety for discussion was to take a side. How could we do a quick turnaround event and preserve neutrality? Was it possible to come to consensus so soon after Sandy Hook?


1) Library as host. Past civic engagement event evaluations taught us that attendees were most likely to turn out when library staff had personally invited them to an event. Johnson County Library worked conscientiously to invite stakeholders from across the spectrum on the issues surrounding Sandy Hook. These emails, phone calls, and visits resulted in our largest civic engagement event ever with 94 in attendance including police chiefs, fire chiefs, sheriffs, psychiatrists, mental health advocates, PTA presidents, principals, ministers, teachers, students, gun advocates, libertarians, republicans, democrats, moms, dads, those who had lost family members to gun violence, and hate groups. 2) Internal moderation. Past program evaluations taught us to do quick turnaround civic engagement events we needed a core of internal moderators as an alternate to outside contractors. Our trainers and civic engagement stakeholders worked to target, train, and support these staff, providing structured practice opportunities with progressive responsibility. 3) Script & I Will cards Library staff wrote the event script for A Conversation about Sandy Hook to use focused questions to let participants share initial reactions, set the topics for discussion themselves, and then choose one action, based on their beliefs, they would personally commit to do to make their communities safer. Instead of the traditional group consensus, patrons wrote these individual actions on “I Will” cards to take home. These cards, developed in response to the too common feeling of “now what” at the end of a forum, have proved both popular and powerful with participants going on to fulfill these actions- from starting a marble club to encourage kids to interact face to face to holding the forum for their PTAs.


A Conversation about Sandy Hook is both our highest attendance and quickest turnaround civic engagement event as a library. It was the first such dialogue in the nation. The impact of the event continues to be felt in our local community and the larger civic engagement community. A gallery of "I Will" cards from participants can be found at http://on.fb.me/Y32A4Y. That night’s dialogue inspired a patron and Johnson County Foundation member to start a series of more than a dozen marble clubs: http://bit.ly/14K7UkR. Another participant in the Sandy Hook forum we hosted for staff the day before started a blog to write stories of everyday heroes in response to sensationalized media coverage of the event. A Parent Teacher Association president brought the program back to her group to foster this communication. Public safety officers of all ranks listened to their communities’ concerns, shared resources, and brought back the questions and concerns to their fellow officers. Another participant is working on starting local gun safety awareness classes. Above all else, patrons and groups from all backgrounds came together as a community to have the hard discussions we were already having around our kitchen tables, on our Facebook walls, and in line at school while waiting to pick up our kids. A Conversation about Sandy Hook informed and engaged our community, and those we serve no longer saw themselves as helpless or each other as stereotypes.