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Community Learning Plaza

Denver Public Library, CO
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Innovation Summary

Community Learning Plazas are a starting point for anyone who wishes to develop strategies to pursue individual goals and engage with their community. This program combines multiple aspects of outreach, communication, information literacy and community engagement to help connect the library with immigrant populations throughout the Denver metropolitan area.

Innovation Leader: William Chan, Language and Learning Services Program Coordinator, wchan@denverlibrary.org

Problem Statement

As an urban library system serving immigrant populations, the Denver Public Library (DPL) uses targeted programming to create lifelong library customers. Our Plaza programs offer opportunities to alleviate some of the common struggles immigrants face on a daily basis. Many organizations in Denver provide an array of immigrant services. However, individuals are often overwhelmed or simply unaware of these organizations’ existence. Plazas not only promote the library’s own resources but also provide opportunities to connect with other organizations. Plaza programs collaborate with various service providers, from family resource centers like Focus Points, to cultural institutions like the Denver Art Museum (DAM). We work in tandem with our partners to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship, closing gaps and providing alternatives rather than replacing existing community services. Plazas create comfortable, intergenerational spaces that advance new conversation skills, complementing the more traditional classroom environment that Focus Points provides. Our collaboration with DAM increases immigrant access to an institution that may seem costly and intimidating to immigrant families. DPL offers families transportation from libraries across Denver to the museum in an annual Family Day event. A great introduction to the art world, this event further connects these families to the greater Denver community. We work alongside our partners towards similar goals, maximizing our collective resources to effectively serve immigrant communities.

Innovation

Plaza programs motivate individuals to become goal-oriented critical thinkers who translate their success from these programs into daily life. Plazas take an open, self-guided approach to programming, ideal for participants who may not fit formal educational institutions or who need support to complement activities from other adult service providers. It is a catered experience that matches participants’ own unique needs and demands. Immigrants bring a diverse set of skills and knowledge to our programs—one person’s perceived weakness is another’s strength. Much like the international plazas that inspired them, Plaza programs serve as centers of community activity, welcoming cross-cultural exchange between non-native and native-born populations. It is common to see more mature participants getting help from another generation as they practice skills and share stories. This intergenerational programming welcomes anyone, at any stage in life, to reconnect with personal goals, explore ideas, and strengthen confidence in their community. Participants use challenging resources to focus on individualized goals, from practicing English, to preparing for citizenship, finding a job, utilizing technology, or working on homework. Plazas also engage the arts to foster creativity and critical thinking, using a method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). DPL has adapted this technique, commonly used in schools and museums, as another tool to serve our community. Participants develop visual literacy skills as they describe what they see in an image. Research shows that by asserting their opinions and using evidence-based interpretations, VTS participants develop new communication skills. Participants show an increased confidence as their ideas are validated. They are then empowered to transfer these critical thinking skills to difficult situations in everyday life.

Progress

Immigrants face many challenges in pursuit of better futures, enhanced career opportunities, and an overall improved quality of life. Through intense research, DPL has adapted its services and developed unique programs to serve the needs of these groups. In Plaza programs, participants are given individualized support not afforded by many institutions, as they learn to set and achieve their goals and communicate more effectively. These diverse audiences develop a sense of belonging as they successfully establish themselves in their new communities. Plaza programs strengthen community bonds by introducing native-born individuals to changing neighborhood demographics and help integrate diverse residents into a new culture. We create a globalized community as we celebrate our different backgrounds. Since the program’s inception six years ago, attendance today has more than doubled, to over 22,000 participants annually, with the number of programs increasing by more than 57 percent. The success of our participant-driven approach is further evidenced by repeat visits; three out of four participants attend Plaza programs multiple times. Plaza staff members work one-on-one, or in small workgroups, with community members as they discover and explore their own potential. This process is intensely rewarding, not just for participants but for staff as well. All too often, programs designed to serve immigrant populations maintain a preaching mentality whereby knowledge is imposed onto this demographic regardless of need or desire. Conversely, the Plaza programs foster an intercultural network in which immigrants, native-born residents, and library staff equally contribute to a new creative community.