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Now is The Time

Chicago Public Library, IL
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Innovation Summary

Chicago Public Library partnered with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Facing History and Ourselves to create a citywide conversation around youth violence and intolerance. Through book discussions, digital engagement, exhibits and two original plays, CPL and its partners engaged more than 11,000 teens on how to stand up against injustice and violence.

Problem Statement

In 2009, following the videotaped beating death of a high school student, the Library was approached by Steppenwolf Theatre Company to partner in engaging the city’s youth to discuss the rising level of youth violence and intolerance. Given CPL’s reach into every Chicago community, the library was uniquely positioned to reach teens and adults in all communities to discuss the consequences of bullying, intolerance and violence as well as talk about possible solutions to these issues. Though the city’s neighborhoods have widely differing violence issues, all Chicagoans need to be a part of the conversation and invested in solving the problem. The Now Is The Time partnership offered an opportunity to bring together partners from various areas of engagement (theater, educational exhibits and the library) to create a forum for conversation and to encourage individuals and communities to work together to make positive changes.


CPL and its partners offered a myriad of ways for teens (and the wider public) to get involved in the discussion. Using CPL’s One Book, One Chicago selection, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief which Steppenwolf also adapted for the stage, we discussed the importance to standing up to intolerance; tours and events around FHAO’s exhibit “Choosing to Participate” at CPL celebrated stories of Upstanders, those who had the courage to speak out against injustice; and the world premiere of “How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence” which was presented at Steppenwolf and in eight neighborhood libraries, offered real life stories of the toll of youth violence on communities. The Chicago theater community created “Now Is The Time to ACT,” focusing more than 15 theater company seasons on the topic of violence as it affects Chicago youth. Collaboratively, these voices also attracted the attention of the media who helped the conversation grow throughout the city and the region - much larger than would have been possible if each organization had tackled the subject alone. Funding was provided by the Hive Chicago Learning Network through Smart Chicago Collaborative, a joint project of The Chicago Community Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the City of Chicago.


The largest lesson learned was one of shared voices. Because so many organizations were focused on delivering the same message, though in different ways, we were able to encourage more people to join in the conversation or at least to pay attention to the issue. With the library’s role as a community anchor, we were able to serve as “neutral ground” for many who came to talk about often difficult issues in their communities. We witnessed somewhat tense conversations between differing neighborhood groups during the discussions, but were encouraged when these same groups came together at the end of an event to share stories, names and even contact information. With such conversation comes responsibility. Because the emotions we were touching on were often raw, CPL arranged for social workers to be present at each neighborhood performance of “How Long Will I Cry” to provide personal support to individuals who had recently suffered violence related losses. The social workers were busy talking with teens and parents who had lost loved ones, as well as with a parent whose teen was on the verge of joining a gang.