2017 ULC Annual Forum Recap

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ULC members gathered in the Twin Cities, hosted by Saint Paul Public Library and Hennepin County Library to focus on Leading in a Democracy. The conference opened with Saint Paul Deputy Mayor Christine Beckman, who welcomed attendees to Saint Paul and spoke of city leaders’ commitment to racial equity. Deputy Mayor Beckman stated, “We are doing hard and intentional work through the public library including conversations on police violence and race relations.” 

Susan Benton, ULC president and CEO, then opened the Annual Forum saying, We are coming together at a difficult time and there is a sense of risk in leading in a democracy. It is a really powerful sentence. We all have been very fortunate to live in a democracy and it is a system predicated on opportunity and optimism.”

Keynote Speakers

Peter MacLeod, co-founder and principal of MASS, was the first key note speaker.  He said, “When I am in the company of librarians, I know I am in the company of radicals. You are audacious and fundamentally democracy is an audacious proposition. Democracy is under pressure. Libraries have to be a primary engine of democratic practice.”

The top points Peter MacLeod spoke of were:

  • Democracies are fundamentally learning societies and libraries must go from organizing knowledge to organizing communities.
  • We need every public library to be a center for civic dialogue to build consensus around the important issues as well as create new spaces and new tables for citizens.
  • It is audacious just to ask people to serve. Choose people who represent the whole community. Work on a real problem like housing, privacy, healthcare and finance.

Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, then spoke of civic power.  “We talk a lot about civic engagement, which happens because you are a public space. Activating civic power is something different and it is your job. You are a power station. Libraries can create civic power.”

Liu’s steps for creating civic power are:

  • Change the game. Shift our mindset from serving to empowering people as participants and invite into the act of making the experience.
  • Change the story. Shift people’s thinking from being outsiders to being insiders. Help people to gain power from a driver’s license to being the first in family through college or to join the middle class. Help people to see themselves as insiders.
  • Change the equation. Power is exponential. People are authors of their community and can make accessible the language of power. The underserved are the uninvited and we have to invite into power, knowledge and capital.

Government Alliance on Race and Social Equity Workshop

Gordon Goodwin, GARE Midwest regional project manager, led a workshop focused on race and social equity. Goodwin spoke of the history of public policy that has created racial inequity, including the Social Security Act, which did not include the primarily minority professions of farm and domestic workers, reinforcing social segregation. Goodwin said, “Through most of the history of our country, government has created policies to create racial inequality. After the social changes demanded in the civil rights movement, we became race ‘neutral’ and not by acknowledging the issues. The actual issues were never called out."

The key concepts presented by Goodwin were:

  • Equality and Equity. An example is equal facilities at a sporting event but what is the experience like – always a line for women – twice as long – the experience is vastly different.
    • Equality is resources
    • Equity is access to opportunity
    • When we focus on those most disadvantage we improve life for all of us. An example is handicapped accessible curbs and opening doors which are a product of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We must ensure that race does not predict one’s success and do this in ways that improve outcomes for everyone.
    • Bias - we all carry bias
      • Explicit bias is a case for a lawsuit and bad press.
      • Implicit biases are practices that have negative impact on people of color.
      • Types of racism
        • Individual racism
        • Institutional racism
        • Structural racism
Other key reflections from Leading in a Democracy include:
  • Rich Reyes Gavlin, executive director of the District of Columbia Public Library noted, “The core promise of free and open access to information is not enough. There is a passivity to the idea we open the doors and whoever uses us does. It is our problem who can and who cannot use us.”
  • Gordon Goodwin of GARE said, “If we look at demographics around income and health and housing, we risk a majority of country being unable to access to equitable education, income and housing.”
  • Rhea Brown Lawson, director of libraries, Houston Public Library said, “We cannot be neutral. The nation is looking at Houston to learn how to be a majority minority city.”
  • Jane Eastwood, director of the Saint Paul Public Library said, “The city has racial equity plans and goals for every city department. In Saint Paul we have learned it is about leadership, urgency, structure and accountability and reporting.”
  • Bo Thao-Urabe, founder and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, said, “In my teens the library was a trusted place where we could gather and yes, rebel. It was in the library I began to form ideas of how I wanted to see women and girls treated.”
  • Vickery Bowles, city librarian, Toronto Public Library, added, “Global migration is the challenge of our age. Libraries’ core values include being an inclusive safe space in your neighborhood, a connection to institutions and sanctuaries for immigrants and refugees to start their new life.”

David Seleb, executive director of Oak Park Public Library, shared final reflections and the importance of moving from engagement to empowerment, saying, “Public libraries are the engine of democratic power and practice that builds communities and bridges to people left out. Together, we can face a shared history of oppression and help our communities understand equity means better outcomes for all. As the most trusted and beloved institutions, we have the moral capital to do lead this work.”