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The Library’s Unique Role in Reimagining Public Safety

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Image courtesy of Cities United

Authored by Anthony Smith, Executive Director, Cities United

Like millions of others, I have a special relationship with our public libraries. It’s a relationship grounded in trust, comfort and opportunity. Outside of my family and the church, the library has been one of the most constant institutions in my life — one that I know will always be there when I need a space to imagine what’s possible.

Because libraries are trusted, provide comfort and show us what’s possible, they are uniquely positioned to help our country reimagine public safety.

With the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and many others who have been murdered or harmed by our current public safety structures, people are looking for a safe place to talk about their pain and imagine a new way forward.

There is no better place than our libraries — where we go to get information, learn new things, dream and feel safe — to help us reimagine a new way and redefine public safety for centuries to come.

As we put together our Reimagining Public Safety framework of disrupting the cycle of violence, dismantling systems of inequities and investing in the new models of public safety, institutions like the library were at the forefront of our hearts and minds. When we talk about reimagining public safety, we do not focus on law enforcement, jails and detention centers; we focus on the spaces, places and systems that keep us all safe, healthy and hopeful.

The pandemic allowed many benefiting from our current structures to slow down and take an honest look at our systems’ impacts on Black and brown communities. The injustices that have been clear to many became more apparent to others. We need spaces, like libraries, that will provide honest assessments of where we are while providing clear guidance on how to move forward.

Libraries must realize that they are those trusted spaces and must prepare to provide honest assessments using all the tools and resources at their disposal.

Librarians must prepare themselves to be the guides needed to help redesign our new public safety structures. Libraries and librarians in cities and counties everywhere play a pivotal role in creating safe, healthy and hopeful communities. By actively engaging community members and intentionally elevating the critical conversations necessary for real change, libraries can lead from the forefront of the movement.

Here are some suggestions for actionable ways a library can advance this work:

  • Engage with local elected officials so they utilize your expertise and recognize the significance of libraries as a universal safe space.
  • Host a series of public safety town hall meetings, ensuring a variety of voices are at the table in the planning and implementation, especially young people and community members most impacted by violence.
  • Create intergenerational social justice book clubs and/or conversation groups.
  • Share resources around reimagining public safety on your website.
  • Share resources specifically in the communities most impacted by violence and invite them to share their resources — the people, history, ideas — with you.
  • Encourage Black and brown youth to become librarians.

We need your insight now; we need your ideas and access to knowledge to help ensure every community is safe, healthy and hopeful.

Cities United is a national network of 130 cities committed to reducing the epidemic of homicides and shootings among young Black men and boys ages 14 to 24 by 50% by 2025. For more information visit www.citiesunited.org.

Anthony D  Smith Headshot 2019

Anthony Smith

Executive Director, Cities United

Anthony D. Smith leads Cities United, a national mayor-led initiative focused on eliminating violence in American cities related to Black men and boys. Before joining Cities United, Anthony led the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods for the City of Louisville under Mayor Greg Fischer. Anthony earned his bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University. Throughout his professional career, he has made a priority of creating positive outcomes for youth and cultivating up and coming leaders.