Springfield City Library, MA
Since 2000, there have been more than 215 murders in Springfield. Many involve gun violence. The causes are varied—often tied to the drug economy or domestic violence—but the effects are the same. Every victim is someone’s child, and each act of violence strains the fabric of our community. The Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts launched a community-wide art project inspired by Tibetan prayer flags called “Creating a Peace-full City: Our Community Responds to Violence.” The Library was asked to participate by making these “peace flags” available at branches, so that residents could converse, create, and reflect on what makes a city peaceful. The Library had recently established a Civic and Community Engagement Team, with the goals of strengthening strategic partnerships, deepening the library's role as a community anchor institution, and empowering patrons as local and global citizens. We decided to use our work with the Interfaith Council as a starting point for our initial “Springfield Speaks” programming series. We needed to get team members thinking outside of typical library programming strategies (consulting a list of performers/speakers, bringing in outsiders to speak); we needed to tap into local expertise; and we needed to show the public that the library is a safe, neutral, community gathering place that fosters discussion, learning, and change; and we needed to help change the perception of our city.
Instead of simply implementing the Council‘s Peace Flag creation kits, the Civic and Community Engagement Team planned, with community input, a series of programs to get people talking about what a Peaceful City means. Flag kits were distributed to all branches. Families and individuals talked about peace and decorated the cloth with words and images that evoked their visions. Patrons participated during drop-in crafts, storytimes, teen programs, or book discussion groups. We have long partnered with human services agencies; we seized this opportunity to establish the Library as a place offering valuable training to these professionals, and contracted with a mediation center to offer in-depth Nonviolent Communication classes (based on Marshall Rosenberg’s work) that some participants called “life-changing.” The Springfield Police Department is a key player in peace-making, so we engaged the Police Commissioner early in the planning process. His initial concerns about tensions between police and the public were assuaged as the project’s goals became clear. He paid officers to attend our family Harvest Festivals, offering trick-or-treating alternatives and a chance to speak with neighborhood police on neutral turf. He also agreed to take part in a culminating panel discussion. We drew on community connections and tapped into what was buzzing on social media to round out the program calendar. While attending a meeting of the Mayor’s City-Wide Anti-Violence Taskforce, we met the Neighborhood Watch coordinator and arranged for sessions on getting started with that program. At a World Refugee Day film screening, we met an asylum seeker from Rwanda who has a degree in Conflict Management. She facilitated a brown-bag discussion, as did a recently-retired Marine who served in Afghanistan and Bosnia.
Our goal was 500 participants; we drew 1,265! Varied programs were key to our success. Springfield is the home of Smith & Wesson, and it was important to engage the company about our programs and intentions. Ultimately, they referred two certified firearms instructors to us who offered gun safety workshops. An Open Mic night gave teens an opportunity to participate by performing moving spoken word poetry, and reenacting a scene from a locally-written play examining the impact of gun violence on the families of both victim and perpetrator. The panel discussion that completed our programming cycle brought in a minister who published a book about how guns and faith intersect. Community panelists included a spoken word poet, a commercial real estate manager, a community organizer, and the Police Commissioner. We included people of diverse perspectives, ages and backgrounds in order to represent our community. Our moderator was from our local PBS station. Recurring themes were the lack, among some, of love and compassion in the city. An exciting outcome of that discussion was the audience coming together to ask, “Now what?” What emerged was the “We Are Springfield” campaign encouraging pride in positive aspects of the community, using video, social media, and partnerships to connect residents with available local resources and encourage people to live, work, and play in Springfield. Another outcome was a photo exhibit, excerpted on our video submission, in which strangers became friends by posing together. Initial awkwardness turned to warm camaraderie, laughter, and even budding friendships.