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Session Notes: Better Together – Civic Engagement and Civic Dialogues

This is the first of a series of Session Notes from grantees who have received Professional Development grants. Each grantee will share their professional development experience and include tips and other resources from the workshop or class.  This project was made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Leah Rudolph
Leah Rudolph, Director, Abington Community Library




Leah Rudolph attended several sessions at PLA in Colorado that addressed the priorities of the Professional Development grants.  This is the first of several of her session notes from the conference.

Better Together: Civic Engagement and Civic Dialogues
Session Notes

Are you AT the table in your community or are you the table?

More and more we find ourselves living in, and serving, diverse communities. This session provided food for thought on how we can reach out to those diverse populations and become more inclusive of them and aware of what they have to offer the rest of us, drawing us together instead of apart.

Kristie Zappie Ferradino reported on THE HOW TO and THE WHY of Civic Dialogues. WE are trusted; WE have space for meetings. WE have resources and access to information.

According to the Urban Libraries Council there are five leadership roles for Libraries for engagement in a community including:

  • Civic Educator – raising awareness of civics, civic engagement, and civic responsibility.
  • Conversation starter – Libraries can be the place to have tough, community discussions, such as the Libraries in    Baltimore did after the shootings. Opening doors for shelter in the event of a disaster. Conducting forums on Internet piracy, etc. ESL programs and cultural awareness opportunities. Teaching digital literacy skills to the community.
  • Community Bridge – Bringing diverse people – including local government officials – and organization with different perspectives together to build stronger communities.
  • Visionary – leading efforts to develop a broad and inclusive community vision.
  • Center for Democracy in Action – walking, talking, thinking, and acting, as the place where democracy, civic engagement, and public discourse happen.

Much more can be found at the Urban Libraries site located at:

Diana Brawley Sussman’s told how her stepson got involved in the OCCUPY movement and, while that was happening, there was a mask exhibit being held at a local college. The masks depicted diverse faces watching one another, representative of the diverse points of view, which gave her the idea to resurrect THE 11 DAYS OF PEACE, which addresses alternatives to conflict.

Diana reported there are fantastic community engagement resources located at  She used Karen Armstrong’s TWELVE STEPS to A COMPASSIONATE LIFE and the grant to sponsor 11 DAYS OF COMPASSION with 11 programs in 11 days, with the Southern Illinois University (SIU) masks as a visual. A growing awareness of compassion and a growing collection of masks were displayed in the libraries. They also created flags of compassion. They won an ALA award for excellence in library programs.

She posted a slide that gave the steps on how they organized 11 Days and a list of program hosts and some program examples. This is how to organize 11 Days (in a nutshell): – Maintain a listserv. – Call a meeting to decide on dates, theme and focus. – Solicit programs via email, word of mouth, meetings, and advertising. – Use an online survey to collect program proposals. – Meet to approve programs. – Gather and distribute program schedule on website, brochures, press releases, and advertising. – Each sponsor promotes the full schedule as well as their own programs.

Try to reach every community sector. Program hosts have included:

• Local United Nations Association • Local Peace Coalition • Interfaith Council • Local businesses • City Human Relations Commission • Park District • Boys & Girls Club • Student Service Organizations • Veterans groups • Keep Carbondale Beautiful (Nonviolent Carbondale Co-Chair) • SIU Civic Soul / Imagining Geographies (Nonviolent Carbondale Co-Chair)

Programs have included: • Community forums • Documentary screenings • Art projects & exhibits • Author visits • Book discussions • Story time • Hunger Sale (giant annual yard sale fundraiser) • Book discussions • Poverty simulator game • Newspaper insert publication

Libraries could consider highlighting regular community events (such as annual fundraisers for other social service providers) and incorporate related library programming at the events or at the library itself. Bring in people with disabilities, veterans, police, etc., to speak one-on-one with others.

They continue to co-chair Nonviolent Carbondale. Nobel Peace Prize nominee John Dear came to Carbondale in 2015 for the event. He’s started a Nonviolent Cities project, inspired by Nonviolent Carbondale. You can go to the site for step-by-step instructions located. The site is located at

They also work with the Sparrow Coalition, located at site, do a series of community forums on poverty at the library, and run a social work intern program in partnership with the SIU School of Social Work. Their interns assist clients with finding affordable housing and jobs and work with their clients at the Library.

A library may offer to… Gather information (maintain a listserv; create online surveys to gather program proposals and feedback). Distribute information (post program schedules online & in brochures; press releases; listserv communication; Maintain project website; Host community forums; provide a venue for social work interns). Offer leadership to keep conversations going (co-chair meetings, etc.). Write grants. Provide some programsBe a venue for exhibits and programs hosted by other organizations.

Libraries are vital community leaders: show up for the opportunity, say yes whoever possible and appropriate, figure out what the Library can offer, and you can make the ‘big picture’ happen.

Amita Lonial, Skokie Public Library reported on her civic engagement series called VOICES OF RACE. They do an annual COMING TOGETHER event, with the goal to build community building through literature and programming. Over 40% of their community is foreign born. They work with schools, organizations, and community leaders, with many events that brought in over 8,000 participants. They measured impact with this Civic Engagement survey:

·     Do you feel more knowledge about race /racism?
·     Were your eyes opened to an issue you didn’t know about?
·     Did the event inspire you to take action?

What made this series so successful? Success was due to partnerships and design of the process. They had a large steering community representative of the community who helped shape the programs to be offered. Many foreign communities were represented.

The Library offered books discussions for books such as Indivisible: Poems For Social Justice and “Black, White, Other: In Search Of Nina Armstrong.

Their programming was planned for children through adult. For example, they center their entire winter reading program around the books selected and encouraged participants to not only read but do five things relevant to the program.

How do you get people in the door to become comfortable with uncomfortable discussions or of diverse people? They created public and private opportunities for discussion, including material for family discussion at home.

They created a project based on the RACE CARD project Patrons were encouraged to write / draw / collage their impressions of race. They included a START A CONVERSATION sheet with a suggestion to cut apart the cards and use them, with helpful prompts, for starting a discussion.

Another festival idea can be accessed at the site

You can do as much or as little as you want! Start trying and start the conversations in YOUR community!

Submitted by: Leah Ducato Rudolph, MLIS, Abington Community Library, Clarks Summit, PA


Information from the Conference:
Better Together: Civic Engagement and Civic Dialogues
Is your library leading an engaged and empowered citizenry? Does your library tackle social justice inequities, solve problems, increase voting, and participate in social and civic organizations? Perhaps you are already at that table, or maybe you are the table where folks gather. Discover how a 21st century library is a cornerstone of democracy, and become inspired by achievable projects happening nationwide. Find out the secret of reaching politicians and government officials to create sustainable change.

At the end of this session, participants will:
1: Recognize the important role public libraries play in civic engagement and dialogue for your unique community.
2: Learn how to make Civic Engagement engaging by following projects, exhibits, and interactive programs as models.
3: Become empowered and motivated to take action within your community.


Miriam Anderson Lytle, Gail Borden Public Library District, Elgin, IL
Miriam Anderson Lytle, MLIS and PLA Leadership Academy graduate is Community Services & Program Development Division Chief for Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, one of Illinois largest library districts. Miriam oversees Branch Services (Rakow and South Elgin), Library on the Go (ReaderShip, Education, Life Enrichment, Home Services), Hispanic Services, Public Programs, Community and Civic Engagement, 21st Century Readers Advisory, grants and special projects. Miriam is a 2016 PLA Program Liaison in Denver.

Urban Libraries Council
Susan Benton is President and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), a membership organization of leading public libraries in North America. With a network of the top library executives in the United States and Canada, ULC articulates the strategic role public libraries serve for strengthening their community in economic and workforce development, learning and education, citizen engagement, health and public safety.

Diana Brawley Sussman, Director, Carbondale Public Library, Illinois
Diana Brawley Sussman is the Director of the Carbondale Public Library, and co-chair of Nonviolent Carbondale, a coalition that organizes and supports activities that foster nonviolent and compassionate interactions in the community ( She is also on the steering committee for the Sparrow Coalition, a community partnership addressing issues of homelessness and poverty in Southern Illinois ( Her library partners with Southern Illinois University to place an MSW social work intern in the library.

Amita Lonial, Learning Experiences Manager, Skokie Public Library, Illinois

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