ALA Midwinter 2013: Learning to Transform Communities One Panel Discussion at a Time

“The conversation starts out in Seattle” turns out to have been far more than an ephemeral marketing slogan for those of us lucky enough to attend even part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting that ran from Friday, January 25 – Tuesday, January 29; it was an inspiring call to action that extends far beyond the conference site and the libraries represented there.

ALA_Midwinter_2013We had plenty of opportunities to catch up with colleagues, reflect upon how easy it is to explore and act upon the big ideas that we so rarely take the time to ponder, and be present at numerous activities focused on an effort to promote positive change through collaboration in our extended onsite-online world: ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s presidential initiative, “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.”

The interactive presentations began Saturday morning with a panel discussion that Sullivan moderated. Panelists included Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation; Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County United Way; and Carlton Sears, past director at Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County and certified coach with the Harwood Institute—and it only took a few minutes for Harwood to get us going by reminding us that to move our country forward, we need to find ways in communities to get things done.

Furthermore, he suggested, we need to restore a sense of belief in ourselves and forge the sort of meaningful relationships that foster positive change at the local, regional, and national level. Libraries, he continued, are uniquely positioned to support community development—an idea we’ve seen repeatedly in reports ranging from the Urban Libraries Council study “Making Cities Stronger” (2007) and the “benefit study” published by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library that same year to the resources compiled online by Iowa Library Services, to cite just a few of the resources available to us. Libraries across the country are already doing great work, he acknowledged, and there’s room to do even more.

Sears was equally direct in praising libraries for what they are accomplishing, and stressed the need for “authentic” engagement within the communities they serve. Involvement, he said, begins with a simple question: “What kind of community do you want?” Because work done by community activists tends to spread, he said he thinks of is “as a virus—but a good one!”—and he seemed committed to nurturing the spread of that particular virus.

In the end, Harwood agreed, we’re all in this because we believe in communities, and it’s clear that attendees at that initial session were ready to return home after the conference concluded so they could use the tools and resources provided during the Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities sessions.

Harwood--Work_of_HopeSullivan, Harwood, and the other panelists left us with plenty of great resources; those interested in exploring his work can access a free online version of his book The Work of Hope: How Individuals Can Authentically Do Good from the Harwood website. There is also additional coverage of the panel discussion available in American Libraries online. Three other onsite programs continued the discussion: “Community Engagement Conversation: The Work of Hope”; “Community Engagement Conversation: Appreciative Inquiry—The Library in the Community”; and “Community Engagement Conversation: Change in the Community, Change in ALA.”

Abundant Community advocate Peter Block was also onsite for a program drawing upon Community: The Structure of Belonging, the book he co-wrote with John McKnight.

The groundwork has been laid, the challenge issued. Now it’s up to those of us inspired by Sullivan, Harwood, Block, and the others to spread the word, dive in as advocates, and help nurture the promise that libraries and other community-based organizations and initiatives offer.

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