Listening to a recording of R. David Lankes’s “The Faithful and the Radicals” over the weekend felt like going to church. It’s inspirational. Transformative. And steeped in a sense of the divine. It is the sort of plea for community, collaboration, and action that runs consistently from the earliest seminal public presentations of our history through a continuum that includes more recent efforts including Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity in October 2010.
Although “Faithful and Radicals” is ostensibly about school librarians, libraries, and the society-shaping roles they play and need to play in the extended communities they serve, it’s really far much more than that. If we are at all interested in the present and future of our communities—and who among us can afford not to be?—Lankes’s thoughts can’t help but touch and move us.
He is, as always, funny. (Who else would jokingly threaten to slash the tires on our cars if we spend more time creating booklists and pages full of links to online resources that soon will be broken than fulfilling our potential to contribute to the success of our communities?) Engaging. (The positive reactions to what he says are audible throughout the recording.) Radical (in the complex, multifaceted way that the word “radical” in its varying definitions implies: foundational, rooted, fundamental, and cool as well as extreme). Visionary. (His proposed mission statement for librarians—“The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities”—flows right off the pages of The Atlas of New Librarianship into “The Faithful and the Radical.”) Poignant. And humble. (He actually pokes fun at his own title for the presentation, commenting on how it could serve equally well as the name of a PBS production or a soap opera.) Above all, he’s obviously an incredibly talented teacher-trainer-learner—as I learned while participating in his New Librarianship Master Class (a massive open online course) and writing extensively about it last year. And all of those attributes combine to make him the sort of mover and shaker who keeps the world alive, vibrant, dynamic, thinking, and smiling—which is, in itself, a point worth lingering over momentarily, for it wasn’t at all clear a year ago that he would still be with us. He has openly, painfully, and beautifully, via his blog, chronicled his experiences with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he begins “Faithful and Radicals” by noting that it’s his first major public presentation since undergoing stem cell transplants.
But that’s just the backdrop to much of what he accomplishes with “Faithful and Radicals.” His starting point is something every one of us needs to remember: that all of us—regardless of profession, interests, values, and experiences—has moments in which our faith is severely tested and doubts can become overwhelming. With that in mind, he recalls a recent, personal crisis of faith in which he asked himself why he continues to remain part of the group fighting to assure that libraries—and, more importantly—librarians (which, as I’ve written many times before, are our close allies in training-teaching-learning, and vice versa) are supported and that they are active participants in shaping their communities.
When all is said and done, the answer was quite simple. He decided that the strong role librarians play in serving communities—similar to the role I see any great trainer-teacher-learner playing—is so overwhelming powerful that he was “unwilling to be part of those who stood by and destroyed something I loved. Ultimately, the decision was, ‘I have a limited time on this Earth, and I’m going to use it to build up and be part of what I believe in because I have faith…that this stuff works. I have faith that we improve people’s lives. I have faith in you.”
It’s far more than the oft-quoted mission to support reading, he noted, adding that he actually hates the pervasive libraries-support-reading promotions because libraries and librarians promote so much more that is essential to learning, community-building, and creativity.
“Working with kids on an interest of theirs to develop an interest of theirs…this gets a big big big happy smiley face,” he reminds us as he moves us into a deeper, richer exploration of what it means to play leadership roles in our communities through libraries or any other significant learning organization. “It’s about using resources to learn, to improve, to build knowledge,” and to help prepare learners for their roles as “stewards of this world.”
The current movement to support the creation and growth of makerspaces within libraries, he suggests, is only part of the story—far from rooted in questions about whether to purchase a 3D printer or any other form of technology to create that makerspace: “If your library is not already a makerspace, you’re doing it wrong.”
Nearing the end of his presentation, he doubles back to overtly address his decision to undergo all the brutally awful treatment he has endured. Reflects on what it means to choose between giving up or fighting against a life-threatening disease through potentially lethal treatments. And acknowledge that surrender would have deprived him of the opportunity to be with us long enough to share “The Faithful and the Radical” with us.
“I have been at the edge of certain death. When I got my stem cell transplant…I had to go through terrible chemo, chemo that ripped sores in my tongue, chemo that tore out all my intestinal tract, chemo that took my hair, took my energy, took my ability to walk up a flight of stairs, and it even killed the very marrow in my bones. I voluntarily took a lethal injection. Why? Because I had faith. I had faith in my doctors. I had faith in my nurses, and I had faith in my caretaker and my wife and my family and myself that I was going to get there, that I was going to face down certain death and that I was going to move ahead, and I’m here without a hair in my head to show for it. But I’m here…
“Faith can be hard. Radical can be hard. Moving out of your comfort zone and seeing yourself as larger than you think you are can be hard. But it is essential. I have been through my crisis of faith, You have seen your crisis of faith. We will live through it, and we will use it to become even stronger radicals. We will use it to take that faith message to those who don’t really have it…”
Reaching the end of that recording, I was left rethinking long-held beliefs about what decision I might make if/when faced with the sort of life-threatening situation Lankes has struggled; I have to admit that what he says and what he does has, in the most significant of ways, served the purpose of great learning facilitation: he made me do some serious rethinking about personal comfort and preferences as opposed to the greater responsibilities each of us has.
Lankes could have opted to forego the fight. In a sense, however, he decided to work beyond the shift life had apparently decided to assign him and do some overtime by staying with us. It’s the sort of overtime for which there can be no adequate payment. But perhaps we can do our part in rewarding him by listening. Taking action. Thinking about the need to transcend our own comfort zones to take actions for the greater good of the people, the communities, and the societies that support us. And continuing to stand with those we love and admire through the best and worst of times in the hope that the best remains ahead of us.