Citizen Catalysts: A Conference Reflection for Libraries

Jennifer Peterson /

A panel presentation in front of quilt by
Luke Haynes, [Iconography #10] Flag of Clothes

As you may know, we recently launched a new topic area on WebJunction, Access & Equity, as a way to explore the ways libraries can lead community discussion and respond more deliberately to the needs of their communities in relation to race and equity issues. A few weeks ago, members of the WebJunction team attended the Annual National Citizen University Conference in Seattle. In its 11th year, the conference gathered together more than 500 catalysts and activists to explore the question "Who Is Us? Race, Citizenship, and America Now," through presentations, panels and discussions on topics ranging from voter engagement to restorative justice.

Though this recap barely scratches at the surface of what was covered, we’d like to share a bit about the people we heard from and the projects we learned about, many of which intersect or could potentially intersect with the work of public libraries. We were inspired to learn how individuals of all ages representing organizations across a multitude of disciplines are committed to sustaining strong and engaged citizenship.

Together with colleagues from the Seattle Public Library, WebJunction shared with conference-goers some of the ideas gathered in our February Crossroads Poll, and invited attendees to consider the role that libraries might play in the areas of citizen engagement. Although most of the change-makers and organizers attending the conference were rooted outside of libraries, our conversations revealed great respect for the work that libraries do — and genuine curiosity about how libraries are changing.

Libraries can and will play a vital role in ensuring that people’s voices will have their rightful place in our democracy.
- Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer (2012). "Public Libraries and the Future of Democracy."  National Civic Review. 101(4). 13-14.

The conference was hosted by Eric Liu, founder & CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. In his welcome, he urged us to be citizen catalysts in our work, to lead by example, to hear one another, to learn from one another and to challenge one another. He emphasized that civics can best be modeled through action: that we can teach best by doing. And the rest of the speakers, panelists and participants most certainly demonstrated their capacity for action civics, as reflected in their work.

Public Libraries Represent! Jennifer Peterson,
Nadiyah Browne, Meira Jough (both from Seattle Public Library), and Anna Shelton

Speakers shared experiences and understanding that can help libraries grow our own cultural competencies and support our communities as civic centers for and of democracy. The conference inspired us all over again about the ways in which libraries help create communities of intelligence and innovation, and the part we play  in the collective care of citizens, especially of those whose voices are not often heard. Here are a few of the conference highlights:

  • Keynote speaker Alicia Garza, one of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter, spoke of the hard work of organizing, of ensuring ongoing dialogue with one another, of building relationships across differences for the sake of our collective transformation. "Each of us exists at the intersections of many different experiences, and that it is those experiences that can help us unlock the potential of what a new world can and should look like."
  • A number of high school students participated in the conference through the Mikva Challenge. Speaking from a soap box (yes, a real soap box) they eloquently, powerfully and passionately shared a personal story about topics such as gang violence, poverty, transphobia, fear of deportation, each demonstrating outstanding skills as advocates for pressing community issues.
  • Attending the conference to showcase public libraries, it's perhaps no surprise that the most exciting moment of the conference for us was when Deborah Fallows spoke (video). She and her husband, James Fallows, write for The Atlantic, and have been traveling around the country since 2013 for their American Futures reporting project, "visiting some of America’s smaller towns and cities overlooked by the national media, to see how people are adjusting to the economic, environmental and technological opportunities and challenges of this era." Deborah began her message, "I want to talk to you today about a public institution in America that is thriving, more than thriving, as it speaks to the wants and needs of its citizens, and that is the public library." You can read her wonderful stories about libraries at either American Futures or in The Atlantic, and we're very excited to be talking to her about presenting a WebJunction webinar! Stay tuned.
  • Our family-style lunch was a fantastic experience led by the Chicago Community Trust, modeling their community program On the Table, "an annual forum designed to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and create a unifying experience across the region. Thousands of Chicago-area residents gather in small groups to share a meal and discuss the challenges and opportunities they face. These conversations can inspire new ways we can work together to make our communities stronger, safer and more dynamic." The project provides a set of toolkits that can be used in other communities, to use shared mealtimes as a way to empower citizen engagement.

In listening to the panel on restorative justice, my ears perked up when Keith Hickman alluded to communities as learning organizations. I believe libraries are central to this idea of learning organizations, ensuring our communities continue to learn together, share information, become informed and give power to all voices through engagement. We as library staff can commit to learning about the systems at play and how we can help sustain and grow an informed citizenship.

The rest of the WebJunction team in attendance will be sharing their reflections in the coming weeks, but if you'd like to learn more about presenters and organizations, here are a few important links: