Reflecting on the Power of Communities at Citizen University National Conference

Mercy Procaccini /

Image courtesy Citizen University via CC video on YouTube

Several WebJunction staff members and public library colleagues attended the Citizen University National Conference held in Seattle March 24-25. The event brought together over 500 change-makers, activists, and catalysts to engage with the conference theme of Reckoning and Repair in America. This was WebJunction's second year attending the event, and to kick things off we hosted a preconference with local library staff. The preconference and conference both provided opportunities to participate in substantive discussions about the issues affecting our communities and to highlight the important role that public libraries can play in addressing these issues.

Citizen University, founded by author, educator and civic entrepreneur Eric Liu, seeks to foster powerful and engaged citizenship. The annual conference featured distinguished speakers, discussions, lessons and workshops to spark citizens and communities into action. Many of the conference session recordings are available here. Over the course of the two-day event, several themes emerged that seem particularly relevant to the work that public libraries do.

Reckon with the past

With Reckoning and Repair as its theme, many conference discussions highlighted the need to understand and know the past. A true reckoning means having a nuanced understanding of history, surfacing stories that have too often been overlooked and hearing from voices that have typically been silenced. Public libraries provide their communities with resources and programs to learn about the diverse histories that influence and impact the present.

The importance of literacies

Conference speakers repeatedly underscored the power of knowledge: the "common good" depends on a common set of facts. They urged citizens to fight for the validity of facts and evidence in arguments. They championed civic and political literacy—because these literacies are essential to the successful functioning of democracy. With resources for accessing information and building literacies, public libraries play an important role in empowering their communities. The attendees of our pre-conference have reported an increasing interest in civic engagement and political and information literacy among their community members in recent months.

The need for civil discourse

Discussion and debate are features of a robust democracy, but too many individuals have lost the ability to argue with civility. The participants in a session about "Better Arguments," moderated by Eric Liu, outlined ways to engage in constructive dialogue: listen fully; learn from the other with humility and respect; focus on shared values and look for the things that unite. These are also points emphasized by the Choose Civility initiative, which looks to civility as a healing power to counteract the divisive, fragmented forces in our society, and was featured in a WebJunction webinar.

Don’t underestimate the power of our communities

Many conference sessions spotlighted inspiring and innovative things happening at the local community level. Much of this is not covered by the media, which focuses more on the polarization within our communities, but good things are happening, nonetheless. There are many stories of a better America, of inclusion and civic engagement, of community members coming together and getting things done. Communities are powerful, and public libraries—by providing access to information in equitable and inclusive ways—play an essential role in empowering their communities.

The WebJunction staff who attended the conference left with plenty to think about! We will be looking for opportunities to incorporate the most relevant topics surfaced at our library preconference and at the Citizen University conference into future webinars and articles. In the meantime, here are some WebJunction webinars and resources you might find helpful.

Reflections on last year’s Citizen University Conference

Related Resources on WebJunction

And mark your calendars for the 2018 Citizen University National Conference, March 30-31!