Library continues Community Engagement efforts with Community Conversations, Community Gardens

The Clark County Public Library (CCPL) is going beyond the book through a new community engagement process that helps residents identify common concerns and effective actions.

Sarah Webb, community engagement librarian, leads a six-person team implementing this new approach through a series of community conversations, then sharing what’s learned and taking action that will make positive change.

“We’re taking on a mindset of putting the community at the heart of what we do,” Webb says. “Public libraries have always engaged with their communities, but it’s only in the last decade that the library’s role as a change agent has emerged.”
The CCPL is following a model called Libraries Transforming Communities, which was developed by the American Library Association working with the Harwood Institute. The institute is a non-profit whose mission is to help people and communities “to bridge divides, build capacity, and tackle shared challenges,” according to its website.

Harwood developed a process that moves through four steps: turning outward, going into the community, sharing what you learn, and taking action.

The CCPL team is working on the second step, which uses two tools called Community Gardens and Community Conversations. For this year, the focus is on Springfield's Southside, in ZIP codes 45505 and 45506. In future years, the process will turn to other parts of Clark County.

The Community Conversations bring together eight to 15 people to discuss their hopes, concerns and aspirations for the community for 90 minutes to two hours. The library has four team members at each conversation: a facilitator, a secondary leader who takes notes on an easel for all to see, a primary note-taker who tries to capture everything that’s said, and a secondary note-take who does an audio recording.

Webb says the facilitator’s role is to pose a series of questions and help stimulate the conversation without injecting their opinions.

“I want to be a very neutral guide taking people through the questions and making sure they understand the questions," she says. "I’m just a mirror for their ideas.”

At each conversation, the facilitator poses a series of 10 questions, including “What kind of community do you want to live in?”, “What are the two or three most important issues when it comes to the community?”, and “What do you think is keeping us from making the progress we want?”

Webb characterizes the kind of interaction they hope for as being like a “kitchen-table conversation.”

The team gives the participants a set of ground rules, such listening carefully to each person, staying on topic, having an open mind, and trying to disagree without being disagreeable. The team did three Community Conversations in 2021, at the Promise Neighborhood Visioning Garden, School of Innovation, and Rocking Horse Center.

“All of them have been very good conversations, very natural,” Webb says. “Everyone has been respectful. Some people are more outgoing and speak more. Others we encourage to speak so that everyone is involved.”

Having tested the two tools last year, the CCPL team is seeking churches, non-profits, and other organizations to host the process. Anyone interested in offering space for a Community Conversation or Community Garden can contact the library at [email protected] or call Webb at (937) 323-1892, ext. 1065.

The other tool to solicit input from residents is the Community Garden Backdrop, an eight-foot-square with the question “What kind of community do you want to live in?” emblazoned at the top and a drawing of a rose on the bottom half.

Residents can take a smaller copy of the rose, which has spaces for writing in their hopes, concerns, and actions. Each completed rose can then be placed on the backdrop, forming a “garden” of everyone’s thoughts and ideas.

The CCPL team plans to have a series of conversations through the spring, then they will work on compiling the responses into a Community Narrative that highlights the aspirations and concerns most often discussed.

The narrative will be shared with individuals and organizations that the participants identified as being trustworthy. Those groups and individuals will meet in gatherings called Innovation Spaces to discuss what’s been learned and what actions can be taken.

Webb says they plan to start with “small, purposeful actions that address the issues but also work to build trust and connection in our community.”

Webb, 41, has worked at the library since 2001, starting part-time as a sophomore at Cedarville University and becoming a full-time reference librarian in 2005. After learning about the Libraries Transforming Communities process, she pitched the idea to CCPL Director Bill Martino, who was “incredibly supportive” and named her community engagement librarian in March 2021.

Webb sees the new approach as an extension of what libraries have always done.

“Libraries have the role of connecting people and providing information to the public," she says. "This is just connecting people to information about the community. We want to be a neutral, trusted entity to connect them to the help they need.”

Learn more about the library’s Community Engagement program on its website.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Steve Schlather.