“Take the Good with the Bad” A lesson in civic engagement and value of community conversations

Alvarez Spark Innovation award Recipient Jill Lahmann implemented a Town Hall style series at the New Orleans Public Library.  Guided through community partnership with library staff and patron participation, the series was a new way to engage with members of the New Orleans downtown community. This post describes the outcomes of the series. Jill is a Master of Social Work Candidate, pursuing the Disaster Resilience Leadership program.

After days of intentional canvasing, internet promotion, and verbal recruitment the most recent iteration of #communityconversations at the New Orleans Public Library-Main (NOPL-M) branch commences. At first,the event may resemble those that had come before, sparsely populated with minimal interest from library patrons that already inhabited the space. However, about five minutes into the start time of the event, something exciting happens. People who were discussing politics in other informal settings around the library started showing up. This is not to imply that a mob of people flooded the event, but there were people. For this graduate working to support the goals expressed by community members frequenting the library, this was big. 

The New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) Main Branch, located at 219 Loyola Avenue

What was the event? Given the frequent conversations outside the library on Wednesday mornings at Coffee and Donuts (a previous Alvarez award program) surrounding the political systems in New Orleans and the United States, it seemed fitting to host an event to promote further civic engagement.  The method of engagement for this event was through postcards with paid postage and contact information for all local, state, and national representatives of New Orleans and Louisiana. The conversations had informally highlighted that people in the downtown neighborhood have a lot to say, yet feel that they have minimal resources to express these opinions.

Which leads us to the headline of this blog post- a man who I have had the good fortune of getting to know through the morning coffee and donuts program was adamant about writing the mayor and city council members about their plans to take down confederate statutes throughout the city. This topic has stirred up much controversy in New Orleans for decades and has come to a head in the last few years as the plans for removal have come to fruition. How does this tie into the larger community conversation at the library?

As this man began to explain his desire to tell the elected officials that removing the statutes from the city was demolishing the history that made New Orleans so unique and special though they highlight a painful history, another patron joined the event and discussed with this gentleman what it meant to him to have the statues removed. He noted that his ancestry went back to the times that these people were alive and the intense struggle felt by his ancestors, felt minimized and overlooked by the presence of the statues. This was the reason he was in favor of their removal. A conversation of respect and learning pursued. Was this the reason the second man came to the event? Not at all.

The new member expressed that he needed elected officials to know about the insurmountable hurdles that were being placed in front of members of the community who are looking for employment. Another patron approached with a passion for an expedited process of recreating a strong public education system in New Orleans, which has undergone many changes since Hurricane Katrina. Affordable housing was addressed by a woman who expressed the struggle of maintaining a job, being a strong single parent, and finding housing that did not take her entire paycheck.

These conversations were incredible and shined brighter than my wildest dreams when the idea for a civic engagement event was generated. They highlighted the diverse views, experiences, and passions that members of the Main library think about daily. The goal of this grant project is to increase community cohesion in the ever-changing landscape of the downtown New Orleans community, this event highlighted the variety of passionate perspectives people have living and working in the area.

I invite you to join these conversations. While the topics addressed vary between each event, it is a magical thing to meet your neighbors and engage in productive conversation, regardless of your perspectives. New Orleans is such a unique place in the United States, deeply rooted with culture and history, and these community conversations at NOPL-M exist to celebrate this and to allow community members to engage with one another. No matter how you feel, the spirit of “the good and the bad” permeates this space and creates a landscape for a richness of community conversation that is unique to this city that is a world away from mainstream America.

For updated event times and dates visit http://nolalibrary.org/branches, Main Library branch, and check out the events page for Friday Forums.