Outreach to underserved communities is an overwhelming endeavor. Our committee does not want to make it look easy because it truly is not. However, we truly believe that all library staff can do this type of work with the right tools and support. This is why one of our focuses this year is to bridge the gap between tangible resources (like our existing toolkits) and how to get started.
Melody Leung and Marika Jeffrey wrote an article in this summer’s issue of Children and Libraries with some guiding questions to help evaluate your community, develop fruitful partnerships, and implement programs and outreach with specific communities in mind.
Guiding questions can be helpful but specific examples might help bring those concepts to life. Here is a specific example about reaching out to a migrant community:
Four years ago, I started working in a rural community in Washington State. To settle myself into the job, I intentionally listened to community members and staff about potential community needs. I heard from many sources about a migrant community made up of seasonal as well as year-round farm workers. This community has extreme barriers to library services; many of them unintentionally created by public libraries. Some extreme barriers include transportation, language, and negative assumptions about the public library. An overall lack of trust grew from a fear of fines, fear of giving away private information to a government entity, and unfamiliarity with how public libraries operate in the US. For example, some countries like Mexico have libraries but the locations are only for scholars. In the US, public libraries are generally open and welcoming to everyone.
After understanding more about the community, I partnered with a colleague to learn about where the library fits in currently. Read more about my colleague, Amelia Martinez, in our interview about serving Spanish-speaking populations. Past outreach to the migrant farming camps included activity stations, storytimes and playing movement games from Mexico. To Amelia, the greatest need at the camps was childcare for the school age kids. The preschool children had a migrant focused daycare while the 6-13 year old children did not. The school district previously provided summer school but it wasn’t in the future plans.
First Attempt at Outreach
In my first few years in the community, I knew we couldn’t take on the main opportunity: childcare. Instead, we connected with a migrant daycare for preschoolers to coordinate bilingual storytimes and our summer reading program. We distributed summer reading program materials and a “prize” book simultaneously to ensure each young child had a book to get started. This also eliminated the need of transportation to a physical library location. For the grade school children, we attempted to reach out to the camp managers. Unfortunately, the managers felt overwhelmed by the volume of organizations hoping to partner with them. In addition, the families didn’t just need books and activities, they needed healthcare, social services, food, and time to make an income. We understood the library was secondary compared to those basic needs.
In early 2020, we connected with the Northwest Educational Service District Migrant Education Program. The partnership worked well because we shared similar values like making learning fun and supporting bilingual education. The group provides holistic services by working together with health organizations, faith organizations, food banks, schools, and other non-profits with similar goals. When the pandemic hit, the coordinators had to switch gears and provide all contactless services. The library pivoted as well by providing a summer reading kit with ”prize” books to go with the pandemic relief kits. Since the age ranges were unknown, we gave each housing unit a beginning reader book and a middle grade book. This allowed many different ages to consume the material while the preschool children still chose their books at the daycare.
In 2021, we expanded the outreach in ways that allow future outreach programs to build upon it. One expansion is our Little Libraries in Migrant Communities project. We installed two libraries in two of the largest camps to let families have access to books without traditional barriers. The libraries are stocked with bilingual, Spanish, and English material. We also installed a Storywalk® at each location and (with the help of a local grant) provided activity kits that connected with each rotating Storywalk®. The kits included bubbles, scratch art, sand art, and stress balls. In collaboration with a local non-profit, we delivered an in-person summer school program as well. Our visits consisted of storytelling in multiple forms to inspire a love of stories/learning while building confidence in their own voice.
- Programs and events have a beginning and an end but outreach is a circle. No matter what changes (the community partner, the location, the library staff, or the funding), the community is still there. Don’t feel discouraged if an attempt at outreach is a complete failure. The relationships built between the community and your team or the community and the library is what matters, not necessarily attendance, how much you could provide, or the small mistakes along the way.
- Focus on authenticity. Though migrant families can be from many different backgrounds, the majority in Washington are Spanish-speaking. I, personally, am not Spanish-speaking or identify as Latinx. However, I am a daughter of immigrants. That experience fuels me to work in libraries and do this kind of work. At times, I do worry about the perception this work can look to the particular communities. I have to remind myself that I am not here to “save” anyone or assume any unseen needs. Instead, I am focusing on how individuals are underserved by the library, not assuming the community is with less than. Perspective and intention matter in this work.
- Creating partnerships and having people on your team is key to this work. One person, or even one organization cannot do it all. Working together helps us work through logistics and refrain from reinventing the wheel. Powerful connections make this work easier in the long term.
- Reimagine current services. Instead of creating something completely new, I utilized the existing work our Youth Services department already created like the Storywalks®, craft kits, and summer reading program. It made the overall work easier to implement since the background work was already done.
My team’s lingering hope is for everyone in this community to continue to build trust in libraries and utilize the many extension services we provide. We envision our work as equity in action by celebrating our diverse community and striving to be inclusive in our information gathering and project planning. In the end, resulting in a truly authentic and heartwarming experience.
For more information:
Read Children and Libraries article “It Takes Two (Or More): Developing Partnerships to Serve Marginalized Populations” by Melody Leung and Marika Jeffrey https://journals.ala.org/index.php/cal/issue/view/799
Check out these toolkits to help serve particular underserved populations: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/16zjWjKxo5tKLCLjNfpKyQEs9gG_wU4XN
Recommendations for future toolkits, comments, or questions are always welcome. Please email LSUCTC@gmail.com.
Melody Leung is a Youth Services Librarian at the Everett Public Library. She can be found doing meditative art, dancing horribly to online videos, or reading a graphic novel (or in this case My Unforgotten Seattle by Ron Chew to learn from local history). She is super excited to be Co-Chairing this committee with Jaime “The Super Organizer” Eastman. Special thanks to her dream team: Amelia, Diana, and Evie.
*This post addressed core competency: Outreach and Advocacy
*All images courtesy of blogger: Melody Leung