In light of recent and continuing conflicts between citizens and police across the nation, the Nashville (TN) Public Library (NPL) has partnered with the Nashville Police Department on a groundbreaking diversity education initiative that aims to improve understanding and communication between police forces and citizens. The program, Civil Rights and a Civil Society, uses NPL’s Civil Rights Room collections to spark dialogue and learning among the officers. The Civil Rights Room, which contains materials related to the Nashville Civil Rights movement, overlooks the intersection of Church Street and Seventh Avenue North, where nonviolent protests against segregated lunch counters took place. The space also contains a symbolic lunch counter, and photos and documents related to those momentous events. It is in this room and through this historical framework that participants gather to discuss today’s complex community dynamics with the goal of fostering understanding and empathy. Recently the library received a grant to increase the training which will allow them to expand beyond local and state law enforcement groups to community groups, schools, as well as other cities and different populations.
Public Libraries (PL) Editor Kathleen Hughes interviewed the program’s creator, Andrea Blackman, via email on November 2, 2016.
PL: Tell us a bit about NPL’s Civil Rights Room.
AB: NPL’s Civil Rights Room and Collection has been a part of the library and the city’s landscape since December 2003.The space is dedicated to engaging communities in conversations about current issues of equality and intercultural development. Not only do we archive our city’s rich civil rights story with oral histories, firsthand photographs, and news accounts, but we also provide a current voice and venue for open dialogue and discovery. The elements and design of the space span from Nashville’s complicated history post Brown v. Board of Education to a replica of a lunch counter as its centerpiece. When you consider place and space, it’s almost uncanny to consider that the Civil Rights Room overlooks the exact intersection of Church Street and Seventh Avenue North, where nonviolent protests against segregated lunch counters took place over fifty years ago.
PL: How do you see the Civil Rights and a Civil Society program fitting with Nashville’s storied civil rights legacy?
AB: The Civil Rights and a Civil Society program was designed to use NPL’s Civil Rights Room’s archival images, oral histories, and film footage from Nashville’s civil rights history as a gateway to productive conversations about today’s prevailing issues affecting law enforcement and an increasingly diverse population. Through this historical framework, participants discuss today’s complex community dynamics in an environment that encourages open conversation and greater understanding.
PL: How was the idea for the program initially conceived?
AB: The genesis of the program began perhaps as a parallel of ongoing protests for racial justice in the United States and library staff members asking “How are we responding to what is unfolding in society?” Initially, we were contacted by our local police department’s training team to provide a historical overview to a class of new police recruits (focus was to connect Nashville’s historic civil rights history and leadership). We questioned how we would in fact combine the request of the police department with our desire to develop innovative programming in response to the outcry of our country. The partnership with our local law enforcement officers began with the goal of introducing new recruits to past injustices and hopefully would prevent future injustices and misconceptions from occurring.
PL: Are there specific problems or issues you are hoping to address?
AB: Of course, we thought with lofty ideas (like every library does) that our program had the potential to transform lives, but our intent in the design was to utilize history at the core of engagement about “otherness,” that somehow the conversations would aid in developing those virtues that are important in civil society. The police department’s trainers wanted to creatively convey that as the recruits encounter new neighborhoods, people, and actions, they have developed another layer of empathy, a skill that is required in a civil society, and one needed to eradicate divided communities.
PL: How many police have been trained?
AB: As of today, we provided programming experiences/training for 817 people, mostly adults; 167 civilians (students, nonprofits, community groups, and government employees), 650 law enforcement personnel (law enforcement numbers are statewide, not just Nashville).
PL: Are you hearing from other police departments outside of Nashville?
AB: We’ve heard from law enforcement agencies from around the country and also from civic organizations, public school systems, and churches from various states.
PL: What has been the reaction of trainees to the programming?
AB: The reactions from the most recent group (Citizens Academy) arrived with a sense of community and vulnerability. Their ability to share stories freely, even weep, was affirming.
PL: What does the course consist of? Can you take us through topics covered, what attendees experience, how long the course is, etc.?
AB: Our design includes multiple methods of engagement: historical truths, social commentary, developing counter narratives, and the Socratic Method. For instance, with the Socratic Method, we planned to ask questions for clarification, such as, “How does this image of John Lewis being dragged off a stool at a lunch counter relate to our discussion on ________?” We asked questions that probe assumptions: What could we assume instead? How can you verify or disapprove that assumption? The design includes questions about viewpoints and perspectives: What is another way to look at it?
PL: In addition to managing this program, do you also lead the course(s) or are other staff members also involved?
AB: Yes, I lead the course, along with three staff members who assist in facilitating the small group elements.
PL: What have you learned from your experience working on this program?
AB: I’m constantly reminded [and learning], as stated by historian and author, Dr. Vincent Harding, “we are to serve as a guidepost to a more humane, democratic, freedom-loving future.” And that there is an even greater need to allow more people to have much more input over how histories are created.
PL: The library has received a grant to deliver training to other groups (besides police). What are the components of the non-police training? What do you most want people to take away from the training or what do you feel is the most important takeaway?
AB: Some components of the training include dialogue, social commentary, historic truths juxtaposed with contemporary movements, and self-examination of biases. Each participant has his or her measure of personal takeaway and impact; I do not want to define what that looks like for one person.
PL: For librarians interested in doing similar programming where is a good place to start?
AB: Start by building on supportive or complementary programming; build from existing community partners and stakeholders; be willing and open to allow for tough conversations; be prepared and trained in community dialogue methods; take the pulse of their own city’s landscape and the basis for engagement.
PL: What is next for Civil Rights and a Civil Society? What is your hope for the future of the program?
AB: We’ve established a project team to include curriculum designers, artists, and educators to design and reimagine the training model for K-12, higher ed, and civic groups. Stay tuned! Go here for updates and more information.
Andrea Blackman is the division manager for NPL’s Special Collections division. She started at NPL in 2003, coordinating the library’s nationally recognized Civil Rights Room and Collection. Blackman regularly speaks in the community and academia on multicultural education, library services, and oral history methodologies. Blackman advocates for professional leadership and innovative ideas in making history relevant to the millennial generation, and advocacy for cultural engagement.