Charles Pratt / email@example.com.Charles is Managing Librarian at Stanwood (WA) Public Library. He is currently reading Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funny Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s by Dan Epstein. Sonia Gustafson / firstname.lastname@example.org.Sonia is Friends of the Library Engagement Manager at Sno-Isle Libraries (WA).She is currently reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. Kurt Batdorf / email@example.com.Kurt is Communications Specialist at Sno-Isle Libraries (WA).He is currently reading I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture by A.D. Jameson.
Sno-Isle Libraries (SIL) debuted Issues That Matter forums in 2010 as a series of community discussions and debates. These forums convene residents from communities across the entire two-county library service area (Snohomish County and Island County, WA) to engage in important community conversations on relevant, high-profile topics. Through these events, the library extends its neutral stance to enable civil, open discussion on controversial topics with the guidance of several panelists and a program moderator. Sessions are recorded and streamed live on Facebook. The forums connect citizens in the communities we serve with local experts, stakeholders, and community leaders.
SIL’s outreach programming for a decade now. It’s also a work in progress. We listen to forum participants and we adapt. They want more than a give-and-take debate, or an informational presentation.
“They want to know, what are the next steps, what can I learn, how can I participate to help?” said Ken Harvey, SIL Director of Communications. “It’s clearer and clearer that audiences want to do more than attend. They want to engage.”1 As a result, Issues That Matter is evolving and transforming to remain a vital, objective resource that customers value and appreciate.
Issues That Matter is now a centerpiece of SIL’s strategic priorities and core services: building civic engagement to address community issues, and presenting programs addressing community needs and interests.
Three of the first four forum topics covered hot-button state ballot measures: an income tax, legalization of recreational marijuana, and same sex marriage. We’ve also discussed more general issues, such as bullying, hate crimes, and drugs in our communities.
When SIL decided to pursue this type of programming, district officials knew community partners might say, “Libraries check out books. Why are you holding community events on ballot measures or social issues?” We did hear that question along with several similar ones, and for good reason. Ten years ago, this was uncharted territory for SIL.
It became apparent early in the process that all SIL staff members needed to understand why we chose to engage in this type of programming and be able to explain that decision effectively to our communities.
While our early forums featured contentious political issues, the Homelessness Here forums in 2017 illustrate how we’ve adapted to provide more audience engagement. We became an information clearinghouse for many organizations, agencies, and professionals who deal with the region’s homeless population. Thanks to these connections and strengthened relationships, we added information to resources on our “Issues That Matter—Homelessness Here” webpage with links to twenty local agencies that offer resources for those experiencing homelessness, plus recommended books and educational materials.
Issues That Matter events always include time at the end to mingle and connect. With the Homelessness Here forums, staff noticed a strong desire for attendees to find new ways to take action. They connected with the panelists, but also with each other after each event.
Just because presentation topics are community-generated doesn’t mean there isn’t some controversy. We continue to learn with each new series of forums while embracing the opportunity to facilitate sometimes difficult discussions. For example, this year’s theme is “Looking Forward” and focuses on regional growth-related issues. One customer said Issues That Matter indicates a socialist agenda. SIL Foundation Executive Director Paul Pitkin responded to explain the foundation’s support and where the forum topics originate.
“We have provided support for these forums for the past nine years in order to enable community and regional conversations around high-profile topics, such as the upcoming issue of population growth and how it is affecting our communities and region,” Pitkin said. “The topics selected for discussion actually come from the communities we serve.”2
Another customer commented that the panelists on an upcoming Housing and Homelessness forum are biased. “This is not a discussion, this is a lecture series. ALL the panelists have something to gain by low-income housing. What about the people who have to put up with drug-induced felons getting FREE housing in our neighborhoods?” the customer wrote. “It isn’t necessarily a homeless issue, it’s a drug issue.”
Edmonds Library Manager Richard Suico handled the response:
“I appreciate your comments that this is skewed and agenda-driven. We are providing this forum to give you and the rest of the community an opportunity to engage in an informed discussion with community experts that have been directly impacted, have studied and researched and/or are providing possible solutions to the housing issue.
“Even if we feel we have created an expert field of panelists, community members like you are encouraged to attend and participate. The format only works if it is authentic and includes the community sharing, in a respectful, appropriate manner, a wide range of viewpoints like yours that sound like this topic is corollary to the drug issue. I thank you for your comments and concerns and hope you attend.”3
However difficult, it is important to find moderators and panelists who have different, even divergent, viewpoints on topics.
“Some panelists may only represent one viewpoint,” Harvey said. “Libraries must ensure a wide range of political and philosophical views to demonstrate our objectivity. The public will perceive that slant and see the lack of objectivity.”4
The primary factors in deciding topics are: (1) that they must be relevant to those who live in the communities we serve and (2) align with our library district’s strategic priorities. SIL staff members use several methods to further identify potential Issues That Matter program topics.
Canvassing local elected officials for information on current projects or initiatives in their communities and asking if they can share information on their constituents’ concerns is one key component. This has the added bonus of helping to develop conversations and strengthen relationships between the library and local civic leaders. Surveying forum attendees has also helped identify future topics.
In 2015 and 2016, SIL issued press releases asking for topic suggestions. Each time, we received more than sixty responses from library district customers who shared issues that were important to them and their communities.
SIL chose Homelessness Here as the 2017 Issues That Matter theme for a number of reasons. Homelessness was mentioned by respondents to a call for topic suggestions in both 2015 and 2016. In 2016, as part of our strategic planning process, we asked library customers to take a short online survey to pick which topics were most important to them and their communities.
The top four responses were mental-health needs, drug addiction, lack of affordable housing, and homelessness. The combined totals of those four responses made up 71% of all responses. The three responses that were not specifically “homelessness” touched on other issues of concern to persons experiencing homelessness in our communities.
In Snohomish County, the homeless population is monitored with a count called Point in Time (PIT) (www.snohomishcountywa.gov/2857/Point-In-Time) taken on a single night in January each year. While the PIT count fluctuates year to year, Snohomish County measured a 9.9% increase in its unsheltered homeless population between 2013 and 2018, rising from 344 people to 378 people, according to 2018 data. (The county’s homeless population was 599 people in 2019.)
The need was apparent and Homelessness Here became an obvious topic choice for 2017. It had more participation than any other Issues That Matter event and was very well reviewed by attendees.
We asked participants what they liked about this forum. Here are some responses:
- “Bringing everyone together to help educate, collaborate and brainstorm ideas.”
- “Feeling of community doing something for each other.”
- “Information about resources, encouragement for more engagement.”
- “Well run, organized, timely, and helpful.”
- “The open, heartfelt, intelligent address of a really difficult issue. Good panelists, good moderator, good audience participation. Thank you!”
To the final question on the survey, “What can the library do to improve your learning?” we heard an overarching common theme—do more! Here is a selection of comments:
- “More forums like this.”
- “More specifics about involvement on this program.”
- “Handouts for people to know more.”
- “I wish there was more of an action plan—it’s a tough, huge problem.”
- “More forums on specific needs in small communities.”
EXPANDING THE CONCEPT
The feedback from 2017 was used for determining the subsequent Issues That Matter topics under the broad umbrella of mental health. Such a broad category called for trying something new.
Up to this point, Issues That Matter events had been centrally organized. With mental health, we knew that community library staff members understood their particular community’s needs and interests, so we had each interested library pick its own specific topic related to the topic of mental health.
Nineteen of our twenty-three libraries held sixteen forums between fall 2017 and spring 2018, culminating with a summit to review action items on the broad array of mental health issues the forums tackled. We had a wide variety of subtopics covered, from “Families and Dementia” to “Teen Depression and Suicide.”
We’re using what we learned from the Homelessness Here and Mental Health forums to keep Issues That Matter relevant with SIL customers and the people who live in our library district. Forum participants want action items. They want to learn ways to help. It was clear that Issues That Matter could be a wonderful conduit for civic action.
We are now asking the speakers at each event to share an action item for the audience. We focus on sharing information on topics important to our local communities and providing tools to take an action step with their new knowledge.
NUTS AND BOLTS
With each forum topic, SIL staff members identify, approach, and recruit the topic’s panelists and moderator. Knowing good sources of potential moderators and forming a partnership with those people and organizations is particularly important, because locating a moderator can often be more difficult than finding panelists.
We work with organizations such as the local League of Women Voters and regional media outlets to locate moderators who are comfortable leading a public discussion. Local elected officials are another good resource and we have had several mayors and other elected officials serve as moderators. Library staff members who have a background or training in moderating events are also good options.
For panelists, many professionals perform community outreach as an important part of their job. Surprisingly, we’ve found these excellent local resources don’t often receive a lot of invitations from other organizations to speak at community events.
Many librarians may find it unusual or intimidating to cold call prospective panelists or send unsolicited emails about participating in something like a facilitated panel discussion. However, librarians make these kinds of requests all the time, such as approaching a performer to schedule a summer reading program or asking a local business if they would support a library initiative. Reaching out to a prospective panelist for a community forum isn’t that much different.
- Keep it simple. Identify a few key local agencies or organizations, tell them about the planned event, then ask if they can send a representative to serve as a panelist. We’ve heard an enthusiastic “Yes!” more often than “No thanks.”
- We’ve found that panelists frequently help arrange colleagues for other forum panels or provide us with solid references for additional panelists.
- When a program has more speakers than spots on the panel, we ask some speakers to sit in the audience and participate in the audience Q&A. They get to supplement the panelists’ answers and help foster a more robust discussion.
- We make sure that all panelists and our moderator meet before each program. It gives them a chance to discuss what each one will focus on in their opening remarks. Panelists want to avoid overlapping statements, and often want to discuss how certain potential audience questions will be addressed and by whom. A few emails are usually enough to accomplish this, but we have also arranged conference calls for panelists.
- We also make a point to share links to photos and recordings of past Issues That Matter events, along with an itinerary of the event timeline. Keep your panelists and moderator engaged. You can’t communicate too much.
- One of the advantages of having a variety of panelists involved is that they can promote the event to their networks. SIL always invites local government officials and other community stakeholders. They often promote the event and invite the community to come.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of frontline staff members in promoting the events. The best-attended forum events always have local library staffers heavily involved in promotion.
SIL has created some amazing partnerships simply by reaching out to other agencies and professionals who live or work in the library district. That has happened even though SIL doesn’t offer a speaker’s fee or any kind of honorarium to panelists or moderators. We provide a light meal before events for panelists as a way of encouraging them to meet each other beforehand. It also ensures everyone is on time for a sound check with the recording equipment and microphones.
The Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation supports Issues That Matter by covering these minor costs, along with any rental fees for equipment such as a stage or for venue rental in communities where a community library lacks an adequate meeting room. Other than staff time, these are the only costs incurred during the programs.
Businesses, nonprofits, professionals, and many others want to support their communities, work with their libraries, and help others. They just need to be asked to do so.
ONE PANELIST’S JOURNEY TO THE FORUM
Megan LaPlante, a Monroe High School freshman, was a panelist at the 2016 Issues That Matter series on teenage suicide. One year earlier, a friend committed suicide a few hours after a school field trip. Megan and her classmates learned about the death the next day at school.
“I got a call from Megan about 8:15 in the morning. It was awful,” Megan’s mother, Susan LaPlante, said. “She couldn’t speak; just sobbing.” LaPlante said she had to convince Megan to speak out about losing her friend. “Megan wasn’t sure,” she said. “It’s so personal and so difficult. We talked about it a lot. I told her, ‘You need to talk about it for yourself. And, it can help others.’”5
Megan’s voice was charged with emotion when she spoke at three Issues That Matter forums. “It’s such a big issue, but not a lot of people know about it,” Megan said after the series. “People don’t touch on it. Parents don’t learn about this and kids die. They don’t know, but they should know about this.”6
Megan learned it’s important to be there for someone who reaches out. “If they’ve opened up to you, they are trusting you and thinking you will do something and possibly stop it,” she said. “Just hang out as much as possible and make them feel loved and welcome because they are, they really are. There are things that you can do. Say, ‘Come on over,’ or ‘Go to a movie with me.’ And if they say, ‘Leave me alone,’ tell them, ‘No, you’re hurting, I’m staying with you.’”7
While choosing to speak about teen suicide wasn’t easy for Megan, the response at the Issues That Matter forum convinced her that it was the right choice. “A girl came up to me after it was over to say how much it helped,” Megan said.8 Her mother had a similar experience with a parent. “The father of a boy who died in April  came up and said Megan’s comments were so relevant. It was very confirming,” LaPlante said. “That night was amazing.”9
The SIL Communications Department is deeply involved in Issues That Matter programs and handles all event promotion with online, print, and social-media efforts.
For every programming series, online content is created. Other items include a banner promotion on the main library website, news blog posts, press releases to local media, articles for newsletters, and email blasts about the events to library customers in the hosting community and nearby geographic areas. Promotional posters and fliers are created and sent to local library staff members to post and distribute in their communities.
We also promote upcoming Issues That Matter events on Twitter and the SIL Facebook page, always tagging participating or potentially interested local groups.
At the events, communications staff members livestream it to Facebook, then archive the videos on the Facebook Videos page. Staff members then follows up with video and article links on the website and to local media.
When the local press writes about an event, we make sure to share that content on the SIL homepage, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media outlets.
SIL first employed outcomes-based measurements using the Project Outcome model during the Homelessness Here events in 2017.
The first event, cohosted by four community libraries on Whidbey Island, had 187 attendees. The next three events brought total live attendance to 545 community members. Many more were reached with our Facebook Live feeds. Elected officials attended three of the four events. All of them spoke during the Q&A sessions and stayed after to connect with attendees.
We had several goals or outcomes for the series. Information on the first four was gathered from surveys that community members filled out immediately after an event using a five-point scale (1. Strongly disagree; 2. Disagree; 3. Neither agree nor disagree; 4. Agree; 5. Strongly agree):
- Community members are more knowledgeable about community issues.
- Community members feel more confident about becoming involved in their community.
- Community members intend to become more engaged on community issues.
- Community members are more aware of services and events offered by SIL.
When asked what participants liked most about the Homelessness Here forums, comments included:
- A “feeling of [the] community doing something for each other.”
- Receiving “information about resources [and] encouragement for more engagement.”
- “The open, heartfelt, intelligent address to a really difficult issue.”
- The desire to “bring everyone together to help educate, collaborate, and brainstorm ideas.”
- The event was “well run, organized, timely, and helpful.”
The Mental Health forums had similar results. The surveys used a five-point scale (1. Strongly disagree; 2. Disagree; 3. Neither agree nor disagree; 4. Agree; 5. Strongly agree).
Overall the survey results were quite positive and showed that community members did feel more knowledgeable and more committed to becoming engaged in their community as a result of attending an Issues That Matter event (see table 1).
Six weeks after the events, we sent out a follow-up survey to measure participant action.
- Community members actively became more involved in the community.
- Community members used what they learned to do something new or different in the community.
- Community members discussed what they learned with others.
- As a result of attending the program, community members used another library resource, attended another program, or checked out a book.
Unfortunately, survey participation was low and we only received nineteen responses for the Homelessness Here events. Out of those responses, 56% did become more active in their community and 63% used what they learned to do something new or different in their community. All respondents said they had discussed what they learned or experienced with others. And 53% used another library resource or service, checked out a book, or attended another program.
In the follow-up survey to Homelessness Here, comments included:
- “I work on housing issues through my work and this program helped me know more about the programs in Island County.”
- “We helped organize and held a forum . . . with 24 different active organizations to help us come together and work on issues in a more organized way.”
- “Homelessness—I have always wondered how to address it and this helped.”
- “The meeting was targeted specifically at a mostly invisible problem in my community that sorely needs to be addressed.”
- “This homelessness [forum] was very informational and disturbing. When I hear people talk about these issues, I’m more informed to participate in the conversations.”
- “I did discuss the homelessness issue with several other people. And I am more aware as well as empathetic for those who find themselves in this circumstance.”
- “We discussed the program and shared information with others.”
- “I participate in a regular gathering of friends and talked about what I had learned, particularly in respect to support for homeless youth.”
While the Mental Health series was well attended, we struggled with collection methods of the follow-up survey and didn’t get enough responses to draw useful conclusions. For the 2019 series, we’re collecting email addresses of attendees at the start of each event. Previously, attendees opted into the follow-up survey by adding it to their day-of evaluation. We’ll use the email addresses to send forum participants a resource and action list from the speakers. By continually engaging with the attendees in this way, we hope more of them will take civic action.
An overarching theme in audience comments after each event is that our diverse communities want more of this kind of programming. Because of this, the Issues That Matter team developed a toolkit so individual libraries can respond quickly to specific issues with their own localized programs, produced independently of the district’s systemwide Issues That Matter programming committee.
In 2019, SIL is presenting five Issues That Matter discussions on the theme “Looking Forward.” The forums will focus on four broad issues related to growth: (1) the environment, (2) transportation, (3) employment, and (4) housing. With the region’s population surging, the goal of these discussions is to help communities work on potential solutions to issues related to growth that are happening now and are expected to happen in the near future.
Communications Director Harvey will continue tweaking Issues That Matter so the forums remain an important, useful, and responsive resource for our communities. It might mean we have a two-tier format with smaller, community-focused forums at individual libraries like those we piloted with Mental Health, and larger forums on broad issues that got Issues That Matter off the ground in 2010. No matter what format Issues That Matter follows, we will always provide ways for forum participants to engage.
“The challenge for libraries is to pull together a planning team to put on more than an informational event,” Harvey said. “It needs to activate people.”10
We’re excited about being able to expand the program and get more libraries and communities involved in civic discussion and engagement around important topics. It’s clear from the events we’ve held that local agencies, governments, and communities are all eager to talk and work together. At SIL, we believe that being a local leader in creating and hosting programs that promote these types of important community conversations is an issue that matters to all public libraries.
For a complete list of past ITM programs, visit www. sno-isle.org/issues-that-matter.
- Ken Harvey, personal interview with author, April 2019.
- Paul Pitkin, personal interview with author, April 2019.
- Richard Suico, personal interview with author, April 2019.
- Susan LaPlante, “Speaking at Teen-Suicide Forums Difficult, But Rewarding, Choice,” Sno-Isle Libraries blog, July 1, 2016, accessed July 14, 2019.
- Megan LaPlante, “Speaking at Teen-Suicide Forums Difficult, But Rewarding, Choice,” Sno-Isle Libraries blog, July 1, 2016, accessed July 14, 2019.
- Susan LaPlante.