A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Civic Engagement through Community-Led Programming

by Valerie Wonder on March 5, 2018

VALERIE WONDER is the Community Engagement Manager at Seattle Public Library. Contact Valerie at valerie.wonder@spl.org. Valerie is currently reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

In 2017, Seattle Public Library (SPL) staff spent the year exploring the social impact of mass incarceration in our city and country. This project marked the second year
that a civic topic was selected to explore through a series designed to empower and center communities throughout Seattle.1 The Criminal Justice Series leveraged traditional engagement techniques that reflect libraries’ “bread and butter” work of information sharing, awareness raising, and enrichment, including public programs, a social media campaign, art exhibit, and related booklists. What made it noteworthy as an instrument of civic engagement was that it relied on a community-led process that placed individuals who are directly affected by criminal justice at the center of program development while library staff played a supporting role.

This strategy promotes social justice and racial equity by shifting power dynamics. Our SPL staff and the broader Seattle community are predominantly white and this project was led internally and externally by people of color. Working this way required that staff focus on empowerment of the affected community members, making the library accountable to them first and foremost, a model that also strengthened our staff capacity to do deeper community engagement work among marginalized communities.

Why Criminal Justice?

More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States2 and another 5 million people are under state supervision through probation or parole.3 Native American and Black community members are more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. People of color also receive harsher sentencing.4

These statistics may feel abstract to some library patrons, and even staff, but for those affected by mass incarceration, the numbers actually reflect real people who are loved and deeply missed—mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, sons, daughters, cousins, friends, and aging elders.

For several years, SPL has heard from community members through surveys and conversations that criminal justice is a topic they care deeply about. The national dialog on police brutality spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement put a spotlight on criminal justice across the country and reflected the experiences of many people of color in the Pacific Northwest who had long experienced injustices at the hands of police.

In 2011, a federal civil rights investigation found widespread use of excessive force and racially biased policing within the Seattle Police Department, which has since been subject to court-appointed consent decree to address disproportionate policing.5 Growing distrust of the local criminal justice system was felt by many Seattle communities, leading to community-led protests in 2016 over the decision to build a new Juvenile Detention facility in Seattle. This was a move that many felt perpetuated the incarceration of primarily black, immigrant, and Native American youth.6 With these tensions as a backdrop, conversations about criminal justice reverberated throughout Seattle.


Like a lot of public libraries, SPL has a long history of offering civic engagement programming. Often the approach has been to feature an author, panel, or documentary film that provides an expert perspective on an issue, followed by a Q&A session. These programs are open to all, and often promoted to communities that are affected by the issue at hand, but despite our best efforts they tend to draw largely middle class, educated, and white audiences. A look at the demographics of our 2017 programming bears this out. We surveyed participants at all large programs in 2017 and found that in traditional civic engagement programs, such as mayoral debates and civic conversations cohosted with our city’s Department of Planning and Community Development, audience survey respondents were 67 percent white. By contrast, survey respondents from the criminal justice series programs were 49 percent people of color.

Designing programs with equity in mind can help build relevancy within communities that may not initially consider the library part of their cultural commons. The choice of criminal justice as a topic demonstrated to some people affected by mass incarceration that library is willing to use our resources to address an urgent issue they care about. But selecting a relevant content is only the beginning. By attempting to amplify the voices of the most affected in our planning, staff were able to serve an audience that included greater representation from people of color and people with personal experience with mass incarceration—either their own or a loved one. As we work in this way, the library begins the slow institutional work of moving beyond the practice of information sharing and awareness-raising that serves a relatively privileged audience toward a practice of empowerment and of accountability to communities most affected by the social justice issue at hand. This distinction is critical to the success of the Criminal Justice Series.

This equity-based engagement model takes time. Whereas a typical public programming approach is to complete all planning up front; create brochures or website content; and then go to work promoting the series to the broader community; centering affected communities and planning collaboratively means being flexible with time and challenging our internal processes. The programs and materials developed through this series evolved throughout the year, each activity building on the previous. This approach can create a greater sense of ownership among partners and staff, which ultimately results in broader participation as people we might not reach through our traditional channels learn about the series through trusted sources in their own networks.

Prison Abolition

At a community level, exploring mass incarceration means grappling with notions of freedom and liberation—realms that cities and libraries rarely touch.

In early 2017, SPL’s Public Engagement Program Manager Davida Ingram convened a group of criminal justice reform organizers to guide the library’s work. These advisors included legal advocates, academics, and nonprofits that serve justice-involved youth and adults. Several of the individuals have personal experience behind bars, and the library worked to ensure those perspectives were given weight in decision making.

As the series began, participating community leaders made an intentionally bold request: Can we work together to explore abolition—imagining a world without prisons? Honoring that request meant deliberately humanizing the community members who are affected by mass incarceration. It also meant offering real representations of abolitionists—people who believe we can build a society so healthy that we do not need prisons. Through the Criminal Justice Series we leaned on guidance from community voices to build broader awareness about over-incarceration.

This work began through our public programs early in 2017, starting with a conversation on the school-to-prison pipeline and a screening of Ava Duvernay’s 2016 documentary, 13th. These programs set a baseline, offering accessible information paired with partner-led panels that gave a platform to people who had experience behind bars and programs that support justice-involved communities. They also demonstrated to partners that the library was serious about collaboration and adopting a power-sharing approach.

Listening and Power Sharing

Community leaders who are addressing mass incarceration lead busy lives that include a lot of unpaid work, solving civic problems that they did not create. Their organizations are often rich in wisdom, leadership, and critical analysis, but low on cash, resources, and institutional influence. By comparison, SPL is a city department with an annual operating budget of more than $60 million, a staff of 680 people, and the ear of the mayor, city council, and other influencers. For our partners, working with us can mean hours of additional unpaid time, creating vulnerabilities that they are too smart to enter into lightly. To really begin to collaborate with our partners we needed to recognize the power imbalance that is intrinsic to the relationship and begin to break it down by offering transparency and accountability.

Some of our partners were people Ingram and other staff had worked with in the past and established an open and trusting relationship with. For others, the library needed to show up and demonstrate that we are willing to share power and are invested in more than just in putting on a great set of programs. We had to assure them that we intended to support their organizations and communities. One way we did this was to double-down on our commitment to listening and learning.

Meaningful community engagement means approaching conversations from a place of learning and openness. It starts with listening. One way we listened was to take part in the Black Prisoners Caucus’s (BPC) “teach-ins.” For forty years, BPC has helped families and community members remain connected to their incarcerated loved ones. Their powerful teach-ins bring loved ones, advocates, and in some cases people who have never seen the impact of incarceration directly to state prisons. In a helpful reversal of power, three library staff members took part in these efforts last year. Each was humbled by the agency and leadership of the incarcerated men and the family and friends who work so hard to support and empower them. The incarcerated BPC leaders see their work with fellow inmates and the public as the necessary “healing” that begins well before they head to parole and reentry.

Like all of BPC’s work, these teach-ins are led by their incarcerated members. Another key community partner, Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT), follows a similar organizing model. FIGHT assists primarily Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) who are or have been incarcerated, often working to reweave social bonds between family back home and members inside prisons. One of their current projects is a curriculum on Pacific Islander culture that prisoners requested and will teach to other prisoners to build cultural pride by connecting with their heritage. FIGHT also strongly advocated against the deportation of Cambodians in the face of increased deportations in 2017.

Both FIGHT and BPC are committed to addressing the power dynamic that exists in their organizations, with privileged staff and (primarily) volunteers truly sharing power and following the leadership of their incarcerated members. Even meetings are scheduled at times when inmates are able to call and lead the discussion. This model of shared power had a deep impact on library staff and challenged us to examine our own practices.

Beyond Public Programs A third key partner in this work was Creative Justice. Creative Justice functions as an alternative to incarceration. It has served more than one hundred youth and advocated to get over seventy felony charges dropped. Master artists and teachers mentor Creative Justice’s court-involved youth participants who want to get their lives on track and focus on developing leadership skills.

Collaborating with Creative Justice offered us an opportunity to use the arts to discuss criminal justice and to create space for youth voices in the series. The youth involved helped the library develop a social media campaign on criminal justice. They took part in social media training and met legal advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, and Columbia Legal Services who assisted with content. To bring these voices to life and humanize the face of criminal justice, a portrait project was launched that included these local youth, elders, and even Seattle Seahawks football star Michael Bennett. Understanding that portraiture and photography can by its nature put the sitter in a vulnerable position, we worked with a local photographer, Naomi Ishisaka, who had previously built trust with many local Seattle communities. Several of the resulting pieces are included in this article (used with permission of Seattle Public Library).

Relationship Building

On December 15, 2017, the series’ culminating event, SOMEDAY WE’LL ALL BE FREE, took up the topic of abolition. Creative Justice, FIGHT, and BPC all helped design the program, and speakers were primarily artists and cultural workers, with personal experiences of incarceration or court-involvement. Those speakers reflected communities that contend with painful disparities in sentencing and prison time, including Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx, and immigrants of color. Los Angeles poet laureate and prison activist Luis Rodriguez was the event’s keynote speaker. He shared his journey from addiction, prisons, and homelessness to award-winning poetry and personal healing. His point-blank suggestion to the 250-plus crowd was: “To abolish mass incarceration, we need to abolish poverty.”

Ultimately the community partners modeled how meaningful relationship-building can be the one of the most important parts of community engagement work at the library. It is exciting to see that these relationships are resulting in more community-led work at the library. One opportunity that grew from this work is a six-month project led by FIGHT and supported by library staff that will launch in spring 2018. Ingram is still working with Creative Justice, now on arranging a spring art exhibit of their work at Seattle City Hall, which will be a catalyst for a continuing conversation with other arts and culture stakeholders who will celebrate the artistry of the youth advisors while listening up to hear what community wants to do next.

A Few Final Notes for Librarians and Managers

Much of the work described here was initiated and led by library staff who are experienced community workers and who have a deep commitment to dismantling structural racism and creating joy for people of color. If you or your staff are new to this work, take time and move with intention. Missteps will occur. Don’t let fear of screwing up get in the way of facilitating important community engagement, but think about how to avoid causing unintended harm, especially when working with marginalized communities. Here are a few tips for consideration:

  • Have a clearly defined racial equity framework. Be explicit about this with your partners. If you are a manager, work with staff to articulate the framework. Don’t be afraid to adjust it as you learn.
  • Show up and listen. Attend your partners’ meetings and events and listen to what matters to them, even if you think their interests or needs are outside of the library’s purview. Managers should make sure staff have enough schedule flexibility to be supportive partners.
  • Understand your biases and privilege. Talk with your colleagues about how your biases and your privilege might impact your work before you start your process, this is particularly important if you are white and working with communities of color. If you are a manager, initiate these conversations with your staff.
  • Start slowly. Consider working with a community you have prior history with or an issue you know well as opposed to a very vulnerable population that could be inadvertently harmed in this process.
  • Be honest with partners. If you are new to this work, let your partners know, and faithfully follow their guidance. Include room in your budget to offer an honorarium for the time they spend schooling you.
  • Take time. If you expect community to lead, be prepared to stretch your timeline. If you are a manager, give your staff room to ex.
  • Hire differently, train accordingly. Even at SPL not all staff are comfortable doing community work. Pair staff of different comfort levels to create a mentoring relationship and be explicit about the learning expectations. Prioritize community engagement experience in the hiring process, even if it means looking beyond the MLIS.

A special thank you to Davida Ingram, Public Engagement Program Manager at the Seattle Public Library, for her contributions to this article and for supporting me as I continue to develop my equity practices. Search for SPL’s Twitter handle @SPLBuzz and the hashtag #criminaljustice to join the conversation.

Facebook and Podcast Links

Beyond the School to Prison Pipeline with Dr. Edwin Nichols

13th by Ava Duvernay

Someday We’ll All Be Free: A Conversation about Abolition

References and Notes

  1. Our 2016 topic was youth, family, and adult homelessness; our 2018 topic is environmental justice, particularly as it impacts indigenous communities.
  2. Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Wash., DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, Mar. 2009), accessed Feb. 15, 2018.
  3. Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, ”Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017,” Prison Policy Initiative (Mar. 14, 2017), accessed Feb. 15, 2018.
  4. American Civil Liberties Union, “Racial Disparities in Sentencing: Hearing on Reports of Racism in the Justice System of the United States,” submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 153rd session (Oct. 27, 2014), accessed Feb. 15, 2018.
  5. United States of America v. City of Seattle, Civil Action No. 12-CV- 1282 Settlement Agreement and Stipulated (Proposed) Order of Resolution, accessed Feb. 15, 2018. On Jan. 10, 2018, a U.S. District Judge found the police department is now in compliance with the reforms and the city now enters phase 2 of the consent decree; Steve Miletich and Mike Carter, “Seattle Police Found In ‘Full and Effective Compliance’ With Court-Ordered Reforms,” Seattle Times (Jan. 10, 2018), accessed Feb. 15, 2018.
  6. King County, Office of the Executive, “Juvenile Justice in King County,” accessed Feb. 15, 2018.

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