Change begins with a conversation. It doesn’t begin with angry arguments, hatred or apathy. It begins with mutual understanding, love and deep empathy. If we all leave politics aside, most people would agree that no one deserves to be without a home or the basic needs with which to survive. We decided this as a nation when we built a social safety net after the Great Depression. People often seem to diverge when it comes to exactly *how* we solve problems, both on a national scale and at the local level.
I’ve observed (and unfortunately been a part of) numerous political arguments, both in-person and online. What I’ve seen recently is a lack of willingness to even have a conversation with someone who may not agree with everything you stand for. These ‘arguments’ were once healthy debate and have since devolved into a reluctance to try to understand where another person may be coming from. The more we demonize each other by dismissing someone as a “boomer” or a “snowflake” or any other name (many not so nice), the further away we get from meaningful change. As much as I like to disagree with the other political party, I truly believe that many people on separate sides of the aisle would like to see a lot of the same outcomes but can’t seem to agree on how we get there.
Last week, the library had a Community Book Discussion that brought a little light through the clouds of divisiveness. It is my hope that conversations like these happening at libraries all over the country will continue to part the clouds.
At the beginning of the year, the Jacksonville Public Library won a grant from the American Library Association through the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative. This grant allowed the library to purchase a small fleet of tablets, books for everyone who participated and advertisement for the event. The tablets allowed those without Internet or technology at home the chance to participate in the conversation because it took place on Zoom.
I first decided on the idea for this project in the late fall/early winter of 2020. I saw an article about the challenges that our local community chaplain/resource officer, Alan Bradish, was facing in terms of trying to secure a space for a temporary homeless shelter. Although a different space was eventually used for the duration of the winter, there is still no permanent shelter for people without a home as of July 2021. The article that I saw on social media discussing this issue had a handful of misinformed and mean-spirited comments. Also, the Jacksonville Public Library has always been a welcoming place where those without a home can spend their time and it felt imperative for the library to be part of the conversation. I felt like there had to be a way to get people to talk about poverty and homelessness in our community in a more constructive and meaningful way. Once I saw the grant announcement, it felt like the perfect opportunity to make my thoughts become reality. I reached out to Alan Bradish along with a local sociology professor at Illinois College, Dr. Jackie Tabor. They were gracious enough to co-lead the discussion with me to bring their perspectives and knowledge to everyone.
All of the participants in the discussion received the book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond when they signed up for the event. The goal was to use the book as a starting point and to give participants a grounding in the subject matter, particularly if they hadn’t experienced poverty in their own lives. Even though the book takes place in Milwaukee, the same themes and struggles can be witnessed in our much smaller town. The book follows multiple people and families who are consistently on the verge of housing insecurity. My feelings while reading this book ranged from deep sadness to rage and not much in-between. Many of the participants shared similar experiences while reading Evicted. Even though I both wrote and chose questions to ask in case the conversation petered out, there were fewer opportunities to ask them than I had anticipated.
Everyone kept the conversation going with a sharing of experiences and ideas. People with a broad range of opinions immediately began sharing what they thought of both the book and ways to potentially help locally. Alan gave everyone a lot of options in terms of community resources that already exist. A number of people reached out to me after the event to tell me that they would be contacting Alan to see how they could help and volunteer their time.
There were times throughout the conversation when a few people disagreed with each other ideologically but for the most part, everyone remained civil and tried to get on the same page. By the end of the conversation, everyone agreed that something needed to be done to help the “working poor” or those struggling to maintain housing. The main solution presented in the Desmond book is a national housing voucher system. We talked about this solution briefly but immediately realized that the solution may need to be even bigger than that. In order to end poverty once and for all in this country, the issue would need to be addressed differently depending on the zip code. Something that would work in Los Angeles certainly would not work in Jacksonville and then there are all the cities of various population sizes in between. It’s hard to imagine such a complex and creative idea that could address eviction and poverty on such a large scale. One suggestion from a participant was that people who care about poverty should run for office so that some of these programs could be brought to light. One thing is for certain: most people who read the book and shared in the conversation left that night knowing more about their community and those in need and learned of ways to follow up if they so chose.
I was pleasantly surprised by everything that occurred during the discussion because I didn’t know what to expect. I had never run a book discussion with so many people and I was afraid it might be overwhelming if a number of people tried to talk at once. However, I announced a few ground rules about how to talk and mute on Zoom and it seemed to clear up any issues that may have occurred. All in all, 42 people attended and learned from one another. To paraphrase something that I stated in my grant proposal… it’s very difficult to hold on to an uninformed opinion about the lives of others when you’ve just read hundreds of pages illuminating something you may have known nothing about. I can certainly say I learned from what every single person had to say and it filled my heart with hope to hear people with different ideologies be able to have a big picture discussion again.
After the event, around 15 people e-mailed me to talk about how much they enjoyed being able to join in. Many expressed an interest in events like this in the future. After some brain-storming, we’ve decided that the library will begin hosting “article” discussions. These discussions will be based on long-form articles about a range of topics from science to social issues to so much more. The idea is that most people are busy and a long article is more accessible to everyone. We’ll make the events hybrid so people can attend either in-person or on Zoom. This might not happen every month but I’d also love to be able to find someone in the community who is an “expert” or well-informed on the topic at hand to help with the discussion. I haven’t set a date or named this idea yet but watch the Jacksonville Public Library website (www.jaxpl.org) or social media for announcements.
Thank you again to everyone who was involved for making this a wonderful experience for so many people. Let’s all continue talking and working together to make Jacksonville the best it can be. -Sarah Snyder, Assistant Director/Adult Services Librarian