Filling in the gaps

This week, a resident and partner shared with me an article from Nonprofit Quarterly titled The Organic Role of Libraries as Centers of Inclusiveness and Support, about major metro library systems who employ social workers. It’s an especially pertinent topic right now as the Midwest, where Laura and I both live, is gripped by record-breaking temperature lows. It’s only (only!) -6°F here in Cleveland. It’s gotten as low as -28°F in Chicago, and wind chills across the region have reached the -50°s. (I grew up in Tennessee, y’all. I didn’t know temps this low were even possible.) The New York Times reported Wednesday that at least 4 people have already died in relation to the cold. This week, all of our vulnerable populations are especially vulnerable.

Source: cleveland.com

Source: Joshua Gunter, cleveland.com

But librarians are vigilant. My inbox is filled with coworkers sharing resources with one another, to ensure we all know how to help anyone in need. The good news is, agencies and citizens are stepping up to care for our own. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless maintains a street card that informs people where they can find essential services for housing and food. Greater Cleveland RTA is keeping several transit centers open 24/7, and shelters are not requiring their guests to leave during the day and have promised they will turn no one away. Area social workers are working round the clock to monitor the streets and ensure no one is left outside. As I was typing this just now, a kind-hearted patron brought me a bag of brand-new hats and gloves so that we may give them away to youth in the library under-dressed for the extreme weather.

Social workers are specially trained to know how to tie all of these resources together, in a much deeper and more impactful way than librarians’ standard reference practices can achieve. Libraries like Denver Public Library and San Francisco Public Library, both in communities with high levels of need, are growing social work programs to help connect patrons with social resources. For many smaller libraries, however, adding a new staff member, let alone a team, just isn’t feasible. But by developing relationships with social work agencies in our area, we can work to fill in our gaps in service by sharing resources.

Bellefaire JCB is an agency local to us in Northeast Ohio that cares for youth in a myriad of ways–one of which is their Homeless and Missing Youth department, which administers the Safe Place program in Cuyahoga County (Greater Cleveland and many surrounding suburbs). Through this program, when a community space is designated as a Safe Place, we post an identifying sign so that any youth in trouble know they can come to any staff member and get help. In our area, we call Bellefaire, and they will come meet the youth and connect them with housing, counseling, or anything else to meet their needs. We can also just call their hotline to ask advice on how to handle a hard situation. It’s a service we at the library would struggle to meet on our own, but by partnering with Bellefaire, we’re able to help widen the safety net for at-risk youth in our area. There’s a whole network of Safe Places in Cuyahoga County; most libraries have earned the Safe Place designation, and every bus and train in RTA is a Safe Place as well. We at Shaker also partnered with our local schools and police department to ensure that students and police are aware of the program and the services Bellefaire provides.

What ways have you been able to fill in the gaps in your service through relationship building? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Meaningful Relationships and Building Community

“Community Engagement” has become a significant buzzword not just in library circles, but across all kinds of social service-oriented entities. Here in our little town of Shaker Heights (pop. <30,000), I work with no less than 5 folks from other agencies with “Community Engagement” in their job titles–at our schools, the recreation department, churches, and early childhood centers. As the digital environment grows and encompasses us all, service organizations are learning that in order to remain essential to our communities, we must go meet our residents where they are, and we must engage our neighbors more deeply in order to meet their needs.

From my perspective, the most important element and driving force of CE is simply the practice of building relationships. Whether the relationship you are developing is with another organization, with leaders in your community, or with a resident of your service district, every relationship matters. Local organizations might be potential partners, with whom you can share resources in order to provide stronger and more accessible services to your community. Local leaders set the tone for the issues your neighborhood will focus on and care about, and they can help you access new resources or lend you much-needed support for a new project. Your residents are the beating heart of your community, wherever you are, and strong relationships with residents will help you achieve deeper engagement within your neighborhoods. Taking the time to nurture relationships on all levels yields significant opportunities to work together to improve the lives of everyone we serve.

A lot of the goal-setting we do in our CE work at SHPL is based on research we are borrowing from social science literature on social capital and asset-based community development. Ultimately, we see ourselves as community builders who seek to facilitate connections among our community in order to strengthen it and grow the social capital our residents have available to them. These connections don’t have to just be between the library and community members–if we know two of our contacts at different orgs share similar goals, and we facilitate a connection so they can work together, we know we’ve done our part to help our community grow.

There’s so much more to explore in how libraries fit into this puzzle as unique community assets. Over time at the ELC, we’ll be discussing how relationships have led to wonderful collaborations in our own communities. How has a connection or relationship enriched your life lately? Tell us in the comments!