Root for Columbus: It Took a Village to Make Our Tree

By Cindy Fesemyer, director, Columbus Public Library

Columbus (Wis.) Public Library is one of 10 libraries taking part in an intensive 18-month training in the “turning outward” approach. Here, Cindy Fesemyer describes the Root for Columbus project, in which her library is sending a “wishing tree” around town to collect residents’ aspirations for Columbus. Not only is the exercise getting people thinking, but it’ll result in data that will help the library in the next phase of the process: tackling the challenges that are most important to residents.

Root for Columbus: A place where everyone is respected for who they are

About six months into our Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) training grant, the team from Columbus, Wis., decided to add another tool to our community organizers’ toolbox. Well, we didn’t decide so much as bend to the creative mind that is Mary Lou Sharpee, one of our team members. Mary Lou had a vision of something colorful and interactive that would get people talking in our community. She had a vision, and the library had a good deal of help turning that vision into a reality.

More things for kids to do after school and family events; accepting of differences; great schools

In early October, we launched the Root for Columbus campaign. The first week of the campaign, there were three ways to "root for Columbus" within the library itself. The two that are still here are construction paper trees, bare of leaves. One tree is on the tall glass doors to our very busy community room, and the second is on the bulletin board by the magazines and fireplace. Beside each tree is a Root for Columbus sign — complete with the library’s logo — and the question, “What kind of community do you want?” Beside the trees are fall leaves (die-cut construction paper) for people to write their answers on.

And, boy, are they answering. We’re getting lots really specific suggestions like “better roads,” “jobs,” “a new park or playground,” “less homework” and “better shopping options.” We are also seeing, over and over and over, variations on the theme of “a united community all working together.” Columbus is crying out for a more collaborative community. Enter the LTC team.

The first step in “turning outward” is asking your community about their aspirations. Full disclosure: We felt the word aspirations might be a little too highfalutin for some folks, so with some help from Harwood Institute coach Carlton Sears and our LTC Public Innovators Cohort, we rephrased the aspirations question. This was especially important for the third way to Root for Columbus.

Kids hang tags on the Root for Columbus tree

With A LOT of excellent help from the Columbus Department of Public Works (DPW), we built ourselves a tree. Well, Mother Nature grew the tree, but we repurposed Her design. I met the DPW director out on some land belonging to a friend of his. He was going to cut back some scrub trees along a driveway and invited the library to make use of one of those trees.

Bare of autumn leaves, the scrawny thing reminded me of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree before the holiday magic. Well, some DPW workers cut it to size, trimmed branches and welded a tree stand for us. Our library system graphic artist created signage for the tree and we were off and running. Patrons tell us what they want for their community by writing it down and taping up die-cut fall leaves to the 2-D trees or tying colorful gift tags onto the 3-D tree.

And the beautiful part of the whole campaign . . . the tree travels!

Community partnerships are vital to this project. Since its initial one-week stint at the library, the 3-D tree has found a home at the Columbus Public Middle School and then the elementary school. (The middle school principal even facilitated the next-day return of ALA media release forms for the photos you see here.) Next our tree goes to a bank lobby out near the highway interchange. After that, a downtown coffee shop, then the high school during parent/teacher conferences, then the Columbus Community Hospital — and who knows what next.

Have tree, will travel. We’re open to suggestions. That’s pretty much the whole point, right?

Learn how to implement the "turning outward" approach with these free tools.