San José Public Library on Using the Aspirations Exercise

San José Public Library is part of the Libraries Transforming Communities Public Innovators Cohort, a group of 10 public libraries chosen to undergo an extensive 18-month training in the “turning outward” approach. In May, a team of five San José librarians and community partners attended a three-day training taught by Harwood Institute educators in Denver. Here, librarian Randall Studstill describes his team’s experience bringing that training home to his entire library. (Access all the resources Studstill mentions with the links below, or visit Resources for Library Professionals.)

When our San José team got back from the Public Innovators Lab in Denver, we were very excited to get started with some of the Harwood tools. We thought the best place to start would be with our Seven Trees Branch library staff using the Turn Outward tool and the Aspirations exercise. We wanted our staff to understand what it means to “turn outward” and why this is so important for us as a library.

We originally wanted to try both tools at one of our all-staff meetings, but as we planned for the meeting, we realized we probably would not be able to do both in the one-hour allotted time. In order to save time at the meeting, we decided to post the Turn Outward tool online and ask our staff to complete the survey before the meeting. We hoped this would give us more time to focus on the Aspirations exercise during the meeting. (We used ClassMarker to create the survey. ClassMarker offers a free trial, but if you use the service with even a moderately sized group expect to pay a fee.)

San Jose Public Library staff leading the Aspirations Exercise

We intentionally created the survey so that responses would be submitted anonymously. We wanted our staff to feel comfortable being honest when evaluating their own orientation as either “inward” or “outward.” The Turn Outward tool was posted a week before the meeting, and by the day of the meeting almost our entire staff had completed it. One of the nice things about ClassMarker is an easy-to-read display of quiz results, including an average score for all submissions. Looking at those results, we could see that our staff already leans more “outward” than “inward, though we still have room for improvement.

Almost the entire staff of the Seven Trees Branch attended the staff meeting: 40 people including aids, clerks, library assistants, librarians and our branch manager Michelle Amores (who is one of the members of our LTC team and helped facilitate the exercise). Our regular business took longer than we had planned, so we ended up with only about 35 minutes to talk about Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC).

We provided some background information about LTC and explained the purpose of our participation in the initiative: learning ways to play a more effective role in helping bring about positive change in the Seven Trees community. We talked about the difference between “turning outward” and “turning inward,” using the Turn Outward tool as a point of reference for our discussion. The tool provided some helpful terminology for describing the two orientations (activity vs. action, process vs. progress, etc.) and served as evidence that we are already leaning outward as an organization.

We then explained the Aspirations exercise and passed out the Aspirations questionnaire for staff to complete individually. Once we opened up the discussion to the group, our staff jumped right in with their ideas. We talked about aspirations, challenges and conditions for change. We easily filled up our chart paper with responses to each question, but we ran out of time before we could talk about themes and patterns.

Even though we ran out of time, we were able to gather the information we needed for the Aspirations Narrative. A few team members met later to create a statement that will support our staff as they seek to “turn outward” and make the community their guiding point of reference. The narrative reads:

We hope to live in a community where neighbors communicate with each other and support each other. There will be a high level of civic engagement as people work together to solve community problems and work with city officials and political leaders to help meet community needs. The community will be clean and safe, with affordable housing, good jobs and well-maintained public parks. However, right now our community faces the challenges of high crime and financial insecurity. Civic engagement is low, as many members of the community feel overwhelmed just trying to make ends meet and pessimistic about the possibility of change. In order to realize our aspirations, we need to find ways to build stronger networks of communication among community members, encourage civic engagement, and build a sense of political empowerment that motivates community members to take action to solve local problems.

We also learned some valuable lessons about how to do this exercise in the future. First, we need to do a better job managing our time. At our meeting, we only had time to gather responses to each question. For future Aspirations exercises, we want to make sure that we also have to time to discuss common patterns and themes and write the Aspirations Narrative at the meeting.

Second, doing the exercise has given us a better sense of what kind of information we are trying to gather. I think both our LTC team and our staff weren’t completely clear about what’s meant by “New Conditions.” Looking over our chart of New Conditions after the exercise, our team realized that many of the items identified by our staff are closer to aspirations than conditions for change. For example, one of the items listed as a New Condition was immigration reform. When staff suggested this as a New Condition, it would have been a perfect opportunity to guide the conversation to more specific things that need to change in the community to make immigration reform possible (for example, strong grassroots organizing to apply to political pressure to state and federal government officials). In some cases, a response fit the question, but some deeper probing would have enriched the discussion and enhanced the quality of the information we gathered from our staff. For example, “illegal dumping” was identified as a challenge by one of our staff. That response could have been used to consider the issue more deeply. A simple question — why is illegal dumping happening? — might have inspired further reflection on community challenges. Is the underlying problem insufficient law enforcement? Does illegal dumping reflect a lack of information or education? Are dump fees too high for members of our community to afford?

Other than posting the Aspiration Narrative in our staff area, our team is still thinking about how we can continue to encourage a “turn outward” among our staff. We have been planning Community Conversations to gather knowledge from our community, but this does not directly involve our staff (though those conversations may eventually lead to actions by the library that will involve staff). At minimum, we will continue to talk about “turning outward” at our all-staff meetings. We will keep our staff informed of the various activities and tools we are using (e.g., Community Conversations, Innovation Spaces), showing them how “turning outward” works in practice and perhaps suggesting ways they might contribute to or support those activities. We may lead a discussion on ways that an orientation outward could be applied to a specific library service or operation. Another way we might reinforce a “turn outward” among our staff is by having them pair up and do the Ask Exercise with library patrons or visitors to the Seven Trees Community Center (the Seven Trees Library and the Community Center occupy the same building).

In sum, the Aspirations exercise was a promising first step in our shift to become more “outward” in our orientation. Judging by their enthusiastic participation in the exercise and the results from the online survey, the message of “turning outward” seemed to resonate with our staff. We were able to use the information we gathered to create an Aspiration Narrative that reinforces our commitment to put the community first. It was also a great learning experience for us as facilitators of Aspirations exercises. We have a better sense of how we can guide conversations in the future and make the exercise an even more effective tool for shifting an organization’s orientation from its own processes and concerns to the community it serves.