'Turning Outward' in Practice: Q&A with Jill Skwerski of Evanston Public Library

Jill Skweski, Evanston (Ill.) Public LibraryLibraries around the country are already putting the “turning outward” approach to work in their communities. Jill Skwerski is a community engagement librarian at Evanston (Ill.) Public Library; in October 2013, she attended a Harwood Institute Public Innovators Lab with members of her staff. Here, she tells ALA her library’s experience with the Harwood Institute’s “turning outward” approach. (Access the resources Skwerski mentions with the links below, or visit Resources for Library Professionals. For a deeper knowledge of this approach, read about our upcoming ALA/Harwood Public Innovators Lab for Libraries.)

How were you introduced to the "turning outward" approach?

My library sent six staff members to an ALA/Harwood Institute training last October. Prior to that, I had no experience with Harwood. I have always been intrigued by the idea of libraries leading community change, though. Libraries are trusted institutions, and we don’t have a political affiliation or agenda. We hold a very unique position in our communities, one that we can use to gather public knowledge and help facilitate change.

How have you used the method in your community so far?

We started by doing Harwood’s three-minute Ask exercise with patrons in our lobby and with residents at our at various community locations, like park district buildings and schools. The six of us talked to people about what kind of community they wanted and what needed to happen to achieve that kind of community. We were surprised at how open people were to talking about their community. 

Since then, we have facilitated three community conversations — small group conversations where you ask people questions like “What kind of community do you want?” and  “What do you think is keeping us from making the progress we want?" and finally, “What groups or individuals would you trust to take action on these things?” They are simple questions, but they are carefully worded to get people thinking in a collaborative and open-minded direction.

For those conversations, we brought together folks from the YMCA, faith community, school districts, local organizations and regular residents. It was a good mix, and we have already heard some recurring themes — things like diversity, safety, equal opportunity for school kids and affordable housing. But we are going to delve deeper. We are planning another round of conversations this fall, and we’re going to work harder to hear from some of the more “unusual suspects” — people who might not come to the library and who don’t often have their voices heard.

What do you think will come out of those conversations?

Well, the whole point is that we are becoming a bearer of public knowledge. That means, if we hear that Evanston needs another coffee shop, we will advocate for another coffee shop.

We’d like to get a sense of the shared work that people throughout Evanston are willing to contribute to, that will make this the type of community we all would like. We want to become a better connected community; we want Evanston’s organizations, including the library, to be in deeper conversation with each other about how we’re supporting our residents, and be able to work together to tackle the problems that our community wants us to take on. The more we do, the more we talk to each other, the more we are starting to find those common threads that will help us make change. And we hope that people continue to think of libraries as an absolutely irreplaceable part of that process.