Library hosts series of public innovation meetings

Julian Gerez, Assistant City Editor

The Evanston Public Library hosted a series of community conversations in May to explore shared aspirations for the city from residents.

Community engagement librarian Jill Skwerski, who is helping lead the initiative in Evanston, said some of the issues that have been discussed so far include the safety of the community, making sure every kid is getting opportunities for success and making Evanston a welcoming place for everybody.

EPL is using strategies and philosophy from The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, an independent nonprofit that “helps people and organizations address community challenges, improve their own effectiveness and do their work in a way that makes communities stronger,” according to its website.

Skwerski said these conversations are only the beginning in the process of informing how the city can provide services to its residents.

“What we’re trying to get at is what kind of community people want to live in and how that is different than the way things are now and what barriers do they see that’s preventing them from doing the work needed to create the community that they want,” she said. “This is the launching point, we try and delve into those issues and try to get people to speak sincerely about these things.”

The first conversation was held at the EPL’s main branch, 1703 Orrington Ave., on May 18. The last discussion of the first series of conversations was held Wednesday at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St. Skwerski said about eight to 15 people attended these meetings.

Michael Wood, vice president of strategic partnerships at The Harwood Institute, said their tools and training help communities improve their own effectiveness and become stronger because it helps people come together to solve problems that are important to them.

“Most people that are doing community change work … really do have the community’s best interests at heart but what happens oftentimes is that they end up making decisions that are divorced from the communities that they serve,” he said. “(They) rely on expert knowledge and data to create solutions for the community as opposed to stepping back and listening to the community.”

Skwerski said part of the process of fostering an environment where people can listen to the community is by setting some ground rules, where everyone is at an equal footing and there is mutual respect around the table.

“We want to be sure that we hear from everybody,” she said. “We’re particularly interested in hearing from voices who are not frequently heard.”

Wood echoed this sentiment saying that the conversations help foster the discovery of new ideas and concepts.

“The value of the conversations is that it often uncovers things about the community that you didn’t know,” Wood said. “Lots of people who could potentially step forward and be leaders, but no one has ever asked them about something relevant to their lives.”

However, both Wood and Skwerski agreed that there was no point in gathering information and keeping it withheld. Skwerski said the library has been “very engaged” in sharing information with city officials.

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