Virginia is a member of our church who was recently elected to the Oak Park Library Board.
We're you interested in running for political office before running for the library board or was this the first office you thought about running for? Or have served in a public office before?
I have not served in a public office before, but when I was younger I was very engaged in UMC youth leadership and served on the District Council on Youth Ministry, Regional Council on Youth Ministry, and Conference Council on Youth Ministry for several years, so I figured I had Robert’s Rules in hand and the rest I could learn.
I had not intended to run for office. Two years ago, I attempted to join a few of the councils and commissions around the village, but found it really difficult to get a seat at the table, so I learned quickly if I wanted one, getting elected was probably the best (easiest?) way to go about it. As things do, my interest started when someone mentioned something on Facebook. MaryAnn Mohanraj offered to meet with me and talk about the position; later I met with Christian Harris and several other employees of the library and determined I might be able to have some fun ... I mean do some good working with the Library Board.
I ran working with the OPRF for Racial Equity candidates and saw that the library can and is really serving as a leader in Oak Park in efforts to provide access to information, materials and support to everyone.
Was running for the board worth the stress? What was the greatest stressor and how did you deal with it?
It was worth the stress, but I was running uncontested and only saw second hand how stressful and hurtful running for office can really be. I think, like most things, the most stressful part of adding a new facet to your life is finding the time w/o sacrificing other things that are important to you and not compromising your new endeavor. Balance is important.
The second hardest part of running was knowing that some of my responses were going to upset and anger people, but still being honest. I ran into more than a few people asking what I proposed to do about “the homeless problem”, and my answers were not satisfying to them at all. Where some constituents advocated for removing their privileges, or limiting them to a certain sector of the building, I expressed a desire to help them feel more incorporated in to the Oak Park community and ensuring OPPL had the resources and expertise to help them through the issues related to housing insecurity. Several people did advise that they would not be voting for me, and I politely reminded them I was uncontested – maybe not the best move if I want to run for reelection.
What does the library board do? And what are your individual duties, if any, on the board?
The library board works to keep the work in the library in line with the goals and values of the community. Right now I do not have any individual responsibilities aside from being a very new and green trustee. Personally, I’m trying to keep up with issues related to diversity and representation.
Why is it important that a community have a library? With everything on line, aren't libraries obsolete?
Sit and think through your day; where you go who you see… How many of those places welcome you if you are not paying for a good, services, membership, etc? Probably not many; I mean, it took quite a doozy of a story for Starbucks to let people wait w/o purchasing.
We live in a time and place where information and community have been turned into commodities – we have to pay for the privilege of access to each other. Libraries serve as a level playing field for informed and inclusive conversation, learning, community organizing, building businesses, meeting your neighbors (gasp). The OPPL has programs for every interest and demographic that allows people who may otherwise never meet to come together on common ground and build relationships based on mutual respect.
There are also books.
There was a recent movie called The Public about the library and homelessness. How do those two things intersect? What did you think of the movie?
As I said, the library is one of the last public spaces available year round, in all weather, to all people. Good libraries have books on how to apply for jobs, build a career, or do other things that can help someone end their fight with housing insecurity. Great libraries have people to help navigate resources and programs or to connect those in need to community organizations with the power to help.
The movie really put a spotlight on housing insecurity being a voluntarily hidden issue, meaning in many communities the lack of aide comes from an unwillingness to admit there is a problem. In those cases it is important for those of us in the community who are less/not marginalized to acknowledge and use our voices to their benefit as Emilio Estevez’s character did.
Was there a moment or scene in the movie that made you go, 'Yes, this is why I'm doing this'?
SPOILER ALERT There was a point in the film that resonated with me from my time working with PADS. At a point later in the movie it is revealed that the main character at one time was homeless and that that may explain some of his actions and attitudes. You don’t have to experience homelessness to have empathy for those living through housing insecurity, but the larger point is that any of us, all of us, are not too far from housing insecurity. Statistics on household savings and debt, rising costs of rent, working multiple job, costs of medical care, and stagnant wages are all stories and articles that we have read and perhaps felt removed from, but we are not that far removed. We should sit in the discomfort with those facts and search for resolution.
It is to everyone’s benefit to make homelessness as short lived and dignified as possible for our neighbors. The main character was an example of what happens when it all goes right – when resources, ability, and opportunity all work in a person’s favor. In my time volunteering with Housing Forward, I met lots of people with full time jobs, degrees, rich careers, supportive spouses who were sleeping in the Fellowship Hall. I had lots in common with them; they shared parenting and pregnancy tips, recipes, job experience, book recommendations. The main character could be seen as a person because he was integrated into the community, but he was a bridge to the homeless population and an advocate. We do this work so that everyone can been seen.
How is this role melding with your everyday life?
It’s AWFUL! I now have too many book and program recommendations and don’t know what to do with myself.
Honestly, it’s going very well. There is a time commitment and a learning curve, but I already feel that I am accepted and valued on the board and that makes a huge difference in melding a new responsibility into my life and schedule. It also does not hurt that one of my son’s favorite places to be is the library, so I get a lot of undercover community research done while he works on making friends and building his little community as well.
What do you want the community to know about the Oak Park library system?
It is not just books and it is waiting for your input. I’m very proud that this library has made it a central pillar of their work to provide access to materials and resources equitably. It is really a place where our values become manifest. Looking at changes to library processes (can we say fee/fine free), the programs in place, the emphasis placed on inclusion, the root is always about reaching more people and meeting them where they are so they can go where they want to be.
The library will be doing some community surveys later in the year to ask the community what they want to see in the way of community programs and library usage. If you get something like that fill it out so we can hear your voice.