Oak Park Talks: First impressions

By David J. Seleb, Executive Director, Oak Park Public Library

I was introduced to the Harwood practice in October 2013, while attending a Public Innovators Lab in Washington, DC, sponsored by the American Library Association and the Harwood Institute. I have since spoken with and learned from many members of the Oak Park community. Each conversation showed the community’s diversity. Different age groups, races, sexes, and educational and socio-economic levels were represented. The questions asked, however, were always the same: What kind of community do you want? What concerns do you have about the community? What do you think is keeping the community from making progress? What can be done to make a difference? Who would you trust to take action? What would success look like to you? There are other questions as well, all designed to get people talking about what they want for their community.

What Oak Park told its library

Common themes across library-led Community Conversations included:

  • Diversity, Inclusion, Participation, and Equity. Community members honor and appreciate Oak Park’s diversity. They want to retain it. It is an important reason they came to Oak Park or remain in Oak Park. They want it in all its forms, including in thought and opinion, economic diversity, racial diversity, and political diversity. They are concerned that this diversity is becoming more difficult to maintain as the cost of living in Oak Park increases.
  • Economy. Common statements were that taxes are too high, fees are too high, there is very little business development happening, and the community is a victim of years of poor economic decision-making. Some participants were apprehensive regarding their future ability to remain in Oak Park, especially as they get older. Many discussed the lack of affordable housing options, especially for senior citizens. This latter theme echoed back to the theme of diversity and inclusion.
  • Education and Learning. Oak Park as a community of learners, thinkers, and readers was a powerfully important theme for the participants. It was described as indispensable for the kind of participatory and progressive community that people said they wanted. For this to continue to happen, people would need, they said, more opportunities to come together to discuss, to debate, and to learn – more meeting spaces, more gathering spaces. Here especially the participants talked about the need for the library to help to accomplish this. As perceived threats to an educated and learned community, the participants talked about the community’s education gap or unequal opportunities for learning. Digital literacy, lifelong learning, and critical thinking skills as ongoing community needs were mentioned.
  • Health, Safety, Livability. The Conversation participants want an Oak Park that is safe, welcoming, and committed to sustainability. They spoke about their desire for a community where people of all ages and walks of life want to live. They want Oak Park to be a destination, a place where people will want not only to raise their children or to spend a transitory period of time, but also to grow old. Sustainability was discussed in both this context and in the context of the desire for an enlightened and progressive place to live. It was mentioned here again that livability includes the ability to afford where you live and to afford it over the course of a lifetime.

What’s next?

What we are beginning to learn through these Community Conversations will have important implications for our vision as an organization and our future strategic planning. Taking meaningful action is the only acceptable response to the accumulation of public knowledge through the Harwood method. If we are committed to that method of gaining public knowledge – and we need to decide together if we are–then we must also be committed to accepting the possibility of the change that it may require.