Our new manager of public safety asks, ‘How can I empower others?’

Aaron Alonzo, who joined the library in 2017, is the library’s new Manager of Public Safety. Outside the Main Library, he shows his certificate from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation’s 2020 Leadership Lab.

As our library’s approach to public safety has evolved over the past five years, library staff member Aaron Alonzo has grown along with it. He started at the library in 2017 in a part-time role, and has since worked to become a leader in the organization.

This month, Alonzo was promoted to Manager of Public Safety. He also recently completed the 2020 Leadership Lab, a program of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, which he says widened his network of community partners as well as his views on leadership.

“You don’t necessarily have to be at the top of an organization to be a leader,” Alonzo says. “And every leader is different. I think about leadership as, ‘How can I empower others?'”

Evolving public safety with empathy & engagement

Social services team starts growing in 2016

In 2016, the library hired a social worker as part of our strategy to rethink how we engage with all patrons. Since then, Director of Social Services and Public Safety Robert Simmons has built a team to ensure the security and safety of all library patrons and staff members, plus connect people with resources and social services in the Oak Park area, including homeless and at-risk individuals using the library.

As part of this approach, Simmons hired library employees to replace externally contracted security guards. These Public Safety Specialists are trained to take a trauma-informed care approach, help connect patrons to community resources, and prioritize respect and dignity. Alonzo joined the library in 2017 as one of these employees, with a commitment to ensuring safety while engaging people with empathy.

“Our ultimate goal is to make the library a safe environment for patrons and staff,” Alonzo said in 2018, then in a supervisory role. “With any of our patrons, we don’t know what they’re going through, or what just happened to them that day.”

Expanding commitment to public health

In 2019, the team further deepened its focus on public health and safety for all in the community, particularly for those most vulnerable and marginalized. For example, Simmons partnered with Rush Chicago Medical Center to begin providing confidential mental health assessments at the Main Library for people without adequate health care coverage (virtual and telehealth appointments continue to be scheduled during the pandemic).

Now Manager of Public Safety, Alonzo’s role has expanded to include coordinating all the library’s public health devices and supplies, such as AEDs and Naloxone. He also trains and empowers staff in public health interventions, such as providing first aid and carrying out emergency evacuations.

“Aaron will continue providing his leadership on building a comprehensive Public Safety model that serves staff and patrons,” Simmons says. “I am very excited for Aaron and look forward to working with him in this new role.”

Working to keep everyone safe during the pandemic

Since the pandemic hit in March, services and library building access have been limited. Public safety staff have worked to monitor building and floor capacity, ensure that all children are accompanied by adults, and ask visitors to comply with rules such as not gathering, wearing face coverings, and physically distancing.

They also have continued to connect people with resources such as Housing Forward and to refer vulnerable patrons to Simmons, who helps connect them with community resources and services.

And as winter approaches and more vulnerable patrons require safe and warm spaces, Simmons and his team are increasing their communications with partners in other social service organizations, to ensure they are able to provide the necessary services and referrals.

Leading by working together

The most recent cohort of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation’s Leadership Lab met every Friday from September 2019 through October 2020. By completing the lab, Alonzo says he now has a deeper knowledge of the broader Oak Park area, including neighboring communities.

He also has more connections with community leaders, resources, and organizations that his team may be referring people to, including Beyond Hunger, Riveredge Hospital, Housing Forward, and LIVE Cafe.

“These connections will help me to be able to spread more information to the public and help people who may need more assistance and guidance,” he says.

Another valuable part of the lab, he says, was hearing different leaders’ stories—seeing where they came from and how their leadership styles and backgrounds vary.

Alonzo’s own background includes work as a police officer. Now a leader in public safety at the library, he also serves on the Anti-Racism Advisory Team, which has been working together to develop the library’s Equity and Anti-Racism Strategic Plan.

“I never envisioned working at a library,” he says. “But now that I’m here I don’t envision my life without it.”