Leading change by removing barriers

By Frances Kraft

As parents, teachers, and family members, we hope to foster in our children a love of reading from the earliest age. We encourage them to get lost in a book and allow their imagination to take them anywhere they want to go.

Books eliminate boundaries and erase borders in our minds. But in reality, there are many barriers our society puts up around our children, especially around race and income. The good news is that public libraries can play a vital role in removing these barriers if that goal is embedded as part of the vision and mission. The Oak Park Public Library has taken that step, and it is reflected in policies and programs.

Six years ago, a group of teachers at Holmes Elementary School saw a need for a summer program combining reading with activities in math, science, art, and history. We quietly slipped into the Main Library’s children’s section and worked with 10 students weekly for five weeks.

It was a great first experience, but this program known as Rising Readers really took off two years later when we partnered with the library. Oak Park Elementary School District 97 teachers led reading groups, and High School Services Librarian Rachael Bild helped coordinate the program, aligning the library’s teen summer volunteer program with our efforts. We connected with numerous community partners, including Oak Park Township, Dominican University, Magic Tree Bookstore, and Trader Joe’s.

This summer, Rising Readers expects to have 50 students, nine teachers, and at least 15 teen volunteers meeting at two library branches and at the Hephzibah Children’s Association summer program.

This partnership shows how the neutral space of the library can eliminate the borders between schools, businesses, and the community to provide resources to students and families. The library continues to focus on the community by eliminating overdue fines for all, as well as eliminating fees for nonprofits using meeting spaces, and by opening its summer reading program to anyone who comes through the library’s doors. Residency is not required.

As a community, we can build relationships and tear down barriers if we focus directly on action that effects change. Let’s follow the library’s lead.

Frances Kraft is an Oak Park teacher, community organizer, and a leader of the E-Team, a grassroots coalition of families, educators, and community members working together to provide the resources and support our children need to be successful.