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Nov 10

Skin in the game

Hand him a rake, and maybe he'll care about the mess in the yard.

Hand him a rake, and maybe he’ll care about the mess in the yard.

When I decided to go back to school, to get my degree in library studies, the primary motivation in my head wasn’t simply that I had loved my previous tenure as a librarian and wanted to return to it. Oh, that was a big part of it, don’t misunderstand, but that alone might not have been enough to push me over the edge into action. The larger part was seeing and acknowledging that the library experience I had back in Ohio wasn’t necessarily the typical experience. My library had copious funding for everything, community support coming out of its proverbial ears. The staff lacked for nothing; collections teemed, programs abounded, and the town seemed thrilled to back the library in nearly everything it wanted to do.

Or perhaps that was simply my perception, as the newest librarian on the staff, without the experience to see much past the obvious. What I can say for certain is that the way things were back then do not appear to be the case elsewhere. Programming and materials cost money, and libraries struggling for money – almost every library, in other words – have to get really good at cobbling together services on a shoestring budget, or else slice away at what they do offer in order to provide the best quality they can. That can be frustrating for both library staff and for library-loving community members who want to participate as much as possible.

So I came to the conclusion that I could sigh and reflect sadly on the halcyon days of never-ending library activities that my own kids weren’t experiencing, or I could get into the trenches with the other librarians and fight for that vision. In other words, I could get some skin in the game.

It’s amazing how many issues come down to a need for that strategy, and yet how often it’s a sticking point. This past week at WLA, over and over again, program sessions boiled down to the need to engage community groups, talk to them about their goals, and get as many people as possible working together and collaborating toward common aspirations. The final session I attended focused specifically on community building through finding common goals, and my thoughts kept returning to something Rich Harwood had said during his keynote speech. “The stories a community tells about itself are powerful” was the gist of the point, and I reflected that so many of my own town’s self-told stories seem to state some flavor of “This town sucks.” How does one get past that? How do you get individuals to change the story they tell themselves and others?

That final session spoke of communities gathering together to discuss goals and challenges, hearing everybody’s voices, then looking for the common themes in order to illustrate that our thoughts really are not so different from our neighbors’. It came to me that the negative stories I hear from people in this town are rarely told in public, in groups assembled to discuss the problems they bemoan. (Hence my difficulty finding citable contrasting views for a case study I’m doing right now.) They’re more often offered anonymously, muttered in passing or in pseudonymous comments on the city’s newspaper website. It’s easy to complain like that. It’s more difficult to be a face attached to the complaint, standing at a meeting with the goal of actually accomplishing something.

In order to change the stories, more people need to get skin in the game.

At my church, we have a program – well, it’s more of a guiding principle, really. It’s called “Worship+2.” In essence, every member is encouraged to plug in and serve in two manners, along with enjoying their regular worship. Small groups, working in the nursery, serving in ministries, pouring coffee on Sunday mornings…something, anything. Give back, don’t just be served. It sounds so simple, and yet our church is growing, growing swiftly, in a world in which many other churches are struggling and shrinking. Our pastor has told us how other pastors have asked him how we are doing it, and it seems to basically boil down to all of us being as fully engaged as possible. Showing up a few times a month to sit in a pew and sing a few hymns – it can be easy to become apathetic and complain. If one has become an involved part of a larger family, the way our church encourages through Worship+2, then the strategy shifts; instead of complaining, when an issue arises, one looks for ways things can change and improve.

So how can we get more community members, the ones without skin in the game, to be involved and engaged? That’s the issue I’m now puzzling. It seems to me that a big hurdle is that the most frequent complainers simply might not feel represented by groups or individuals working for community improvement. Even if an individual is doing nothing to participate, if he feels agency through somebody who is participating, he may feel as though his voice is more involved in community decisions. I envisioned going to those critical speakers and asking, “Who or what represents you in this town?” and then engaging those groups toward goal-building, but that assumes such groups exist or are amenable toward working with others.

How can we fix this? It’s going to be a theme running through my head for a while, I feel. Any thoughts? What’s worked for you in your town?

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