Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Actually, She Did That: The Civic Lab for Women's History Month

The team of folks here at my library who curate the Civic Lab were having a meeting a few weeks ago where we were discussing potential topics for future Civic Lab pop-ups. Sometimes we tie our pop-ups to formal programs on our calendar, sometimes to topics in the news, sometimes to installations in the library, and sometimes to specific days or months of import or conversation. We were brainstorming what topic to focus on for Women's History Month, and we had plenty to choose from--there's a lot going on right now affecting women, have you noticed? You might be surprised, then, to hear that the person who came up in conversation was Kanye.

Or maybe you're not too surprised, because he came up in the context of one particularly annoying and eye-roll-inducing line from Famous: "I made that bitch famous," said in reference to Taylor Swift. As if he, a man, made her, a huge pop star who is a woman, famous because he physically took the stage and microphone away from her while she was winning an award. Gross.

And so we had our topic for the Civic Lab for Women's History Month: women who have accomplished something, but who do not get their deserved credit (often it goes to a man or group of men), or they are better known for something irrelevant to their accomplishments.

We called it "Actually, She Did That"--taking the mansplainer's favorite opening word of "actually" and shedding light on some excellent women throughout history whom many do not know and whose accomplishments have been snatched from them.


The central activity in "Actually, She Did That" was a game of sorts. On a column constructed out of our multipurpose crates, we affixed large images of 11 different women who fit our criteria stated above. (As one of the mother/daughter participant pairs said, these 11 are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women not getting the credit due to them.) Each image included the woman's name and date of birth (as well as death, where relevant). On the table next to the column, we had 11 slips of paper. Each slip noted the accomplishment of one of these women, with a parenthetical about how or why she hasn't gotten credit for that accomplishment. The goal was to try to match the woman to her accomplishment, learning more about these 11 fantastic women along the way.

Our 11 featured women were:
  • Nellie Bly (1864-1922) - Bly was a brilliant, pioneering journalist, despite popular opinion that she couldn't be a good journalist because she was a woman. Bly was an early undercover investigative journalist, checking herself into a mental asylum and writing articles exposing the despicable treatment of (mostly female) patients in these facilities.
  • Selma Burke (1900-1995) - A sculptor, Burke was the artist behind the FDR profile that was used on the dime. Yet the (male) engraver typically gets credit for the design, rather than Burke.
  • Laverne Cox (1984- ) - Cox is the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. Yet despite her talent and prowess as an actress, much media coverage of Cox returns to questions about her gender assigned at birth--regardless of its lack of relevance to her career.
  • Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) - Franklin's research led to her discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Her male lab partner stole her findings and gave them to Crick and Watson, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for DNA discoveries.
  • Katherine Johnson (1918- ) - One of NASA's "human computers" whose supreme math skills allowed early astronauts to safely start to explore space, Johnson and her colleagues have only recently started to get recognition due to the book and film Hidden Figures.
  • Regina Jonas (1902-1944) - The first female rabbi, Jonas was refused ordination for years despite having gone through the same training as her male colleagues. She was finally ordained before being sent to a concentration camp. She died in Auschwitz.
  • Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) - Lamarr was a brilliant inventor, developing spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping technology which are now the basis for cell phones and wi-fi. Yet she is often known only for being a beautiful actress.
  • Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) - She wrote the first computer program, although her male friend Charles Babbage is usually credited as the first computer programmer. Lovelace is usually first credited as daughter of Lord Byron. So not only does she not get credit for what she did, but she's defined in relation to her male relative.
  • Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) - Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Many American history texts ignore her leadership and maintain there has never been a female head of state in the U.S.
  • Arati Prabhakar (1959- ) - Prabhakar was the head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, from 2012 until January of this year. Research and developments under her watch have included huge strides in biomedical technology like prosthetics. Credit is typically given to the presidential administration at the time of the invention.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) - Called the "First Lady of Physics," Wu worked on the Manhattan Project. Her work in nuclear physics won a Nobel Prize for her male colleagues, but she was not recognized. Even though the winning experiment was called the "Wu Experiment."

We had some really wonderful conversations with patrons as they engaged in this activity. Many recognized a few names or pictures, but couldn't place their finger on where they'd seen or heard of these women before. We share biographical facts with participants, many of them shaking their heads in frustration at just how common this type of credit-stealing is. One teen girl, participating with a friend, remarked after hearing the stories of several of the women, "Why do they keep giving away credit?" We talked about how it wasn't a question of these accomplished women giving away credit, but rather them having credit taken from them or given to someone else. These teens got mad. They demand better, for the world to see them and their friends and other women. As it should be.

Alongside this activity of matching women to their accomplishments, we also had a few other elements available for Civic Lab participants. We had a number of great titles on offer for folks interested in learning about more women and their accomplishments, including:
  • 50 Unbelievable Women and Their Fascinating (And True!) Stories by Saundra Mitchell, illustrated by Cara Petrus
  • Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen
  • The Book of Heroines: Tales of History's Gutsiest Gals by Stephanie Warren Drimmer
  • Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by Chandler O'Leary & Jessica Spring
  • Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
  • Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, illustrated by Sophia Foster-Dimino

We also put together a handout with resources for hearing more women's stories through an email newsletter, podcasts, and online videos. (See the handout here.)

The handout also includes three questions to get folks considering the stories of women in their own lives, as well as how they can make space to hear and share the stories of women:
  1. What have women in your life accomplished? Have they gotten credit for these accomplishments?
  2. What would you say to them in acknowledgement of what they have accomplished?
  3. How can you help to share the stories of women and their work?

We intentionally posed that first question on one of our crates, and we provided sticky notes and pencils for participants to weigh in. During the two hours a coworker and I facilitated "Actually, She Did That," however, no one wrote a response to the question. We don't think it was from lack of interest, but rather from the greater appeal of learning about the women whose images were front and center in the installation. We're hopeful that the public question, as well as the handout, provided fodder for reflecting on the women in participants' lives.

Monday was appearance number one for "Actually, She Did That." We'll be popping up again this Friday, and we're eager to see what types of interactions are prompted this time around. From there, we want to think about how to continue this idea of making clear space for women and women's stories beyond just Women's History Month.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Together at the Table: A Civic Lab Program for MLK Day

My library aims to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each year with multigenerational programming that engages our community on issues from Dr. King's work and themes in his speeches and writing. When it came to planning for MLK Day 2017, the new Civic Lab here at the library felt like a completely natural connection. We wanted to intentionally connect our goals for civic engagement with Dr. King's vision for a truly united country, starting with our library community. And so our 2017 event was created: Together at the Table.

The title Together at the Table is lifted from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Our Together at the Table program was, at its core, a drop-in community gathering meant to foster feelings of empathy and belonging among all the many people who live in Skokie and who use the library. From noon until 8 p.m. on that Monday, Together at the Table took place in our larger multi-purpose programming space which is adjoined with a kitchen. We pushed together four of our tables, end to end, to create a long banquet-style table with chairs. Spread across the tabletops were tent talkers to get conversations started; we chose 6 questions from "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love." We purchased many dozens of muffins (all kosher) and set out hot coffee, hot water and tea, and ice water as well. And so the stage was set.

A snapshot from Together at the Table,
by adult program librarian Mimosa Shah.
Throughout that day, four excellent high school volunteers helped facilitate the program alongside library staff. Those high schoolers greeted patrons at the door--and we indeed saw patrons of every age. After encouraging (and in some cases helping) patrons to make a name tag, the volunteers led them to a seat. New arrivals were seated next to people already in the program, and so the volunteer would make introductions--nobody in the room was a stranger, nobody without someone to talk with. The volunteers would then go to the kitchen to get a muffin for each participant. More often than not, before the volunteer could even come back with the muffin, the patrons were diving into conversations with their tablemates.

As I pitched this program to my fellow programming team members and staff, I kept coming back to the central idea that participants would be able to break bread with one another and get to know fellow community members. I had the support of supervisors throughout the library that these conversations be open to staff at every level as well--and we did have about two dozen staff drop in to meet and talk with patrons throughout the day. Breaking bread is such a strong human interaction that seems to span all cultures; friendships and family are made over a shared meal. We wanted to facilitate that feeling of goodwill and community in our library--in particular at a moment, and at the beginning of the week of the inauguration, when many in our community were feeling unsettled, isolated, and worried.

Was the day successful? To be honest, I would have counted Together at the Table a success if even a single conversation took place in that space. I wanted to foster a space for meaningful interaction--something deeper than a rote "How are you?" / "Fine, and you?" back and forth or a conversation about the weather. And with that modest goal, I was blown away by the interactions that took place and the relationships that were formed.

Some snippets of the interactions, almost all between people who came to the shared table as strangers:

  • "We discovered that we have friends in common!" A patron who participated without knowing anyone struck up a conversation with someone seated near them, and they discovered that they share mutual friends. They remarked about feeling like the community is a close-knit, interconnected one.
  • A girl scout leader in the program with her troop connected with our deputy director, who leads a troop in a neighboring town. The two groups have made plans to get together.
  • An older elementary boy, who spends many of his out-of-school hours at the library, expressed delight and excitement at not only learning the library director is, in his words, "Korean like me!" but in being able to have a conversation with him as well.
  • Two young men who entered the program separately and were seated next to one another became friends in the course of their conversation, trading numbers before leaving so they could meet up again.
  • One woman responded to the prompt about something she's dreamed of doing with her desire to open a female-friendly auto repair garage. After talking about this dream with her seatmates, one identified himself as a person in real estate and he shared with the woman information on how to find a location for her business. They exchanged numbers and made plans to continue their conversation.
  • A 21-year-old man shared that the day of the program marked his twentieth day since coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan. In the course of his conversations with his tablemates and one of the teen volunteers, he became curious about the library's volunteer opportunities as a way to meet people and improve his English. He ended up talking with our volunteer coordinator, who had come into the room.

These are just a handful of the interactions that played out across the shared table. Our community embraced the ethos of Together at the Table wholeheartedly. I was struck by how open-hearted and honest the conversations I had, and the conversations I heard about, were. By how willing our community is to forge bonds with one another.

We had several participants ask if we plan to do this sort of program again, and many of us on staff and in our administration want to. If a root of civic engagement is feeling invested in one's community, Together at the Table certainly showed we have strong foundation in Skokie for this work.