St. Paul Citywide Read Brave Takes on Tough Topics

How can a community have brave, challenging conversations? That was the question St. Paul, MN Mayor Melvin Carter III posed to Catherine Penkert, director of the St. Paul Public Library. Her response was to launch the citywide reading initiative, Read Brave St. Paul, in January and February.

man reading book to children
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III takes on story time at SPPL's Read Brave St. Paul
Photo by Therese Scherbel

How can a community have brave, challenging conversations? That was the question St. Paul, MN Mayor Melvin Carter III posed to Catherine Penkert, director of the St. Paul Public Library (SPPL). Her response was to launch the citywide reading initiative, Read Brave St. Paul, in January and February.

"Through focused conversations, Read Brave helps us better understand the challenges our children and families face so that we can address those challenges together," said Carter. "Because no institution embodies the free exchange of ideas and information more so than public libraries, our library is the natural convener of these discussions."

The Read Brave model began as a partnership between SPPL and St. Paul public schools in 2012. Each year, a young adult novel was used by educators to spark meaningful conversation about issues relevant to teens. Believing that books and stories were a way to have hard conversations that people would prefer to avoid, Mayor Carter suggested a citywide book club at a press event. Penkert rose to the challenge.

While on the campaign trail, Carter’s constituents identified housing insecurity as being a concern—echoed in the conversations Penkert had with St. Paul City Council members. When it came time to create a citywide reading program, she expanded the model to include all ages. The goal, said Penkert, is to engage people in the power of story.

To do so, she partnered with the city, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, and a slew of other partners to pull together a robust program around a collection of books for all ages on the topic of housing scarcity, which included a series of conversations and opportunities to take action on the issue. The Friends of the Library purchased 6,000 copies of Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina (Candlewick) to distribute to readers, along with the nonfiction title Evicted (Broadway Bks.), by Matthew Desmond. Library staff selected titles for younger readers, including Shelter by Céline Claire (Kids Can Pr.), Yard Sale by Eve Bunting (Candlewick), Rich by Nikki Grimes (G.P. Putnam's Sons Young Readers), and Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel & Friends).

Penkert hopes that by focusing on a topic that resonates with everyone, the readings can support the development of a common vocabulary, characters, and experience, allowing people to discuss difficult topics such as homelessness. Her wish is that conversations will lead to action, and SPPL has created civic labs in all of its libraries so people can contact their representatives or work with other organizations addressing the issue. “Reading builds empathy,” she noted. “A perspective as told through a story can be so powerful in taking issues from the abstract and tying it to people’s lives.”

 

FOCUS ON YA

To keep the program accessible to multiple participants, Penkert and her team made the decision to highlight a young adult novel as the main title. “With young adult titles you can reach a high school student, but it’s also accessible for adults who aren’t strong readers, or who want to get through a book quickly, or read with their children,” says Penkert. And of course, many adults read YA books simply for fun.

SPPL scheduled 22 Read Brave events for January and February, made possible through donations from the Friends of St. Paul Public Library and a wide range of sponsors, including Bremer Bank, the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, the Katherine B. Andersen Fund, the Carl and Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation, and the Saint Paul Saints. The program, said Penkert, relies heavily on partners, including the Minnesota Children’s Museum, Saint Paul Public Schools, Saint Paul Public Housing Authority, and Ramsey County Health and Wellness. SPPL’s marketing department used a guerilla marketing campaign to build excitement for the initiative, gift-wrapping 500 copies of Medina’s book in gold paper and bows, and leaving them all across the city with cards that simply stated: Read Brave.

“I am grateful that this program is shining a light on a potential role for libraries to be catalysts for conversation, and I’m proud that this is a program that offers [an answer] to the question, ‘How does the library work for everyone?’” said Beth Burns, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. “This is city leadership recognizing that the library is a tool to get things done.” Both Penkert and Burns report robust conversations, small epiphanies, volunteers gathering to create hygiene bags for people experiencing homelessness, and new people coming in to use the library during the early days of Read Brave. For Penkert, “What has been really powerful has been drafting off the mayor and positioning the library at the center of public discourse and our community—using all of the library’s strengths to connect people and ideas—this is our work.”

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