Q&A with Kathi Kromer, ALA Washington Office Associate Executive Director

On June 5, Kathi Kromer stepped into the role of associate executive director of the American Library Association (ALA)’s Washington Office, succeeding Emily Sheketoff, who led the Washington Office for more than 17 years and retired on May 15.
On June 5, Kathi Kromer stepped into the role of associate executive director of the American Library Association (ALA)’s Washington Office, succeeding Emily Sheketoff, who led the Washington Office for more than 17 years and retired on May 15. Kromer comes to ALA from the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, where she served as vice president of strategy and outreach. During her 11 years with ALS, Kromer helped the organization shape its public policy and outreach strategy, advance ALS research, create ALS-specific legislation, increase funding, expand the association’s national grassroots program, and create strategic partnerships. She earned a Master of Arts in international commerce and policy from George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, and a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science from PA’s University of Pittsburgh. Kromer will be making the rounds at ALA Annual in Chicago, meeting members and stakeholders. LJ caught up with her shortly beforehand to find out more about her priorities as she settles into the new role.
LJ: What drew you to ALA? Kathi Kromer: I thought it was a great mission that [ALA] has, and I like the team. They're very knowledgeable, well respected here in DC, and I saw a lot of opportunity for growth. They seem poised to take their advocacy program to the next level. What will you bring to the Washington Office from your previous experience? I have a pretty unique background because I've worked in the private sector, government, and nonprofits, so I think that I'll be able to help contribute at the senior management level as well as with my government relations expertise. I've done a lot of coalition building and helping provide advocates with the tools they need to be effective advocates on Capitol Hill. I think my background will fit nicely with the talent that we have here. [Also,] a lot of my coalition work and direct work with advocates, empowering and mobilizing grassroots. What do you see as top priorities for your role in the Washington Office? As you know, it's important to have folks here in Washington who have relationships with the Hill, but the people who really matter are the voters back home in the district. I really hope to be able to contribute to creating a strong grassroots—as well as grasstops—program for the organization. I see that as a real opportunity. Librarians are very passionate, smart community leaders, and we need to be effectively utilizing them to share their message on with the policymakers. [Librarians] have got great stories to tell—they just need to be shared. I'd look to develop a more structured year-round advocacy program, as well as getting [libraries] to do things like working with their local editorial boards to promote their policy positions and the great work that's happening in their communities. In terms of issues, preserving federal library funding is our major priority, but also protecting net neutrality. Congress is assessing what infrastructure investments are going to yield the greatest return, so I think we need to be leveraging the existing critical infrastructure of our libraries by expanding not only physical facilities but broadband and Wi-Fi capability. That's particularly important in rural and remote areas. I plan for us to have a very strategic outreach with member engagement. Naturally, we're going to be working closely with the appropriations committee, as well as our advocates in targeted states to make sure that those folks on the Hill understand libraries and our communities' needs so that we can gain additional federal support. And one of the things that we're going to do is make sure that members hear our story back home, too, not just here in Washington. How can you help empower stakeholders at the grassroots level? There are a ton of opportunities for that. For example, I know a few weeks ago Sen. [Catherine] Cortez Masto from Nevada was in the Las Vegas–Clark County Library, and she tweeted out a picture of her getting her library card. We'd love to see that with every member of Congress. One of the things I want to do is make sure that we're providing librarians the tools they need to be effective advocates. I think they're primed for it. We've got a highly educated population, and they're community leaders. They're the people who will get ears and attention. Members of Congress will definitely listen to them because they're respected within the community. And I think it's important that they realize that. So I think empowering them to know that they can make a difference, and they can help us shape the policy, [is important]. We have a role to play here in Washington, but they're a key component of our strategy. And I want all members of ALA to be involved, not just those that are really active in our volunteer leadership positions. This impacts everybody, the things we're working on here in DC. Will you work with state and local level advocacy as well? The Washington Office pretty much focuses on federal policies, but we coordinate closely with ALA's Office for Library Advocacy (OLA) when there's a clear federal interest at the state level—things that overlap. I know that we've been active in the past with signing onto coalition letters, providing policy expertise, or alerting state chapters to things that they need to be aware of, that trickle down from the federal level. A good example of this would be concerns on the reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which is pending in the Senate and twice passed the House. We at ALA have joined with other national organizations in calling for the California state legislature to pass similar legislation—even more privacy protection measures. We're hoping that that's going to have a positive impact at the federal level, and look forward to continuing that teamwork of partnering with our colleagues at [OLA]. I believe federal and state folks have to collaborate and work closely together. Given that uncertainty abounds right now, what would you like to see the Washington Office’s role look like a year from now? Members are the backbone of any organization, and I envision having an even stronger, more collaborative relationship with all of our members. I hope that all of our members will be engaged in our advocacy program, since they're going to be our strongest asset on Capitol Hill. How do you plan to balance the need to work with the current administration with demands from ALA membership calling for a hard line on unacceptable actions? For nearly 75 years the Washington Office has worked across the aisles without compromising ALA's core values. Our goal, I believe, is to serve everyone in our communities, our schools, and our universities, wherever libraries have a presence. We have a singular message: libraries are absolutely indispensable and strengthening our nation's libraries should be a federal priority. So we're going to hold true to our values. We've done it for 75 years, so I don't foresee us having a problem. I'm confident that we can continue to do the good work that we've always done here in DC.

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