Building a Shared Vision of Inclusive Future in a Smalltown Library

Ericson Public Library, IA, needed a program that highlighted the varied dimensions of equity while bringing members of the community together—a program that demonstrated how diversity unites us, rather than divides us. We found that opportunity through round two of the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities grant, receiving funding to implement an equity project called “Activating Community Voices.”

Activating Community Voices logoTwo years ago, Iowa legislators passed—and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law—House File 802, also known as the “diverse concepts law,” and Iowa became the next state to try and limit the teaching of concepts and histories that reflect the full fabric of the American experience. Such laws create particular challenges for public libraries even when they are not explicitly targeted. As the children’s librarian at Ericson Public Library (EPL) in Boone, I recognized the impact this law could have on our work.

To continue fulfilling the library’s mission to be “a destination for opportunities to connect with others, to learn, and to enrich lives,” we needed a program that highlighted the varied dimensions of equity while bringing members of the community together—a program that demonstrated how diversity unites us, rather than divides us. In spring 2021, we found that opportunity through round two of the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) grant. This grant offers resources and opportunities specific to the needs of library workers serving small and rural communities, teaches library workers facilitation skills through the LTC: Facilitation Skills for Small and Rural Libraries learning series, and provides flexible funding to support community engagement efforts.

EPL applied for this grant and received funding to implement an equity project called “Activating Community Voices.”

The library had already facilitated a community conversation titled “Equity and the Impact of COVID-19,” with stakeholders from the education, healthcare, human services, transportation, senior services, recreation, and disability services sectors. Participants in the event discussed equity challenges they saw community members face, including limited transportation choices, food disparities, limited high-speed internet, a lack of shelters, the need for improved access to services for the disabled population, and limited housing options for low-income families. This dialogue inspired EPL to investigate community equity further. Stakeholders were asked to complete an equity commitment form, indicating what efforts they wanted to put toward increasing equity within the Boone community. It also helped focus the next step in our work.



Boone is a smaller urban community 40 minutes outside of Des Moines, the state capital. According to the U.S. Census, in 2021 the population was 12,469, with a racial makeup that was 93.8 percent white, 4.4 percent Hispanic or Latine, 1.3 percent Black or African American, 0.9 percent Native American and Alaska Native, and 0.2 percent Asian. Because the census does not ask questions related to gender identity or sexual orientation, we do not know the population percentages of the LGBTQIA+ community. As we prepared the grant application, we also looked at statistics related to age, documented learning disabilities, and poverty. We found that 15.2 percent of Boone residents are 65 years and older, 10 percent have a documented learning disability, and 7.5 percent face poverty. Housing is also an area of concern, as low-cost options are often dilapidated and unhealthy.

One of our greatest challenges with this project was to ensure that “Activating Community Voices” represented the diversity of our community, including race, ethnicity, gender, physical and intellectual ability, age, socioeconomic status, and educational status. We set out to create an immersive learning experience where the Boone community could engage in conversations about equity across their differences and have access to leading experts on these topics as an additional resource. Our goal was to provide a platform where residents could have their voices heard, network with others, and deepen their shared understanding.

“Activating Community Voices” is an immersive and educational learning experience that focuses on equity. Using our previous work with community stakeholders and the support of the grant, we formed the Activating Community Voices Stakeholder Group (ACVSG) to help bring to light equity challenges and opportunities within the Boone community. ACVSG members studied, analyzed, and discussed issues specific to local equity in a safe and productive environment. Through support and guidance from Dr. Jane Rongrude, Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University, the group developed a community survey to gather resident input on their understanding of equity. We then used the second part of the grant to develop the “Activating Community Voices” symposium.



During the planning process I was at a bookshop and discovered When You Wonder, You’re Learning : Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids by Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski. This was something of a serendipity, as “neighborhood” was a central concept for the symposium. The legacy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is profound; it is a place where everyone is welcome and where important conversations happen between people who care about one another. I reached out to the authors and invited them to participate as keynote speakers. They accepted without hesitation, and the planning process moved ahead at full speed.

Stakeholders continued to develop the symposium throughout summer 2021. Rongrude provided guidance in identifying engaging, diverse, and relevant speakers. Topics of interest included housing, mental health, healthcare, food and agriculture, arts and creativity, education, environmental sustainability, and senior services. The symposium was scheduled for October 2021 at the Boone Campus of Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC).

The symposium was not only educational, but active and immersive. Attendees participated in conversations and activities to learn about each topic. A total of 84 people attended the event, which included three keynote speakers and ten breakout sessions. Local high school students also provided 32 posters on 14 equity topics, posted in common areas between meeting rooms. The symposium brought together concerns of equity and neighborhood to create a new kind of shared learning space. “I think what struck me the most upon coming to Boone was how the community you are building there is analogous to the neighborhood that Fred [Rogers] created and that Fred portrayed on television,” Rydzewski reflected after the event. “Like Pittsburgh, it’s a place with deep problems, but it’s also a place where people care.”



The symposium provided an opportunity for residents, youth, and professionals to come together to have their voices heard, to network, and deepen their understanding of equity. Reflecting on their decision to attend the symposium, one participant stated, “I decided to attend today’s event after hearing that diverse community voices are essential and create understanding.”

The symposium offered unique opportunities to engage with people from different walks of life, who see and experience the world in different ways. “For me, being in the symposium was an honor,” said Jordan Brooks, founder of KNWSLF, a company focused on creativity and diversity and one of the symposium presenters. “Just to be around so many people who have been thinking about the ways we design our cities and spaces can be liberating.”

At the end of the day, participants had new ideas, and perhaps even more importantly, new questions. One attendee said, “I learned about community and how to work together so that everyone has access to resources that they need.” The symposium did not tell people how to work together, but asked them what they knew about working together, and what opportunities or skills they brought to the table.

We distributed a survey at the end of the event to gain insight on participants’ experience. They identified six key themes for building inclusivity and equity in their communities: curiosity, inquiry, discovery, sharing, investment, and being welcoming. Residents talked about sharing resources, building connections, and creating spaces that were welcoming to all.

Holding a community conversation that asks people to consider what justice and equity would look like in their community is not a small task in the current political climate where divisive rhetoric often gets in the way of civic discourse and shared problem solving. Thomas Rendon, a consultant in early childhood education and a presenter, stated, “I was amazed and inspired by how rich a day it was. The variety of speakers really shed light on how equity crosses so many issues and challenges us with deep questions on how we can do better.” Stakeholders and participants created a brave space, where people were encouraged to be curious and to talk candidly with care and goodwill toward one another.



10 People standing outside library, center person holding proclamation
Proclamation for Mental Health Awareness month

The ACVSG has continued its work. In fall 2022, stakeholders completed a survey identifying programs and services that could help address equity challenges in the community. Results concluded that mental health was the area to focus on, and stakeholders worked together to put on a slate of programming in May for Mental Health Awareness Month. County Supervisors signed a proclamation on May 3 recognizing May as Mental Health Awareness month for Boone County, and Stier spoke on WHO TV 13’s Hello Iowa! program on mental health and libraries.

The funding period has ended, but the library and its stakeholders are continuing the “Activating Community Voices”project. “With more voices in the mix we get a more holistic view of what other agencies and organizations are seeing,” stated Library Director Jamie Williams. “We each see these issues from a variety of levels. In providing this platform and open discussion we can begin to understand and address issues we see in new ways that offer better solutions.”

Dr. Drew Nelson, Provost for the Boone DMACC campus, stated, “We were happy to host this event, to provide space, technical support, and food. We look forward to continuing this program.”

Quarterly meetings will occur with stakeholders to continue the conversations and develop future opportunities. We will continue to expand our community stakeholders group with professionals and residents to further enhance conversations on equity, and will work with this group to brainstorm, present, and suggest programmatic ideas. This will allow the library to continue its mission as a place where knowledge and sharing are connected to community.

Dr. Jane Rongerude is associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University. Her teaching and scholarship address issues related to community engagement, housing, neighborhood planning, and social justice.  Dr. Zachary Stier is head of children's services at Ericson Public Library in Boone, IA.  He is also an adjunct lecturer at University of Illinois iSchool teaching courses in early literacy and public library partnerships.

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