A More Perfect Program | Programs That Pop

Openness, accessibility, democracy, and the dignity of the public. We at Brooklyn Public Library had these words in mind when we started to work on our 28th Amendment Project.

three BPL workers holding 28th amendment signs and material
(l.-r.) Aruna Hekinian; Marie Figueroa, Director of Operations at Office of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries; Craig Manbauman of BPL's 28th Amendment Project
Photo credit: Ann-Sophie Fjellø-Jensen

Openness, accessibility, democracy, and the dignity of the public. We at Brooklyn Public Library had these words in mind when we started to work on our 28th Amendment Project.

In 2019, we created this project to remind Americans that they possess the power to build a more perfect union thanks to our country’s foundational document, the Constitution. Because libraries welcome everyone to actively engage with ideas, explore their aspirations, and come together as a community, we realized our unique opportunity to bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to discuss, debate, and ultimately, provide a list of issues that they thought the 28th Amendment should address.

The initiative was originally conceived as an art project to capture cultural dialogue around the library’s role as a civic space, but quickly crystalized into something more urgent: the immediate need to renegotiate a more just society. Aruna Hekinian, a law student and mother who participated in several town halls, told us: "Participating in the 28th Amendment Project was a life-changing experience that inspired me at a time when it felt like America was falling apart due to the pandemic, fires, and floods, and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was truly a gift to find a group of diverse people who, despite our differences, were unified by a sincere desire to make America and the Constitution stronger.”



We convened a group of five constitutional lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Brooklyn Law School, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to help us think through the most promising ways to encourage our patrons to study the Constitution, pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses, and discuss remedies. We also asked one library employee and two long-standing collaborators who have experience in facilitating meetings to serve as impartial moderators to guide each town hall, where residents would gather. Plans to hold town halls in our branches changed when the pandemic struck. After one live event, we moved online and held 31 virtual town halls attended by hundreds of people, targeted to neighborhoods, schools, senior groups, and other communities.

The town halls began with a short video about the Constitution that focused on why it needs amending, and issues that the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen but that could be addressed through amendments. The discussions were divided into three 15-minute segments focused on three open-ended questions as prompts:

1. What protections, ideas, or language would you like to see included in the Constitution?

2. In this present moment of the coronavirus pandemic, when so much has been so swiftly and fundamentally changed, what new protections would you like to see included in the Constitution?

3. The United States is charged, challenged, and changed in ways it has not been before. What new Constitutional amendment would you want the president to heed?

We hired local law students as note-takers to capture ideas, areas of concern, and direct quotes. These served as the sole source of the ideas in the final 28th Amendment Project text.



At the conclusion of the town hall series, we sent the notes to four thought leaders (author Anand Giridharadas, former ACLU President Susan N. Herman, Higher Heights co-founder Kimberly Peeler-Allen, and writer Nathaniel Rich), who served as “framers” for our amendment.

To create a short amendment with legally actionable language, the framers identified two broadly encompassing proposals that, if enacted, would allow other proposals to be possible. They settled on reforming the electoral college and adopting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to education, healthcare, housing, employment, food security, and a clean and healthy environment. We also used verbatim notes from the town halls for a longer, narrative version, because it was important to us that our patrons saw themselves and their ideas in the final document. In October 2020, we unveiled both versions at an outdoor public reading. We also published the 28th Amendment online, along with an archive of all the town hall notes, and in newsprint broadsheets handed out to the public.

On September 17, 2021, Constitution Day, Brooklyn residents who participated in the project presented a copy of the “Brooklyn Amendment” to the office of U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries to provide him with unique insight into the priorities of his constituents. Susan N. Herman, one of our framers, penned an op-ed for the New York Daily News that amplified our call for greater civic engagement.



A colleague and I devoted 300 hours combined over the course of the nine-month project, and additional staff and consultants devoted 20–60 hours. Most of the costs were in-kind; the majority of expenses were honoraria to moderators and note-takers. However, this project is easily scalable as libraries can adjust the number of town halls, time, and resources needed based on the size of their communities and their budget parameters.

To assist other libraries interested in replicating the 28th Amendment Project, we created a free downloadable toolkit. It provides a step-by-step guide on how to organize town halls, encourage debate, and develop the text of a proposed amendment. It also provides resources, such as the video featuring lawyers and Constitutional scholars offering an overview of the Constitution. We invite other institutions who undertake their own projects to send us their amendments, which we will archive on our website.

László Jakab Orsós is Vice President, Arts & Culture, Brooklyn Public Library, NY

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