By James Lonergan, IMLS Senior Program Officer
LSTA Grants to States Coordinators from around the U.S., in Philadelphia recently for an IMLS training workshop, were treated to an inspiring lunchtime talk by Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the President and Founder of AmericaSpeaks, titled: “Libraries: Making a Difference in the Future of Our Democracy.” The topic seemed particularly fitting, given this is an election year and we were meeting in Philadelphia, a cradle of American democracy. (The talk also fit well with the emphasis on “civic engagement” in IMLS’s new Strategic Plan.)
Dr. Lukensmeyer founded AmericaSpeaks in 1995 in order to give citizens a voice in local, regional, and national decision making. AmericaSpeaks’ mission is “to reinvigorate American democracy by engaging citizens in the public decisions that most impact their lives.”
Earlier this month in Washington, DC, where I live, AmericaSpeaks, working with Mayor Vincent Gray and his administration, facilitated the “One City Summit” in order to give the more than 1700 residents who participated in person (and another 500 online) an opportunity to work on the challenging issues facing the citizens and leadership of the District, including economic and racial inequality.
In her talk, Dr. Lukensmeyer discussed the hyper-partisan nature of political discourse as well as the current lack of trust in government. She believes that this “crisis of democracy” provides an opportunity to try new approaches, including using new technologies and looking for the “untapped common ground that crosses traditional divides”. She sees libraries as having natural assets and attributes that position them well to engage and re-energize citizens, including,
- accessibility to the whole community,
- earned respect as a source of factual information,
- trust of the community as a neutral convener,
- an ability to attract partners and create alliances,
- talented and committed staff, and
- a renewed commitment to building community and playing a leading role in community life.
I left Dr. Lukensmeyer’s talk thinking about our rights and our responsibilities as citizens and what libraries can do to improve our democracy.