LINKS
2017-10-04 / News

Library system tackles ‘unrest’ at forum

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

The president of the United States calls for the firing of professional football players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. Protestors and counter-protestors engage in violent clashes over the fate of Civil War monuments. Students on college campuses seek out “safe spaces” and try to shut down speakers with whom they disagree.At a recent community forum at Meadowdale Library, county residents weigh in on the national political environment. Photo by JIM McCONNELLAt a recent community forum at Meadowdale Library, county residents weigh in on the national political environment. Photo by JIM McCONNELL

With each passing day, America’s bitter political divide seems to be widening.

It’s within this ultra-charged environment that the county’s library system hopes to serve as a refuge and bring people together to talk candidly about a number of difficult topics.

“One of the great things about libraries is they are places where information is shared freely,” said Mike Mabe, director of Chesterfield County Public Library. “In today’s world of free speech making people uncomfortable, libraries are champions of people having the freedom to say and think what you want.”

The county’s Meadowdale library branch, which is located in the heart of a diverse northeastern Chesterfield community, has launched a series of community engagement programs as a forum for exploring current issues, listening critically, and respectfully sharing opinions.

The library also offers a variety of resources for people interested in learning more about the topics discussed during each session.

The series, titled “Points of View,” kicked off recently with a 90-minute program on community unrest. Juan Conde, news anchor for Richmond’s ABC affiliate Channel 8, served as facilitator for the discussion and stuck around for several minutes afterward to take selfies with participants.

“It’s our vision to be a community of engaged citizens,” said James Hudson, manager of the Meadowdale branch. “We live in crazy times. In a disconnected world, the library is a perfect place to have these conversations.”

Unrest in America, of course, is as old as the country itself. It’s a thread that runs from the Boston Tea Party through the Civil War and civil rights movement to the Cold War. But a clear consensus emerged among the 25 people who participated in the inaugural “Points of View” program that the current combination of international tensions, political and ideological divides, economic concerns and racial disharmony is a stew that can boil over at any time.

“Things are at a dangerous point right now,” said Ersell Dortch, a 30-year county resident. “We’re not as friendly as we used to be. We have to get out and meet people. We might not agree on everything, but we can talk to each other in a good, respectful way.” That was the spirit of the “conversation ground rules” distributed by library staff prior to the start of the forum:

• Have a “kitchen table” conversation

• There are no “right answers”

• Keep an open mind

• Help keep the discussion on track

• It’s OK to disagree, but don’t be disagreeable Perhaps it’s a testament to the current state of discourse that library staff saw the need to publish rules governing how people should behave toward each other in such a setting.

Participants obliged, engaging in lively discussion on race and other potentially incendiary topics without attacking each other’s opinions.

“Ugliness is a distraction that will stop us from being the type of society we want to be,” said Phillip Sharp, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee who attended the forum with his grandsons: Donovan, a sophomore at Meadowbrook High, and Brandon, an eighth-grader at Providence Middle.

Sharp acknowledged with a smile that the boys came with him because they wanted to meet Conde, but also expressed pride that they take an interest in current events.

“Knowing we could be hurt by what is going on, it affects us,” Donovan Sharp added. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug.”

Meadowdale’s next program in the “Points of View” series, which is scheduled for Nov. 16, will focus on education. For more information, visit library.chesterfield.gov or call (804) 318-8778. ¦

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