Children's Program Sparks Backlash in Illinois Town

Some community members in O'Fallon, IL, objected to a public library event centered around the children's book, "Justice Makes a Difference: The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire."
When O’Fallon Public Library youth services director Teri Rankin saw Dr. Artika Tyner and Jacklyn Milton's Justice Makes a Difference: The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire, she immediately thought this tale of an 8-year-old girl learning to make a positive change in her community would be a good program for the library. Rankin wanted to provide her young patrons in the town, which is less than 30 miles from Ferguson, MO, more programs and opportunities for discussion. The March 24 event was called “Justice Makes A Difference.” The website description said, “Join us as we read Dr. Artika Tyner's children's book entitled, Justice Makes a Difference. Using fun games and activities we will explore ideas of justice and social responsibility. Facilitated by Annetta Works-Salley, community social activist.” It did not occur to Rankin that people might find the subject matter controversial or objectionable. She left for the Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Philadelphia, disappointed she would miss the event, which another staff member would handle. While at PLA, her director told her she needed look at some emails the library had received. Some members of the community objected to the Justice program, saying it was pushing a political agenda, attempting to "indoctrinate" children, and inappropriate for the suggested age. “I was absolutely stunned,” Rankin says. Rankin describes the emails the library received as “really horrible." “Some of them were very racist, very awful,” she says. “It was very discouraging, extremely discouraging. You feel like you’ve never made any progress, fighting the same battles over and over again.” Still, she wrote back to those who emailed, explaining the book and attempting to find common ground. The event was held as planned and went off without disruption. Works-Salley and about 24 attendees talked about how they help others, spread joy, and make a difference, as well as about the influence of grandparents in their lives. They also learned about Shirley Chisholm and Paul Robeson and finished with Works-Salley singing a portion of "This Little Light of Mine" and reminding the children to let their light shine and that they can make a difference every day. After the event, no one who had emailed contacted the library board or staff, but the library received a Freedom of Information Act request for all correspondence related to the program. The name on the request was not a resident of O’Fallon and while the library staff completed it, no one has picked it up. Steve Springer, one of the most vocal of those who objected to the event, went to a city council meeting and asked that the library budget be reviewed, saying that tax dollars should not go to programs like this. The Belleville News-Democrat quoted Springer, who is also a member of the local school board, telling the council at the meeting, "The library should present programs that represent and reflect the culture of the entire community, not just segments of it, and I want the council to take steps to ensure that that happens.” The library website shows a schedule with an array of events that appear to meet varied interests and needs of community members, including read to a dog day, chess club, yoga, Reiki, Medicare Q&A, instruction for various mobile devices, and more. Springer did not respond to SLJ’s request for an interview. After hearing about the situation in O'Fallon, Justice coauthor Artika Tyner suggests people read the book to correct any misconceptions. “The main character of the book, Justice, does not have a political affiliation or agenda,” Tyner wrote in an email. “She is simply a little girl who is taught by her grandmother to seek opportunities to serve and lead in her community. In the book, she helps to plant a community garden after being inspired by Dr. Wangari Maathai of the Greenbelt Movement and decides to become a lawyer after learning about the leadership legacy of Charles Hamilton Houston who laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education." The goal of the book is for young readers to know they are never too young to be leaders and create positive change. “The focus of the book is to promote academic excellence and leadership development," writes Tyner. "Justice is an eight-year-old scholar who is excelling academically and modeling leadership both inside and outside the classroom.” Despite being so disheartened at first, Rankin has found some hope. After the local newspaper wrote about the situation, community members have reached out to library staff. “We’ve had people bring us flowers, call to say, ‘We support you,’” she says. “We’ve had a lot of support.” Rankin says she thinks a lot of good in the community will come out of the situation, but she has taken one criticism to heart. One woman called her naïve, she says. She admits that might be true. She didn't consider that people would see anything negative in the event. From now on, she will likely look at things differently, she says, but she won’t change her plans or alter programming. “We are doing another program with the book Alma and How She Got Her Name [by Juana Martinez-Neal] and we’re going to talk about our histories, how we got our names," she says. "We’re not going to stop just because of this.”
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Dteagan

The librarian should be called on to explain the EBSCO digital collections that the library is sponsoring for kids. EBSCO databases were named to the 2017 and 2018 Dirty Dozen list by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, as contributing to the sexual exploitation of children.

Posted : Jun 06, 2018 04:02


Pam Meiser

I was only able to find it on Amazon as a Kindle book. How does one get it in print?

Posted : Jun 05, 2018 06:53


Natalie Lundy

Title not available through Follett library resources?

Posted : May 23, 2018 06:48


Andi Diehn

It's gratifying to see that the reaction to the negative backlash was so supportive of the library! Books and programs like these are crucial any time in history but perhaps especially during a period of intense societal growth. Kudos to the library for standing strong.

Posted : May 11, 2018 08:11


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