Local Heroes: Librarians Address Inequity Where They See It

The individuals who spearheaded these bold library initiatives were driven by a goal to improve service for all users.

What does it take to empower young patrons, remove barriers, and help them succeed? Determination. Imagination. A solution-oriented outlook.

The individuals who spearheaded these bold library initiatives were driven by a goal to improve service for all users. They tackled big projects head-on to further equity in their schools and communities: a GED program at a tribal library; resources for children who are neurodivergent; free food and programs for kids during the summer; eliminating discriminatory policies; and more. Here’s how they did it.

Sandy Tharp-Thee Photo by Madison Horrocks

Sandy Tharp-Thee
Photo by Madison Horrocks


When Sandy Tharp-Thee took the helm of the Iowa Tribal Library in Perkins, OK, in 2009, she found very few resources: a donated set of encyclopedias that was 15 years old—and no budget to purchase newer materials. She quickly got to work. To start, the Oklahoma Department of Libraries shared resources with her. Tharp-Thee also identified a pressing need for a GED program in this community of 2,000, so she started looking for someone willing to provide this service for free. She located a volunteer who would offer the classes if Tharp-Thee could guarantee that at least 10 students would show up. However, when Tharp-Thee called to say that she had gathered enough students, the would-be volunteer changed her tune. “She said, ‘Native people don’t finish what they start,’” says Tharp-Thee. “It was hurtful.”

That incident made Tharp-Thee, who is Cherokee, even more determined to help her patrons.

With donations from local businesses and other sources, plus more than 20 grants, she has transformed the library’s role in the community in many ways. The GED program she launched has benefited more than 80 people, ages 16 to 64, since 2010.

Since then, Tharp-Thee, a Library Journal Mover & Shaker, has witnessed firsthand how the GED initiative is improving lives. “Their attitudes change,” she says. “Working on goals, they are literally transformed.” One woman appreciated the opportunity to study for her GED so much that she would weep every time she saw Tharp-Thee.

To support younger students, Tharp-Thee launched a tutoring program for schoolchildren. “We knew that children needed to be successful in school so they didn’t drop out,” she says. “If they didn’t get behind, then they wouldn’t fail.”

After conducting a survey to learn what students needed help with most, she found that many wanted support with health literacy. Tharp-Thee thinks that might be due to the fact that so many kids live with their grandparents, who might not necessarily know where to go for information on health issues. She also recalled an occasion when her own mother became ill and went to the hospital and was sent home without any care instructions.

Tharp-Thee started a program to teach elders how to find needed information online and use social media to strengthen their networks and reduce feelings of isolation. Currently, Tharp-Thee is participating in a one-year pilot project with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance to help communities that lack tech or Internet access. She’s working in Oklahoma primarily with the Ponca Tribe, a group with a tribal library that is well maintained but lacks Internet.

“When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher that told me I could go to college, and I did,” Tharp-Thee says. “From fourth grade on, I believed I would go to college. I was the first one in my family that even finished high school. Mom and Dad were able to see me walk across the stage at OSU [Oklahoma State University]. People just need hope.”

Dressing boys for success

Arkansas school librarian Jamille Rogers (back row, center) with members of the Distinguished Gentleman’s Club. Photos courtesy of Marguerite Vann Elementary School

Arkansas school librarian Jamille Rogers (left), founder of the Distinguished Gentleman’s Club.
Photos courtesy of Marguerite Vann Elementary School

Jamille Rogers is a library media specialist at Marguerite Vann Elementary School in Conway, AR. She’s also the program adviser to her school’s Distinguished Gentleman’s Club, a program for third- and fourth-grade boys.

Rogers says that the club started because the majority of the students who were underperforming academically were boys.

“We needed to put a program in place that would allow them to have role models and would also encourage them in the classroom,” Rogers says. So two years ago, the Distinguished Gentleman’s Club was born.

About 100 students participate. On the second Monday of every month, the boys have a “Dress for Success” day and come to school in shirts and ties. At the end of the day, they have a club meeting. The students talk about any issues they’re facing at school and hear from guest speakers, who speak about various character traits such as patience and responsibility.

Rogers helps coordinate the speakers and other volunteers. She also solicits sponsors to raise money for the program and schedules the students’ annual field trip.

Since the Distinguished Gentleman’s Club began, Rogers says the students have made academic gains—and she has also seen improved behavior.

“They start to take responsibility for themselves, so that’s one less student we have to worry about when it comes to discipline,” she says. “The teachers have seen it in the classroom. We’ve seen it in the hallways. For me personally, if I can reach one student, I feel like we’ve done justice. So to be able to reach a group like that—it’s just amazing.”

Empowering kids with disabilities


Stephanee Rauch

Stephanee Rauch, a teacher librarian at the Harris-Hillman School in Nashville, TN, has to bring literature to her students in ways in which they can understand and participate. Her students range in age from three to 21, and all of them have severe, multiple disabilities. Most are in wheelchairs and lack the ability to communicate in traditional ways.

“This poses a real challenge, since our ability to understand what others think and feel is so heavily tied to their ability to communicate,” Rauch says. “At Harris-Hillman, we must rely on facial expressions, eye movements, and very small changes in a body, such as a shoulder twitch or a slight hand movement. As I share books with my students, I am looking for these signs to help me understand how the lesson needs to shift or how my students are feeling about what I am reading.”

Before Rauch came to the library, the library only had picture books and stories suitable for young children, as former principal Robbie Hampton described in an SLJ article. Rauch shared Hampton’s vision that the students needed more diverse materials in the library, including tech and titles for middle schoolers and young adults.

Still, since her students can’t read themselves, finding content that is age-appropriate and accessible can be a challenge. Recently, Rauch began creating adapted books with textures and scents on each page that could serve as companions to the longer, more difficult material.

“We have the knowledge and the resources to allow all children to succeed in education by helping them find the best materials for their style of learning or their interests,” she says. “In this way, librarians help all students achieve. Those positive experiences help students believe in themselves and believe in the truth that learning is possible and is for everyone.”

In fall of 2015, Harris-Hillman was selected for a library makeover from Limitless Libraries, a cooperative program between Nashville Public Library and Nashville Public Schools that is funded by the city and other sources. Limitless Libraries dedicated $600,000 to the new facility; an additional $23,000 has gone toward collection development since 2013. The 3,000-square-foot library opened in January.

Opening school libraries in summer

Jennifer LaGarde Photo by Sean McGinty

Jennifer LaGarde
Photo by Sean McGinty

A few years ago, Jennifer LaGarde and her colleagues participated in a professional development session with Donalyn Miller, an education expert and author of The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Miller challenged the group by asking what they were doing to guarantee that their students had access to high-quality reading materials throughout the summer.

“She said that handing them a public library card is not enough,” recalls LaGarde, a digital teaching and learning specialist and lead school library media coordinator for the New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, NC. “This question sort of led us to believe that we needed to be able to provide access to the people and resources in our school building to all of our students—especially to those who may not have transportation or other resources that could get them to our public library.”

LaGarde took action. In 2015, her district opened four school libraries during the summer. Last year, that number grew to 11. Students and their parents can go to whichever site they prefer, and may even go to a different program each day over the course of six weeks if they choose. They check out books and participate in various activities at each site, such as coding or learning about Minecraft. The libraries also provide snacks.

LaGarde, also a Library Journal Mover & Shaker, says the program takes transportation challenges out of the equation, since many students can walk to their neighborhood schools. Students of all ages and family backgrounds participate in the program, which focuses on reading for pleasure. Kids who participated had smoother transitions into the school year and performed better on benchmark assessments, she adds.

The program is funded by the school district through money set aside for instruction and technology. “That is not because we have a lot more money than any other district,” LaGarde notes. “We certainly don’t. All the programs, all the materials, all the salaries for those who work, come out of our district funds because we believe it’s something worth investing in: It’s an investment in our students.”

Supporting kids with special needs

Sharon Fashion

Sharon Fashion

It can be tough for families in Moncks Corner, SC, to find resources for children with special needs, says Sharon Fashion, deputy director and youth services coordinator for the Berkeley County Library there. To address that, in December, the library opened the Young Learner’s Toolbox Learning Lab. It’s housed at the Moncks Corner Library, but library card holders throughout the county can take advantage of it.

The lab is designed to help children with learning, language, and communication barriers, such as autism, pervasive developmental disorder, and dyslexia, as well as those for whom English is their second language. It includes multisensory toys, games, plush reading buddies, learning kits to build vocabulary and language skills, and technology such as LeapFrogs, iPads, and Launchpads. All of the materials are available for parents to check out to use with their kids at home.

“Some of that stuff the parents can’t afford to buy, or they might want to try it out before they purchase it,” Fashion says. Parents can also pick up information about available community resources to help their children.

Experts in the field say sometimes it can be difficult for children with developmental disabilities to feel like they fit in public spaces. “We want to welcome all of our patrons,” Fashion says.

The toolbox, funded by a grant from the South Carolina State Library, aligns well with the library’s focus on early literacy. “If we catch them early, then we’ll make them lifelong readers and learners,” she says. “We figure if we can catch them while they’re young, they won’t be so far behind when they’re older.”

Responding to hunger

Natalie Cole (l.) and Trish Garone

Natalie Cole (l.) and Trish Garone

Last summer, nearly 140 California libraries served more than 203,000 meals and 60,000 snacks to kids and teens. They were participating in the Lunch at the Library program, which provides children with meals and enrichment activities at local libraries during the summer. The program provides California libraries with the tools and resources to establish themselves as summer meal sites.

The program, a partnership between the California Library Association (CLA) and the California Summer Meal Coalition, has grown exponentially. When the initiative launched in 2013, it operated at 17 libraries and provided 21,000 meals.

The libraries are located in communities where at least 50 percent of the schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunch, but once a site is established, the meals are available to any child who wants one. Any library in such a community can participate.

Each year, the libraries survey the participants, and for many of the children, Lunch at the Library is a real lifeline. “Nineteen percent of children and teens surveyed last year and the year before told us that the library was the only place they receive lunch,” says Natalie Cole, a library programs consultant at the California State Library. “We’ve found that libraries are very popular sites with families because not only do they offer the meals, but they’re also safe, they’re a welcoming space, they’re a trusted space at the heart of the community.”

Kids enjoy a Lunch at the Library meal. San Mateo County Library photography by Becky Ruppel

Kids enjoy a Lunch at the Library meal.
San Mateo County Library photography by Becky Ruppel

The program also serves as a powerful outreach tool for the libraries, which often promote their summer reading programs during mealtimes, says Trish Garone, CLAs’s program manager for the California Summer Reading Challenge, which includes the Lunch at the Library program. “They see a lot of new faces that they hadn’t seen in the library before.”

Libraries that provide lunch are encouraged to participate in special programming before, during, or after the meal to engage the crowd that comes to eat. This “ensures that when a family, child, or teen comes to the library, they’re exposed to some really wonderful programming opportunities or the chance to enroll in the summer reading program,” Garone says.

The initiative also provides leadership opportunities for teen volunteers who plan, set up, and promote the meal service. While kids enjoy the meals, many libraries use the time to reach out to their parents and provide resources such as information about early learning. “It provides so many benefits to the whole community,” Cole says.

Initially, the program received funding from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation as a part of its work around summer learning. Now it receives Library Services and Technology Act funding from the California State Library.

Pursuing racial equity

Jane Eastwood

Jane Eastwood

Jane Eastwood is the director of the Saint Paul (MN) Public Library. In 2013, the city initiated a racial equity initiative at the prompting of the school superintendent. The goal? “That our children—our youth in Saint Paul—whether they’re in a school, a library, or a rec center, would really come to be treated in the same way, an equitable way,” Eastwood says.

At that time, Eastwood was the mayor’s education policy director. The city and the library partnered to develop a framework and a set of tools, including a common language and common assessments around race. All city workers have to go through a full-day training session on racial equity, which teaches key concepts about implicit bias and the various levels of racism—individual, institutional, and structural—and how to talk about racial issues respectfully. Every department develops goals and accountabilities around race, which become part of their annual plan. Supervisors and managers go through additional training.

In 2015, the library became the first city department to have all of its employees go through the training together. The library also provides training throughout the year. Branch managers and supervisors receive monthly training and conduct racial assessments.

One such assessment led the library to stop requiring a library card to use a public computer.

The issue came to light when a branch manager said that she thought more people of color were being denied computer access, and she didn’t believe this was fair.

The situation “was a holdover from early days, when we had long lines waiting for public computers, and we needed to manage the line,” Eastwood says. “We wanted to encourage library cards, so we created a policy that you had to have a library card to use a public computer.” At the time, the hope was to get more people to sign up for library cards, but it didn’t work out that way.

For one week, librarians conducted a nonscientific study to find out who was turned away most often from the computers because they lacked a library card. It was people of color. The library changed the policy. Now anyone can obtain a guest pass to use a computer.

“We considered it a real success, and the staff really led that themselves,” Eastwood says. “They came up with that issue. They were committed to figuring this out, and I think it was a great first example of how a practice can get in the way of serving people—even though on the face of it, that practice made a lot of sense. We wanted everybody to have a card, but we didn’t take into account the real impact.”

Now the library looks at the impact of all of its programs through this lens. Eastwood admits that early on, some staffers were less than enthusiastic. It has helped to focus on issues within the organization more than individuals.

“We really take it out of the realm of ‘this is your fault, this is my fault,’” she says. “We try to look at how are we delivering our services, how well are we supporting our staff so that everyone is successful. When you put it in that realm and you take it out of the personal, it’s a little easier for people to grapple with.”

The library also looked at the ratio of part-time to full-time staff in the context of race and how well that matched the demographics of the city. It found that people of color were disproportionately in part-time positions.

“When you do it that way, that’s a little bit harder for people to argue with,” Eastwood says. "Our fundamental principles are about serving everyone. When we talk about bringing racial equity into our work, it means we have to look at all of our practices—our policies that may unintentionally not serve communities of color as well as they serves white people.”

“Libraries are really good places to test this out, because we’re about knowledge, information, and service,” she notes. “Our fundamental principles are about serving everyone.”

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Sandy Tharp-Thee

I am very honored to be part of this group that Marva was able to share our stories. I had a lot of help along the way from many people who generously gave of their time and resources. (Amazing GED teachers - Margaret Gibson and Kathleen Woods and students that never gave up.) IMLS supports Tribal libraries and these funds are precious. The Department of Libraries who has always been a part of my story also receives funding from IMLS. It worries me that IMLS funding may be cut and this will hurt libraries across the nation and what they do already with so little. I hope that if you are reading this that you will call your congress person. Blessings, Sandy Tharp-Thee

Posted : May 05, 2017 01:42

Julia Desalernos

I am so proud to hear what we all know is that librarians Can make a difference in the lives of all children. Keep up the great work fellow librarians.

Posted : May 03, 2017 12:57

Georgie Camacho

This was an excellent article, and the activities those featured are spearheading are inspiring. Thanks, and job well done.

Posted : May 03, 2017 12:42



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