Why I Turn Outward

Guest Blog by Brian Shepard, Executive Director of Indian Trails Public Library

As a library director, I am drawn to the work of the Harwood Institute because I believe that public libraries are uniquely positioned to create environments that foster community change. I believe libraries are seen as a place where all are welcome.

In the words of Uncle Ben from Spiderman, "with great power comes great responsibility." For libraries that means not being satisfied with enjoying the goodwill of the community but leveraging it to bring communities together and being willing to tackle the hard work needed for positive change.

My initial experience with The Harwood Institute came in the fall of 2014 after I heard from several colleagues about the power of the Public Innovators Lab. I was interested in learning more about how we as an organization can truly be community focused in our work. After hearing of the experiences of others and reading about Harwood, I signed up for the lab and flew to Atlanta for the 3 day session.

The first two days of training were excellent, although I was admittedly a little skeptical of how the techniques would work outside of the controlled experience in the meeting room. After one of the trainings, the natural introvert in me sought some quiet time in downtown Atlanta to give myself an opportunity to reflect on what I was learning. The restaurant I chose for dinner was very slow and there was a baseball game on TV which I thought would be a great way for me to unwind from the work we were doing.

When my waiter came over, we started talking and he asked what I did for a living and what brought me to Atlanta. I explained that I was a library director from Chicago and was in town for a training on community engagement. He asked me a little more about it and I remember saying "Well let me ask you, what are your aspirations for your community?" He thought about it for a second, gave me a quick answer, and said he had to go grab my food. I had not really intended to have a long conversation that evening so I happily directed my attention back to the game on TV.

About 10 minutes later my waiter reappeared with my food. After placing it on the table, he said, "You know I've been thinking a little bit about your question about aspirations." He proceeded to grab the seat across from me and sit down to share his answer! Over the next 20 minutes, we discussed the aspirations, challenges and conditions that would need to change to reach those aspirations. While it wasn't what I had planned for, it ended up being an awesome experience. In our short conversation I could clearly see the impact and power of the questions that I had learned through the Harwood experience.

Since that time, our library has held several different community conversations and continue to seek ways to utilize the "turning outward" framework. I’ve found that when you focus on aspirations, turn outward, and take action, you can begin to see meaningful change.

Brian Shepard was recently named Illinois Librarian of the Year for his distinguished leadership and service. Congratulations on this exciting award!