Let's Talk About Our Community Walks

21st May 2017

Although our libraries are situated inside communities, engagement with members’ families has so far been at a minimum.

Our Community Organizer, Mridula says, “Our library members and their families and the many thousands of others who live in the mostly informal settlements in and around our library have every reason to be wary of institutions. We know from the stories our younger members tell us that their experience with schools, for example, is one of being at the receiving end of the arbitrary exercise of power. Many, many children have found themselves removed from the rolls and denied education for taking necessary leaves of absence. It is also apparent to us that these same children come from families where they are well loved and valued. Stepping out of the library, breaking away from the idea of institutions as exclusive spaces is the only way we can talk to the loving parents of our members; it is how we can invite them to the library, as parents, readers, and thinkers.”

Visiting families in the community

Typically community walks are conducted by groups of volunteers, who fan out across the areas surrounding the library. They visit homes at random, meet people on the streets and initiate conversations about what the library is and what happens there. In the past, these walks have become impromptu street-read alouds and have been a way to invite the community to come visit the space for themselves.

Visiting families in the community

On July 31st & August 7th 2016, the strategy changed a little bit. It was decided that smaller groups of volunteers and student leaders would visit members’ homes, conduct one-on-one interactions and spend time learning about their families. It was also an opportunity for the library to show parents & guardians how well their children had been doing as readers, thinkers and responsible & caring members of the library.

“It goes without saying that in our highly stratified society, most of us volunteers are at least a little uncomfortable with knocking on doors and stepping over thresholds to enter the homes of an unfamiliar class.”

Mridula

There were definitely lessons for volunteers to learn and a lot of self-reflection to happen even before the walk began. So, before they set off, there was a strategy & briefing session. This was conducted by Michael Creighton, who led the group through the basics. Volunteers were divided into groups of two with a student leader in charge of selecting homes to visit. Volunteers carried library cards to show parents/guardians how many books their child had read so far and if they’d been on our ‘Honour Roll’.

Some post-walk insights from our volunteers:

Padmaparna Ghosh: “It was good! There were quite a lot of insights. For one, I realised that parents are just happy their kids are going to a space that is probably safe and not roaming the streets. Secondly, they view the library as being run by people who speak English, which they prefer. They see it as a place where they become more “confident” and also practice their English, which eventually helps them in everything. One family didn't let us in, which is fine, but we couldn't speak with them. They weren't keen on speaking or perhaps just didn't want to let us in. I was surprised to see so much heterogeneity in the demographic in one area, to be honest. It is something we never see in the kind of colonies we live in. As for adults coming to the library, a couple couldn't read and weren't interested.”

Sujit Prasad: “What we found were many conversations with parents manning homesteads, electricity shops, and tea shops. And they knew us! And took pride in their children and their contribution to the library. And they understood the journeys books are taking their children on. All of this sounds at times pretty much par for the course, till you understand that most of these parents are themselves unlettered in the conventional sense of the word.”

The role of student leaders during these walks cannot be emphasised enough. They were not just guides through the streets & galis of the area but spokespersons that helped families feel more at ease with us entering their homes.

Michael Creighton: “Today, as in previous community walks, we met some families who live in modest middle class homes, and we met many families who live in standards that would be considered very difficult anywhere in the world. And what do we make of this coincidence of interesting, interested, loving families and very difficult surroundings? I think we can only assume that this coincidence is neither an accident, nor is it an anomaly. Interesting, interested, loving families are the norm in every community; the fact that those of us who come from more privileged backgrounds may find this surprising or remarkable at all can only be explained by a weakness in our own vision, which, yes, can sometimes approach a kind of blindness. And when we do force ourselves to see this, if only for a moment or two, what then? Clearly, we realize that even one small library such as ours is most beautiful thing. And at the same time, we must mourn the fact that it is also a rare thing, because we understand that children and adults in most communities have no access to the books we grew up loving, and by extension, the collective investigation of humanity and our world that we call literature, philosophy and the sciences. Today I am deeply saddened by the re-recognition of this specific kind of poverty; it is not enough to say we believe in a library movement…”

Moving ahead, the plan is to continue conducting regular community walks, to keep engaging, inviting and listening to members of our community. Building trust is an ongoing process with big learnings happening for the library - both for volunteers & leaders as well as for the families & residents who support us in the areas we’re situated.

[Pictures by Raghav, Shivani Sharma (student leader), Sumit Raj (student leader), and Purnima Rao.]

The Community Library Project
Dharam Bhavan, C-13 Housing Society
South Extension Part -1
New Delhi - 110049
Donations to The Community Library Project are exempt from tax under section 80G of the Income Tax Act. Tax exemption is only valid in India.

Illustrations provided by Priya Kurien.
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