Shuttered by the pandemic, the proposed permanent closing of two Evanston Public Library branches has triggered that uncomfortable conversation on racial equity that routinely rends an Evanston community priding itself as progressive.
As the EPL Board of Trustees weighs the August 13 recommendation of Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons to close the North Branch and CAMS Branch — citing budget constraints and a need to redistribute library resources more equitably in Evanston — the debate by opponents and proponents has opened ugly wounds.
EPL’s 2018 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) study that revealed glaring historic racial inequities— from its hiring to book holdings and branch locations — dictated reevaluating sustaining those branches at 2026 Central St. and 900 Chicago Ave., against a huge void in areas of less wealth and higher populations of color, EPL maintains.
Those identified areas include the 5th ward, briefly home to a yanked West Side branch — 1975-1981 — a sore that has never healed, much like the yanking of its neighborhood school, Foster School, during 60s school desegregation; and the 8th and 9th wards.
“I have continued to have warm and encouraging conversations with the Leadership of both Family Focus and CCCS [Coordinating Council of Community Organizations] about the possible creation of an Evanston Public Library branch in the Family Focus building in the Fifth Ward,” Danczak Lyons wrote in her Aug. 19 Library Director’s Report, in advance of Wednesday’s board meeting.
Board and community members serving on the year-old Racial Equity Task Force recommended by the EDI study, believe reallocation of the city’s stringent, property tax-funded library budget — some $9.5 million in 2020 —necessitates closing those two branches to support underserved areas lacking wealthier area resources and access.
Neighborhood organizations and community members in the North and CAM branch areas — including Evanston Public Library Friends, the 501c3 that raised $171,000 to create the Mighty Twig after closing of EPL’s South Branch in 2011 — argue their libraries should not be sacrificed to support those racial equity goals, but rather, funds found to support the underserved communities as well as theirs.
And as the debate takes on racial undertones, Board President Shawn Iles struggles to move it back squarely to budget and equity.
Noting that the library took ownership of its own part in the institutional racism Evanston addressed in the June 2019 “Resolution Committing to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity” adopted by the City Council — by issuing its own Commitment to Racial Equity Statement — Iles said the system must now move beyond just apology.
“We’ve made progress on a lot of the EDI recommendations, all of which we took to heart. We have been very carefully using an equity lens in our hiring process, and working closely with the task force, we heard loud and clear that we must create an innovative approach to library space and services in the 5th ward,” Iles said.
“Before the pandemic hit, we spent a lot of time trying to identify a space in the 5th ward that we could project into, and it’s been really tough. It’s a historic issue that goes beyond redlining. There just aren’t a lot of public spaces in the 5th, 8th or 9th wards,” he said.
“But let’s be real. Resources are finite. Our budget has always been smaller than our neighbors, half the budget of Skokie and a third of what Wilmette gets, and we don’t know how many people are going to be able to make the second installment on their property taxes. So we don’t know how big a hole we have in our budget yet,” he said.
“So my biggest concern is preserving the staff that we have so carefully hired. I’m concerned about people, not places,” Iles said, noting that 75 percent of the library’s budget is personnel — with costs at those two branches at nearly $500,000 annually.
“People are saying, ‘How much could it cost to keep our little branch open?’ It goes far beyond the rent. So when I talk about reallocating resources, I’m talking about taking the staff and having them spend time in parts of the city that have been historically and chronically underserved. I’m primarily concerned about people, and programming. I’m less concerned about the space.”
Evanston, pridefully, has nationally been ahead of the curve in wrestling with systemic racism.
Congressional hearings last summer turned a renewed spotlight on reparations and how the nation could best make amends for the impact of slavery, and in November, Evanston made history with its groundbreaking $10 million reparations fund seeded by cannabis.
This year, as racial disparities in coronavirus deaths was forcing America to confront its longstanding racial economic and health inequities, the nation was plunged into trauma from the heinous videotaped killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, triggering collective soul-searching on race relations, and a national reckoning on the racism too long accepted as part of all systems.
But as with the City Council resolution to end such affronts in this progressive north suburb — and again seen with the reparations ordinance — Evanston’s trailblazing toward the redress promised by its library equity statement will not be without pain.
“For the past year, we were charged to help EPL understand the issues faced by members of our community and to make suggestions as to how resources could be allocated in such a way to meet the needs of those who have been historically left out,” Tracy Fulce-Gentle, one of eight community members of color serving on the Racial Equity Task Force, wrote on Facebook.
“While we’ve been working, a small but organized group focused on maintaining a Northshore branch, in spite of evidence that resources should be reallocated to address the greatest community need, has been dormant,” said the 46-year-old lifelong resident.
“Now that we have made recommendations to begin to address the Library’s problematic history, the Friends of the Library have begun to reorganize in earnest. In their focus they have ignored the need elsewhere, challenged the very need for the Library's Racial Equity Task Force, and made accusations that were inaccurate and inflammatory.”
Fulce-Gentle was referring to EPL Friends, whose volunteer-staffed Mighty Twig was later absorbed as CAM Branch by the library. She and EPL Friends Co-President Lori Keenan were among some 10 residents who attended the July 15 Board meeting to speak out for or against the proposal.
Keenan, 57, a 22-year resident, disputes those characterizations increasingly being leveled at EPL Friends, arguing the group fully supports library equity and the task force goals.
“We are encouraged by the work of the current Equity Task Force, and recognize that it closely aligns with much of what the Friends were saying — and doing — 10 years ago. We hope that the Library Board of Trustees can recognize that the same Evanstonians who cherish libraries and services in their own wards, also want more of them for everyone,” Keenan told Dear Evanston, maintaining that closing libraries during a pandemic when people are more isolated is “not responsible” or “forward-thinking.”
“Doing so in the name of ‘equity’ does a disservice to the word,” Keenan said.
“We believe in, and want to work to help fulfill the work of the Board and the Equity Task Force, but believe that closing branches and dividing our community further isn't the way to accomplish that important work,” she added.
“Instead, we urge the Board to keep the branches open and invest in the efforts and initiatives of the Equity Task Force, while calling on support of the Friends to help. None of that will be made easier by disenfranchising many of the same the people who have been most supportive of the library, and the branches in particular.”
Postings on Facebook groups and on NextDoor Evanston by residents of the North Branch area echo those sentiments, along with complaints about transparency, the proposal coming in the wake of the opening earlier this year of the new 6,000-square-feet Robert Crown Library sited in that 4th ward community center at 1801 Main St.
“I am deeply saddened that the children, elderly and families of NW Evanston are no longer valued. North Branch was a viab