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 viable, well-utilized library. And a small part of the library budget. Equity does not mean Reallocation. Equity means serving all equally. And must I say they have not been transparent. If they were, most people would not have been blindsided to their intentions to close the North Branch,” one resident posted.
Another posted: “I’m curious. Has there been a demand for a library in the 5th ward?”
“No demand. But there was a big demand and still is for the Foster School that they shuttered in the 60’s so the board didn’t have to close a school in North Evanston. But no one that I know has had any interest in helping the 5th ward get their Foster school back, which, by the way, they want to open with a STEM program. A good education pays more than food stamps and other handouts,” another responded.
Still many others do not believe, considering economic tailwinds, that the board will actually follow through with a branch in the 5th ward, after sacrificing the North and CAM branches.
It’s complicated. We’re listening very carefully, and our historically underserved residents are asking for some sort of physical EPL presence in the 5th ward, basically in part to address the wrong of having closed the branch that was there 40 years ago,” said EPL Trustee Rachel Hayman, one of two board members on the task force.
“In addition, as we’ve been going along this equity journey, we’ve identified another area of Evanston that we think is probably seriously in need of the types of resources that a physical presence would provide, and that’s in the mid-south area of Evanston, near Howard Street in the 8th ward, again, a relatively low-income, high residential area with a number of families that are not being well served,” said Hayman, 62, a 34-year resident.
“It’s primarily about equity, but you know we have a very uncertain financial future, and this is a time, I think, that the pandemic has taught all of us there are alternate ways to use resources and still engage residents. We’re really, truly trying to do the right thing here.”
Jean Prindiville, president of the Southeast Evanston Association, maintains that equity efforts should take into consideration the population served by CAMS Branch, arguably more diverse than that served by North Branch.
“CAMS serves a population that includes children and young adults with disabilities who attend Park School, adults with disabilities who live independently or semi-independently in neighborhood apartment buildings, residents of Albany Care, senior citizens, and many young children whose families reside in the numerous new apartment buildings in the area,” Prindiville wrote in a letter submitted at the July 15 meeting, stressing that Robert Crown, a couple miles west down Main Street, isn’t accessible by public transportation.
“We worry that this community will not be well-served by the Robert Crown location,” Prindiville wrote.
But other community members argue those underserved areas have not had the privilege of living walking from a library for decades now, and grappled with the same public transportation challenges to access current library branches.
“I will be encouraging the library board to close the branches. The library’s budget comes from our property taxes, whether or not you have a branch in your neighborhood. And so we have been supporting the library forever, without a branch. I can understand how the communities that have these branches will be disappointed to lose them. The library has served as beacons for their communities, to bring their families to, to have story times, and to gather,” said Linnea Latimer, another task force community member.
“This is an opportunity for us to come together as a community, and be inclusive, and leverage the library’s resources to create something that makes sense for all of us. The library is not just a place full of books. It also holds resources. There are services there that helps the community prepare tax statements, prepare resumes, not to mention the access to free Internet, access to computers and hotspots, and most importantly, a safe space,” said the 40-year-old, lifelong resident.
“The EPL Friends like to say, ‘We bring books to the 5th ward. We have a mobile library serving the 5th ward.’ But my point is, if it’s good enough for us, then it’s good enough for you too, so let’s close the branches. Our kids deserve more than just hand-me-down books. Let’s redistribute the resources to be inclusive, advanced, forward thinking. I hate that this is causing division in our Evanston community.”
Library administration says the proposal was fast-tracked after it became apparent that safely reopening the two branches under pandemic protocols would be cost prohibitive. Both branches have remained closed since shuttered by COVID-19 lockdowns in March.
The Main Library, at 1703 Orrington Ave., and Robert Crown, have re-opened.
Danczak Lyon’s Aug. 13 memos recommending the branch closures call for notifying the CAMS landlord that the branch will end its lease and vacate the premises by Dec. 31; and vacating the city-owned North Branch as soon as all library materials, furniture and equipment can be removed, and materials and staff redistributed using an equity lens.
“I feel very strongly that we need to close both branches, because I see it as a constant crucible the board has been faced with historically, to be more equitable to Brown and Black residents in Evanston. We consistently fail them,” said Trustee Terry Soto, the second board member on the task force.
“The southeast corner of the 8th ward and the 5th ward are the neighborhoods where there are the fewest financial resources, where there are the highest number of people — particularly kids between 0 and 18 — and clearly that means the needs are greater there.
And I think it’s overdue for the library board to make those residents of Evanston our priority,” said Soto, 69, a resident of Evanston the past 7 ½ years.
“We have such a limited budget that we cannot continue to keep branches open where the primary people who use those branches have the resources, have choices, options, maybe not as convenient, but they have the resources to access the Main Library or the Robert Crown branch. They have computers at home,” she said.
“While we are looking at sites for a branch for the 5th ward, there is somewhat of a consensus that if it’s going to take several years to come up with a long-term solution, we have to mobilize to come up with a short-term solution to bring a library presence.”
It’s no surprise, of course, that Lesley Williams, EPL’s popular former librarian, who resigned as head of adult services in June 2017, after years of conflict with the administration and board over her outspoken advocacy for more equitable distribution and representation among library resources and services, is supporting the closures.
“The equity issue is what I have been saying for the last 10 years, and many people have been saying it for far longer than that. I am delighted, and I fervently hope that this will pass, because this is long, long overdue,” said Williams, who worked for the library 21 years, and was up until the month she resigned, its sole African-American, full-time librarian.
“That opponents are calling them ‘our library’ points to the problem right there. There should not be an ‘our library.’ There should be a library for the entire population, and the choice of where library resources are deployed should be based on need, and not on certain people feeling like they should have their own little boutique library that they can walk to, a library that doesn’t have any people of color in it. The only low-income people I ever saw in the North Branch were the au pairs. So this is great news,” she said.
But Williams is hardly the only EPL career librarian who believes the time has come to close the North and CAM branches.
That viewpoint is shared by longtime librarian Connie Hegnehan, who in her 30 years with EPL, has overseen both the North and CAM branches as Neighborhood Services Manager.
“Obviously, the library has done a lot of work on the issue of equity. We’ve had trainings, and we’ve tried to use an equity lens in all the things that we do. We have a lot still to do, but we have really worked hard at this,” said Hegnehan, 70, a 41-year resident.
“During my tenure, there have been many attempts to close the branches. Either it was the city trying to close them, or the board, and other than when they closed South Branch, it has never been successful. I have always had mixed feelings about it. And both branches are actually effective,” Hegnehan said.
“But I understand the limited resources, and I understand the equity issue. I have to say I have had the privilege of joining the Foster senior citizens group, which met at Fleetwood-Jourdain every Wednesday. I brought library materials, and I got to know that group. I probably have a better understanding of the equity issue now than I have had in the past. I’v come to realize that the kinds of resources that the library offers now, must change, and that the history in Evanston of race and racism do make it very important that we have increased service, and a library if possible, on the West Side,” she said.
“So I have to admit that I would support what seems to be the board’s goal of closing the branches in order to bring more services to the underserved areas.”