If you’re seeking to be relevant to new communities, you can’t build new doors by yourself. You have to find outsiders from those communities with whom you can collaborate. You have to build the doors together.
Don’t look for just any outsiders. Look for those “almost comes”—people who might be inclined towards your content, your experience, but for whom your doors are invisible or unappealing. Urban people of color who dig nature but haven’t connected with national parks. Young women crafting and tinkering who haven’t considered engineering as a career. Outsiders will help guide you to potential doorways you’ve never imagined. They’ll help you see things about the room that can and must change. You have to get their voices in the room—or at least in your head—as you start building new doors.
This is hard to do. You won’t find “almost comes” on the inside or hanging out by your existing doors. If you are interested in being relevant to a community that is new to you, you likely have low familiarity and knowledge of that community’s assets, needs, and interests. You may not even know many people in that community, period. And even as you start meeting them–learning about their community, stumbling into new conversations–your existing insider community is right there, loud and in your face, drowning out the new voices you are seeking in the dark.
Sometimes insiders are dedicated participants who are emotionally, even financially, invested in things the way they are. They are readers who want “serious” poetry and none of this hip hop swill. Board members who helped build the institution. Jerk backpackers like me.
Sometimes insiders are professionals who maintain their own social codes for what is and isn’t acceptable. In Cleveland in 2009, Public Library Director Felton Thomas realized the library could better serve its community by serving free lunches to poor kids during the summer, when school was out of session. Felton organized a partnership with the local food bank, and they started serving thousands of meals each week in the library.
But this program was met with resistance from the inside. The library union in Cleveland fought the program and refused to participate. “We’re librarians, not lunch ladies!” union protesters proclaimed. For years, union librarians looked on as library managers and teen volunteers served lunch to hungry kids in their branches. When the library entered union contract negotiations in 2013, the library wrote lunch service into the librarians’ new contract. It was that important and relevant a service to provide.
It might not have taken years and a contract negotiation if there had been hungry kids and parents protesting in the library. But outsiders don’t do that. They don’t know that your institution could be relevant to their lives. You have to spend time with the outsiders you seek, learning about their expectations and strengths and fears. And when you learn something that you can act on—even if that something is counter to what insiders expect–you have to be willing to change, or at least to open up a new door in a new direction.
In 2007, I got involved in local political debate about the future of our public library system in Santa Cruz. At packed public meetings, the library staff presented research suggesting a new program model, with fewer branches, that would serve more people. They shared data about who was and wasn’t using the library, arguing that they could better serve our whole community, especially low-income and Latino families, with a new approach.
And then hundreds of community members in the audience, library lovers all, stood up to argue against the new recommendations.
The result was a milquetoast compromise and a missed opportunity for increasing relevance in a changing community.
These equivocations happen all the time. The people on the outside won’t show up to the meetings (certainly not on their own) where you share how your new strategy will serve them. These people aren’t in the room yet. But your meetings are. So you have to bring in their voices, whether physically or just in your mind, as you weigh the path forward.
It’s tempting to give up. It’s easier to keep listening to the voices of insiders who already love you for what you are. It’s easier to stay relevant to them and shed your dreams of being relevant to more or different people.
But you can’t give up. If you believe in the work of being relevant to new communities, you have to believe those people are out there. You have to elevate their voices in your head. You have to believe that their assets and needs and dreams are just as valid as those of the insiders who are already engaged.
Every time an existing patron expresses concern about a change, you have to imagine the voices in your head of those potential new patrons who will be elated and engaged by the change. You have to hear their voices loud and clear.
These voices are your lifeline to the future. I’ve hung on the hope of them every time I pushed aside dusty furniture to make room for change. When people questioned our commitment to bilingual exhibit labels, I imagined Latina abuelas chatting in the galleries with their families. When purists argued hands-on activities didn’t belong in an art museum, I heard future crafters clicking their knitting needles. When older patrons expressed alarm about Friday night festivals, I listened for the teens who would one day take the stage. When a disgusted letter to the editor asked why we were showcasing so many “victims’ stories” in our history gallery, I heard all the people whose history had been ignored getting the space due to them. When a political cartoon portrayed me as the harbinger of the apocalypse… well, that time I just laughed. I knew by then we’d made enough change to make a difference. I knew our new insiders would write angry letters to the editor and cancel their newspaper subscriptions. Our participants were making enough noise to shake things up on their own.
When you are starting to make room, these new voices don’t exist yet. They are whispers from the future. But put your ear to the ground, press forward in investing in relevance, and those whispers will be roars before you know it.