Response to the Evanston Library Crisis: Democracy Audit?

by Debbie Hillman
June 4, 2017

In the food-and-farm advocacy arena, we practitioners have benefited greatly from an observation made many years ago by Frances Moore Lappe (author of Diet for a Small Planet). Paraphrased, she said that hunger in the 20th and 21st centuries is not caused by an absence of food but an absence of democracy.

REAL DEMOCRACY — or just the “Democracy” label? I believe that Lappe’s observation can be applied to any chronic problem in the U.S., including the current situation at the Evanston Public Library (which seems to be the latest eruption of a complex of old injustices). Combined with the noblesse oblige moneyist North Shore attitude that seems to infect almost everyone who enters the Evanston power structure, the lack of real democratic process in all of our government jurisdictions is the ancient source of all kinds of invisible and inaudible inequities.

EPL. Specific to the library board, the systemic flaws we’ve inherited (by virtue of living in Evanston in the 21st century) are noticeable in two statements made by members of the library’s current power structure. These statements were made in May 2017 during the initial brouhaha over an equity audit (sparked by some questionable personnel supervision, not to mention questionable inter-personal relations). Here are the statements, plus my visceral reactions as a 21st century advocate for grassroots democracy.

1. May 11, 2017 Daily Northwestern

“The idea that we as volunteers … aren’t interested in equity and don’t represent the community, it’s upsetting to us,” EPL board president Michael Tannen told The Daily in May. 

The deeper problem is the belief that someone can represent someone else or represent an entire community — or that nine people can represent an entire community (75,000) in all ways. Logically, that is not truly possible. Politically, representative democracy is an oxymoron that we have all bought into for far too long. No one can represent me but myself. No one can represent the community except the totality of all the community members. Moreover, our library board is not elected, but appointed. Hence, the “representation” is twice removed, and doubly suspect.

2. Library News & Events May 2, 2017

We Welcome the Community at Our Board Meetings
Did you know? The Library Board of Trustees welcomes everyone to attend Library Board Meetings where each monthly meeting opens with citizen comment. Feel free to let us know what you think or just listen to the proceedings and get to know our board and current issues facing the Library. Meetings are held monthly at the Main Library.

You can read board meeting minutes and get agendas and board packets for the present and going back to 2012 on our website. It's a great way to learn more about the Evanston Public Library.

— It doesn’t really matter whether the Library Board of Trustees welcomes me or anyone else to Library Board meetings. These are open meetings that we have a right to attend. Why did it take a public relations crisis to finally include information about the meetings in the regular newsletters?

— “Board of Trustees” has itself become an elitist term through systematic exclusion by traditional power structures, suggesting a body of superior beings acting on behalf of inferior ones. Conversely, placing the burden of “trusteeship” on just a few people is unfair to those individuals, even though they volunteer for it. In truth the human world has changed and is changing so fast that many such volunteers in such traditional positions burn out or end their roles with disappointment or frustration. The model is no longer an effective one (if it ever was).

— The use of “you” in messaging to adults about adult responsibilities (public bodies and public policy) is offensive and condescending — e.g., “Did you know?”, “You can read…" Better messaging would be a simple and regular sharing of basic information without the Madison Avenue hype and cutesie marketing tone.

DEMOCRACY AUDIT? I would recommend an audit of EPL not only for racial and ethnic equity but for democracy. Once the decision-making system is identified as an additional problem, individuals on all sides of the issue can be seen through a more human and more forgiving lens. That lens remains useful and clear only if we all commit to sharing power in a more equitable way.

In truth, I don’t know if there is such a thing as a democracy audit. But I would be happy to do some research. And I would be glad to be part of an initiative to design and implement one in Evanston.

PS: Since I wrote the above, I have learned two other disturbing facts about the current power structure of the Evanston Public Library:

— In 2016, the board voted to eliminate term limits for itself. Why?

— According to Evanston Patch, as of June 3, 2017, thousands of pages of documents from the city’s online public records data portal have been deleted from EPL’s account. Some of these documents were emails obtained through a FOIA process and published by Evanston Patch on June 2, 2017. Why were these documents deleted at this moment in time?

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