Delivering Social Services At Libraries

Hat tip to which posted an NPR story about libraries that are bringing social workers on staff. The main reason is that libraries are serving the role as a community resource beyond a source of books. Libraries are increasingly a place for classes, after school activities, meetings as well as providing daytime shelter for homeless and unfortunately, those with drug addictions.

I served on the board of a library until about a year ago and there were frequent conversations regarding concerns about used needles and blood splatters in the restrooms. There were also debates about whether to stock Narcan and what the library’s liability might be if doses were administered. Just before I left the board, we were discussing signing a letter of agreement with social service agencies to provide services at some of the library branches.

The NPR story touches on these same issues facing the social workers at the libraries they profile. One of the benefits of having a social worker in a library is that it changes the dynamics of the traditional relationship people have with social services. Instead of people going to a government run office and waiting to petition for assistance, the social worker circulates among patrons, discusses services that are available and helps them connect with those services.

“I walk around and try to talk to people who might be experiencing homelessness. We never ask them directly, but I would just come up to them and say, ‘I don’t know if you’re aware there’s a social worker and there are social services here,’ ” she says. “Because of my role as a professional, clinical social worker, I can do assessments and determine if I need to provide extra support by linking them with community services such as clinics or mental health or for them to see a doctor.”


But Esguerra says the idea of bringing social workers into libraries isn’t just meant to help librarians; it encourages people in need to take advantage of the services the library-based social workers offer.

“Coming to the library is not attached with any stigma, unlike coming to, like, you know, other traditional settings,” she explains. “So public libraries really are the best places to reach out to the population and be effective at it.”

While not every arts organization serves groups that need this type of social service support, there may be other social support activities they can make available.  In some instances, they key may be to take the same approach as the social worker in the library. Instead of saying come here to receive these services with an eye to attracting larger groups of people, just have the services available in a low key way for those that do arrive.

During the summer there are a lot of free plays and concerts offered across the country. There may be people who show up whom an experienced eye could identify as potentially having a need for everything from food and medicine to help registering for school and getting school supplies. I am sure I am thinking too narrowly in terms of the type of support arts organizations might offer.

Then there is the approach from the other direction where arts organizations are present at social service and medical facilities. One of my favorite stories the project that put pop up art stations at a health clinic in Minneapolis.


Donors Can Gain From Giving Circles

I have written a few times about the way people are organizing themselves in Giving Circles. It seems like an interesting approach to philanthropy because it is social and communal the way some online giving platforms are, but just as personal and local as individual giving. In some ways, it actually inspires people to be much more involved and deliberate in their giving.

Via Non Profit Quarterly is a link to a story that talks about those very factors.

“There is tremendous anxiety out there about social inequality and how stratified our society is. People want to do something about it,” says David Callahan, editor of the Inside Philanthropy news site.

“Giving circles create structure for people with shared values to learn about the causes they care about and support them while creating community.”

For members, the experience can be identity-changing.


The intentionality of the process — the vetting of proposals, visits to potential fundee’s sites, hours of thoughtful debate with passionate circle members in five separate committees — has changed Rothenberg’s self-perception.

“I used to think of myself as a donor,” says Rothenberg, who’d annually write checks to her college alma mater and give $50 gifts to this or that cause. “But I didn’t really know where the money went, or it felt like a drop in the bucket.

“Now I see myself as a philanthropist — I’m part of something bigger. I feel invested in the success of the nonprofits we support.”

Kinda Silly Use of Geofencing

I have written before about the ethics of geofencing since there are all sorts of questions raised about where data collection stops and stalking starts.

One of the uses I had suggested might occur was geofencing other arts and cultural organizations in your region and using the information about willingness to participate to present people with options at your organization. Which again, could also been seen as letting someone else do the hard work of attracting participation and then using geofencing to gather information about those who show up.

Last week I came across a pretty puzzling use of geofencing that almost seemed to be using the technology in the to send people to a competitor. Burger King was offering people one cent Whoppers…but to qualify, you have to be standing near a McDonalds.

Burger King geofenced McDonald’s locations so that when you use their app near a Mc Donald’s you can place an order for a Whopper and will be directed to the nearest Burger King.

Big question is obviously, why someone would make an extra effort drive away from a McDonalds they just took time to get close to?

Then of course there is the fact that BK has 6600 locations. McDonalds has 14,000. Which means there is a fair chance you will actually be closer to another McDonalds than a Burger King restaurant and possibly pass it on the way to the Burger King.

This seems like the type of promotion geared toward people who already prefer Burger King over McDonalds rather than something that will attract new people to Burger King.

While art and cultural organizations might be accused of running promotions that reinforce their relationship with existing audiences even as they say they are seeking new ones, I can’t think of a practice that makes people go through such absurd lengths as stopping just short of the threshold of an alternative option to redeem it.

But if you can think of one, I would love to hear it.

Building Housing With A Museum At The Center

Almost by chance I came across a piece on Shelterforce from about two years ago relating how turning a community room in Harlem housing community into a gallery lead to the intentional inclusion of galleries and museums in future construction. As they learned about how people used and gathered around the spaces, subsequent construction increasingly focused on arts and educational spaces. The most recent project in 2015 essentially built the housing around a museum.

This was all very intriguing as I have never heard of a housing construction project being planned around a staffed arts & culture space.

Back in the late 90s, Ana-Ofelia Rodriguez, the director of community affairs for Broadway Housing Communities (BHC) decided to turn a community room into a gallery.

Artists would set up their displays at night, and before Rodriguez could enter the building the next morning, she says tenants had critiques for her of the work that had been installed. “We realized that it had to be a permanent fixture because it had a kind of healing property. It made people talk to one another—they didn’t have to like the art, but they were talking and looking forward to the next artist,” she said.

That first effort, The Rio Gallery, was one of the first galleries in North Harlem and is still thriving today. It is visited by both residents of the housing community and people those from greater neighborhood and beyond.

The success of that gallery lead BHC to include a gallery and pre-school in the construction of the next project completed in 2003.

Seeing how the inclusion of galleries and instruction spaces was encouraging greater interaction internally and externally between residents and the larger community, the 2015 completion of The Sugar Hill Project included both the Sugar Hill Museum Preschool and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling.

The museum features art exhibitions by Harlem and northern Manhattan artists, and its programs are designed “to nurture the curiosity, creativity, and cognition of children ages 3 to 8,” with a heavy emphasis on storytelling.


With the museum’s target audience of children ages 3 to 8, “the programming should engage both adults and children,” says Baxter. She notes that Charlene Melville, now BHC’s education director, works with museum staff to develop new methodology to engage adults. “Some parents are more familiar with engaging in play and art-making, and some are not. It’s about being flexible and creating lots of diverse opportunities—including through music and storytelling,” Baxter says.

There is probably a lot in this story that runs counter to beliefs about those most interested and willing to participate in creative activities.

There is also probably a lot in this story about how influential elements that are the intentional focus of a community can be in the lives of the residents.

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