Featured Grantee Q&A
Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the Waukesha Public Library talks partnership, grit, and community engagement.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
The Waukesha Public Library has served the literary, cultural and information needs of the citizens of Waukesha, WI, since it was established in 1896. What started as a collection of 136 books, housed in a family home, has grown into a vibrant and inviting 71,000-sq-foot facility with a collection totaling more than 350,000 items. Our staff aims to provide a welcoming and dynamic environment where citizens of all ages can find the inspiration, ideas, and information to reach their full potential.
Materials for the Waukesha Reads 2017 NEA Big Read for True Grit. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
Our city is a socioeconomic melting pot, with a diverse mix of suburban and urban residents. Though it is the seventh largest city in the state, Waukesha retains that Midwest, small-town feel. Our lively downtown hosts many community events including Friday Night Live (a weekly music event), a farmers’ market, art crawls and a year-round variety of festivals. It is also home to UW-Waukesha, Carroll University and Waukesha County Technical College. Not including last year’s NEA Big Read, our library programming brought in 65,824 participants to our 908 programs, offering something for everyone from newborns to senior citizens. We also interact with our community in non-traditional locations as well, having booths at the local Farmer’s Market and Friday Night Live, storytimes in city parks, participating in fairs and activities at the local schools and universities, providing outreach to 16 local assisted living facilities and partnering with other City departments and organizations to reach residents who may not be traditional Library users.
Tribute Tuesday book distribution table. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
What makes your Big Read Unique?
What makes our NEA Big Read so unique are the community partnerships. We work with a diverse group of dedicated partner organizations that understand the value of promoting reading in our community. These relationships allow us to offer a variety of unique and compelling programs around town, enabling us to connect with citizens of all ages and backgrounds, and allowing us to interact with people who may not be regular library users or readers. Taking our programs to local coffee shops, bars, restaurants, schools, assisted living facilities, art galleries and other businesses is essential in order to reach the largest possible audience. Over the years, our NEA Big Read programs have engaged more than 50 local partners. It is our hope to build a community of life-long readers and to establish lasting relationships in the city that will make Waukesha a stronger community overall.
True Grit-inspired Wine and Art event. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
In True Grit, Charles Portis vividly recreates the roughness of an America that is barely a hundred years old and still deciding what kind of country it will be. A portrait of a specific time, it nevertheless exudes a mythic timelessness. In his unforgettable characters, he explores the meaning of friendship, courage, and fidelity to a moral code.
Waukesha has read many different genres over the years for our community-wide read: classics, mystery, contemporary fiction, short stories and fantasy; however, our previous selections explored neither the Western genre nor this particular time in U.S. history. Upon further examination of True Grit, we discovered the underlying themes of feminism, the treatment of Native Americans in US history, issues with law enforcement and other topics that still continue to be important pieces of our national conversation. The idea of weaving these topics into our programming, along with the fact that celebrating a Western would be fun for all ages, sold us on the idea. We were also pleased that the reading level was easy, but the story was still compelling —perfect for veteran and reluctant readers, young people and English language learners. Our community engaged with this book in ways we haven’t seen before. We saw people dressed in cowboy boots and hats, enjoying country music and posing with a life-sized Rooster Cogburn, but we also experienced people engaging in discussions about deeper issues. Judge Derek Mosley talked with people about enacting change and “True Grit” in the criminal justice system, Debra Morningstar spoke about her Native American heritage and told traditional tribal stories, local scholars took us back to Waukesha in the time of True Grit, and the Waukesha County Museum presented a program on feminism through the lenses of the book. True Grit had something of interest in it for absolutely everyone.
Stacked copies of True Grit. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
A closeup of the Waukesha Reads event raffle card. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
What aspect (event, discussion questions, audience outreach, etc.) of your programming do you feel has had the most impact?
Programs that explore and examine current issues, especially those that are specifically relevant to our community, are extremely popular. One event that comes to mind was the presentation by Judge Derek Mosley, the youngest elected African American judge in the state of Wisconsin. He spoke about legal issues in southeastern Wisconsin: the drug epidemic, inconsistencies in the law, segregation, Milwaukee shootings that have been featured in the national news—and then led a discussion on how to start making systemic changes (or, how to have “True Grit”). This amazing conversation included a wide range of people, from students to senior citizens, with a variety of different points of view. We are optimistic that these types of programs will stimulate understanding and inspire conversation that could help our community evaluate itself and inspire changes.
An excerpt from the Waukesha Reads programming brochure. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
Our Waukesha Reads/NEA Big Read programs would not be successful without the participation and enthusiasm of our community partners. Not only does partnering expand the audience of our reading program, but those organizations know their individual communities and create programs that we never would have thought of on our own. Also, it’s important that all the partners assist in marketing, helping to spread the word through newsletters, social media and other promotional efforts. Citizens visit new places and learn about new organizations, and partners benefit from the awareness that collaboration brings to their businesses. When we join forces, the sky is the limit!
A painting commissioned from Waukesha artist Connie Pelzek for Waukesha Reads 2017. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
Waukesha Public Library decided to shake things up and do a different kind of kickoff event this year. We partnered with Waukesha’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department for a Country Kickoff event done in conjunction with Tribute Tuesday, an event happening in the park right outside the Library. The Friends of Waukesha Public Library co-sponsored a Kenny Chesney tribute band to provide the music, and Waukesha’s Mayor, Shawn Reilly cooked his famous barbeque. The Library held activities for kids and teens in the park. Waukesha Reads had volunteers dressed in cowboy hats and Waukesha Reads t-shirts passing out free books and event calendars. It was a beautiful night with great music, good food and activities for the whole family. At the same time, the Almont Gallery in Waukesha debuted a month-long event at which local artists displayed original work created around the themes of True Grit.
There were so many other excellent programs this year. The School District of Waukesha presented a “Sounds of True Grit” concert featuring Western music, interspersed with students reading passages from the novel. Over 300 students from 5 local schools performed that evening! At the Brown Bag True Grit conversation, the Waukesha Civic Senior Players delighted the group by writing and performing an original “lost chapter” from the story. The Waukesha Preservation Alliance led a historic walking tour of Waukesha featuring downtown buildings from the time period of the novel. We also took an enthusiastic group on a bus trip to Watson’s Wild West Museum and looked at memorabilia from the old west – everything from covered wagons and an authentic saloon bar to clothing, general store items, firearms and cowboy artifacts. Our keynote speaker, Mike Earp, spoke to a large and engaged crowd at the Waukesha Civic Theatre. As a retired U.S. Marshal, a relative of Wyatt Earp’s and an author, he talked about the U.S. Marshal Service now, and also what it would have been like to be a Marshal during the time period of True Grit. All of these programs encouraged a strong dialogue about the book and its connection to our current society, which is exactly what we intended to accomplish.
A WPL reference librarian holding copies of their NEA Big Read book. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
A covered wagon at Watson’s Wild West Museum. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
Holding up a Friday Night Live photobooth prop. Photo courtesy of the Waukesha Public Library
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
There was one older woman who attended nearly every discussion and event that was part of our NEA Big Read last year. Throughout the course of our program, she became friendly with our Library staff and revealed to us that her free copy of True Grit was the first book that she had ever finished. She was so proud of having finished the book, she decided to participate in all the events. Even though she had to travel around town by bus, she found that the program took her to places in Waukesha where she never would have gone on her own. She also cultivated new friendships with other Big Read devotees, and we now see them attending other Library and community programs together. Not only did she finish her very first book, but she experienced new places in her community and made personal connections with others.
Lastly: What is your favorite line from your reading selection?
How could we pick just one? We solicited favorite quotes from people who were reading True Grit for our promotional buttons, which we then distributed at our events. It’s clear that the humor in the book was widely enjoyed. Some popular ones were:
“They tell me you are a man with true grit.”
“Lookin’ back is a bad habit.”
“The wicked flee when none pursueth.”
“That’s bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”
“I always go backward when I’m backin’ away.”
“Nothing I like to do pays well.”
and last but not least:
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood, but it did not seem so strange then…”
–Charles Portis, True Grit