By Steve Zalusky
“Miss Diane” is the reason why patrons love the Stetson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. That was the consensus of a focus group when asked the question, according to Dawn La Valle, who nominated Diane Brown for her I Love My Librarian award.
Brown, the branch manager, “is the heart of the Stetson Branch Library and the heart of an urban community burdened with a high poverty and high crime rate who overcame many obstacles in her own life to transform the Stetson Branch Library into a community hub beloved by all,” she wrote in her nomination.
A librarian who is also a community activist, Brown has made an impact within the Dixwell community, a predominantly African American community challenged by low literacy, high poverty and high crime.
La Valle wrote, “While so many libraries are struggling to build lasting partnerships with local schools, Diane took the challenge and turned it into an opportunity.”
Brown worked closely with CONNCAT (CT Center for Arts and Technology) to assist with the design and implementation of an after-school tutoring program at the Lincoln Bassett School (K-8).
Lincoln Bassett School was on the "low performing list" in the district and was "adopted" by CONNCAT, which prepares youth and adults for educational and career advancement, through after-school arts, and job training programming.
La Valle wrote, “Not only does Diane work closely with this program, she helped establish a Stetson Library satellite library within the school.” In response to a lack of programming funding, she created "Family Night Programs" so families could spend time together in the evenings.
She was also able to offer a Civil Rights Forum, Youth Against Violence, a Black history program, family game night, a health fair, despite a program budget, doing it through collaboration with community organizations.
Her community activism has garnered her several awards, one of them the byproduct of her work as coordinator for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, “Pop-Up” Festival in the Dixwell neighborhood. The festival features performances, lectures and conversations.
She has also hosted the Yale School of Medicine’s annual health, which teaches the community about a variety of health issues, and a community cookout/meet and greet with the Yale University, African Fellowship Program, in which Africans representing 22 countries interact with the black community.
During the Season of Giving, Diane collaborates with the New Haven Police Department, the New Haven Fire Department and local churches to provide programming, as well as donations of clothing, food and school supplies for families in need.
“Diane and community are one in the same - she is community,” La Valle said. Her involvement with the community has made a difference.
La Valle wrote, “She goes above and beyond to help patrons and non patrons receive help, information on services, cultural programming, literacy education, simple everyday needs and complex answers to questions.
“Urban libraries can be challenging from diminished funding, limited resources, the lack of black librarians, but Diane is the exception instead of giving up she does everything within her power to ensure her patrons receive excellent service from focused collections, re-thinking of space, relevant programming all achieved through excellent leadership and the development of strategic partnerships.”
Since being named branch manager in 2006, Brown has transformed an “unruly, challenging branch library” into a "village" that provides a safe, warm and nurturing space. In the process, she has drawn into her orbit a host of community forces – police, civic organizations, churches, schools and volunteers.
La Valle wrote, “The branch library is an oasis in an area suffering from neglect, gang activity, poverty and low literacy or as one young patron stated ‘it is the only place I feel safe.’ When you walk into the branch it is a welcoming place to study, read, learn, network and for the younger patrons - a place simply to be a kid. Stetson is a reflection of the community in so many ways from the focus of the collections, to the art displays to the programming all as the result of Diane and her staff's understanding of the needs of the community.”
Interviewed on her receiving the award, Brown said, when asked about the most rewarding aspect of her job, “is to be able to help people every day in some kind of way. I go home at the end of each day and say, ‘OK, did I do something for somebody today?’”
On winning the award, she said, “What it means for me is that, for all the hard work that I do, that I have done over the years, somebody recognizes and respects the work that I have done.”