An Innovative Collaboration Brings a Series of Bullying Forums to Birmingham Public Library

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The recent suicide of Florida 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick once again draws national attention to the tragic consequences of bullying, and communities across the country are struggling to find a solution.  

In Alabama, an innovative collaboration between the Birmingham Public Library and the David Mathews Center for Civic Life is providing a community-based approach to the solving the  problem. Over the course of the last year the two have come together to convene a series of public deliberations on the topic of bullying.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, public deliberation is a form of decision making that encourages citizens to examine multiple approaches to addressing an issue, while also considering costs, consequences, and tradeoffs. A neutral moderator guides the process using an issue framework, and a neutral recorder works to capture and share the major themes and ideas put forth by the group.

Deliberation about an issue, it should be noted, is quite different than debate about an issue. The purpose of deliberation is not to win. The purpose is to explore the values and beliefs of the participants and provide an opportunity to seek common ground.

In each of the bullying forums at Birmingham Public Library participants began by considering ways in which bullying affects their community and went on to examine several approaches: “Get Tough on Bullying,” “Equip Students to Address Bullying,” and “Engage the Community and Parents in Bullying Solutions.”

These approaches had been previously framed in a “Citizen's' Congress” convened by the Alabama Issues Forums (AIF), a program designed to bring Alabama citizens together to deliberate and take community action on an issue of public concern. The issue book, Bullying: What is it? How do we prevent it?, is available on the David Mathews Center for Civic Life website.

For a summary of the themes that emerged from the library forums and to gain more insight into the process of deliberation, read the blog post “Birmingham Public Library Bullying Forums”at the Mathews Center website.

Sandi Lee, Public Services Coordinator at Birmingham Public Library, was in charge of the series from beginning to end.  She believes that the David Mathews Center for Civic Life provided a fundamental part of the process.

According to Lee, "Their experience in conducting community forums bought both structure and discussion elements to each forum.  Many of the participants had not experienced a public discussion prior to the Bullying Forums so the structure provided by their Alabama Issues guide helped to facilitate the discussion and provided an opportunity to consider different approaches.  The questions provided opened the door for real discussion about how to approach the problems being considered and what were real steps that could be taken by the community itself to help solve the problem of bullying."

Chris McCauley from the David Mathews Center for Civic Life says that the collaboration with the Birmingham Public Library was (and continues to be) valuable “because libraries are a trusted form of public space in communities. The library is a non-partisan space that encourages exploration and interaction.”

McCauley also notes that “Sandi Lee and the Birmingham Branch Librarians are very committed members of their communities. They can invite parents, teachers, and students to participate in public forums, and people often attend because they trust their local librarians.”

Additionally, thanks to the efforts of Sandi Lee, the library partnered with a local movie theater to provide free community screenings of the documentary Bully.  It was the first screening of the film in the area.

Sandi Lee believes the forums have had an impact on the entire community and recounted a story about the impact on one family.

"We had a 5th grade boy and his mother in attendance at one of the forums.  This young boy, who was very articulate, was able to share his experience of being bullied at school with the group.  His mother was also able to share her experience in trying to deal with the problem and all that she had done to try and get the situation resolved.  Most of her efforts had not been successful.  The simple act of sharing and being supported by the other members of forum gave them renewed energy to continue the effort to get a resolution to the problem.  Several members of the forum offered suggestions for additional courses of action and expressed support for the mother and child."

Another important outcome of the forums, according to Sandi Lee,  is the continued conversation about how to address bullying. "People are still talking about the issue and are interested in helping find solutions for our schools and communities." said Lee.  She also noted that one individual who attended  the forums has become "completely dedicated to cause. She has taken it upon herself to try and begin a community wide initiative bringing a large number of organizations together to discuss efforts that can be implemented on a large scale."

Another direct result of the bullying forums is that several schools have started using the bullying issue book to engage students, parents, teachers, and administrators on the issue. 

Public deliberation is a growing trend throughout the country and public libraries are increasingly playing a central role in fostering this sort of civic engagement. Topics range from local issues to some of the most pressing public policy issues facing the country.

In 2010 The American Library Association, in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forum Institute, launched the ALA Center for Civic Life (CCL) to promote engagement and foster public deliberation through libraries.

The Center is building the capacity of libraries and librarians to help citizens get more engaged in the civic life of their communities. It has provided training and tools for moderators to convene and conduct local deliberative forums and become the hub of a network, connecting mentors with others involved with similar activities throughout the country.

With support from national organizations like the ALA Center for Civic Life and the National Issues Forum, and regional organizations like the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, twenty-first century democracy is taking  root in libraries across the country. Don't miss out on the opportunity to participate!

To learn more about public deliberation look for these resources @ your library

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life
William Isaacs, (1999).
Isaacs is a colleague of organizational learning guru Peter Senge and one of the founders of MIT’s Organizational Learning Center. He also directs MIT’s Dialogue Project, on which this book is based. Isaacs argues that organizational learning cannot take place without successful dialogue. Dialogue is conversation that encourages collective observation and thought, enabling groups to think beyond their members’ individual limitations.Isaacs examines the processes that constitute dialogue and shows what encourages and what discourages dialogue, what happens when dialogue is introduced into difficult settings, and how to manage the changes within oneself that are necessary to become an effective participant in dialogue. — Excerpt of review by David Rouse first published September 15, 1999 (Booklist).

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Robert D. Putnam, (2000).
Putnam laments the decline in the kind of informal social institutions--bridge clubs, bowling leagues, charity leagues, etc.--that were once the glue for many American communities. In a detailed, well-documented book, he examines how Americans have expended their “social capital,” the good will and social intercourse that constitute basic neighborliness, to such an extent that they feel civic malaise despite economic prosperity. As social groups decline, so do civic, religious, and work groups. But Putnam sees trends of both collapse and renewal in civic engagement and seeks to avoid “simple nostalgia.”  Finally, he suggests how the nation can reengage citizens and improve its investment in social capital. —  Excerpt of review by Vanessa Bush first published May 15, 2000 (Booklist).

A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen
Cliff Zukin, Scott Keeter, Molly Andolina, Krista Jennings, and Michael Delli Carpini. (2006).
In searching for answers as to why young people differ vastly from their parents and grandparents when it comes to turning out the vote, this book challenges the conventional wisdom that today's youth is plagued by a severe case of political apathy. In order to understand the current nature of citizen engagement, it is critical to separate political from civic engagement. Using the results from an original set of surveys and primary research, the book concludes that while older citizens participate by voting, young people engage by volunteering and being active in their communities.

The Magic of Dialogue
Daniel Yankelovich, (1999).
Social scientist Daniel Yankelovich does more than revive the ancient art of dialogue; h e reinvents it in a brief, practical form that suits our times. Drawing on decades of research, he offers a method that will help managers, leaders, businesspeople, and other professionals succeed in the new economy. By helping them to master the communication skills needed to conduct dialogue successfully, he shows how the discipline of dialogue can make them more effective managers, strengthen relationships, resolve problems, and achieve shared objectives.


Bullying forum at Birmingham (Ala.) Public Library by Cristin Foster, David Mathews Center for Civic Life.