Library urged to boost outreach to Asian Americans

By Bob Seidenberg

An Evanston resident who has worked to raise the visibility of the local Asian American community told the Evanston Library Board last week that the library should consider hiring a coordinator for outreach and engagement with that group.

Melissa Raman Molitor addressed the board June 21 on behalf of the library’s Racial Equity Task Force. She said task force members met virtually with outreach coordinators for the African American and Latinx communities, “and it has come to our attention that there isn’t really anyone who is responsible for heading up any kind of initiative to the Asian American community in Evanston.”

Molitor told the trustees that an estimated 10% of Evanston residents identify as Asian American. (U.S. Census Bureau 2022 estimates put the figure at 9%.) “And that’s just on paper, and that’s actually not accurate,” Molitor said. “It’s far more than 10% of Evanston’s population, and it’s one of the fastest-growing minority communities.”

Yet, she told trustees, “There are zero spaces, services, supports or any kind of infrastructure whatsoever that centers the Asian American community here in Evanston.”

Molitor submitted a statement on behalf of the task force.

“In the past five years, EPL has made great strides in outreach that strives to meet the needs of the communities that are historically marginalized,” the statement said. “This is evident in the additions of outreach coordinators for the African American/Black community and the Latino/a/x community. Given the success of these recently added positions and the range and depth of programming that exists, EPL is uniquely equipped to address the needs of the Asian American community and to increase the visibility and representation of the Asian American community in our city.”

In discussion, several library trustees expressed interest but indicated they would need more information.

Library trustees seek data

Board President Trace Fulce said she wanted to be careful that the library not frame the issue like the “oppression Olympics,” attempting to judge the harm that groups have experienced.
Fulce said the library’s executive director – the library is currently searching for a permanent director – would be the one to decide whether to create an outreach position. “We certainly can suggest, but I want I want to make sure that we’re not directing the director,” she said.

Trustee Benjamin Schapiro observed that usually decisions for what Molitor was requesting “come out of the documented or documentable need for service to an identifiable community – which is different than a ratio or oppression.”

In the instance of the African American and Latinx communities, he said, the library conducted surveys and determined that “there was an unserved population that had a real need, a need that we could serve to help them advance as part of the community as a whole.”

“So to me, the qualifications for bringing in a position like this, or [questions] that we need to answer to discuss a position like this or programs like this [are], ‘Can we identify community? What size is this community? Are they really served by the existing library?’”

Melissa Raman Molitor addresses the Evanston Public Library Board at their June 21 meeting.

To those criteria, Molitor responded, “Have you done the work when it comes to the Asian American community? Because nobody in the city has, and that’s problematic.”

That is problematic, Schapiro agreed, adding, “So what I’m saying to you is, if you feel this is something we should be putting our time and attention and money toward, those are the questions that need to be answered.”

The ‘beginning of a conversation’

Some other trustees indicated more information would be helpful.

Trustee Terry Soto, who has served on the Racial Equity Task Force from its start, noted that the group has advocated for more qualitative and quantitative data from community patrons as well as from nonpatrons, “so we could better understand the needs of our community.”

“There’s so much we don’t know, and I’m hoping that we will continue to work in that direction so we have a better understanding of the community. And I hope it will support your proposal,” she told Molitor, “because just from anecdotal evidence data, nationally – never mind locally – I think there is a need for more attention to be paid to the broader Asian American community.”

Similarly, Trustee Esther Wallen, also a task force member, praised Molitor for being brave enough to face the board. She said the task force’s statement to the board was intended “as the beginning of a conversation – so we wanted to kind of get this in your ears.”
If a dedicated position is not the way to go, Wallen said, “then at least by having this conversation, we would be able to come up with some other ideas – the need for research, whatever the case may be – to begin with conversation and see what comes up.”

Trustee Russ Shurbet said he would be interested in the data generated. “The Asian American community is a solidly overlooked community throughout the United States,” he said. “As we know, there are contributions from the Asian Americans throughout the United States that has either been erased, ignored – those types of things.”

Molitor: COVID-19 triggered anti-Asian hate

Molitor said one challenge is that a lot of the data about the Asian American community “illustrates the lack of data.” She said the model minority myth ascribed to Asian Americans, referring to a stereotype of certain minority groups as successful and well-adjusted, is so pervasive and harmful that some do not even see Asian Americans as being a marginalized group.

“If there’s anything that has taught us that that is not true … in 2020 [at the onset of COVID-19], was the increase in anti-Asian hate and violence [that] was completely ignored, not acknowledged, not supported,” she said. “Nothing was done to support our Asian American community here.”

Molitor, a mixed-media artist and educator of Indian and Filipino descent who is chair of the Evanston Arts Council, was asked how an outreach position at the library would complement her own work, which uses art to elevate Asian American voices.

She responded that her hope is that, “at that point when we’re able to identify a space [for Asian Americans] and create this space, that we’re not starting from square one when we’re trying to work with other organizations. So this is the conversation that I want to be having with every organization and every space in Evanston, so that it’s already on your minds.

“The Asian American community isn’t being served or heard,” she told board members. “The library is a really great place to start doing that because it’s all about stories.”

She said even if there’s a just an intern or volunteer focusing on outreach and programming, that might be a start.

“One of the biggest problems we have is the mental health crisis in the Asian American community,” Molitor said. “A lot of that is because of the invisibility, the erasure, the racism, the discrimination that is invisible to a lot of people. Creating programming and activities where people are learning and hearing voices from the Asian American community, participating in activities that are citywide – that’s what the library is so great at doing.

“And so I’m hoping that … we can start somewhere and, and make sure that there are Asian American voices that are part of these conversations.”

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