Using Libraries to Ignite Voter and Community Agency

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to share my vision for Cossitt Library at TEDx Memphis. I spoke about the power of public spaces and the need for libraries to create more social coherence by creating more opportunities for people to learn from and about each other.

In this time of COVID and with the library building closed for reimagining and renovations until December 2020, I am always looking for new ways to create welcoming spaces where it’s OK to talk to people we wouldn’t normally meet, where we can offer belonging and not "othering."

I recently had a unique opportunity to lead a free, nonpartisan civics workshop created by Vote by Design with students from across Memphis. This gave me the opportunity to showcase that these welcoming spaces can exist online as well as in person. The Vote by Design workshop was created by a group of educators at Stanford and it's designed primarily for first-time voters — "to give them a framework to become more confident and engaged in the democratic process." I found it to do all that and more.

After presenting this idea to many of the staff in our system that work with youth and young adults, and upon hearing their excitement about it, we decided to pilot the initiative with a small group of youth from one of our 18 branch locations. Our first session occurred on August 19. The student participants in my session were ages 16 to 19, and they lived in a variety of Memphis neighborhoods surrounding the North Library Branch, located at 1192 Vollintine Ave. They were selected to participate because of their involvement in a leadership cohort that was established at the branch earlier that month.

What they have in common is that they can all look around their communities and look at the condition of things where they live — whether it’s a local park, their school system or the healthcare system — and think “Hey, this doesn’t add up. Something’s wrong. This doesn’t work for me. Why is there subpar service in my community? Why is there a factory that’s spewing out chemicals in my community? Why are there high rates of asthma among students in my high school?”

What was powerful about the Vote by Design experience was that it brought students together and gave them a safe place to share these questions and to be acknowledged that what they were experiencing was real. They were able to see that they were not alone in the neglect in their neighborhoods or the way others were looking down on them because of the community that they live in. This began to create a measure of hope. It was great to see the students have a voice but also great to see them be affirmed by each other, to know that the things that they cared about, other people also cared about.

The Vote by Design session then helped them to move beyond their questions and to start to realize that "the president should be doing something about this. The president should be caring about the things that are affecting me.’ It also gave them a chance to ‘design’ their perfect president, allowing each participant to explore the values they most want in a future leader and then to come together to create a composite view of their ideal leader.

What unfolded was a remarkable similarity among their visions. They all wanted to see a president who had a degree of empathy, who would work on behalf of everyone and actively serve as a bridge to bring everyone together. They all understood the level of division that is present in our country right now, and they wanted to see that begin to change. They also emphasized the importance of fairness, because they do not always experience that in their schools, and their parents do not always experience that in their workplaces.

The idea behind the Vote by Design workshop is that when young people can create a shared understanding of the values that matter most to them, they will begin to look for and elect candidates who live those values. Perhaps they can also begin to live those values themselves. They may even choose to run for office in their schools or their communities to try to make a difference. They can begin to see how in their everyday life they can be a bridge, too.

As part of the workshop experience, the students also had the chance to listen to speeches from presidential hopefuls from recent elections. Because they had previously created a list of the values of their "perfect" president, they could listen to those speeches with new ears. They began to understand that they can vote for someone who stands for the values that matter to them, rather than just voting the party ticket.

The students also had the chance to explore possible future scenarios — natural disasters, cyber-attacks, etc. — that a president might face, and to think through how their "perfect" president might respond. This section of the workshop was really rich in learning because the students already had distilled the values they wanted this person to live by and had come to a consensus on what traits were most important. They could then use that groundwork to formulate and role-play a short, powerful response to each scenario.

"I voted" stickers
Vote by Design gave the students a framework for discussing the ideas that were already brewing inside of them.

Since the students had stated that they wanted a president who could talk to the entire country, who could be fair to everyone, the role play exercise helped them to see how difficult this really is. How do you speak to all kinds of people unless you have experience meeting and getting to know, and understand, all kinds of people?

I pushed them to think about how they might take those first steps themselves — introduce themselves to new people in their school or community that they normally wouldn’t interact with. The tools they learned in the workshop also gave them a foundation to create conversations about difficult topics in a structured way. Given the number of challenging topics on everyone’s mind, racial justice, economic inequality, this foundation will be very valuable for them in the months and years ahead.

I think it’s powerful when potential voters think of themselves as designers, to think about the communities that they live in, the issues that are important to them and the ways in which they can have an impact on those issues. When students learn how to prioritize the things that are important to them, this helps them think through trade-offs while also giving them some level of agency around why they would vote for a particular candidate. It is structured in a nonpartisan way with exercises that encourage participants to listen to people they don’t know with respect and learn to find common ground, something we believe in deeply at Cossitt Library and that I hope will happen even more if we can extend the next Vote by Design session to an even more diverse community.

But most importantly, Vote by Design gave the students a promised framework for discussing the ideas that were already brewing inside of them. The prompts and exercises helped pull out their thinking and let them share what mattered most to them. It helped these students start to think critically about the people they might be voting into office, skills that are crucial since these young people represent our future.

The Vote by Design experience has now empowered them not just as first-time voters this year but also in future elections. It should encourage them to vote even in off-year elections, when voter turnout is usually low, because they know what they are looking for — not just in a president, but in a city council candidate or judge. Now they have the tools to measure a candidate, to evaluate the things that they want to see in any elected official, and to hold these candidates accountable for their promises when they take office.

What is remarkable and perhaps disheartening is that in 2020 these students’ lived experience is not that dissimilar to that of Miss Grace and the other students who I spoke about in my talk, who came to Cossit Library in 1960 and were not served because of the color of their skin. Today, our students, particularly those of color, are facing similar injustices and while their actions may look different from the sit-ins and read-ins that Miss Grace and her fellow protesters used to desegregate Cossit, they are seeking the same aims.

When I tell students that story, I always remind them that the young people who made the difference weren’t college graduates at the time. They had no titles behind their name. They were just ordinary, everyday citizens who saw something and then did something. By helping students learn this history, and giving them experiences, frameworks and tools like those provided in the Vote by Design workshop, I believe that they can start to understand not just what they need to be asking of their elected officials but what they can each do to bring about change themselves. And that is the way we will create social coherence, build important bridges and create a more positive future for everyone — by creating more welcoming spaces, online and off, and welcoming diverse communities to work together to bring about change … for all.

If you’d like to learn more about participating in a Vote by Design session, or hosting one of your own, visit