Pa. libraries launch ‘Hear Me Out’ to heal the state through civic dialogue

An effort to foster dialogues between people in different parts of Pennsylvania attempts to find common ground in a divided state.

Free Library of Philadelphia

Free Library of Philadelphia (Miguel Martinez/Billy Penn)

Libraries do many things, the most obvious of which is storing and loaning books. They also provide children’s library services, hold classes, host author talks, distribute digital materials, offer small business resources… the list goes on.

But the most crucial public service at this moment is civic dialogue, said Andrew Nurkin, the Free Library’s deputy director for civic engagement.

“Holding a brave but neutral space where people across the state – which is as divided and polarized as the country at large – come together and figure out what we have in common and how we hang together as a commonwealth is the most important thing we could be doing,” said Nurkin.

The Free Library of Philadelphia is launching a statewide initiative, “Hear Me Out,” which will connect people from across Pennsylvania, from different backgrounds and walks of life, to speak directly with one another via moderated online sessions.

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The project was initiated by the Free Library in collaboration with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, partnering with other library systems across the state such as the Coy Library of Shippensburg, Cumberland County.

“What distinguishes this from other civic dialogues is we’re centering the lived experience of the participants,” said Nurkin. “We’re not beginning with politics. We will never ask who you are voting for. It’s an opportunity to move past those rigid dialogues into something more honest, authentic and personal.”

While the conversations may not begin with political affiliations, the first discussion will be focused on the current election: on October 27 people will be asked to discuss the topic, “Does My Vote Count?”

Pennsylvania is considered a key battleground state for presidential voting; whichever way it swings could make a significant difference in the national election.

The first session will not be a public forum about election candidates or issues, according to its website, but rather “personal and familial experiences with voting as it relates to trust in the voting system.”

While anyone can join the discussions, participating library systems will largely be drawing from their own patrons and connecting them with the statewide network. Preregistration is required.

After initially gathering in a virtual forum, a moderator will break up the group into smaller break-out sessions to better foster personal conversations

“Public libraries are beacons of information and discourse whether you live in a large metropolis, a small town, or a rural area,” said Free Library interim director Leslie Walker, in a statement. “Uniting these libraries in an effort to connect residents across the state serves that mission to further engage their patrons.”

After the initial session about voting, subsequent public dialogues will take place about every six weeks, each on a different topic. Nurkin expects to have the second in December on the issue of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the topic may change according to what is most urgent at that time.

With funding from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation of New York, the Free Library expects to continue the dialogues for the next two years, come what may.

“No matter what happens in this election, we’re going to be in a period of polarization for a while to come,” said Nurkin. “Hopefully this is part of the solution for the next couple years.”

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