Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
Americans are self-segregating along political, social, and other divides. An increasingly splintered society poses new challenges for associations as conveners of communities.
The aspiration expressed in America’s founding motto, E pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—seems a far cry from 21st-century reality. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are more divided now than at any time since Pew started tracking political values in 1994.
And a splintered society can quickly generate fear and distrust. Look no further than the current state of two-party politics: In 2016, 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans said they were “afraid” of the other, according to Pew.
As conveners and community builders, associations depend on people’s willingness and ability to talk to one another, build consensus where possible, and disagree without being disagreeable. That kind of civil interaction is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly as associations confront polarization over wedge issues that have the potential to divide their members and other stakeholders into conflicting camps.
Mary Ghikas, executive director of the American Library Association, says she’s worried about political and social polarization, and that’s why she’s reinforcing ALA’s core values, which for decades have helped to define and guide the profession.
“There has always been a splintering in associations, whether by professional specialization or special interest groups,” Ghikas says. “How do you let people find their niche, but also keep the whole together? Increasingly, for us, it’s come down to our mission and core values.”
In the last few years, ALA has put renewed energy into promoting values like equity, diversity, and inclusion, which Ghikas says act as a unifying force among members and the communities they serve.
How do you let people find their niche, but also keep the whole together?
“Public libraries are of their communities and in their communities, and overwhelmingly that means the entire community,” she says. “Right now, there are huge issues around how we hold conversations and who we should trust. Librarians have to talk to [others with varying viewpoints], deal with topics they’re not comfortable with, and explore each other’s differences.”
Ghikas says librarians are in a prime position to lead some of those difficult conversations. According to a 2016 survey from the Maine State Library, librarians are the second-most-trusted professionals in the state behind nursing, ranking higher than clergy members, police officers, and doctors—findings that closely track similar national surveys.
That trust can be leveraged to bring people together for important dialogue. For example, it enabled a local library in Charlottesville, Virginia, to create a safe space for community discussion after a rally of white supremacists turned violent last summer. Months later, the same library—the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, which sits across the street from Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park, where the protests were centered)—welcomed community members to tell firsthand stories of their experiences that day.
“The polarization was consciously in our minds,” says Keith Weimer, president of the Virginia Library Association. “We want libraries to be open to the people and to play a role as a community institution . . . and I think for an association, we’ve consciously tried to be representative of all library workers.”
Regardless of industry or profession, associations need to “survey the landscape and be aware of the tensions in our communities,” he says. “Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist or look at it as something that doesn’t affect us. Look for opportunities to be proactive.”
For VLA, one of those opportunities came in October at its annual conference, which was themed “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.” Keynoter Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures—the book-turned-movie that told the story of three African-American women who played vital roles at NASA in the early years of the space program—reflected on a contentious year and offered a vision for how a collective identity can transcend political and social divides.
“In telling the story of the women who broke barriers of both race and gender, she also wanted to emphasize that they led lives that were very much in common with any American,” Weimer says. “She wanted to tell stories not only of black lives, but also of American lives—lives that would be defined by their commonalities with other Americans and their participation in widely shared national events.”