Promotoras Link Latinos to Libraries
By Ellyn Ruhlmann
Libraries hoping to attract more Latino patrons don’t have to look far for advice. Web and print resources offer a battery of ideas, from the obvious (post signage in Spanish) to the not-so-obvious, such as training employees in cultural sensitivity. The problem is, sometimes they just don’t work. That’s what staff at the Waukegan Public Library found after years of struggling to reach out to Latinos, a group that makes up 53 percent of the city’s population.1 Finally the library decided to switch strategies. Instead of outreach, their new plan focuses on engagement. And it definitely is working.
“We tried all the channels—translating our newsletters, visiting ESL classrooms, manning booths at cultural fairs,” said Elizabeth Stearns, assistant director of community services. “But it always felt like we were just a stranger knocking at the door.”
To learn why, library staff began diving deeper into the city’s demographics, focusing on census and school data. From that process, Stearns said they discovered many people living in Waukegan only recently emigrated from rural Mexico. Not only are they often unable to read or speak English, many can’t read Spanish either. So for them, translating the library newsletter wasn’t doing one bit of good.
Other data showed that 76 percent of kindergartners in Waukegan start school without ever having touched a book before.2 More than three-quarters of these children are Hispanic, with many considered “limited English-proficient.”3 Still trying to learn the language, they enter school already behind and the disadvantage follows them all the way through high school. Nearly one out of every three Hispanic students fails to graduate.4
“Our traditional tools for outreach just weren’t reaching this demographic,” said Stearns. The library houses an Early Learning Center and offers free ESL classes and tutoring for all ages, including a path toward earning a GED. In a community suffering from a literacy crisis, why weren’t more people taking advantage of it?
Working the Org Circuit
The library turned to several community organizations to help raise awareness. Staff joined the Latino Coalition and started speaking out at Rotary Club and Town Hall meetings. When the nonprofit organization Lake County United staged an event focusing on education, Stearns showed up. So did, to her surprise, more than 900 other people.
“That’s when I realized we just didn’t have that kind of power—the ability to galvanize a community,” said Stearns. Over the next few years she spent time networking with people who did. Stearns calls her one-on-one chats “relational meetings” because they helped reveal useful information about the Latino community the library wished to serve. At one event, Stearns met Carmen Patlan, social concerns director for Most Blessed Trinity parish, the largest Catholic institution in Lake County. Patlan emigrated from Mexico as a young girl whose familiarity with the English language began and ended with “hello.” She understood the plight of immigrants and explained why many Latinos have reservations about libraries.
“To immigrants, unless you came from a wealthy family with access to schooling, libraries are not viewed as accessible or relevant to their needs,” said Patlan. “They don’t think of them as borrowers, they think of libraries as ‘librerías,’ or bookstores, which they feel they can’t afford.”
Stearns saw a catch-22: Her library wanted to promote resources that help build English language proficiency, but if your target audience isn’t already proficient, they may never get the message. She needed to find someone to go out and tell them directly, in their native language—someone like Patlan.
By the time Patlan came to work for the library as its new community engagement manager, the staff had already embarked on a mission to conduct 1,000 conversations with Waukegan residents. They hailed people in grocery stores and banks, schools, laundromats, and outside the city jail: asking questions, listening, taking notes. The effort paid off with a catalog of information not just about how people use the library, but also their views on education and lifestyle issues.
Patlan, now representing the library, continued to network with social service organizations including The Alliance for Human Services and Chicago Wilderness, promoters of the Leave No Child Inside movement. At these meetings she often noticed a friction between groups about how to best serve the community’s needs, and a resistance to her presence as a library representative.
“Many organizations didn’t understand why we were at the table,” said Patlan. “They don’t know that people come to the library because they need all sorts of help: they lost their job or they’re homeless, or need healthcare. We can serve as a portal to those services.”
Latino marketers for Leave No Child Inside gave Stearns suggestions on how to really connect with the Latino community, including a tip about Promotoras, a model used in the healthcare industry. Promotoras are Latinos with strong ties to their communities— typically volunteers or group leaders within churches or other organizations—who help raise awareness about a particular issue. The model was originally developed to promote access to healthcare in marginalized communities, and it quickly grew into a best practice in the industry.
Could the Promotoras model help the library with its mission? The staff decided to find out. Already well-connected in the Latino community, Patlan began talking to prospective Promotoras all over the city, selling them on the idea. The position, while unpaid, does offer other perks, she told them. Thanks to a gift from North Shore Gas and a $5,000 Loleta D. Fyan grant awarded through the American Library Association, Patlan was able to offer each Promotora his or her own iPad for library and personal use.
The primary purpose of each iPad was to collect information and create a database of prospective library patrons. Patlan and Stearns used the census and school statistics combined with data gathered from the community conversations to develop survey questions for the Promotoras. These one-on-one talks usually begin with a hook like “Did you know that most Waukegan kids start kindergarten without the skills they need to succeed?” At the end of each visit, the Promotora describes free programs and other resources at the library that can help.
In addition to speaking directly to friends and neighbors, the Promotoras also make connections with churches, school districts and local businesses. “Once the Promotoras and I spoke to a religious education group that included hundreds of parents, and several of the women came up to us afterward in tears,” said Patlan. “Their children can’t read or write, yet keep moving through the grades due to social promotion. Who suffers? Our entire community.”
Big Results, Small Investment
During the first five months of the program, the seven Promotoras collected demographic information on 523 people who had never visited the library before. Of that group, 342 came in and registered for a new library card and 202 checked out materials or signed up for programs. The library’s Conversational ESL Program drew 255 participants in the first year alone, and many more joined a wait list.
“What we learned from the Leave No Child Inside marketers really held true: the Latino community can be quite insular and looks to trusted sources,” said Stearns. “They respond to their friends, neighbors and church members in a way they never responded to us.”
As door counts continued to go up, the library’s print budget (already reduced in recent years) went down. Why spend money on costly newsletters when you can achieve much better results through free word-of-mouth? The savings reflects the library’s switch from outreach to engagement, said Stearns. Outreach often serves as a one-way message; engagement sparks conversation and, as they learned, action.
Earlier this year one of the Promotoras, Diana Alvey, got a call at home from Patlan, who could hardly contain her excitement. She had just learned the Waukegan Public Library had been selected as one of 10 winners of the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, largely because of the work of the Promotoras. Would Alvey like to come with them to the White House for the award ceremony?
Alvey nervously agreed to go, and on May 8, 2013, she and the library’s executive director, Richard Lee, stepped on stage at the White House to receive the award from first lady Michelle Obama. As she listened to her story being read over the loudspeaker, Alvey couldn’t help but tear up. Her family had emigrated from Mexico when she was three years old. None of them spoke any English and she could remember the hardships they faced trying to adapt to a culture so foreign from everything they’d known. Those memories are in fact what drove her to volunteer as a Promotora, a decision she never dreamed would eventually land her at the White House.
Seeing Alvey’s emotional reaction on stage, the first lady leaned over and asked in a whisper if she was okay. Alvey looked at her through her tears and said, “Only in America.” Mrs. Obama smiled and echoed back, “Only in America.”
Another change took place as the Promotoras program gained momentum. Staff realized they would need to continually revamp their program offerings in response to the ongoing feedback. When the Promotoras make their rounds, they go equipped with talking points that help identify a wide array of needs among their contact base. The library then uses that data to adapt existing programs or develop new ones that address those needs.
“We never begin by asking people if they have a library card,” said Patlan. “We try to find out what’s preventing them or their families from really succeeding.” Some of the programs created as a result of those conversations include study sessions for the Temporary Visitors Drivers License test; what to expect at a parent-teacher conference; and how to handle immigration paperwork.
Sometimes patrons identify issues that require expert advice. About a year ago, the library began offering a program called “The Social Worker Is In,” featuring free, first-come, first-served advice from a bilingual certified social worker. She volunteers her time each week to help patrons navigate through housing emergencies and medical or legal crises, laying out their options and referring them to the right sources for help.
“You shift away from the concept of a library as simply a provider of books,” said Stearns. “… If people can’t read the books, what’s the value of our institution?”
That old marketing truism, know your customer, has gradually taken on a new slant for Stearns and the rest of the library staff. With the success of the Promotoras program, they’ve discovered that it’s not enough to know your customer is Latino, or whether she speaks English and has a library card. You need to know how she feels about her children’s education, what her job and family aspirations are, and what worries her. You need to know her like the Promotoras do—not as a customer, but as a concerned neighbor and a friend.
Want to create your own Promotoras Program?
Here are six steps to consider.
1. Study your community. Look at data from the census and schools, surveys from social service providers, and your own surveys of community members. Interview parishioners at local churches that offer bilingual services.
2. Network with organizations. Make your library voice heard at meetings including the city council, school board and social service organizations, and foundations with prospective donors.
3. Create a budget and seek donors. Consider the cost of hiring someone to manage the program, business cards and shirts for the Promotoras, and iPads and other technology needs.
4. Choose a point person. Find someone respected and well-connected in the Latino community who supports the mission of libraries. The point person should be compassionate, persuasive, and familiar with the role of advocacy.
5. Interview Promotoras. Look for leaders within the Latino community, especially those whose lives have been impacted by a library. Consider church leaders, coaches, school or social service volunteers.
6. Write a patron recruitment plan. Include talking points, relevant messaging and reliable tracking systems. When writing scripts, remember patrons are wondering what’s in it for them. Make sure your Promotoras are prepared to answer.
For more information or advice, contact Elizabeth Stearns or Carmen Patlan at (847) 623-2041.
1 Waukegan Census: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/17/1779293.html
2 Lake County United Kindergarten Readiness Survey: http://www.liveunitedlakecounty.org/site/PageServer?pagename=uwlc_campaignvideo_2011
3, 4 2012 Illinois School Report Card: Illinois, http://wps60.org/schools/ReportCards/WHS.pdf
1. Carmen Patlan (white shirt, center) poses with a group of Promotoras in the library courtyard.
2. Conversational ESL classes now fill up quickly at the library.
3. First lady Michelle Obama presents the National Medal for Museum and Library Service to Diana Alvey and the library’s executive director, Richard Lee.
4. Bilingual library staff attended training to field questions and help patrons enroll in health plans available through the Affordable Care Act.