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University City library works to bridge generations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2012 - How do you bring together diverse generations of citizenry? It's a goal much desired, but not often realized.

A new attempt is being made by the University City Public Library through a series of programs, designed to strengthen that community. The effort also hopes to soothe tensions that linger from last spring's incidents involving large gatherings of youth in the Delmar Loop area.

"Building Common Ground: Discussion of Community, Civility, and Compassion" begins Sunday, March 25, and runs through October. The events are sponsored by the University City Library and the University City/Clayton AARP chapter.

The Public Insight Network, a program of the Beacon and the Nine Network of Public Media, is working with this project.

University City reference librarian Kathleen Gallagher described how this program was developed: “In fall of 2011, the American Library Association called for grant applications for Building Common Ground. We at the University City Public Library were intrigued by the possibility of making a positive impact on our community through this unique initiative.”

As Gallagher explains, the participating libraries would “identify local issues that might be informed and illuminated by discussions of community, compassion, civility and use those issues as the impetus for assembling multi-format program series. ... Building Common Ground participants will discover the opportunity to reflect on content, engage with issues through discussion, and learn of opportunities to take action on behalf of their communities.”

The library's specific goal to enrich "connections among University City’s seniors and youth was developed through brainstorming sessions among our reference librarians,” she said.

That in turn led to the local AARP chapter, whose officers have been on board from the beginning, contributing much to the planning according to Gallagher.

The events will include readings, art, reflection, discussion and civic engagement "with a focus on fostering an intergenerational community of individuals." The people who participate — who it is hoped will develop respect, cultural awareness and neighborhood kinship — then are expected to share experiences and spread the word.

University City wants the Building Common Ground project to address lack of recreational opportunities for young people, which are seen as contributing to the influx of young people into the Loop, which led to a few incidents that raised concerns from University City business owners and residents and brought negative attention to area.

News reports revealed a sense of animosity toward these young people. And that caused a sense of urgency among officials that if the tenor of the interaction between teens and young adults with older adults was not addressed the situation would worsen.

University City Mayor Shelley Welsch formed a Task Force on Seniors and Youth to learn more about the issues and to come up with ideas about specific needs that should be addressed. This merged into the Building Common Ground effort. According to Gallagher, “We hope to enhance the community-wide conversation begun by this task force through our programs.” 

Although this is not planned as an annual library event, Gallagher said, “Depending on community response, we would certainly be willing to consider extending certain aspects of the program, in particular the intergenerational gaming events.”

While University City has a population of about 35,000, its library system reaches more than 37,000 borrowers, thanks in part to a reciprocal lending agreement with the public libraries of the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. This means that Building Common Ground has the potential to reach out to communities in University City and beyond.

Building Common Ground is funded by a $2,500 competitive national grant from the American Library Association Public Programs Office and the Fetzer Institute.

Here is a schedule of Building Common Ground events:

A three-session book discussion of Karen Armstrong’s "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life" on March 25, April 15 and May 20. Each of these sessions begins at 2 p.m. in the library auditorium. Carolyn Wright of the Aquinas Institute of Theology will serve as the moderator for each of these discussions. Copies of "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life" will be available to buy at the library.

Gaming it: New School/Old School on May 10 at 7 p.m. and May 12 at 1 p.m. in Lil’s Treehouse, the University City Public Library Gaming Room.

Express Yourself: Community, Compassion and Civility is a visual art exhibit that spans generations and cultures. For this art show, volunteer judges will be recruited from the book discussion and gaming event participants. The judges will work in pairs of one senior and one young adult. The exhibit is open to both kids and seniors and runs through the month of August at the University City Public Library Art Gallery.

Service Fair, a program of action, reflection and engagement, is scheduled for Oct. 6 from 10 a.m. to noon in the University City Public Library auditorium.