Learning Experiences Manager,
Skokie Public Library, IL
MLIS, University of Illinois, 2009
Photo ©2016 Shawn G. Henry
Social Justice Juggernaut
New to her position as a comanager of Learning Experiences at Skokie Public Library (SPL), Amita Lonial dove right in and “ramped up our programming by 50 percent,” she says. According to nominator Mikael Jacobsen, Lonial’s counterpart at Skokie (and a 2013 Mover & Shaker), the 2014–15 fiscal year saw “an astounding 55,000 people attend[ing] a library program, and this in a community of 65,000.” Lonial brings to the job her passions for social justice and community engagement.
In 2015, Lonial took a leadership role in SPL’s annual educational program, Coming Together, which “seeks to build knowledge of and appreciation for the diversity represented in Skokie and Niles Township,” says Jacobsen. That year the focus shifted from a single culture to the topic of race. Lonial helped select texts and develop programs, which offered particular challenges, she says. “It’s really tough to do public programming on a huge and provocative topic such as race and racism.” Altogether there were 70 programs in the Coming Together series, and over 8,000 people participated. Skokie staff worked with Lonial to coordinate 14 of those events for all ages at the library. Examples of the programs include slam poetry featuring an artist from Chicago Slam Works; Unveiled, a one-woman show offering different perspectives of Muslim women who wear the veil; and a panel on race representations in media.
In order get the conversation going among Skokie residents, Lonial sought to create concrete learning objects that function as “touchstones for engagement.” She wanted to bring NPR’s Race Card Project to Skokie, but when that didn’t work out, she moved on to develop a participatory program inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (Peace and Freedom Magazine, Jul./Aug., 1989). Each participant received a backpack complete with “a program guide, suggestions for engaging conversation about race, books to read, films to watch, and cards inviting people to share their experiences of race and identity either verbally or in an image,” says Jacobsen. The completed “cards” were hung like flags in a library display. “Ultimately, what we came up with worked well for kids, teens, English-language learners, visual thinkers, etc.,” says Lonial. “I’m hopeful this series was the beginning of a much larger movement toward thinking about race and equity in our community.”
“Amita is a social and racial justice warrior with integrity,” says Jacobsen. “She sees the problems of the world and attacks them with courage, insight, and energy.”