March 16, 2018

Elizabeth Martin Stearns & Carmen Patlan | Movers & Shakers 2014 — Innovators




Assistant Director of Community Services
Waukegan Public Library, IL

BS, John Carroll University, OH, 1981. Certificate in nonprofit fundraising, North Park University, Chicago, 2010


Community Engagement and Spanish Literacy Manager
Waukegan Public Library, IL

Columbia College of Missouri, Park City, IL 1998–2000

Photo by Sue Kamman

Library Ambassadors

Elizabeth Stearns (l.) began looking for someone to help the Waukegan Public Library, IL, connect with the local Latino community out of necessity. She had worked at the library through two censuses and saw that by 2010 Latinos made up more than half of the city’s population. “We would not stay relevant if we did not reach this community,” says Stearns.

She knew it would be a challenge. Many people did not speak English well or at all. Rates of poverty and illiteracy were high.

Stearns says she tried a few public relations campaigns but soon realized she needed someone from within the Latino community to do outreach. In 2011, she found Carmen Patlan, who was then the Human Concerns Director at a majority-Latino Catholic church with more than 5,000 members.

Patlan had no library experience but had been a longtime advocate for a community that she says “often feels voiceless.” Stearns and Patlan discovered that, together, they could accomplish a lot.

“Anyone who has seen them work together knows that is how they work best,” says Peggy Barber, a library consultant and former long-standing communications director at the American Library Association, who nominated the duo.

Patlan quickly generated a “tsunami of use” by Latinos, says Barber. Far from just creating a few ESL classes, Patlan helped expand library services to include the “Social Worker Is In” one-on-one counseling, computer literacy classes, health programming, and Leamos, a self-taught Spanish literacy program.

Patlan understood that her job was not just to create programming; she also had to change the attitudes of Latino immigrants toward the library.

“To immigrants, unless you came from a wealthy family with access to schooling, libraries are not viewed as accessible or relevant to their needs,” says Patlan. “They think of libraries as librerías, or bookstores, which they can’t afford.”

Much of the library’s success in reaching Latinos has come from the Promotora/Ambassador volunteer program, which empowers individuals with strong ties to their communities to help raise awareness around the issues that affect them. “Social media and all the technology tools will never replace actually engaging with your constituents on an ongoing basis,” says Stearns.

Last year, Stearns and Patlan won the library the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

Now, the two women want to create a training institute to help libraries across the country replicate their programs.

“We discovered that it is not enough to know your customer is Latino, or whether they speak English and have a library card,” Patlan says. “You need to know how they feel about their children’s education, what their job and family aspirations are, and what worries them daily.”



  1. Amazing women with awesome insight for the future! I took my two nieces and daughter to the library last year and was amazed with the amount and types of resources the library had for kids and adults. The community is very blessed to have this powerhouse!!

  2. Wow. Waukegan is certainly blessed to have such innovative visionaries that know how to follow thru with a plan. The impact is breath taking.


    Congratulations to both of you for , once again, putting the Waukegan Public Library “on the map”. Your FRIENDS are proud of you!

  4. Denise Raleigh says:

    Congratulations Elizabeth and Carmen. You have made such a difference. Kudos to you both and Waukegan.

  5. Rachel Cope says:

    So blessed to work with these two amazing women!

  6. Diana Wence says:

    I love this picture. And what a ground breaking duo. I’m so lucky to get to work with these two amazing women and can’t wait to see what else they have planned for our community.

  7. Illaina Baylor-Johnson says:

    Elizabeth and Carmen are awesome!! They see the need and work to fix it. We can use more like these two.

  8. Lauren Uecker says:

    It is amazing to see what the WPL has done for the community and education in Waukegan. It is wonderful to see people acknowledging that we need to change the way we use our community resources to fit the current population and needs within the community. I look forward to seeing what the library and these women do in the future!