Community Engagement “Happens” at a Book Club Meeting

The Whistleblower book coverThe Experience

The Willa Cather Book Club has met monthly to discuss a fiction or nonfiction book since 1999.  The group currently has 12 members who range in age from 35 to 85.  Their life experiences include teaching GED classes at the county jail; nursing in the Vietnam War;  raising large families in small houses; teaching at the university level; working at the Nebraska Humane Society; and following a husband to extended jobs in China and Saudi Arabia.  One member brings her 12 year old daughter if she (Mom) feels the book being discussed is appropriate for that age level.

The July 23rd book was The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice by Kathryn Bolkovac.  The group initially chose the book because the author had been a police officer in Lincoln, Nebraska for 10 years.  The discussion turned out to be much deeper than one woman’s experience in Bosnia.

When Bolkovac alerted her employer that DynCorp employees and United Nations personnel were involved in human sex trafficking, her career and life quickly spiraled downward.  After being dismissed for “falsifying time records”, Bolkovac never found another international law enforcement job.  She won a lawsuit against DynCorp in a British employment tribunal court in 2002.

As the Book Club ladies discussed the moral choices that Bolkovac faced in Bosnia, we wandered into social justice issues much closer to home.  While discussing poverty in Omaha, one lady mentioned a statistic that she’d recently heard – “78% of African-American children are born to single mothers”.  Since the book club is racially mixed, the conversation came to a dead halt.  When the silence deepened, the group’s facilitator broke the tension.  I turned to Jeannette, a lovely black woman, and said, “I think the group would like to discuss this issue but we’re afraid of offending you.”  Jeannette smiled and said, “Let’s discuss.”  Civil, thoughtful conversation ensued that ranged from women’s poverty to segregation in Omaha to the steady decline of marriage and organized religion in the American middle class in the last 50 years.

When the group began gathering their things to leave, Jeannette piped up with “I’d like to say something.  I think this country needs more conversations like this one.  Thank you for tonight.”  Mary Ann tried to apologize for bringing up the statistic but was met with a chorus of “It was a good discussion.”  I leapt at this opportunity to explain that what had just happened is called community engagement.  Since libraries are a neutral space, they are interested in exploring this idea.  The evening was a magical experience.

The Facilitator’s Analysis

I believe that three factors created this organic discussion – the choice of book, the length of time the current group has met, and facilitator skills.  The serendipitous merging of the three factors in one hour created a meaningful discussion.  All the advance planning in the world would not have resulted in the same experience.

The events depicted in The Whistleblower took place in 1999 and 2000.  Bolkovac’s story was made into a film (The Whistleblower) and released at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.  The book, The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice, was published in 2011.  Enough time had lapsed that the author was able to chronicle her aftermath experiences with DynCorp, the United Nations, and the British justice system.  The book’s subject naturally results in a social justice discussion at all levels – international, national, and local.

The current configuration of the Willa Cather Book Club has met for eight months.  During this time, the group has become more comfortable with each other, their varying experiences and their opinions.  As a few people got braver about expressing their thoughts, the breadth and depth of conversations got deeper.  When a book with pressing social justice issues was read, the group was ready for more than a “politically correct” discussion.  The members are still split about which paper is more reliable – The New York Times or The Christian Science Monitor.

The facilitator’s role is to keep the group on topic and focused.  I find that having prepared questions is crucial.  It also helps to have a mobile device with Internet access available to provide additional information when questions arise.  Timing is also critical.  Do you allow a discussion to follow a tangent?  Do you call a halt to a floundering discussion?  When an African-American statistic created uncomfortable silence, I chose to follow the tangent.  When I asked Jeannette’s permission to discuss the statistic, it kept the evening’s momentum from disintegrating into an uncomfortable awkwardness.  Jeannette’s permission also gently nudged the group to pursue more controversial subjects.  Although I knew pursuing the conversation was risky, I chose to “push” the group.  The result was extraordinary.

Posted by Theresa Jehlik, Project Manager

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Deirdre
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 11:56:41

    That is a great experience Theresa. Thank you for sharing. It shows how you can move a group from a potentially uncomfortable situation to one that was very beneficial.


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