“I am an American”

August 13, 2010 by Joan Flanagan
Filed under: American Identity, Immigration 
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Photo by RBruceMontgomery

Photo by RBruceMontgomery

When Amanda Standerfer was the Library Director at the Helen Matthes Public Library in Effingham in downstate Illinois she was disturbed by the snarky comments of some library patrons who were offended by kids in the children’s area speaking Spanish.  She got remarks like “Who are they?”  “Why aren’t they speaking English?”  And her favorite: “Why are THOSE kids using OUR library?”  So Amanda won a grant to launch a program in 2007 to help people learn about their own neighbors called “I am an American.”

Effingham is a town of 12,384 people.  In the 2000 census those people were 98% white, 1 % Hispanic, and the remainder a mix of Asian, African-American, Native American, or a combination of two of the above.  Because it sits at the intersection of two major Interstate highways, I-57 running from Chicago to the very southern tip of Illinois and 1- 70 running from Utah to Maryland, it pitches itself as the “Crossroads of Opportunity” but it is most famous for the 198 foot tall steel cross that you can see from the highway.

Using the funds for public outreach, Amanda created two panels of five people each made up of people not born and raised in the United States to tell their own stories.   She started with questions like “What do you like best about the United States?” and “What do you miss most about your old country?”  Then the audience at the library could ask questions.

Starting with people she knew from the medical center and recommendations from the school counselors, Amanda recruited a doctor from Sri Lanka who had been a long time resident of Effingham and a woman newly arrived from Ukraine who had been a mail order bride.  She had another doctor from Egypt, people from Columbia, Nicaragua, and Mexico, and a corporate wife from China.  The Chinese woman was in Effingham because her husband worked for a major multinational corporation, and he had been posted to Effingham for a few years.  She came to the library often with her two daughters.  During the question time, someone asked her how she can take two daughters back to China because of its “one child policy.” The woman answered that it will not be an issue, because her daughters were Americans.

Amanda says that the library is the place to educate the community.  During the panels, people got to ask, and answer, many questions.  Some were serious, and some were as simple as the foods they eat.  One woman said, “I saw you buying something at the market, but I was too shy to ask you what it was and how you cook it.  Next time I see you there, I will ask!”

The library is built on three values:  Technology - access for everybody, Resources - putting people in touch with resources to be better parents and neighbors, and Culture in the Community.  This program was cheap, easy to do, and promoted understanding of cultures in the community.  It gave them excellent public outreach and was such a success that when the grant ran out, the local Rotary stepped up and instituted an International Food Fair to keep the conversations going.

When I asked Amanda if the snarky remarks in the children’s section had gone down, she said, “We are very intolerant about those attitudes.  The library is run with property taxes and everyone pays property taxes.  Even the renters who are only here a little while, a lot of their rent goes to the landlord’s property taxes.  So everyone is welcome at the library because everyone is paying for it.”

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