Image caption: Crowd of people stand inside City Hall with a banner that reads “Fund Our Libraries”
By Joshua Reaves
Joshua Reaves: Can you tell The Partisan a little about yourself?
Kate Goodman: I’ve been a union organizer and a community organizer in Philadelphia and Camden for about ten years, and for the last 18 months as a community organizer for the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation.
JR: Great ok, so has this campaign been going on for ten years, or is it recently formed?
KG: So Friends of the Free Library has existed since 1973. From what I understand, there is a Friends of the Free Library organization at every branch. There’s also the city-wide Friends organization when Friends groups need to come together for city-wide advocacy or fundraising.
Ten years ago, when Mayor Nutter tried to close 20 percent of the library branches (11 of them), there were massive protests and demonstrations at City Hall fighting back against library closures. That was the last big campaign where there was city-wide unity of Friends organizations, and they successfully stopped the closure of all 11 branches.
JR: What’s been the nature of your involvement with them? How did you find yourself getting involved a few months ago?
KG: That’s when I got hired by the Free Library Foundation [a separate entity from Friends organizations] to be a community organizer. It’s my job in the North Philadelphia cluster of libraries, to help librarians and library staff, and let the existing Friends members build capacity towards building a Friends organization.
JR: What’s the organizing need that you’re trying to respond to?
KG: When Friends members and organizers got together to look at the numbers, we realized that, despite keeping those 11 libraries open, we lost about 20 percent of our funding since 2011. We’ve been operating at bare bones, bare minimum staffing. This year, we finally dropped below bare minimum; there were almost 800 emergency closures due to staffing or building emergencies this year. That doesn’t even include all the hours that were lost since branches are now closing on Saturday hours.
JR: That makes a lot of sense. It’s been like, mounting costs but no more money from the city for it.
KG: Yeah. Mayor Kenney is saying “Oh well, we’ve gotten the re-allocation for the libraries back up to pre-2000, pre-recession levels!” But if you actually look at the numbers, there was about $40 million allocated in 2009, before the recession year. Now there’s $41 million but if you just simply adjust for inflation, that is a huge cut.
It’s an austerity budget; to actually get the full funding, full staffing and full programming, we actually believe that we need an additional $15 million.
JR: From there, what’s the Friends strategy right now?
KG: We’ve been putting pressure on both City Council and the Mayor, even though they both point fingers at the other. City Council will say like, ‘oh well, that’s actually only the Mayor’s job.’ Or the Mayor will say, ‘that’s actually City Council’s job to do that.’
And so, the Friends groups at each branch have been getting together in neighborhood clusters. We had big public meetings in October 2018, nine in every Philadelphia region. We knew that we needed the power of people in numbers, no matter who we were going to be targeting. But after a few weeks of research, and trying to understand and study the budget process, we started to collect signatures, petitions, to do a social media campaign.
Another thing that we organized was the big city-wide rally that happened December 12, 2018. All the Friends groups in the city did huge mobilizations, tabling, phone banking. We had a press conference that was inside the caucus room of City Council and almost 200 people showed up to that action. We delivered 5,000 petitions not only to the Mayor but also to City Council demanding full funding for the library. We’ve also been organizing with AFSCME District Council 47, which is one of the unions that represents the librarians; it’s a joint labor and community campaign, so we also had speakers there who were librarians.
JR: Oh that’s great.
KG: They were talking about how full funding is a workplace issue that they are organizing through their union to address. Then we had community members and Friends members who were talking about the importance of a fully funded, fully staffed library for their communities.
As much as possible, we’ve tried to model it off of joint labor community campaigns that like, the Chicago teachers union has done. One of the messages we want out there is that a librarian’s and library staff’s working conditions are a community’s public learning conditions. So a community don’t want a library to open without enough staff. They don’t want their librarians to be overworked and underpaid.
What we’re waiting for is budget negotiations. Although City Councilmen may deny it, a lot of the behind the scenes negotiations about how much the city department will be allocated happens from fall and winter. So although the Mayoral budget address is usually in March, we know the budget is determined long before that. We’ve been really raising the red flag about the crisis way before March.
JR: That makes sense. So you’re trying to really like, really build capacity before March?
KG: Yes, yep. And so, you know, every single Friends group has been working, petitioning, mobilization, letter writing, phone calls; we sent thousands of letters to the Mayor and City Council and made hundreds of phone calls. As we get further in the budget process, we’ll continue to mobilize to put pressure on the Mayor and City Council to give us, to give the library the full funding that it needs.
JR: If someone, let’s say a member of Philly Socialists or just a community member wanted to get involved, what would be the process of doing that?
KG: We would recommend if someone wants to do local organizing is that they either figure out what branch they feel most “affliated” with. It’s not like a pure attachment system, but if you live closest to Kingsessing, you have to go to Kingsessing.
Plug in to your local Friends group. If you want to come to our events, or participate in the March Mayoral budget hearings, we’ll have dates for that. We really really need people.
Eventually we hope to be a multi-faceted organization that can take on stances on different issues. We know that demanding full funding is one thing, but understanding that the City Council and the Mayor also need to restructure our tax system to generate funding from the rich–that is something that I personally hope we can build towards.
JR: Wrapping up, why do you like, what really draws you to this campaign and why do you think it’s so important to like, focus on to fund our libraries?
KG: What I’ve witnessed is how libraries are a resource of last resort for people that are in poverty and people who need access to internet; who rely on the safe public spaces that we offer; who rely on free job training and after school programming for childcare. It’s an asset and a resource that should be fully publicly funded to meet the needs of the city’s vulnerable people.
Just like the campaigns to fund our schools, this gets down to a basic question: why doesn’t our city government have enough resources to pay for the things that it should? Our libraries don’t have to be this poorly maintained and this understaffed. If we’re not even going to fund public libraries then what are we going to fund? Fully funding our schools costs hundreds of hundreds of millions of dollars. Fully funding the libraries costs, you know, between ten and twenty million dollars. And you have to understand that that’s not a specific number, but like it’s a bare, bare minimum demand. Three of our public schools have libraries and three of them have librarians.
But because of our city’s leadership, if they don’t take it seriously, then we need to figure it out! Basically tax the rich and meet the needs of the people who live here.
Come out on March 7th to City Hall at 9:30am #FundOurLibraries