Resilient Communities: How Library Programming Can Fight The Climate Crisis

Resilience is and always has been an essential trait for overcoming each generation’s greatest challenges. From international conflicts to the climate crisis and everything in between, the ability to withstand tough circumstances and adapt in the face of adversity is what allows us to learn and grow from the difficulties we face. Resilience can be a personal attribute shown by an individual, but in this article we’re speaking of collective resilience, or the ability of an entire community to recover, endure, and grow together during challenging times. This post will first look at why our past and present circumstance necessitates a focus on growing collective resilience and then share what a library in Colorado was able to accomplish through participation in ALA’s Resilient Communities: Libraries Respond to Climate Change pilot program.  

When discussing resilience in the face of the climate crisis, it is necessary to acknowledge that some of us will contribute significantly more to greenhouse gas emissions throughout our life than others, but in many cases, the people contributing the least to this global crisis will be most heavily impacted. For example, a small island nation that lives primarily off the land and local resources may see that same land disappear as the sea level rises when greenhouse gasses, primarily emitted by those across the ocean, trap heat and lead to glacial melt. 

Environmental injustices occur much closer to home as well, often because systemic racism and discrimination has forced marginalized communities to live in areas with higher rates of air and/or water pollution. Neighborhoods in prime locations benefit from the products made in industrial areas and obviously produce waste along with everyone else, but because they are removed from where these products are made and where this waste is processed, they do not feel the immediate negative health consequences of these processes as strongly as people living in an industrial area with exposure to toxicities and poor air quality. Due to a history of systemic racism, and in particular the practice of discriminatively withholding home loans and other financial services in neighborhoods home to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and/or people of color) communities, known as redlining, we still see environmental injustices in our home state of Colorado. Redlining segregated Denver from the 1930’s into the 1960’s and zoning laws have failed to protect BIPOC communities, creating a correlation between predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods and a larger number of waste and superfund sites nearby. These injustices show why working toward climate equity and environmental justice is and should continue to be a top priority. 

Our history has not set everyone up for success equally in today’s world, and yet, we continue to see communities show an incredible amount of resilience, creativity, and courage even when faced with unjust, challenging odds. We all should learn a lesson or two from Colorado’s historically resilient communities because, even though some of us will feel the effects of climate change more severely than others, we all will be impacted by this global crisis. 

Resilient Communities in Action

Making environmental justice and community resilience a priority has directed local efforts as well as led to policy change at the federal level. One of the most notable steps currently being taken is the Justice40 Initiative which is a plan to have “40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.” This is an effort to compensate for the decades in which these communities did not have equal access to clean air, water, energy and transit options. 

Libraries across the nation have also recognized the need for support in all the communities they serve in the face of the climate crisis. Last summer the American Library Association (ALA) put out a call to action which addresses the ties between climate justice work and equity, diversity, and inclusion. The full report, Sustainability in Libraries: A Call to Action, acknowledges that sustainability initiatives must work hand in hand with the social justice movement. If they do not, the environmental movement risks further harm to underserved populations by leaving them out of the conversation, overlooking their needs, or worse, actively assisting in their oppression. Because the two are so closely tied, social justice work can also inspire environmental stewardship. Creating sustainable jobs and boosting education strengthens a community’s resilience to the climate crisis by supporting the transition to more sustainable practices and ensuring that a community’s most vulnerable are not left behind along the way. 

A Library’s Role in Resilience

There are several aspects of libraries that place them in a position for building resilient communities. A library building is open to all members of the community, so it can be a literal place of shelter to weather a storm. With the climate crisis increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters and extreme temperatures around our globe, vulnerable communities are being temporarily or permanently uprooted more and more often. Libraries will be tasked with responding to these emergencies. A session titled Fires, Floods and COVID: Libraries at Work at the LibLearnX conference this past January discussed how libraries can contribute to their community’s resilience in the face of disasters and the importance of incorporating libraries into local disaster mitigation plans. How to meet the challenges of the climate crisis is becoming a common conversation in the library world, and libraries are also in a unique position to bring these relevant conversations to their communities. 

In response to this need, ALA launched a pilot program in 2020 titled Resilient Communities: Libraries Respond to Climate Change. This pilot program selected 25 libraries across the nation to receive a grant for implementing programs with the goal of growing their community’s collective resilience. LibLearnX also hosted a panel of staff members from five of the selected libraries to speak about their experience in a session titled Talking Climate: Resilient Communities Grantees Share their Stories. Inspired by this panel, Library Research Service (LRS) hoped to hear stories from Colorado libraries that participated in this pilot program. Of the 25 libraries selected, two of them were from Colorado: Wilkinson Public Library and Garfield County Libraries.

Lessons from the Field

LRS had the opportunity and pleasure of speaking with Alex Garcia-Bernal, the Education & Events Manager for Garfield County Public Library District, about the events they hosted with the Resilient Communities grant. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these events were virtual, but that did not prevent them from assisting the community during this challenging time. Garfield County Libraries’ Resilient Communities programming ran from January to May of 2021 and provided a variety of programming from virtual book clubs to in-person Plant a Seed events. Speaking with Alex provided valuable insight into these events for any library hoping to incorporate programming centered around building their community’s resilience. 

One of many things that stood out from our conversation was the library’s ability to form community partnerships and utilize these partnerships to maximize everyone’s benefit. Alex explained right away that most of the events were hosted with community partners. When asked about the strengths of the library in regards to their role in growing resilient communities and increasing environmental justice he stated, “The strongest kind of attribute we have is just our ability to partner. We have so many environmental organizations here in our valley… we do have a lot of potential for partnerships and we are in contact with these organizations regularly to co-host programs with them. And that’s going to be our biggest strength moving forward.” Learning about Garfield County Libraries’ multiple partnerships was an inspiring reminder of the many advantages to joining forces in the face of the climate crisis.

Alex pointed to several successful programs that came out of ALA’s Resilient Communities pilot program including Plant a Seed, Artemis Book Club, and the REnew, REstore, READ! book discussion. The Plant a Seed program was already an annual spring program at one library branch, but the Resilient Communities grant allowed Garfield County Libraries to expand it to multiple branches which increased participation. The library provides seeds, supplies, and care instructions for community members to plant a seed and take it home. Another program with great attendance was the Artemis Book Club which had a turnout of about 50 teens at the final virtual meeting where Garfield County Libraries hosted Lee Welles, the author of the Gaia Girls series. Engaging this demographic was a huge success, as young people will grow to become future leaders bearing the full brunt of the mounting climate crisis. Garfield County Libraries marketed this program by working directly with the high school, and the Garfield County Libraries’ marketing team also does quite a bit of promotion through posters, newspapers, and facebook to reach their community members. The REnew, REstore, READ! book discussion had less participation from the public but was well attended by nonprofit organizations. Garfield County Libraries partnered with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers for this event to discuss the book The Reindeer Chronicles alongside the multi-year restoration effort currently taking place in response to the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon.

One of the more challenging programs for Garfield County Libraries was an Intro to Vermicomposting that was designed to engage the Spanish speaking community through an English as a Second Language (ESL) friendly design. This program was written to be understandable for ESL learners, but the majority of the attendees were not ESL learners. Alex suggested that they may have had a more successful turnout of ESL learners if the program had not been virtual or if a different topic had been selected for this audience.

Libraries Looking Ahead

Sharing stories of our achievements and challenges around building resilient communities in the face of the climate crisis is crucial for moving us towards sustainable, healthy communities. Even now that the Resilient Communities pilot program has ended, Garfield County Libraries has increased environmental programming and maintained partnerships with environmental organizations throughout the valley. Our hope is that sharing these experiences inspires action from libraries throughout the state, because it’s going to take everyone we can muster to prepare our entire population for the ongoing climate crisis, so we can respond with sustainable initiatives and collective resilience. 

Here at the Colorado State Library, we’re also working to support Colorado libraries in bringing environmental education and access to their communities. From providing a Book Club Resource with many environmentally minded titles to breaking down the financial barrier of visiting state parks through our Check Out Colorado State Parks partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, we are striving to meet our community’s needs. Most recently, we launched the Climate Crisis Kit which provides library staff resources, technology, and programming ideas to address the climate crisis. This kit contains materials for all ages and will help libraries focus their response to the climate crisis. You can find instructions on how to borrow this kit for your library here. We are also planning to create multiple kits on more specific environmental topics down the road and are continually interested in additional ways to promote environmental stewardship alongside Colorado libraries. 

If you have any suggestions or stories you would like to share relating to libraries building resilient communities in Colorado we would love to hear from you, and you can send responses to Thanks to everyone who has spoken up and taken action to combat the climate crisis by prioritizing community resilience and environmental justice, we’ve made great strides in Colorado. We still have quite a ways to go, but libraries can be leaders along the way. Happy Earth Day!