Art Works Blog

The Big Read Spotlight on Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library

"You can take a book and use it to do something powerful like bring people together." — Chris Cairo

Indianapolis, Indiana, is known for its growing population of Ethiopian immigrants. For this reason, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library hosted their Big Read program on The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. The renowned novel encompasses the experiences of an Ethiopian immigrant in Washington, D.C. Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment at the library, Chris Cairo, states that this year’s Big Read program provided the opportunity to gather global communities from around the world to celebrate and highlight Ethiopian culture. Not only did the library bring local community involvement, but they garnered participation from abroad through their partnerships with international sister cities.

How did the library bring together so many diverse audiences? What role does the library play in keeping the arts and culture thriving in Indianapolis? How does literature help to initiate this kind of intercultural dialogue? Those are just a few of the questions we tackled during our phone interview with Cairo.  

NEA: Why did your community choose to read The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears?

CHRIS CAIRO: It was the first year that the Big Read offered this book. We knew that we had a growing population of Ethiopians here in Indianapolis--about 12,000 Ethiopians. It was sort of a well-kept secret. So, we saw an opportunity to create awareness in our community. We thought we would take advantage of it with this book.

NEA: What was your community’s feedback about this book choice?

CAIRO: We have a tradition here in Indianapolis, as a public library does, of celebrating diversity. We work very hard to do that. We consider ourselves a city of immigrants. It was no surprise to the community. It wasn't as if this was the first time that we had created this kind of exposure.

The first thing we did was that we partnered with some Ethiopian people in the community: the Indianapolis Grace Ethiopian Church, the Felege Hiywot Center (which works with Ethiopian teams), and Cindy and Paul Neal (who are a family that have adopted a number of Ethiopian children). By doing that, we were able to create awareness in the community. I think [these partnerships] helped bring awareness not only to the general population, but also it told the Ethiopian community that we were going to be highlighting their community, their culture, and shining a light on it. That really created a deal of excitement for the Ethiopian community.

CAIRO: There were so many! I can tell you that we had an opening kick-off reception at our central library. There was a cultural exhibit showcase featuring the cultures of Ethiopia and Eritrea. We had many attendees sample the Ethiopian food, experience the music, and watch a presentation of the traditional coffee ceremony.

NEA: What was the most successful event?

CAIRO: There were so many! I can tell you that we had an opening kick-off reception at our central library. There was a cultural exhibit showcase featuring the cultures of Ethiopia and Eritrea. We had many attendees sample the Ethiopian food, experience the music, and watch a presentation of the traditional coffee ceremony. 

A woman practicing traditional Ethiopian dance with an Ethiopian native.

Library patrons enjoyed a month’s worth of programming connected to The Big Read of Ethiopian author Dinaw Mengestu’s, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, including learning about Ethiopian culture from immigrants now calling Indianapolis home. Photo: Paul D. Best Photography/The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation

We also had an additional exhibit that highlighted Indianapolis families with adopted children from Ethiopia and the current efforts to foster adoption. That's a big issue in Ethiopia right now; it's finding homes for these children. There has been a great effort to do that. We wanted to make sure that we provided as much exposure as could to this effort to adopt Ethiopian children.

We gave away free copies of the Big Read book and we had book discussions that took place at various locations throughout the city. They were guided by expert facilitators from the Indiana Writers Center. Then at the end of that celebration, it was culminated with a free lecture by Dinaw Mengestu, who's the author of the book. Studies have proven that it really enriches an experience if you read a book and then you're able to actually hear the author.

NEA: How did you build a relationship with your community so you could invite diverse audiences to join the program and feel welcomed?

CAIRO: You have to find the right people in the community and they help build consensus for you. We knew that the Grace Ethiopian Church was an important community contact and so was Aster Bekele, who was with the Felege Hiywot Center. We knew that she worked very closely with teenagers. We wanted to make sure that both [organizations] were involved. They provided us with the materials for the exhibit and they provided us with the activities and cultural celebrations, which we would not have known anything about without their assistance. We also have the Welcome Center here in Indianapolis and that's also an organization that works to welcome new immigrants into our community. We made sure we were working with them as well. 

Finally, we also worked with our sister cities. Even though our sister cities are in China, Germany, Croatia, Italy, and Brazil, we still function as a global community. They sent out notices to their communities to let them know that something like this was going on. It was an opportunity for all of us to celebrate another culture together.

NEA: How has the Big Read has helped change your community’s relationship to reading?

CAIRO: I think that every time we do one of these programs, we continue to build and foster understanding and respect for the different cultures in our community. I think books enhance that understanding and acceptance because you're telling a story about somebody's life. You're not just saying to somebody, "We have these Ethiopians in our community and come and celebrate this program." Instead, if they read a book first and actually have listened to another Ethiopian and his struggles coming to this country, then they come in with appreciation and an open mind. I think that moves along the process much faster. That's why I like programs like the Big Read. I love the idea that you can use books in this way. It really is the power of the book. You can take a book and use it to do something powerful like bring people together.

NEA: Could you talk about the role of arts and culture in your community?

CAIRO: We are very fortunate here that we have an early learning specialist, an immigrant outreach specialist, a children's specialist, and also an arts and culture specialist. This is her responsibility to make sure that she is continuously thinking about the Indianapolis Public Library as a center for culture and center for knowledge. That's a wonderful thing. She can always be reaching out to all the universities that have writing centers, arts centers, and museums to create partnerships that promote the arts. We would be a very drab and colorless community if we didn't have our arts community. There's just no doubt about that. We need to foster that. Certainly the public library is the perfect place to do it because we're community centers. If you're going to have a center where people can gather, then you need not only to have context, but you need to have content. The content is the culture. Here, now, we have gathered together and we're going to talk about civic issues or we're going to talk about cultural issues. We're going to talk about artistic issues. These are things that we are gathered together to experience. It's essential to the community and to the life of the public library. 

NEA: Since Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library is so central to the city’s connection to literature, could you talk about how you see the role of libraries evolving? 

CAIRO: That is up to public libraries. I think that if we are going to thrive and remain vital to the community, then we need to make sure that we are not institutionally based, but user-based, and that we are making decisions that are important experiences for our users. I think that's a challenge for anybody, but especially for libraries. As we're making decisions and as we're changing, we need to be saying, “What does the user want from us? What makes them happy? What are we doing now that they are excited about? What are they unhappy about and how could we change it?” I don't think that public libraries do enough of that. We shouldn't be looking inward at who do we want to be, we should be looking at what does the community want us to be. If we can do that, we can be nimble enough and make changes fast and continue to be important to the community.

I do believe that our role as a cultural center is going to continue to be important. I think our role as a great equalizer in the community, especially in terms of technology, is going to be important. We are all on a digital journey. I don't like to call it a divide. I like to say it's a journey. All of us are some place on that road, wherever it is. The library needs to say that we are prepared to meet you wherever you are on that road. I think you can say there's a parallel road to that and that's literature. We need to be on that road too--whether you want to use us for your e-book for reading, or you want to download it on your digital device, or you want to use us because you're doing research, or because you have a homework assignment. Whatever that is, we need to be prepared to do that. I think that we need to be prepared to blend those two together: technology and literature. Those two are our strong suits as an institution.

NEA: What did you learn about your community through the Big Read? 

CAIRO: I'm very proud of our community. I really think that we are a little gem in the Midwest that sometimes gets overshadowed by some bigger cities that we are surrounded by. I believe that this is a family-friendly community and that we are open and responsive and we're a reading community. I have very rarely found that the public is not responsive to something that we have done. I think we are far more diverse than anybody expects us to be. There are the traditional gateways in our country for welcoming immigrants on the East Coast and West Coast, but there are also some new gateways that people are coming from into our cities. Indianapolis [is] becoming one of those gateways. We're getting flooded with the immigrant population. I think that's going to make us a much richer community. 

NEA: Complete this thought. Literature matters because…

CAIRO: Literature matters because it is how the human condition can be captured as a piece of art and shared with all of humanity.

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