Oyster River Community Read: Books as Tools to Bring Communities Together

Durham, NH

Contact Name
Kristin Forselius
Project Dates
January 2018 - May 2018
In the spring of 2018, Oyster River Community Read worked with a volunteer committee of Lee, Madbury, and Durham residents, including leadership from the libraries, businesses, schools, university, and towns, to use reading as a way to bring our towns together. We chose two books addressing racism and bias and created over 24 creative events as ways engage community members and open dialogue. Events included an arts program, films, workshops, a read-aloud, and an open mic.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Our project addressed challenges our Oyster River community faced on race and bias. We had three goals main project goals:
Goal 1: Create a compassionate, empathetic, and safe series of events from which people can together share, learn, and grow their ideas, values, and perceptions on race, class, diversity and culture.
Goal 2: Welcome all people of diverse backgrounds and ages to the event and ensure that many people from various groups, organizations, and parts of towns are aware of the program, have accessibility to events and feel welcomed to attend.
Goal 3: Evaluate the program's success and inspire continued community building beyond the project's end date.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
We worked with many partners to make our project successful.
NH Listens provided multiple workshops on race and bias. Artist Richard Haynes led his community painting class series called: Culture Keepers-Culture Makers. Local author Michael C. Ward shared a reading from his memoir: A Colored Man in Exeter. Debby Irving, author of the book Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, presented on her research and memoir. The Madbury Library hosted a memoir writing workshop series. Education consultants led teacher workshops in our schools. Local houses of worship and a town hall donated community space. A UNH professor facilitated film discussions.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
Oyster River is working to create a more inclusive community, a place where all feel welcome. The Oyster River Community Read supports this effort by offering a variety of programs accessible to all people regardless of ability, gender, or race. The Read's multi-faceted programs provide creative ways for community members to participate in a conversation aimed to unite and bridge.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We were inspired by the work of the Racial Unity Team in Exeter, NH, as well as the One Book, One Community program published by the American Library Association.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
We started with building a volunteer leadership committee that had diverse representation from our community. From there we looked at what local resources were available to build programs and provide free space to host them. We thought about ways to make programs accessible to all. We met with businesses, the university, and civic and faith groups to learn how they might support the work and be involved. We created a partnership to facilitate donations. We wrote grants and created a business proposal to seek funds to offset program costs. We built a website and social media campaign. We created PR materials. We collected evaluations at every event to monitor success.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
We were challenged initially with finding a fiscal agent as our first choices, the public libraries, were not in a position to manage that role. A second major challenge was getting some organizations to feel comfortable talking in a community setting about race.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
We had a strong committee and excellent support from the schools. This helped us to overcome any challenges we faced. The committee was passionate about the success of the program.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
The first suggestion would be to make sure you have a dedicated volunteer committee that has the time and passion for the program. The second suggestion is to make sure this committee is composed of individuals who reflect the diversity in your community's demographic. The third suggestion is to be flexible in your planning, understanding that even the best ideas may need to change or shift as events move forward.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
The project provided an open and accessible way for people of all ages to revisit their understanding of race, particularly from the perspective of white privilege. The arts and cultural activities allowed for our community to participate in out-of-the-box ways to voice their ideas and insights into what can be a challenging topic. 2017 was a particularly difficult year for Durham with racial incidents on the UNH campus and in the local schools.
One of the best results from our work is the new relationships that have been formed between the schools, campus, and various community, business, and civic groups. It bought us all together in a new way that has invited additional collaborations such as the work this past fall around Indigenous Peoples Day and the upcoming Human Library Project.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
This project was successful because it has inspired additional work on creating an inclusive culture in the community. It served as a model for the Indigenous People's Day events that occurred this past fall. In addition, the Community Read has already begun planning its next event for 2020.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We measured success through written evaluations that were collected at every event. These participant responses provided us with information about the types of events we hosted, the space in which they were offered, the depth of learning, and the the overall participant experience.
We also found the reception to collaborate on other programs following this event to be a marker of its success.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
An unexpected impact of this project is the relationships that were created. There are many new friendships that evolved among people of various ages and backgrounds. Also, other collaborations have resulted that have provided additional ways for organizations and individuals to intersect around community growth and inclusion.