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A Call to Love: "Freedom Fighters"

Freedom Fighters

We were kindred spirits, part of a group of freedom fighters, librarians who fought with integrity for our community. We were introduced at the official announcement of my new position as branch manager of La Pintoresca Library in Pasadena, CA. I met a beautiful human being with a delightful smile, Rosalie Jaquez. This librarian was the coordinator of Pasadena Reads, an adult literacy program that would be housed in the branch for which I was now responsible. God in His infinite wisdom waved His generous hand. And we were pushed and pulled from the east coast to the west coast into a location that was fraught with many challenges. I did not know it then, but it was an economically depressed area. A park filled with gang activity, prostitution and drugs; that was the backdrop for our new location.

About four months prior, I relocated from New York City where I worked at the busiest central library on Fifth Avenue as an adult/reference librarian. I arrived at Hastings Ranch Library in Pasadena, CA, a place where nannies came with children and milk crates to check out books. I was just getting used to Hastings Ranch, which was children-driven. But then my branch manager, Donna Watkins, told me she was going to retire in 30 days. There was a shake-up in the library system and I was asked to apply for a branch manager position. This was unexpected and, I was told, unprecedented. I had no intention of doing so, knowing full well I was on a year’s probation and still adjusting to relocation. But I was gently pushed by a statement from upper management that, as a professional, when positions become available, you must apply. I met the deadline, though hesitantly, after I had gotten a call that my application was not yet received. Consequently, I was made an offer and I accepted the offer blindly and wanted no further discussion. My response was an extension of the professional code, courtesy. I did not want any promotion. I went through the motion.

When Rosalie and I spoke at our initial meeting, I realized she resented the fact that she was being uprooted from Central Library and sent to work in this dangerous zone. She was livid and afraid. She wanted to know how I felt about this madness. But I did not know anything about La Pintoresca Library, not even its location. Everything was moving very fast. My beloved new friend met me for lunch and drove me to our new branch. While we drove there she filled me in about the history of the neighborhood. On arrival at our location, she was floored because I was very excited about this beautiful landmark building in a park. I was babbling. I saw a glittering crown and, with my distraction, she reflected on the beauty also. I embraced the park. I had spent many lunch hours at Bryant Park, NYC, one of my oases. I had an impromptu meeting with my staff and, obviously, I asked Rosalie to join us. She deeply appreciated my first act as a branch manager. I realized my first order of business was to make everyone feel safe, especially when I discovered this was the only branch which had earned the right to have a security guard on staff. On that visit, we were given orientation in case of a lockdown: how to respond and where we should take cover. Nothing floored or scared me. It seemed like my entire life had equipped me for this fight. “So the poor have hope but injustice shuts its mouth” (Job 5:16.) I did not know Scripture, but I knew basic truth. The vicious cycle of poverty continues. Injustice not only shuts the mouth of the poor, it beats it down. It kills the spirit and erodes human dignity, which renders the poor helpless, hopeless, violated and isolated. Thus, injustice is allowed to persist. Rosalie was encouraged. She was a conscientious professional with a strong work ethic and a great sense of humor. We embarked upon a journey that was very challenging and, collectively, we became the conscience and voice of this community. We approached our mission with respect and empathy.

I had a big job to do. My first revelation was to prepare the community for the world beyond. There was a disconnect between the library and the community. It could not be business as usual. We had to be proactive and innovative in assessing needs and possibilities. I mourned for this community. The community needed skills at every level. This community had to discover its value and self-worth to transform its image. I had to introduce a sense of normalcy to eradicate the sense of hopelessness and hostility. They resisted openly. But determination is part of my nature. I have always been blessed with an excellent spirit; so was my friend. My job in life is to make people great. Rosalie understood that.

One of the physical changes, besides heavy-duty clean up, was to order attractive brass/velvet rope stanchions, where the public would stand in line to be served. Some in the community asked me why those were placed there. I explained, with excitement, that it was like being in the movie theatre, or post office, so they would not lose their turn. I also installed mirrors in the public restrooms at about the same time. Something had shifted inside of me and I answered the call. The change came over time. Some changes were swift and noticeable. We were ecstatic when we realized members of the community whispered “Thank you” when we administered service. God, the great “I am”, continued to wave his baton and created quite an orchestra. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105-106, KJV). We were serving people in a hostile environment with respect. With God’s power and guidance we created positive change in our world. Throughout my life, I had always prayed because of my upbringing; however, I was never conscious of the presence of the Lord. My relationship with God was not personal then, but everything we accomplished was by His hand. The public would walk off the street and pick up the telephone from the library counter and make calls for their personal use. We had to be bold and effective, direct without being rude. It was stopped and they were notified that in case of an emergency, we would gladly place a call for them. Because we served the people, we were honoring God. “In all the work you are doing, work the best you can. Work as though you are doing it for the Lord, not for people” (Colossians 3:23 NCV). We were a “city on a hill” with a strong frontline staff. Sue Phaneuf was our library technician, highly skilled with a strong work ethic and great disposition. Cherie Johnston was competent, talented and worked selflessly. Courageous Tiffany Duenas a thinker, filled with passion and a knowing twinkle in her eye. William Porras worked with an open hand, open heart, and a generous spirit. Then there was amazing Alfredo Hernandez, a quiet joy, very competent and ever so willing.

Fast forward! Rosalie and I became very good friends because there was mutual respect. I shared my ever-expanding vision with her often. She saw me empower my staff and implement structure. One of my greatest joys was watching staff work with such a huge heart because they realized the value of their work. Something was guiding me, all of us, to create such a warm, innovative and purposeful library for the public good. La Pintoresca Library had an enviable team with abundant talent and a willingness to get the job done. We needed a dynamic and purposeful team at that time, given the challenge and activities of the zone. I mourn the loss of my friend Rosalie, who passed away recently. We were two women filled with passion and this new location gave us something to fight for. I did not have any experience for this position but I was full of conviction. Now I see, “I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not: I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make the darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16 KVJ).

Innovative ideas kept flowing. I learned the art of building strong teams and doing what was wanted and needed; 80% of my team was all in, in addition to Rosalie. We were always giving, teaching, showing the community, bringing them opportunity. By the grace of God our team built a partnership with diverse neighborhood groups, with Monks Hill, Jane Melton, Martin Yuson, Lieutenant Darryl Qualls, Efrain Montes (a true partner), Parks and Recreation, the Armory Center for the Arts with beloved Lilia Hernandez, who always inquired about “plan B”. The Journey Project, with Karen Powers, a Gospel choir; a performing arts and character-building program, bred and raised in the library. Council member Joyce Streator supported all my unconventional ideas. Rosalie chaired some of these events for me. Loyal and considerate Susana Porras volunteered. John Schwenk, my assistant, went on to pursue a Ph.D.

I had a branch to manage and the particular burden and overwhelming challenges that the 20% of my staff generated. It is interesting to note here that, at one of the first meetings I had with upper management after I accepted the position, it was recommended that I attend the Employee Assistance Program, EAP, for support in doing this difficult job. Then there was beautiful, spirited and qualified Petra Morris who replaced John. We had a chess tournament that my colleagues snickered at because they said no one wanted to come to La Pintoresca. But partnerships do work. I met Mr. Ray Joiner (the chess director) of Pasadena Unified School District and our chess tournament was a success. The superintendent of P.U.S.D. sanctioned La Pintoresca to host their chess tournament annually. Our branch was chosen to be the recipient of the Pasadena Leadership Project for that year. We hosted the 1st Annual El Libro de los Ninos event with over 700 in attendance. We had created a safe environment. People were no longer afraid to come to the library. During my tenure all these events were without crisis. We never had to seek cover during a lockdown.

At service last Sunday, Pastor Craig said, “Passion is the Spirit of God nudging you.” The 1st round of a series of messages entitled Fight was “Jesus the Warrior”. He also quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Until you find a cause you are willing to fight for, you are not really living.” The 2nd round, delivered by Pastor Matt Roden, was “Lead with Honor”. “A real man rejects passivity, accepts responsibility, leads courageously, and expects God’s greater reward” (Robert Lewis).

Recently, I talked about our experiences and accomplishments at La Pintoresca and had no words to articulate it. My friend Gladys Miranda, the coordinator of Empower, an adult literacy group with which I volunteer, indicated that it was the Holy Spirit who guided us, kept us safe and made us succeed. As I reminisce, I now know and feel the experience, “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water “(John 7:38, KJV).

My favorite sublime moment was when I left a voicemail for Jane Melton of Monk’s Hill Neighborhood Association. My message stated, “In the spirit of the Christmas season, it is my intention for us to ask the city to light the beautiful tree at the library entrance. To demonstrate our faith, our hope and to bring light to this community because Northern Pasadena, La Pintoresca, is part of the city.” That snowballed. I selected a date for the Christmas tree lighting event and proceeded to make a flyer. I called other partners and everyone wanted their name on the flyer, hence the money was raised for the lights. Armory Center for the Arts’ lovely Lilia donated the star for the tree top. It took the city two days and a cherry picker to string lights on this amazing 70-foot tree. This ceremony became an annual event with a choir, hot chocolate and empanadas and continued after I left Pasadena. That was an affirmation that we shed Light on the city and we know where that Light comes from. That act brought tremendous hope and joy to the community and was my most emboldened moment. The following year, Christmas trees were lit on other branch library grounds.

This was an exceptional team! Team, you did things that were extraordinary in a trying time and for that I am thankful, thankful to all of you. What we accomplished is too much to mention, but the community acknowledged and recognized the transformation which was glaringly unashamed. All of this could not have been accomplished without active partners. This was deeply noted by Steve Lipira from Households of North Raymond (H.O.N.O.R.), who took the time to notify all participants and copied all city administrators, plus the local newspapers. He told them that it was the first time in five years that he strolled through the park. He further noted all vagrancy and loitering was gone and people were leaving the library with stacks of books checked out.

We are woven together on a flaming red/orange fabric with frayed, tattered edges. This color reflects the intensity of our passion which flowed. The frayed edges represents our possibilities which are endless. The size is 11”x14” with a black double border all around. The subject of this piece is a beautiful poem:


Love flows from God into man,

Like a bird

who rivers the air

Without moving her wings.

Thus we move in God’s world

One in body and soul,

Though outwardly separate in form.

As the Source strikes the note,

Humanity sings-

The Holy Spirit is our harpist,

And all the strings

Which are touched in Love

Must sound.

-- Mechthild de Magdeburg

Rosalie presented me with this gift many years ago. I truly believe the above poem represents our work, so I am sharing this gift with all of you. I am always connecting the dots in my life. I hope you see the relevancy. Because of our history we are all connected. You are part of a beautiful thing and I love you all. You had a natural ability to work with a demanding public and explore your humanity to make a positive impact. We were all freedom fighters. We stood our ground in the face of threats. Keep fighting! I love you all! Rosalie will be remembered and dearly missed!

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