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Libraries and Museums Send a Message to Communities: Sawubona - Catalyzing Communities

September 12, 2016

Editorial Note: A previous version of this blog published on September 12, 2016 inadvertently attributed the Zulu greeting reference to Rev. Starsky Wilson. It was in fact made by poet Richard Blanco.

By Dr. Marvin D. Carr
IMLS Senior Advisor

At our recent community catalyst town hall meeting, poet Richard Blanco suggested that if you ever get the chance to travel to South Africa, instead of a “hello”, you may instead be greeted with the phrase Sawubona (see:ya:wu:bow:nah). For the Zulu community, a greeting is more than just a passive hello, but, an active and intentional invitation to a deep witnessing and presence of your place in their community.  The English translation of Sawubona is not hello, but, “we see you”, an affirmation to the receiver from the greeter that everyone in the community not only acknowledges their presence, but also, their needs, their humanity and the community’s responsibility to each other. As we move forward with new and exciting suggestions for community development, you too can join the discussion between the museum, library, civic and philanthropic communities to affirm to our communities: Sawubona, we see you!

This summer, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and our cooperator, Reinvestment Fund, kicked off the Community Catalyst initiative. Through this initiative, we are sparking a conversation around ways to help libraries and museums develop a deeper understanding of the best ways to work with communities to bring about positive change. Researchers from Reinvestment Fund and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Program scanned the literature and gathered input from the library, museum, and community revitalization fields. We were also assisted by The William Penn Foundation in our efforts.

Last week’s town hall was just one effort to gather feedback to contextualize initial findings. IMLS will seek additional feedback from the public in a Twitter Chat on tomorrow, September 13 at 2 pm EDT using the hashtag #IMLSCatalyst.

During the town hall, participants gave feedback on the relevance of museums and libraries as active members of their communities. It was important for us to get their thoughts about variables such as needs assessment, impact, collaboration and skills development as critical factors in building community vitality and positive social change. In these conversations, some participants pointed out that catalytic efforts could be difficult for small and rural institutions with fewer resources and time. Others reiterated the importance of the research not viewing museums and libraries as monolithic; instead they vary tremendously in size, mission and location.

The town hall attendees seemed to agree that while many institutions are already doing deep and catalytic work in their communities, there are thousands of their peer organizations that need additional frameworks that can help them move beyond being just anchors in their community to also being active catalysts for positive community change and vitality.

We want to continue to get as much feedback as possible. In the coming months, we will release a final document that details the various feedback we received, and later we will have a framework and other resources.

Reflecting on the last few days, I am reminded of our opening session remarks from Rev. Starsky Wilson president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission. He reminded us of the importance of our public spaces like libraries and museums actively working to exist as a sanctuaries of public dialogue while still advancing positive social change in communities.

In other words, be the change, be the catalysts.

It was clear to many in attendance that we are at a crossroads within our fields. It is an ideal time to move beyond talking about the same issues that have been discussed for decades. Indeed, it is time for museums, libraries and their partners to turn to their communities and tell them emphatically… “We see you” –Sawubona.

Dr. Marvin D. Carr is senior advisor for STEM and community engagement at IMLS. He is leading the IMLS Community Catalyst initiative and can be reached at