Empowering New Americans

Jennifer Manley is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States. 

Homa Naficy

At the heart of my work in public service has always been a drive to help tell the stories of those who need to be heard. Its built on the notion that fostering strong connections between people and policy makers, those quiet voices can be amplified, and ultimately, problems can be solved; lives can be changed. 

This is a pretty tall order. But when working with the right organization and the right partners, I have seen, first hand, that it is achievable. We can make a true difference, even if it is just in one person’s life, on one person’s block. Ultimately, we can make America, and the world, a better place.

It is why I am so honored to be recognized as a White House Champion of Change. I am privileged to work for Queens Library, where opportunities abound to elevate and enrich lives in positive and sustainable ways every single day.

In my role heading the Government and Community Affairs Department, I am charged with fostering positive relationships with all our stakeholders in government, while also responding to the diverse and changing needs of the populations we serve. At a time when we are embracing a new digital information era, when learning is becoming a lifelong pursuit, not simply institutional based endeavor, the role that libraries play in people’s lives in is simply transformative. It is my challenge and privilege to make sure that story is being told. 

Prior to coming to Queens Library in 2009, I served in the Bloomberg Administration as the Queens Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office’s Community Affairs Unit. There is no place more diverse than Queens County. Through this role, I liaised with the dozens of different constituencies in the borough to connect them to government; to give them a voice in the process, and help them find solutions to civic and social problems.

This work has continued at the Queens Library. Among our community engagement initiatives are the Friends of the Library. These are volunteer groups that we foster to build support and community at individual community libraries. Several of them have been formed through our Adult Learning Centers, where students, mostly new immigrants themselves, become volunteers and advocates for their own libraries. They speak up against budget reductions, build community support for their libraries and learn to engage in the government process. For many of these friends, they have never had the opportunities to be full participants in a democratic society. Once we light the spark of advocacy – cultural permission to speak up on behalf of their needs and rights -- there is no one who embraces it with more enthusiasm than these new Americans. They blossom into zealous advocates for their children’s educations, for their communities, for their library, for everything that brought them to the U.S. to begin with. It is inspiring to watch this process of individual empowerment. 

The power of a library to open doors of opportunity, particularly in our borough of more than 50 percent immigrants, cannot be overstated. At Queens Library, we run a very robust Adult Learner Program. Thousands of immigrant adults and their families come to the library to learn English. At the same time, they get contextualized learning about life in the U.S.

The Queens Library is also an innovative leader in providing lifelong learning. It doesn’t matter if someone has an advanced degree or is learning to read for the first time. From cradle to grave, our free libraries are open to serve.

More than 700,000 children use the library after school every year. We help them succeed in their academic careers. We welcome back adults whose educations were interrupted, for any number of reasons, and give them a path to a diploma. Adults use the library’s resources to upgrade their job skills, to start new businesses, to prepare for an advanced degree or for personal enrichment. People learn their whole lives long. Through support of education at all levels, Queens Library empowers.

We are a nation so rich in our ability and the will to do good for our families and our neighbors. We believe in the power of information and education to improve lives, one at a time, neighborhood by neighborhood. We need those public policies that support that vision and promote the best in our society. We also need the hands and heads, the grassroots activists and those who carry their message upwards, to turn those aspirations into reality. That is the purpose of Champions of Change, and why I am so honored to be among them. I hope to live up to that ideal.

Jennifer Manley is the Vice President of Government & Community Affairs at the Queens Library

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