In our latest 2015 In-Depth Interview with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Patrick Sullivan. Now retired from his position as instruction coordinator and business reference librarian at San Diego State University, Sullivan is one of the three cochairs, along with Lucía Gonzalez and Oralia Garza de Cortes, of the REFORMA Children In Crisis Project (CCP). REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latino and the Spanish Speaking) formed CCP in 2014 to help unaccompanied minors traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, across the Texas and California border into the United States. CCP provides these children with backpacks containing age-appropriate Spanish-language books, a journal, and writing supplies that they can use in the shelters and group homes where they are detained, and afterward as they travel to their final destinations. According to CCP’s website, its mission is “to get books into the hands of these children, ensure that they have access to storytime materials, and to make all the recent arrivals aware of the wealth of library resources that are available to them here in the United States.”
LJ: How did you get involved with CCP?
Patrick Sullivan: I’ve been active in REFORMA for years, primarily in international relations; I was the international relations chair for a few years. I worked at the American Library Association (ALA) in the International Relations Round Table (IRRT) and International Relations Committee (IRC), in the Americas area primarily. So when Oralia and Lucía were putting it together, they knew that I had connections in Mexico and friends who could help with some of these efforts. Because getting books—especially Central American books—is a big task. [ALA has] been doing a book donation program for Mexican libraries for five years now, where we have librarians coming to Mexico from the U.S. to buy their Spanish-language books as part of the Free Pass program to the Guadalajara Book Fair. We’ve we have those librarians bring two or three Spanish or bilingual Spanish-English books with them, and then we donate those…to the Mexican public library system.
We saw things in San Diego, Murrieta in particular, where a bus of immigrant kids and parents was basically turned back. It was embarrassing. At the ALA [annual conference] in Las Vegas, Lucía Gonzalez and Oralia Garza de Cortes asked for volunteers, at which point I jumped in, and we became cochairs of the Children in Crisis REFORMA task force. The ALA Office of Government Relations put us in touch with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and we did a couple of donations to facilities in Karnes City and McAllen, TX. The CBP had never had permission to actually receive donations prior to this, so Homeland Security bestowed on them the ability to be able to accept donations in their name—but they could only be books or blankets.
What did you bring from your time as an academic librarian at San Diego State to your social justice work?
I brought organization skills, of course, but also the connections with the international community that I had built over the years. [San Diego State] has had international trans-border forums between Mexican and U.S. librarians.
CCP has a lot of strong partners and sponsors—how did you bring them on board?
Some of them were already with REFORMA—REFORMA’s a huge network of people from all different walks of life. When we first went out…we thought we were going to raise money and buy books, and we were contacting the vendors to see what kinds of discounts they would give us. And when we contacted the first vendor, Linda Goodman at Bilingual Publications, she said, “Are you serious? No—I’ll donate the books. REFORMA is our customer, and this is a cause we’re interested in. Discounts maybe later, but right now we’d just like to donate books.” We got that same response from a number of different vendors, so we’ve taken advantage of that and also gone back to them and purchased other books at discounted prices. It’s been a win for them, for us, and most of all for the kids and the families. When you see the kids just hugging their books, or signing their [bookplates], that’s the part that brings it all home.
What is CCP working on going forward?
We just came back from a two-day fact-finding tour/donation program with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), with international representatives from Canada, Mexico, and the United States. They were generous enough to provide us with a $10,000 donation to buy books for the kids. We did a tour of one of the Customs and Border Protection facilities, the same one we did last year in McAllen. The border patrol took us inside the conference room and spent about 45 minutes with us answering questions about how [the children] are detained, what it’s like for them when they arrive, how long they stay there, where they go after they’ve been released, so we better understood that process.
One of the things that the IBBY people came up with while we were in Texas was a small sheet of card stock, no bigger than a paperback book, that has the information about getting a library card. It would be something that child could take with them when they’re going to Miami, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, wherever they’re going, saying “take this to your local public library and exchange it for a library card.”
We also went to a group called Southwest Key, one of the social services agencies that houses the kids—for days, weeks, or months—until their court date or until they’re reunited with family. They have regular classes, regular activities for the kids. We’ve established a program with Ady Huertas, [teen center manager] at the San Diego Public Library’s Central Library, where the kids come in every few weeks for a tour of the library, and she’s coordinated summer reading programs so that the prizes the kids would actually be awarded at the library can be awarded at the facility if they’re leaving before the program’s over. We’ve worked with educators as well, to make sure the kids know about all the possibilities for libraries when they go to Florida or L.A. or wherever. We want to make sure they’re connected to libraries and librarians. Because a lot of them have no connection with library facilities in Central America—the concept is totally foreign to them.
There’s still a lot to be done, but it’s a pretty exciting effort and I think we’ll see things in Boston and Orlando as well. IBBY has their conference coming up here in the United States in October, in New York, and they’ll be showing a couple of videos we’ve put together.
What three tips would you give to potential Movers & Shakers who want to get involved with social justice causes?
- Get active in an international organization, ideally through ALA, in one of the international relations roundtables or the international relations committee, because there are geographic opportunities for people who are interested in working with Spanish speakers—there are European, Asian, African, Latin American connections to be made within the international relations office, and Michael Dowling, who is the head of the international relations office for ALA, has been wonderful at helping people make those connections. It gives you that global perspective outside of wherever you’re at, and reaches out beyond the U.S. borders in the library world.
- The flip side of going international would be getting involved locally. Find the people who are doing pro bono work with kids, find the people who are doing whatever social justice effort there is—usually Catholic charities, Jewish services, Lutherans. You don’t have to be religious. I’m not a religious person, but I have begun hanging out with these people because they’re just doing such great work.
- Challenge the tendency that we have to just fit into our little academic world. Reach out to the public librarians. Find out what they’re doing, what efforts we might be able to do with them on a long-term basis where we can support one another. Attend other conferences. When I was in the business librarian world I was attending educational and language conferences; I was attending public librarian conferences. Years later you see the seeds that you planted.