Katrina Sletten on Libraries, Police and Local Leadership

Last week, the community group Taking Notice, Acting Together held a rally at the La Crosse Public Library in support of reallocating some funding from the police department to the library to make up for recent budget cuts that resulted in the layoffs of library personnel. 

Katrina Sletten, who also helped lead protests in La Crosse against racism and police violence last month, helped organize the rally and spoke to those gathered at the library. We spoke to her about the importance of our public library system, and about her thoughts on the local and national changes since the uprisings began a month ago. 

What did you think of the Rally to Save the Library that you helped to organize last week? 

I was pretty happy about it. We live streamed the event because of COVID and honestly had a lot more traction then I could have hoped for. Between that and the people that showed up I think we were able to reach a lot of people! 

What is it about reallocating funding to the La Crosse Public Library that makes this such an important community issue?

The library has done an amazing job of creating a space where marginalized groups also feel valid. It is one of the few places in La Crosse where, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, people coexist!

Not only that but we know how much the community relies on the library. It is so much more than a place to get books. Even during COVID, look how much the library has reached out through online services, book drops, and everything they’ve done so far. It’s not just a quality of life thing.  The library is affecting and changing lives through what it does. During this time especially it needs to be able to accomplish that as easily as possible. 

It also isn’t lost on me which groups will be affected the most by the budget cuts to the library. It will be the marginalized groups. The citizens that don’t have access to the internet, the citizens who can’t just buy books while they wait for staff to catch up pulling books for the book drop, the citizens that rely on the outreach programs. If people don’t think there are children and adults who look at the library as a second home they simply aren’t paying attention.

At the rally, you spoke of libraries as being on the front lines of creating safe communities and said that they specialize in “preventative measures.” Can you explain what that means? 

I said it before and I’ll say it again, libraries are so much more than places to get books. They help with learning to create resumes, learning where to find employment opportunities, classes on technology skills (a must for most jobs), I could really go on but the point is these services help people feel connected to the community. They help them to find control. When we look at crime and why that happens the fact is that the perpetrator didn’t have a true connection to the city. To their community. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, good or bad I’m saying that it’s true.

They don’t feel connected, most of the time they feel like society had let them down in one way or another. If you don’t have a job and have no access to finding it. You don’t have internet, you don’t know how to create a resume, you have very limited computer skills and there’s no place offering those things for free because you are jobless, you can’t pay for these things, is it really so surprising that you feel like nobody cares what you do? That you’re in a losing situation so that when an illegal opportunity arises you think,  “Well why not? What else can I do.”

Now you’ve committed a crime, now the police are involved, and now maybe your crime has caused pain, injury, or even death to someone else. This could have been avoided. That’s preventive and that should be a bigger focus for any city. How do we meet the needs of citizens so that they don’t feel like this is the option for survival?

This answer is remarkably simple. You prioritize preventative crime measures in your budget. You recognize that the main goal shouldn’t be to punish crime but to prevent it.

What did libraries mean to you growing up, and what do they mean to you now as the mother of two children?

Libraries for me have always been a safe space. People need safe spaces. Schools as a whole should be safe places, cities as a whole should be safe places, but sadly they don’t always live up to that expectation. Libraries tend to be ahead of the curve in that respect, they’re not always perfect but they tend to create an environment that actively tries to make everyone feel valid. My mom taught at my school and I remember after particularly bad school days I would just sneak into our school libraries and escape from the world until it was time to go home. My sister was the same way. We didn’t even talk, we just read and enjoyed the peacefulness of it all.

The library is still that place for me and I know that it’s that place for my children. There aren’t enough places like this in our city or any city. We need more of them though because it helps you to grow as a person to have spaces where you feel comfortable letting your guard down. You can’t grow as a person when you think it’s you against the world.

What have you heard from the city of La Crosse or from the police department since the demands were made to reallocate some of the budget to the library?

So far nothing. We’ve heard that they have decided to use a fair bit of money for a new police and fire department for next year’s budget. Now the fire department, I understand, desperately needs a new building and have needed it for a while. They should have started work on that this year but budget cuts affected them as well.

The police department on the other hand? I don’t know about that. It feels more than a little frustrating. People at the library lost their jobs, their livelihoods, during a pandemic, there couldn’t be a harder time to try to find a job. Many people in the city are in the same situation and can relate to the librarians who, because of this budget, were essentially fired. The department that would usually handle teaching computer classes and other job skills is the one that lost the most personnel. So during this time where MANY people are losing their livelihoods and their homes, one of the key resources in getting back on their feet is getting cut back? 

To have all of that in this city going on and to have the leaders of La Crosse meet the citizens’ request to help the library and therefore this city, to have that responded to with silence is frustrating. But then to have the mayor submit this budget proposal for next year without any mention of paying back the departments he helped to gut is nothing short of shattering.

We need leaders that care, truly care, about every citizen. This year’s budget and next year’s budget haven’t reflected that. 

You also helped lead protests in La Crosse this past month as part of the nationwide uprisings after the murder of George Floyd. Now that some time has passed, what are your thoughts on the achievements of these protests in La Crosse and across the country? 

The citizen response has been amazing! I’m really proud of how many people for the first time are really trying to see from a different perspective. Trying to learn how they can uplift the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community not continue to silence and oppress us. That gives me hope and helps me to continue moving forward. 

The response from our leaders has been much less moving. To me it seems so easy. The city does not have the trust of the BIPOC population or their white allies. To build that trust after years of not having it they need to take the proper steps.

Give the library their money and start prioritizing preventative measures against crime in budgets, implement ALL of Campaign Zero, remove SROs (School Resource Officers) from schools, and remove the Hiawatha statue. These steps are only as complicated as our leaders make them. The longer they aren’t taken though the more we begin to question, why is it so hard to respect and listen to the voices of the BIPOC community?

Interview by Adam Schendel. Send questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top photo credit: Katrina Sletten pictured at the recent protest outside the library in downtown La Crosse by Brandon Sydnor.

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