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A September Day of Discussion

Story by
Nancy Joseph

On September 11, libraries around Seattle—and across the country—were packed. In some, visitors gathered to discuss citizens’ rights. In others, they viewed documentaries about war. Or listened to book readings by firefighters. Or participated in one of the nearly 500 other events inspired by The September Project.

It was more than David Silver could have hoped for when he dreamed up The September Project six months earlier, envisioning a day when citizens would participate collectively and discuss patriotism, citizenship, and democracy.

Murals placed outside the Seattle Public Library were filled with words and images by the end of the day.

Murals placed outside the Seattle Public Library were filled with words and images by the end of the day. Media credit: Bryan Mamaril

“Since September 11, 2001, Americans have not had a rigorous, creative, collective dialogue about issues that matter,” explained Silver, assistant professor in the UW Depatment of Communication, prior to the event. “It was time to have that conversation.”

As Silver began formulating his plan for The September Project, he quickly realized that to reach a national audience he would need to tap an existing infrastructure. Then the light bulb went on.

“I was walking past the downtown Seattle Public Library—then under construction—when I realized that public libraries were the answer,” recalls Silver. “They are free, open to the public, and most importantly, distributed across the nation.”

Silver contacted the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities and began brainstorming ideas. He also contacted Sarah Washburn, who worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation U.S. Library Program. “Sarah came to the project with an understanding of the culture of libraries,” says Silver. “She was ready to roll up her sleeves and get started.” Soon Washburn was on board as co-director of the project, providing crucial guidance on working with libraries.

“My initial idea was that Seattle would plan everything nationally,” recalls Silver. “Sarah pointed out that libraries are already tied to communities, and we should let them decide what to do in their community. At that point, the project became doable.”

Washburn recalls those early conversations. “My first reaction to David’s idea was that it was brilliant,” she says. “But it could never work in the way he imagined it. To plan for the libraries would completely thwart their role in the community. It would go against what libraries do.”

Sarah Washburn and David Silver, co-directors of The September Project.

Sarah Washburn and David Silver, co-directors of The September Project. Media credit: Bryan Mamaril

Instead, Washburn and Silver presented libraries with their broad vision for the project and asked them to plan events for their community. A website developed by John Klockner, director of technology for the project and senior computer specialist in the UW Department of Communication, provided a resource for sharing ideas and building momentum. 

Before long The September Project took on a life of its own. Librarians alerted colleagues in other cities, and the word spread quickly. “The first library that signed up was one in Rhode Island that we had not had any contact with,” recalls Washburn. “That was magical. The patchwork of how people found out about the project is really amazing.”

Other networks that spread the word included the League of Women Voters, the Simpson Center, and Silver and Washburn’s own families. “Our mothers were really partners in all this,” says Washburn. “My mom lives in Minneapolis and volunteers at her local library. David’s mother is an activist in Santa Cruz. They were proud of their kids but they were also very excited about the project.”

Eventually every state in the U.S. plus nine other countries were represented in The September Project. Klockner, who created a map with dots for each participating location, recalls the day when he added a dot for Oklahoma—the last state to sign up.

“That meant that David and Sarah had succeeded in recruiting at least one institution in all 50 states,” says Klockner. “While from the beginning the project had the potential for truly national scope, it was surprising to me that so many institutions of so many types in so many areas around the world would actually end up formally participating.”

Fire marshal Scott LaVielle of the North Highline Fire District read to children at the White Center Library.

Fire marshal Scott LaVielle of the North Highline Fire District read to children at the White Center Library. Media credit: Karen Orders

So what events were offered as part of the project? The list, says Silver, is too long to recite. But he does share a few examples.

In the New York area, libraries had commemorations of the September 11 attacks as well as discussions about where the U.S. is headed. Other cities collected clothing for Iraqis and books for American soldiers as part of their day of events. A Girl Scout chapter in San Antonio, Texas spent the day visiting senior citizen centers and retirement homes to discuss democracy and register people to vote.

“There were collaborations that I never could have imagined,” says Silver. “Having communities develop their own activities was infinitely more creative than it would have been for us to plan programs for them.”

The community of Colorado Springs, Colorado took the idea further than most, organizing six days of events. The opening day included speeches by six religious leaders followed by a discussion of the separation of church and state. On the last day, rescue dogs like those at Ground Zero were featured, to give children some understanding of the tragic events that occurred on 9/11.

Ian Spears spoke at the Ballard Library.

Ian Spears spoke at the Ballard Library. Media credit: Bryan Mamaril

In the Puget Sound region, dozens of events attracted large audiences. Silver visited his neighborhood library in Ballard, where speakers included Ian Spears, a photography student who had been interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security for taking photographs at the Ballard Locks. After Spears' talk, the communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spoke.

“The librarian had told me that these events usually bring in ten to twelve people,” says Silver. “Seventy-five people showed up, ranging in age from 8 to 85. Most stayed for the whole two hours. The response has led the Ballard Library to plan a monthly discussion on community and democracy.”

Detail of one of the four murals outside the Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle.

Detail of one of the four murals outside the Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle.

In downtown Seattle, Klockner set up a “Say it Solo” video kiosk in the library that allowed people to express their views. Outside, Department of Communication graduate students Irina Gendelman, Giorgia Aiello, and Tema Milstein organized four 15-foot “murals”—blank sheets with the titles America, War and Peace, Patriotism, and 9/11—on which visitors were encouraged to share their thoughts. “There were no rules—just paint and a paintbrush—and people started writing,” says Silver. “One woman had her kids paint their feet and put the footprints on the mural. Later someone added ‘= the future’ next to the footprints. That sort of dialogue is evident all over the murals.” The Seattle Public Library will exhibit the murals in its lobby through November.

Buoyed by the strong response to The September Project’s inaugural effort, organizers are already busy planning for next year. This time September 11 will be on a Sunday, when many libraries are closed. But Silver isn’t concerned.

“We will continue to involve libraries, which can plan events for Saturday or Sunday,” he says, “but we’re also working with religious and spiritual groups, from churches to synagogues to mosques.”

And in 2006, when September 11 is on a Monday? “We think every K-12 school should have an assembly,” says Silver. “It’s just going to get bigger. 

“Our hope is that one day people will come together on September 11 to talk about issues that matter—publicly—as naturally as they now go to see fireworks on the Fourth of July.”

For more information, visit The September Project website.