The Riverside-Brookfield Landmark sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Landmark’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.
Name: John Edgar Mihelic
Previous Political Experience: Volunteered for campaigns and donated to candidates, from Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to Marie Newman to Bernie Sanders; ran twice for the board of the Brookfield Library, successful four years ago.
Previous/Current Community Involvement: Community Support Services, an organization that serves people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families in the western suburbs, with a main location in Brookfield, for 12 years; involved with the library in different capacities since 2015, including the campaign for the bond referendum and the Foundation for the Brookfield Library; volunteer and member of the Finance Committee, BEDS Plus Inc.
Occupation: Director, Data Analytics at Community Support Services.
Education: B.A. in English and Creative Writing, West Virginia University; M.A. in English, Kansas State University; M.B.A., Concordia University, River Forest; M.A. in Economics, Roosevelt University; recently started an M.S. in Business Analytics, Governors State University.
1. Brookfield Public Library staff and patrons have now settled into a new building, providing space and the opportunity to provide more programming and services. What do you believe the library board must do in the coming four years to maximize the institution’s potential?
To engage with the premise of that question, I don’t know if you can say we are completely settled. The board and staff worked hard to ensure success of the project. I feel we have a fine showpiece building that gives the Village of Brookfield something to brag about, but we are still learning about the facility both in terms of the structure and campus, and in how the public engages with it. Additionally, on top of that, we are still dealing with the low unemployment environment which has created hiring challenges for all organizations in the past year.
Currently, the board is in the middle of the strategic planning process so we can assess how well we are meeting the community’s needs and what we can do to make sure that we build on our strengths and limit whatever perceived weaknesses we might have. The goal is to serve the community and to be a good neighbor in our immediate surroundings.
I think it is important to remember that the library is not just the one building on Park, Lincoln, and Grand. I live on the southeast side of the village, and one thing that you notice is that aside from having the best park, the south side feels underserved by village services. The north side of Brookfield is the center of gravity for village services, and one thing I want to move towards is directly serving the residents south of Ogden. This service can be as simple as a book bike to a potential satellite branch, but we have to balance all these needs within the constraints of the library’s budget.
2. What do you believe is the role of a library in the 21st century? What kind of programming and services should a library offer; what should it not offer? Is the library meeting its mission now? Why or why not?
The history of the library in Brookfield starts with the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the last century. One of the things that Carnegie, as well as other thinkers at the time, knew was that an educated populace is a social good. This meant that there was investment not just in more public schooling, but also in building capacity for all the people in the community, so Carnegie endowed libraries nation-wide. At the time, that capacity building meant books, but it also meant public lectures and discussion groups.
The Library as a public institution, both then and now, is not just about books – it never was. The Library is about access and dissemination of information. However, information is not just sitting there. The information is not of use without trained professionals to guide you to what you want and maybe to something that you need but you did not even know. More than books, it is the service of connecting people with information and each other. It is an incredibly important institution in that it is neutral ground for gathering throughout the community for all ages. Having a place like the Library can hopefully build bridges so that we can all be part of a community, as important a connection in the first century as in the twenty-first century.
I am incredibly proud of the staff and leadership as they navigated two huge changes in the last few years. Transitioning to a new building would be exciting yet stressful at any time, but doing so while trying to balance the needs of the community with the need to be safe in the uncertainty of the pandemic made it even more difficult. To do both while maintaining and expanding programming like the maker space is something that I as a board member am dazzled by. It makes me think of the quote about how Ginger Rodgers did everything Fred Astaire did – but backwards and in high heels.
That said, there are almost twenty thousand people in Brookfield, and each person has a different vision of what the Library is and can be. Our job as democratically elected board members is to listen to those viewpoints and create a communal vision as we play our role in guiding the Library into the future. We will continue to offer as much to the community within the various constraints of budget, space, staff time, and staff expertise that we can so that we meet the needs and desires of the community while recognizing that we cannot be everything for everyone.
3. In the past couple of years, throughout the nation and even locally, there have been attempts to censor library materials. As a library trustee, how would you suggest staff approach requests to remove materials? Do you believe the library’s collection serves and reflects Brookfield? How can it improve?
It already feels cliché to point out that historically, the people who are banning books are not the good people. To truly understand any text, you need to understand the context, literally meaning “contextus,” from con- ‘together’ + texere ‘to weave’. This means that a student of the world will take a singular text and use it to fill in their own puzzle of how the world looks. Removing that piece, or any others, leaves an incomplete picture for that person.
More concretely, the Library is for everyone in the community. People in Brookfield represent the full spectrum of humanity across all axes you could imagine: language; culture; gender; sexuality; race; age; education level; and interests. It is quite literally our mission to serve everyone: “The mission of the Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library is to create a cultural, educational, and informational center for the community by providing readily accessible and organized materials, programs, and services that enrich the lives of residents of all ages.” As such, I will not allow anyone a heckler’s veto over a controversial text or program. In fact, the presence of such texts and programs is incredibly important in that broader understanding of the world that I strive for. It should not be something to cover up, but a jumping off point for conversation. If you as a resident are really worried about the content of a book, read it yourself. Make that judgment for you and your family. I want to reiterate that the Library is for everyone and that includes all political stripes. What I will not do is allow bad faith actors to use a fake moral crusade as a wedge issue to bring in fascism as it grows in the United States. It is imperative for all true lovers of liberty to stand against these censorship efforts. The end goal of these aspirational authoritarians is not to censor us, but to create a culture of fear so that we censor ourselves. We must not give in to that impulse.
The staff of the library is always evaluating the collection. They are responsive to what will be popular at any one time and try to make sure they will meet demand with copies of the latest texts and weed the materials that are no longer in demand. They have an existing process in place for challenged material. I have full confidence in the staff to use their professional judgement on where material belongs if they see the need for it in our collections. One thing that I want to point out here is that Brookfield has been incredibly lucky in the leadership of the library. For almost two decades, Kimberly Coughran has been the Library Director in charge of the day-to-day activity in the library. It is through her drive and vision that the library is what it is today. The role of the board is in oversight and financial management, but Coughran and her staff are in the trenches every day. They have my full support.
4. What other issues are important to you as a library board candidate? How would you advocate for them as a board member?
One thing that I am conscious of from both my professional and volunteer activity is that there are a lot of organizations doing good work chipping away at some need in the community. Locally, we have multiple organizations fighting hunger; providing mental health services; providing emergency and long-term housing; supporting people with disabilities and their families; and so much more. Each of these organizations reports services and outcomes to different funders from private foundations to the government at different levels.
What really strikes me is the gaps though. One gap is in data. There’s a flow of data often between a service provider and the funder, but once reported there is a wall where transparency should be, both for the general public and providers. I have a larger goal to leverage my positions where I have influence to move towards standardization and sharing so that we have access to the data we create and help pay for. I think this would help organizations run more efficiently.
The other gap is in access. All the organizations I know work within their professional abilities to make sure that the needs of their participants are met, and they try their best to connect them to the services they are eligible for. The fact remains that public supports in our country are incredibly fragmented. Ideally you would have one application and that would determine your eligibility for a full spectrum of wraparound services, but that is not how it works. There are many individual nodes with a variety of funding sources serving their own specific and directed mission. I have a vision where the Library, as the neutral third party, can host a social worker to serve as a point guard to help people make these connections. I know that there are communities in the state that have worked with this model, and I think it might be useful in our community.
There are two caveats to this vision though. The first is that I do not want to replicate an existing service. We do not want to duplicate efforts, but instead seek out those who are already doing it and support them if they exist. The second is that I am always mindful of the constraints, both on the library staff’s time and effort as well as our financial capabilities. If there is one thing always on my mind, it is the knowledge that funding for the library comes out of the pocket of everyone who lives or works in the village. I remain steadfast in recognizing this and making sure we leverage our collective investment for the greatest social returns.
One last thing – please participate. Our democracy depends on participation from writing letters to showing up to meetings to having citizens run for office. But it begins with voting at the most basic level. You can go online and complain but that’s not participating in the process that Americans have fought and died for. I would rather lose a sharply contested election where everyone had their voices heard than to win an election where only nine percent of people showed up.