CSIS: Where are you based currently? What is important to you? Where do you come from? What has shaped you? What motivates you to do the work that you are doing?
Shamichael: I am currently in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve been here for the last 10 years. I moved here with my wife and young son at the time to take a job in full time ministry. That work was really around the ways in which we use technology to engage people in their faith and to advance faith-related matters, but also about pastoring in neighborhoods and underserved communities. I did that for several years, and I’m still doing that in a volunteer capacity. Three years ago, I transitioned to work with the public library system and a national initiative called Reimagine the Civic Commons, which is a demonstration project happening in Philadelphia, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, and Akron, Ohio. It’s really centered on public spaces and so a lot of my work right now is focused on public spaces.
The thing that really drives me and motivates me is my childhood. I grew up in a little small town in Alabama called Margaret, and my father had a really kind of life-altering accident when I was five years old. He fell asleep behind the wheel of his car on his way home from work. This accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. So he is a quadriplegic. And that happened in 1985 before there was any sort of Americans with Disabilities Act. None of those things had passed. It was the 90s before those things passed. You know, being with my father and helping him as he recovered and helping him as he tried to create a new life was interesting, but also just kind of seeing the day-to-day. When he eventually recovered, he was able to drive. He would go to the different stores and stuff, seeing there not be ramps or seeing there not being handicap accessible parking spaces. And seeing the work that he did around that, advocating for that, I think this really stamped an early impression on my life to help others, to be a servant to the community.
What was your formal job title and the organization that you served with before your current venture today?
Shamichael: Before the current venture and the library, I was at New Direction Christian Church. I had a kind of cup for both. I was the online campus pastor, and that was a lot of building online communities using faith, as well as using tech to advance faith. And then I was a campus pastor. So we’re a fairly large church, and we had multiple locations. I pastored one of those locations. So it was online campus pastor, campus pastor, and then I had this kind of strategy role as chief strategy officer. The role was taking all the things that we were trying to do in Memphis, all the things that our vision and goal was, and then finding ways to actually execute those in a way that made sense.
What is your current venture? What is your vision for the people, community, or issues that you care most about?
Shamichael: The current venture is, again, centered on public space. It’s all about thinking about the way in which we create, we maintain, and we manage public spaces. So for me, specifically, I’m in the heart of downtown Memphis. There is a historic library actually – the city’s first library built in the 1890s. A wonderful space. It’s a truly remarkable space but has suffered from some disinvestment, a couple years of low investment and no real direction for this branch. Four years ago, people in that community began to think, “Hey, what would it look like for us to kind of reimagine this branch?” They brought me on to help with this process. And so my title with this new branch and venture is the Senior Library Manager and then the Community Engagement Coordinator. So I have two roles. The first role is the reimagining of this branch. The second role is an advocacy and engagement role around libraries as public spaces. I’m excited to be a part of this project. We have worked with the community city officials and a lot of other individuals to create and have a tradition around what a truly transformational library would look like. So what we have developed and should be opening sometime later this year, depending on what happens with COVID-19, is a truly welcoming space. We have revamped the outside courtyard space where there’s a lot of comfortable seating and shade and access to WiFi. There’s some white boards that are outside – you can actually scribble on them if you want to have a meeting out there. It’s this wonderful and welcoming environment on the inside. We’re adding a community cafe space, which will have a variety of great foods. And in that first floor space, we really are trying to push what does it mean to be a library. When you think about walking into a typical academic library or any library, it’s, shhhhh, you have to talk like this, right? Because it is quiet. We really want this space to be more of a living room. So there’s a place where you come in, where you can reconnect with a friend or you come in with a coworker, you grab something to eat, you sit down, and you just have a great conversation.
People don’t generally think about a library in that way. What about the books? What about the study spaces? We are still having those. We’ve got a couple of spaces where you can pull away private access and have a meeting or study. Then the second floor is an experiential learning space. In that space, we have three distinct areas. The first area is a performing art space. This space can function in eight different ways. We have envisioned it being used in many ways, but one of the ways is to bring the arts into the library. By having a theatrical space where we can do plays, recitals, rehearsals, and things of that nature, we can make the arts more accessible to the public. To go see a show at major theaters within walking distance to your downtown is a cost that could range anywhere from $30-$50 per ticket. For us to be able to bring in some of those same shows demonstrates that we can rival that experience in public libraries for free. We think this really makes a difference. The second space is a co-working space. And again, co-working is something that’s kind of catching on in the city of Memphis, and those rates are anywhere from $30-$40 per month for a single desk to a couple hundred dollars for an office space. We wanted to design a space where again you have some of those same amenities, you’ve got access to great WiFi, printing, a desk or even an office if you need it, and we make those things completely free and accessible to the public.
Additionally, we’re adding lockable storage and are experimenting with some mail services to see how that might work to put all of those resources into the hands of the public. And then the third space is some recording space. So there’s two sides to this: one side that is an audio side containing anything you need to do a podcast, voiceover, or an indie album. And then on the second side is really anything you need to do a video and/or audio project. For instance, doing a YouTube video documentary or taking up a photography project that you’re working on, and all the things that you would need to be able to execute that, whether it’s a camera, microphone, and/or mixer. All resources are available with your library card. I know there’s some libraries across the country already doing these types of initiatives, but this is going to be a new concept for us here in Memphis, and I think it’s going to really set the standard for the way in which the relationship between the public and the library exists.