Ryan Dowd

This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. Today is the first of three episodes recorded at the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. My guest today is Ryan J. Dowd. He’s the executive director of a large homeless shelter near Chicago, and he is the author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness. You can find him online at homelesslibrary.com.

I’m here talking with Ryan Dowd, who is the author of the new book, the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness, and Ryan is also working with somebody you might’ve heard of, Emilio Estevez, who has written, stars, produced, directed everything basically — he doesn’t play every role in the movie, but maybe he would if he could [laughs] — and the movie is The Public and it deals with a lot of the issues that Ryan deals with and works with librarians about. So the first thing I wanted to ask, Ryan, is what’s been… what was your experience with the movie and what are you doing here with Emilio at the conference?

Yeah. So the movie… Just first off, I’ve got to say, it’s just fantastic. It does a fantastic job of representing… individuals experiencing homelessness. It does a fantastic job representing libraries and librarians, essentially just a really, really good movie and surprisingly funny, for a movie about such a serious topic. So it’s definitely worth watching. What I’m doing here at ALA relative to the movie is introducing the movie and then doing the Q & A session afterwards with Emilio, which has been fun. We’re doing three showings here. And the reception from the audience at ALA has been nothing short of spectacular. The hardest part has been getting it started because everybody wants to keep doing a standing applause for too long [laughs].

Yeah, I heard that you kind of got involved early on in the process, you got involved, that you got a friend request on Facebook from Emilio Estevez.

Yeah. So my book came out back in January and I got a Facebook friend request from Emilio Estevez and I thought it was one of my friends messing with me and so I was going to send him a really nasty message back about how not cool that was to impersonate Emilio Estevez and then… but I didn’t for some reason I thought, “Ehh, I’ll be polite and I’ll yell at them later.” And fortunately, I didn’t because it turned out it was actually Emilio. And so, you know, a couple of Facebook messages turned into some emails, turned to some phone calls, turned into attending the Santa Barbara Film Festival for the premier, and now ultimately working with him here with the ALA. And it’s been a really fun journey. Not only again is the movie fantastic, but Emilio himself is just the most genuine, honest, caring. He’s the real deal, and so if you think of Hollywood celebrities as kind of being out there and other. He is, he’s anything but. He’s the real deal.

Well, can you talk a little bit about, so you’ve got the new book, the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness, but you’re not a librarian yourself. Can you talk about the work that you’ve been doing that brought you into intersection with libraries?

Yeah, so my day job is I run the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. I started volunteering there when I was 13. I started working there when I was 21. I became executive director when I was 26 a, it’s more or less all I’ve ever done. And so I spent an enormous amount of time in homeless shelters and talking to homeless individuals and um, our shelter is what’s called low threshold, which means just about anybody can come in or regardless of substance abuse issues, mental health issues, criminal background and whatnot. And so it’s a, it’s a very volatile population and a lot of individuals. And, and It’s, and we’re in the Chicago suburbs, which means if we kick you out in the middle of the winter, there’s a decent chance you’ll freeze to death. And so we have to be really, really good at not kicking people out and risking their lives but at the same time, you know, there’s got to be rules and it has to be some sense of order for safety and for things to run. And so we’ve had to get really, really good at getting people to follow the rules, but using kind of the tools of compassion and empathy to get people to follow the rules rather than the traditional rule, the traditional methodology of punishment and threats and kind of harsh behavior to force compliance. Um, yeah. So how I got into libraries then was a friend from the local public library, which we work really, really closely with – we had a lot of shared clientele – she asked me to speak at a small conference of librarians and I showed up and I had my notes on the back of a napkin and I presented and I didn’t think it was anything special. And afterwards I started getting lots of requests from libraries to do trainings. And I said, “Guys, that’s not what I do. I don’t have anything to do with libraries. And so I took my speech and I filmed it again and threw it up on YouTube, gave the link to five people or so, and then forgot about it. And then, I don’t know, two years later, three years later, I got a call from the ALA asking to interview me for a magazine article about libraries and homelessness, and I had no idea why. And they said, “Well, because of your YouTube video, that people all around the country are using.” And I had no idea what they were talking about. And it turned out that those, you know, those five shares that I had done turned into 50 shares, turned into 100 shares, and a few years later, it was even still getting 15 new views in a week. I’m sorry, 15 new views a day. And that’s when I realized, wow, if librarians are this hungry for information about how to better serve their homeless patrons, I owe them better than a kind of back of a napkin, a kind of shortly thrown together presentation. And so that’s when I went back and really figured out how can I take what we do in the shelter, of using empathy and compassion to get people to follow the rules and how do I turn that into training so that librarians who deal with so many of the same people have the tools to compassionately handle problematic behavior that we in the homeless shelter use? And so that’s been the journey is basically teaching librarians how to run their library more like a homeless shelter, which it just tickles me to no end.

And when you were doing the research for the book and figuring out how to market it to librarians and answer their concerns, what kind of idea did you get of how libraries had been working with the homeless in the past?

So libraries, most libraries still to this day, use what most everybody uses and that’s a punishment-driven enforcement system. So, not to get too theoretical, but there’s basically two ways to get people to follow the rules, two ways to kind of maintain compliance, two ways to maintain order, and the predominant way that way that the world tells us, honestly, is the only way, is what I call punishment-driven enforcement. And that’s the idea that I will punish you, I will threaten you, and the threat of punishment is what’s gonna keep you in line so return your book on time or I will give you a fine, don’t speed or I will give you a ticket, don’t break curfew, my child or I will ground you. And it’s the threat of punishment that gets people in line. The problem, besides the fact that it’s just kind of allows you to do to anybody, it’s particularly lousy and particularly ineffective when working with the most vulnerable. And so individuals experiencing homelessness are… punishment’s not particularly effective. Just to give you some context on that, I was talking to a police officer and he said, “We got this guy and we’ve tried yelling at him, we’ve tried ticketing him, we’ve tried throwing them in jail, we’ve tried throw him in jail for longer, and there’s nothing we can do to force this compliance.” And I said, no, there’s not because there’s nothing you can do to him that’s worse than what life’s already done to him. And so stop trying. And so that’s what the world has told us that there’s only one way to get people to follow the rules: punishment. What basically my book and my training and in my emails and everything is no, there’s actually a whole other system that I term empathy-driven enforcement, and it uses psychological principles of empathy and psychological principles of voluntary compliance to create an atmosphere, to create a setting where people just kind of naturally follow the rules. And the benefit of it is, it is far more effective than a punishment driven system. And it is way, way, way more compassionate. So it’s a system that we’ve been using in the shelter for 30 plus years without ever giving it a name, and so with the book, I had to name what it was we were doing. And so that’s why when really kinda sitting down thinking about realize that it’s the difference between punishment and empathy. And so again, it’s that concept of teaching libraries how to run libraries is more like, maybe not every homeless shelter but certainly like the homeless shelter I work at where empathy is the way we try to get compliance.

And you talked in your session about, there’s different ways that you want to communicate with people because when you’re dealing with a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness a lot of times, they’re working just to survive through the day and get to the next day and it’s not quite the same thing as somebody who’s comfortably middle class. You talked about timeframes… time horizon, right? Where we can plan a vacation three years in advance, but they’re worried about getting through the night. So can you talk a little bit about the… I like the two kind of ways to talk. There was… the two registers, right. So there’s the polite, oh, I’m speaking to my doctor now and so I’m going to call you “Doctor” and speak with very precise English and then the other register which is more casual.

So that kind of backs up to the idea that most individuals who are homeless as adults, they grew up poor. We’d like to think that in our country there is kind of infinite upward mobility and there’s simply not. Most people who are poor as adults, were poor as kids and their grandparents and their parents report and the grandparents we poor and their great grandparents were poor. And intergenerational poverty has kind of this lineage of being trapped in poverty. And so that fact is important that the vast majority of homeless individuals grew up poor. And the reason is that individuals who grew up in poverty are at a significant disadvantage in a world dominated by the middle class culture, and so there actually are slight variations in culture between individuals, race and poverty and individuals raised in middle class because our country does such a good job of economic apartheid. We, through zoning laws and some other things like that, we keep poor people kind of trapped in slums and middle class people kind of run most land and then wealthy people can kind of hide behind walls and, and you can grow up two miles from somebody and never have talked to them because they were on the other side of the tracks. And so because of that, there’s slight variations in culture. And one of those variations is in communication style. So for example, there are two, actually multiple, but there are two registers that matter for our purposes here. Casual register, informal register. Casual register is how you talk to your friends and family. You say things like, “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” Which is not even remotely grammatically correct. “Hey,” is not really a word “how ya,” Y-A-apostrophe, “doin'” D-O-I-N-apostrophe, that’s not grammatically correct, but in casual register with friends and family, it’s perfectly appropriate and so you don’t have to use proper English. You can throw in some slang. You can even throw in some cuss words with casual register. A formal register is how you do a job interview. You would not walk into a job interview and say, “Hey, how ya’ doin’?”, throw in some slang and then drop an f-bomb just for good measure. You’re just not going to get the job. You use formal register in job interviews, you use formal register with talking to police officers and judges, you use formal registered talking to professionals when you first meet them. Lawyers, doctors, librarians. Now the way this plays out is we actually teach our children this. So my son, when he was five, went to the pediatrician and he watched lots of Bugs Bunny. He said, “What’s up, Doc?” And I turned bright red and my wife turned bright red and we said, “No, no, Cameron, that’s not how you talk to a doctor,” and we taught him how to talk to a doctor and then you know, one day he saw me get pulled over by the cops and he saw how I talked to the cops and then the first day of school we taught them how to talk to the teacher, and little by little he learned how to use formal register and when to use formal register, that former register is basically with professionals and and casual register’s friends and family. And then over time he internalized that because that’s very much a middle class communication style. In intergenerational poverty, oftentimes that’s not the case, and the reason is that there aren’t enough opportunities to model formal register and consequently every conversation is often, in many families, happens in casual register. So it’s, “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” with friends and family, “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” with police officers and judges, “Hey, how ya doin’?” with lawyers, doctors and librarians. Now, neither of these styles is inherently right or wrong. There’s nothing inherently… there’s nothing right or wrong about either using casual, informal register, and if everybody knows when to use casual and when to use formal, it’s fine. It’s also equally completely valid to always use casual register and if everybody always used casual register, that’s fine too. The problem is when you’ve got two overlapping cultures and you’ve got a largely middle class library staff – libraries tend to draw from middle class – and you had a middle class librarian talking to a homeless individual raised in poverty and he comes up and he’s speaking casual register and he says, “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” and drops in some slang and he drops in a cuss word or two and you know, the middle class person doesn’t think, “Oh my gosh, I bet this person was raised in intergenerational poverty and uses casual register all the time.” No, that person thinks “What a jerk! How disrespectful, how rude!” and what I really try to emphasize here, it’s not the person being rude or disrespectful or a jerk. It’s the person using casual register at a time when middle class communication styles would suggest that they should be using formal register and that’s a big difference and if you’re a middle class individual who doesn’t understand that difference, it’s a lot of room for misunderstanding, and misunderstanding creates conflict.

Well, one of the more… it was a very good session all over, but the one of the most powerful statements that you made that I didn’t really think through before is that homeless people feel discriminated against because they are. And so it’s not just that they’re feeling this way, but they actively are, so things like… you had people raise their hands: Have you ever gotten a ticket for jaywalking? Have you ever gotten a ticket for just sitting in the park looking at the squirrels and the trees and the flowers and these are tools that people use against people in homelessness a lot.

Yeah, so there’s a set of rules and laws in our country that theoretically to apply to everybody, but they don’t actually apply to everybody. Like jaywalking is really only applied towards homeless people for the most part, and loitering laws are pretty much only applied to homeless individuals. Look at public intoxication, open containers, you know, in New Orleans, it’s absolutely celebrated for middle class people to walk down the street with an open container of beer. And yet, once you leave New Orleans, homeless people get ticketed for it. And so these set of laws and rules that get applied theoretically to everybody, but they’re actually only discriminatorily applied towards undesirable populations which homeless individuals are number one and the consequences that they are, they don’t just feel discriminated against, they are discriminated against. And that becomes a massive, massive trigger for individuals if you are constantly being, having rules enforced on you, that just simply don’t apply to anybody else. You know, if you’re walking into the library and the security guard stops you because you got two bags and the college student in front of you has two bags and walk right past the security guard without issue, that’s not fair. And not only is that not fair, but that’s a massive trigger and in libraries through that unfairness inadvertently create problems for themselves because, you know, if you’re not going to treat me fairly, I don’t have to treat you fairly.

And part of that, you talked about the idea of “everyday sadists” too and that’s kind of how these things are, that the people who take joy in other people, of enforcing the rules on other people and making them feel miserable.

Yeah. So psychologists have studied humans and what they found is that about 10 percent of human beings or what they term “everyday sadists.” These individuals, they don’t torture people and like kidnap people, but they do enjoy giving people a hard time. They feel bigger by making other people feel smaller. And the real thing here is they actually really enjoy enforcing the rules and using rules to make people feel bad. And this is a massive trigger for homeless individuals where, what I hear a lot of times is the sentiment of, you know, I don’t mind if somebody is enforcing the rules because they have to, because it’s their job, but if I think you’re enforcing the rules because you like it, because you feel big by making me feel small, that’s a real problem. And so, you know, quite a bit of my training talks about how to not be misunderstood as an everyday sadist because if homeless individuals think you’re doing it because you’re getting a kick out of it, they’re going to go out of their way oftentimes two to give you a hard time.

And you talked about the idea of one of the reasons why you want to start out situations in using good language, good communication skills, good behaviors, good body language, is because once you start out on the negative side, it’s so much harder to get… you’ve kind of lost the conversation altogether if you start off with, “Hey, you, get up!” And you’re yelling at the person because they’ve automatically become defensive.

My trainings and my book have three parts. The first part is you have to, you have to recognize those differences where, you know, your oftentimes middle class upbringing deviates from the upbringing and the life experiences of your homeless patrons. And going on to recognize those communication style differences, the trigger differences, the experience differences, and the ways that they’re not exactly like you because life is treating them massively unfairly compared to you. And so that’s part one. Part two is the psychology around voluntary compliance. And again, how do you, what are these psychological principles, like a psychological inertia, which is what you’re referencing or the psychology around relationship and that it takes five positive things to offset every one negative thing in a relationship or reciprocity, which I think you also referenced there, which is the idea that when, you know, if you do one nice thing for me, I want to do one nice thing for you, but what psychologists have found also is that you do one bad thing to me, I want you to five bad things to you. And so there’s some psychology around this. And then the third part is really the super practical skills and tools. So stand this way, don’t stand this way, do this with your hands. Don’t do this with your hands. Say this and oh my gosh, don’t say that. It kind of takes all that, the empathy differences, the cultural differences, combine it with the psychology for a framework for not just… what I try really hard is not to be like, “Hey, go be compassionate.” But it’s like, do this, this is what compassion looks like in very, very specific practical terms if you do it this way, things we just will go better for you and for your patrons experiencing homelessness.

Let’s talk about a couple of… a lot of other stuff in your presentation is easier to done if you can see it. So go look at your YouTube video and hire you to come do a training. But if you can’t see in person, what are some… first of all, can you give some ideas of what some of those punishment tools are so people know and understand what that is that libraries use and then what are some more empathy driven tools that we could use instead?

So most punishment’s pretty obvious. You know, it’s a fine, it’s kicking somebody out, it’s calling the police on them, it’s banning them, whatever. That’s all really obvious punishment. What’s not obvious punishment is what’s actually the most common form of punishment. And that’s making people feel bad. And so when you roll your eyes at somebody that’s a form of punishment, when you scoff at them, when you get a snarky tone of voice, when you scowl at them, you know, all of those things that kind of convey aggression or disapproval or disgust, that’s actually a form of punishment and it’s kind of evolutionarily designed to get the person to fall into line. It’s just highly ineffective. And so, what I try to steer people away from is, you know, when you come in all angry and you come in yelling and you come threatening and you come scowling and you come glaring and all those kinds of things, you actually create, you create way more problems for yourself because it elicits retalIation. But there’s a better way. And that’s again to use empathy-driven. And I break up the tools into five sections. The first section is mindset tools, so how do you get your head right? You know, like I’ve got a couple tools actually for how to lower your judgment. So how do you stop judging homeless people, because nobody likes being judged and when you judge somebody, it doesn’t make them want to follow your rules. So here’s how to help yourself reduce your level of judgment. So mindset tools is the fIrst one. And then after that I go through the four stages of conflict. The first stage of conflict is pre-conflict. This is when there’s no problems, nobody’s mad, nobody’s in trouble, nobody broke any rules. This is where you want to stop the problems if at all humanly possible before they even start. The next stage is going to be nonverbal escalation because most conflict starts through body language. So I walk up to you and my chest is puffed out and I’m scowling at you and my jaw’s clenched, and you know, I mean business and you know, I’m ready to fight. And so the fight starts before anybody’s opened their mouth. Next stage is verbal escalation. So this is after your body said something stupid and aggressive. This is when your mouth says something stupid and aggressive and takes it up a notch. And then the final stage is crisis, and crisis is what we’re trying to avoid. Crisis is you have to ban the person, you have to call the police, you have to kick them out or you get punched in the face, and so we’re trying to avoid conflict. And so what I try to teach with the tools, as you know, if you’re in pre conflict, do these things and you’re much more likely to never even hit conflict. And then, okay, well if that doesn’t work and you end up in the nonverbal stage, now stand this way, do this with your hands, do this with eye contact, etc., you’re much less likely to make it into the next stage. Okay, well If you make it to the next one, okay, well use these words, you know, this is how you handle somebody who’s trying to debate the rules. This is how you handle somebody who is making it really personal, just tools for the verbal engagement. And then finally the crisis stage. So if you get to the stage for having to call the police, this is when you should call the police and this is how you should call the police, or if you need backup, this is the way to do backup well in a way that actually makes things go better than if you do backup the way everybody in the world does backup, which is utterly, totally wrong. And so agaIn, it’s all those different stages in these very hyper-specific tools for how to handle conflict so that it just never reaches the crisis stage if at all humanly possible.

You provided us a lot of tools to use here and as I think you pointed out in the training, too, that the longer you’re in a profession, the more tools you have because you… if it’s your first time doing this, it’s going to be hard even if you have the tools, just because you don’t have the experience. But, I appreciate all of the tools that you’ve given us in your book and in your trainings, and I encourage people to see you, hear you. If people want to learn more about you other than reading and buying and reading your book, how can they get in touch with you?

Yeah, so definitely, definitely buy the book. I’m at the ALA conference, they’d probably scold me If I didn’t say that, but also come to homelesslibrary.com. There’s some free resources there. Sign up for my email list. So, every Tuesday at 10:00 AM Central time I send out a free tip. It’s completely 100 percent free, costs you nothing. I try to keep the emails really, really short. So it takes about 45 seconds to read. It’s kind of one little bite-sized tip for how to work with problematic behavior in a more compassionate, empathetic and effective manner. And then if you want to take the next step, we do have a three hour online training course. We let any library try it completely for free for one person. And then if you like it and you want to talk about buying it for the rest of your staff, we can talk to you about that. But it’s completely free for one staff member per library to try because we want you to try it, fall in love with it, versus trying to make people try to decide whether they want something completely sight unseen. So, but definitely, if nothing else start with the emails. It’s completely free. It’s a really, it’s a low investment of tIme and it’s definitely, it’s worth your time.

And then finally, do you want to give a… I know it’s not your movie, but a final pitch for the movie because people who are not at the conference, not lucky enough to be the conference, they’re not going to able to see it now, but it’ll be out in theaters hopefully by the end of the year. What do you think librarians can learn from watching this movie?

I think the most important takeaway is not going to be what they can learn. I think the most important takeaway is going to be the sense of validation. And one thing Emilio says is that, he says, I’m tired of superhero movies where you know, somebody turns green and beats people up or stabs people or runs around shooting people. That’s not the real heroes, the real heroes are individuals in the frontline of democracy, in libraries, kind of trying to balance the interests of all these different patron bases and while protecting intellectual freedom, while protecting freedom of information. And so one thing he says that I just love, he said, I tried to take this movie and really highlight the cape and the mask and the super powers that you all have as a profession. And so I think librarians are going to walk away from this going, “Damn, he gets us.” And that’s right. This is a profession that is, as one line says in the movie, this is the last bastion of democracy in our country. And I think librarians more than anybody else are going to get that, and they’re going to feel validated by that. And hopefully kind of share with their friends to say this is why I work in a library. Yes, I like books, but that’s not the real reason. The real reason is because we are incredibly important to this country in ways that the country cannot even fathom most days. So hopefully this movie draws attention to that, as well as, as drawing attention to homelessness, and our country’s really, really inadequate efforts to actually solve this issue. So, those are my two takeaways, or my two hopeful takeaways for our country is that we recognize the role of libraries and librarians in our country and that we recognize that we can be doing a better job with homelessness.

All right. Thank you so much, Ryan.

Thank you.