Brooklyn Public Library awards nearly $90k for programming as part of incubator program

two boys at the brooklyn public library robotics program
The Brooklyn Public Library’s incubator program has launched well-loved and successful classes, including a robotics lab.
Photo by Gregg Richards

Nine community organizations have been awarded nearly $90,000 from Brooklyn Public Library’s Incubator Pitch Competition, and will work alongside library staff to bring their new programs to branches across the borough.

The library launched BKLYN Incubator in 2015 in a bid to increase community input in library programming, and have since run eight rounds of funding and competition, awarding nearly $400,000 and starting dozens of successful programs from musical instrument lending libraries to a robotics club.

More than 100 interested organizations responded to an open call for ideas earlier this year. Thirteen were matched with library staff to workshop their pitches and plans, and the nine winning partners were named this week, and will have a year to get their projects up and running.

“It is a funding access model,” said Brynna Tucker, BPL’s senior manager of innovation. “The money isn’t redistributed, it’s that we support, now, these programs from A-Z. We work with the community partners, we provide them with training in terms of project management, we work with our staff, who then help them develop these programs.”

The programs are built to “expand how the library works,” she said, but also to build up the skills of the applicants, whether they win or not.

fashion capstone from prior brooklyn public library incubator fund
A pre-pandemic incubator program ended with a fashion show as students showed off their work. Photo by Gregg Richards

Winning projects have been everything from clear, ready-to-go programs to rough ideas with clear potential that need a little polishing with help from BPL staff, Tucker said, and what’s most important is that the project would be mutually beneficial to the organization and the library and its patrons.

“Ultimately, the decision is about what kind of ideas have the most promise, what kind of ideas are pushing a bit of a boundary,” she said. “In some cases, the staff and partners who have participated have grown just as much as the patrons we’re serving with these ideas.”

Winning programs are sometimes run directly by the organization who proposed them, she said, leading workshops and discussions. In some cases, librarians and other BPL staff step in to learn from the partner and run the programs themselves. No staff are required to step up to the plate, Tucker said, but librarians are usually both curious and well-qualified to take the lead.

“Most people who come to librarianship come because they want to serve their community, and because they have deep-seated interest in something,” Tucker said. “They seek information, they want to learn.”

Three branches in Crown Heights, Bushwick, and New Lots will host a series of maternal health workshops by Birdsong Brooklyn, a pair of doulas who support families through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum — with a focus on the postpartum period.

Birdsong has been operating for eight years and already offers workshops and classes for parents and for doulas, said Erica Livingston, one of the founders. When she saw the open call for the incubator program, she was excited about the chance to connect more closely with the community firsthand.

“Right now, so much of our work is online, and even our project that we put through the incubator is a hybrid virtual and in-person program,” she said. “Sometimes being online kind of keeps you away from connecting down into the roots of your actual community here in Brooklyn.”

Many people think doulas are a luxury, she said, not a vital service for pregnant and postpartum people and families. Her goal is to prepare people for what’s coming — her “enemy,” she said, is the phrase “nobody told me,” spoken by someone in the thick of postpartum without adequate resources or support.

“The library can be this amazing kind of resource and referral place for the in-between, in terms of how to find the right information,” Livingston said. “And what libraries really specialize in is being a community hub for all people, and being nonjudgmental, and being able to find anything you need here. And that is totally the role of a doula as well.”

With the incubator funding, she and Laura Interlandi, the other half of Birdsong, will present a series of 12 workshops broken into three “pillars.” The first will focus on “pre-pregnancy,” she said, like conception, fertility, and menstrual tracking. They’ll also cover miscarriage and abortion in those classes.

“I often call this the ‘hidden times,’ this is the journey people are on well before they’re able to tell everybody, ‘Oh, I’m pregnant,” she said. “And often, those journeys are the ones people are doing really alone.”

The second will focus on pregnancy, labor, and birth, she said, and the last on postpartum.

“All of the three pillars will also be through the lens of reproductive justice and encouraging self-advocacy,” she said. “So we’ll be using those as tenants that will kind of be like, a golden thread that goes through the whole journey.”

The workshops are largely based on Birdsong’s existing projects, she said, but will be tailored somewhat to fit the timeframe and the context of the program. They’ll have guest speakers and books chosen for each workshop, and will be compiling a “living document” of resources for families to be hosted on the library website and printed as pamphlets and distributed to locations throughout Brooklyn.

brooklyn public library project food cart
A food cart from an earlier round of funding from the Brooklyn Public Library’s incubator fund. Photo by Gregg Richards

Something new for the BPL series will be grab-and-go bags, she said, which participants can pick up at their library when the time comes in the workshop. They’ll have some of the tools she and Interlandi recommend for labor, so when they’re learning about coping mechanisms, they can have them in-hand, and even pack them up and bring them to the hospital when the time comes.

The team who developed the program were she and four librarians, she said, who work either at the participating libraries or on BPL’s maternal health committee. One of them, an early childhood librarian, spoke about how she and her colleagues often end up hearing a child’s birth story from their parents when they’re at the library.

“When I think about success, I imagine the early childhood librarians having these parents come in for baby storytime, and they’re sharing positive birth outcomes,” she said. “They’re not sharing stories of trauma any longer. It’s a hard measure of success to data collect, but it’s something I think will be the embodiment and full sense of the program.”

The eight other winners include Sew Brooklyn, who are bringing sewing machines and free sewing workshops and materials to the Mill Basin library; Repair Shop, who will teach basic repair skills and provide access to tools at the Greenpoint Library; and the Re/Creation Collective, who, working with BPL’s Jail and Prison Services, will connect people incarcerated on Rikers Island to writers and artists to workshop their storytelling and write their own narratives.