Tena Wilson served as the Executive Director of the Stark County District Library, who had overseen some of the biggest changes among library systems in Ohio. She has recently been named the new chief operating officer of the Cleveland Public Library
- In 2 sentences, explain your work with the HWHF?
With the support of Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, the Library will be able to raise awareness and knowledge of the unprecedented heroin and opioid epidemic gripping our community. Their support expanded the dialogue to include children and families from the 17 school districts served by the Stark County District Library.
- Describe what your organization does best.
The Library strives to create a community of excellence where wisdom prevails. The Library is a place of trust where people feel valued, enriched and inspired – whether they are a CEO, a teacher, a parent, or a jobseeker. The public library levels the playing field and serves everyone equally, regardless of their position in life.
- What’s the best part of your day?
So much of my time is spent raising awareness about the Library or seeking to improve operations or set goals; however, the best part of any day is spent with someone who uses the library to make their life better. Hearing a mother talk about how the early literacy intervention program has set her child on a new trajectory is priceless. Listening to a newly employed man tell how his path to a new job started at the Library is validating and inspiring. There are so many stories.
- What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m balancing budgets with goals and vision. I’m always trying to leverage funds for the greatest impact because the needs in the community are great and the funds are finite. So many people turn to the Library as a trusted resource – an average of 4,092 people visit every day and an average of 11,131 items are checked out, every day. The community depends on the Library as a place to enrich lives, inspire ideas, and create community. We must be up to the challenge.
- When did you know you wanted to be a(n) _____________?
When our two daughters were in high school and middle school, my husband John and I learned they had a rare eye condition that would lead to blindness. Within the year that followed, I stepped away from a busy career to learn about the retinal degeneration. To make a long story short, I understood for the first time the true value of information. When someone faces a crisis, what they most need is information – and a lot of faith. I believe knowledge can be power and can bring strength to face the challenges of life.
- What piece of advice would you give someone looking to break into this field?
The way people use libraries is changing, thanks to the technology that most have at their fingertips or in their pocket. Public libraries are more than book storage facilities; they are gathering places that inspire learning. For someone interested in working in a library, my first question would be: do you like people? Public libraries are about people, connecting them to things that will improve their lives. If someone says they want to work in a public library because they like to read, I quickly recommend another career.
- What do you read for fun?
I always have a stack of books about almost any topic beside my bed, my favorite chair, in my van and on my kindle. While vacationing this month in Africa, I read Dreamland and can’t wait to host author Sam Quinones in April, thanks to our collaboration with the HWH Foundation.
- Are you a Windows or Apple person?
Windows at work and Apple at home on the laptop, the iPhone, the iPads, the iWatch.
- What’s one thing you can’t work without?
I would never want to work without a talented team of smart, dedicated individuals. Besides working for patrons, the best part of my job is the administrative team members who have a shared vision and know how to make it happen. They work for less than they could make in other places – many took a pay cut to come to the library. I am humbled and thankful for their talented, tireless leadership.
- Who do you admire and why?
I admire David Baker for his ability to articulate and inspire a vision and hope for a community of excellence. I admire those who seek to build collaborations without thought of personal gain or applause. I admire Brenda Heisroth for the quiet, tireless work she does in the Hartville community. I admire artist Margene May for her extraordinary talent and her work in the DeHoff library community. I admire my daughter Whitney who struggles every day to stay clean from the drugs that gripped her until four years ago. I admire my daughter Karen for her independent spirit that led her to Kentucky, where she is unafraid to tackle transportation issues and work challenges as a legally blind person.
- What’s the most interesting place you have ever been (for work)?
A few years ago I took busloads of our library staff to tour new libraries in Cuyahoga and Franklin counties to show them how much libraries are physically changing. It was good to broaden perspectives beyond our county and begin to imagine how changing information needs should dictate changing spaces inside public, popular libraries. We must have perspective to create a next generation library that is relevant, and we can learn from others.
- What’s the most interesting thing you have ever done?
Nothing is more interesting to me than parenting and raising my two daughters. Today they are grown women, 27 and 30. Everything about them is interesting to me. Now my husband John and I are helping to raise our 3 grandsons and that is an unexpected joy.
- What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled for your work?
I suppose it would be California for the annual conference of librarians from all over the world. This is where we gather and exchange ideas about how best to serve the changing information needs of communities across the world, and it is where we learn that libraries are more relevant and needed than ever.
- What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Knowing when I’ve made had a positive impact on another human being is very gratifying. When someone tells me I played a part in giving them the courage to go forward, it speaks to my purpose and passion.
- What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I live to challenge the status quo and do what I think is the right thing, which is often the hard path. I aspire to make a difference and leave things better than when I started.
- What’s your favorite activity outside of work?
I enjoy any activity that involves my three sweet grandsons, Nathan (7), Cole (6) and Wyatt (2). They are the future.
- If you were on an island and could only bring three things – what would they be?
Assuming I’m vacationing on this fabulous, modern island…I would bring (1) a kindle filled with books I’ve been wanting to read, including the Bible; (2) my husband, because we could use some quality quiet time away from our three grandchildren who live with us; and (3) a sketchbook with some paints and chalks, to reignite a passion I’ve been saving for “someday.”
- How do you define success and how do you measure it?
I believe true success happens quietly, between people and within relationships. Success is acknowledging a person’s talent or courage so that they can accomplish their dreams. Success is paying for someone’s groceries or school bill anonymously to ease a burden and spur hope. Success is witnessing your child or grandchild as they build a life of honor and kindness and gratitude. You can’t really measure it because you will never know the impact of a kind or encouraging word or deed.
- Who were the most important people to help you create success in your life and what did they do for/with you?
My parents taught me that anything is achievable with hard work and a strong faith. “Quitters never win and winners never quit” was one of my dad’s many oft-repeated sayings. Every morning, the family with all six children sat together to read a chapter of Proverbs before tackling the challenges of the day. Although we didn’t appreciate it at the time, my dad wanted to teach us to seek wisdom above all else. It had a profound effect on my life. There were also teachers who inspired me to believe that I had something special to offer the world. My husband is the person who has consistently given me the encouragement and support to achieve anything I’ve set my mind to do.
- If you could do something as a career other than what you are doing now (no limits) what would it be?
With no limits, I would have a think tank to challenge what we think we know about the world and libraries and schools. I would fund the future – doing what we already know we need to do but are afraid to do it – reinvent public education and public libraries to prepare for a very different future.
- What are your top 3 favorite movies of all time?
Hmmm…I really don’t have 3 top favorite movies.
- What are you doing now that will make a positive difference for future generations?
At the library we are focusing significant resources on early literacy, armed with proof that this work is changing the trajectory for the young people in the kindergarten-readiness program. With only one year of intervention before kindergarten, those in the program have consistently outperformed their peers for every year after the program.
- If you could go back and talk to your 20 year old self, what would you tell them?
The only person who can hold you back is yourself. Make big plans and go for it. Ignore the naysayers and focus on your goals.
- How do you stay optimistic in today’s world?
I expect things to go well. I expect to succeed. I believe I’m a part of something great and it’s not about me – it’s bigger. I believe God wants to use me and He will, if I am open and prepared for opportunities when they come.