A rendering of the newly named Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library. Stock photo.
After months of debate behind the dais, in public meeting halls and on Twitter, prompting a cautionary revote by the Long Beach City Council so to not violate the Brown Act via tweets, a proposal to formally rename the North Branch Library the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library was officially approved with a 6-0 vote Tuesday night.
The motion was approved after a series of public outreach meetings seemingly reflected the will voiced by Jordan High School students that originally proposed the name for the library to Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson late last year. A meeting hosted in Richardson’s district in January revealed over 70 percent support for the Obama name on the library, while two separate meetings hosted by the city’s Housing and Neighborhoods Committee and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine also showed a majority support for the proposal.
The only public meeting that contained a majority opposition to the naming proposal was the January 23 meeting hosted by the Department of Library Services, where six out of eleven participants voted to keep the name North Branch Library. Only two voted to support using the Obama name.
The item was brought back to the council by Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews who chairs the housing and neighborhoods committee that unanimously approved the naming proposal at its January 26 meeting. The 6-0 vote did not include those of Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal and Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga who were not in attendance for the meeting, or Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo who was absent for the vote.
The item immediately became a contentious topic for some after Richardson brought the proposal to council in December.
Some public and online comments suggested that Obama was too far removed from being an advocate of libraries to have her name bestowed upon the new North Branch, set to open this summer. Others argued that it would be more fitting for a local figure with ties to the community be considered for the library naming, with some suggesting the Obama proposal was politically motivated.
Richardson stood firm in his belief that the first lady’s fight to improve education and literacy for the youth though multiple campaigns including her “Reach Higher” initiative, which encourages young people to pursue an education past high school, served as proof enough that her name was deserving of its placement on the library. He also rebuked the idea that naming the library after someone not from Long Beach was improper, pointing out several public buildings in the district—including Jordan High School—are named after people not from Long Beach.
Most important to Richardson was that the library would be named after someone that inspires the generation who will utilize it. The councilman and countless members of his constituency argued that the first lady aligned more with that idea than Laura Bush, who some said was a better candidate for the building to be named, considering the national library initiative she founded while her husband was in the White House. About 90 percent of residents in the 90805 zip code are non-white, according to census numbers.
Richardson launched an aggressive social media campaign this week posting endorsements from local leaders in the community supporting the naming proposal. Pastors, school board members and those elected to state and federal offices voiced approval for the naming of the library after Obama.
Megan Kerr of the Long Beach School Board says that naming our local Library after Michelle Obama is the right thing to do! JOIN: bit.ly/JoinRex #LongBeach #ReachHigher #UptownRenaissance #women #woman #school #board #CA #la #lb #lbc #library #diversity #community #usa #yes #join #support #cause #youth #books #learn #read #Education
“Our young people need role models and leaders that will inspire them to continue in their endeavors to better themselves, improve their lives and that of their families and community,” Congresswoman Janice Hahn wrote in a letter supporting the naming proposal. “Every time anyone looks at the name of the library, they will be encouraged and inspired to continue striving towards greatness.”
Megan Kerr, the Long Beach Unified School District board member representing Richardson’s district also endorsed the idea, with her support being featured in a series of posts on Richardson’s Instagram account over the weekend.
“I believe that honoring first lady Michelle Obama is the right thing for North Long Beach, for our community today and for generations to come,” Kerr’s statement read.
Community members on hand to support the vote were sparse, most likely because the vote of approval was considered a forgone conclusion, but those present continued the narrative that had filled all the previous meetings, with a large majority voicing support for the initiative. Benjamin Miranda, a student at Jordan who was part of the organization that initially proposed the name to Richardson, said using the first lady’s name was a way the youth at Jordan could honor Obama for fighting for their generation’s educational and health needs, adding that her name could encourage attendance from his peers.
“All youth respect Michelle Obama as a person; she’s paid close attention to our educational system because she wants all of us to have a bright future,” Miranda said. “If we see a local library with one of our role model’s names on it, we are bound to go and check it out.”
The Obama name being put on the library is historic because it becomes the first building in the city to be named after a minority women. A directive for city staff to extend a formal invitation to the first lady to attend a ceremony to celebrate the opening of the library later this year is expected to be sent out once construction on the library is completed in the coming months.
Richardson said that despite the small amount of controversy surrounding the naming of the library, the amount of outreach put into this particular process was the most of any city project in recent history. The approval of it, he said, was proof of the city’s foresight and willingness to consider the voice of its youngest constituents.
“There’s been a tremendous level of outreach, and for the first time we can make history by naming a library after a person of color and in the same gesture, demonstrate that we’re a forward-thinking city which values the opinions of its youth," said Richardson.