Proposal to Name North Branch Library After Michelle Obama Stirs Debate

The path of the North Branch Library in Long Beach has been about as long and winding as the road traveled by the Joads in the Steinbeck’s 1939 classic. After a planning and construction period that’s spanned nearly six years, now the issue of whose name will adorn its entrance when it opens in Summer 2016 is stirring debate among locals.

The naming of the library has become a point of contention over the past week after news surfaced that a motion to name it after First Lady Michelle Obama would be voted on by the Long Beach City Council. That mostly-online disagreement could make its way into City Council chambers Tuesday night, as those for and against First Lady Michelle Obama’s name being bestowed on the North Long Beach library turn up to speak their mind.

Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson said that the name was originally pitched to him by students at Jordan High School, and after the idea began to pick up steam he called community leaders to gather their support. Richardson presented a list of those backing the proposal, including his predecessor Councilman Steve Neal, LBUSD Board Member Megan Kerr and the president of every neighborhood association in his district.

Richardson pointed out that his district represents the youngest residents in the city, and this decision should be about the kids, their generation and who they look up to.

“Libraries should inspire the next generation to reach higher and that’s what we should be doing,” Richardson said. “This library is not just a monument to someone, this should be a catalyst for the next generation.”

It will be the largest neighborhood branch in the city, and the proposal to name it after the First Lady has prompted a sizable rebuke from community members who feel that the North Branch Library should be named after a person with local ties. In online discussions, several names of alternatives to Obama have been floated, including former Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Carl Cohn, The Bixby Family and even former First Lady Laura Bush.

The city does have a policy on the books that stipulates that city-owned buildings and facilities can only be named for deceased persons. However, the policy does include a provision for the city council to be able to honor a living person on the basis that they’ve made a significant contribution. The council most recently utilized that privilege in September when it voted to rename the Terrace Theatre after former Mayor Beverly O’Neill.

While O’Neill’s contributions to the city are more clear, having served the city for over 30 years as a faculty member and administrator at Long Beach City College and three full terms as mayor, Obama’s are not. Having grown up in Southside Chicago and having no natural ties to the city of Long Beach, the motion to place Obama’s name on such a prominent building in North Long Beach have left some questioning both motives and logic.

Dissenters argue that Obama has not been nearly the advocate for literacy as Bush, who started the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries while her husband, President George W. Bush was in office. The foundation helps libraries nationwide update their book and media collections. However, Obama has been a big advocate of education as a whole, which is the main aim of a library, especially as more libraries move away from being just repositories for books and toward being community and educational resource centers.

Richardson’s letter to the mayor and the rest of the council highlighted Obama’s efforts to enhance educational efforts for youth through her Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher initiatives, which encourages youth to pursue an education past high school.

He also pointed out that there is some precedent for buildings in North Long Beach to be named after national figures and not local ones with Grant Elementary, Hamilton Middle School and even Jordan, which is named after David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University who has no natural ties to Long Beach.

“This isn’t unprecedented, the majority of public institutions in North Long Beach are not named after local figures,” Richardson said.

What is unprecedented is the potential for a building in Long Beach to named after a minority woman. Richardson conceded that there deserves to be more discussion and that’s a large part of what Tuesday will be about but added that buildings need to be named after people who resonate with those they are there to service.

Kerr, the districts representative on the LBUSD school board said she follows the First Lady on Instagram and recalled a post from a 10-year-old girl who summarized her post to Obama simply by saying “you inspire me.” She added that it’s important that this is an important discussion to have and especially critical to take into account the youth’s voice, because if they’re never asked the questions we can never know what moves them.

Richardson and Kerr agree that for the kids of North Long Beach, that mobilizer is the First Lady.

“For kids, she’s someone that they see regularly doing things with kids, for kids, and on behalf of kids and families,” Kerr said. “I think it’s important to see people who are doing the work now on their behalf.”

He said in his parents era, things were named after Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy because those were the inspirational people of that time. For him, it may have been a library named for Maya Angelou. But if you were to ask about heroes in a North Long Beach classroom, he said there’s plenty to be said about the First Lady. That’s why he believes it is critical to listen to the youth’s suggestion for the north branch to bear her name.

“If we don’t make sure that the things we do, the things we build, actually connect with the next generation then we’ve missed our mark,” Richardson said. “We’re not doing what we’re called to do in terms of reaching out to this community.”

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.