A Super Soaker in Diane Brown’s office stands as a reminder of how far the Stetson Branch Library has come over the past decade—and its promise for the decade ahead.
Brown has run the branch, in the heart of the Dixwell neighborhood at 200 Dixwell Ave. (in Dixwell Plaza), since 2006. A lot has changed since then.
The neighborhood was wracked by violence then. One girl who spent afternoons there in 2006 with friends and doing homework was 13-year-old Jajuana Cole—until she was gunned down a stray bullet outside her home on Dickerman Street. Jajuana’s friends worked out their grief along with Brown in subsequent months in the library. Meanwhile, Stetson became a mecca for community anti-violence and arts programs, and for kids needing a safe, quiet place to read or use the Internet; Brown emerged as an “It Takes A Village” elder. The Dixwell “Q” house across the street had long closed its doors. Under the leadership of Brown—who grew up attending a previous incarnation of Stetson in Newhallville—Stetson became the new de facto “Q,” a place for adult book groups, a chess club, after-school tutoring, “community conversations” about Long Wharf plays, summer youth programs, poetry slams, health fairs and paintings.
A boy named Kenny was among the children who began hanging out at Stetson in the afternoons back in 2006. Only instead of homework, he brought a Super Soaker water gun. He’d run in, squirt kids, then dart out.
“He’s back again!” an assistant informed Brown one day. Brown emerged from her office. Kenny saw her.
Brown recalled what happened next, on an episode of WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”
“He dropped it. He got scared, because he knows I know his grandmother.”
Brown told Kenny: “I’m going to keep this here until your grandmother comes back. Because I don’t think your grandmother would appreciate what you’re doing.”
The grandmother came in two days later. She sent Kenny back the following week.
“He sat in my office, and he cried,” Brown recalled. “He apologized for causing problems. He asked me if there’s anything he can help me do. I told him, ‘What you can help me to do is be a better young man, to respect the library.’”
Brown also informed him that a black man (named Lonnie G. Johnson) invented the Super Soaker.
Brown had recently begun serving as Stetson’s head librarian. “It was at a time when I was trying to get the library quiet and people to respect it as a library.”
Kenny became an after-school regular—with school books, not the Super Soaker.
“One day he asked me for some math help. I’m not the greatest math person. There was another young man from Hillhouse High School who was in the library. He said, ‘Miss Diane, I’ll help him with your homework.’”
When Kenny entered high school, he brought in the Super Soaker—to give to Brown.
“I want you to take this back. I don’t need it anymore,” Brown remembers him telling her. “I’m moving on to bigger and better things.
“And who knows, Miss Diane? It might be worth money some day.”
Kenny is now in college studying communications, Brown said. She keeps his water gun on display in her office as a reminder of Kenny “and all the young children in the community that I have worked directly with and developed a good relationship with.”
Those relationships continue, and are set to deepen.
The city—which under a previous administration floated a proposal to shut down the branch until the community erupted in protest—has plans to build on Stetson’s success. It is in the process of rebuilding the Q House across the street with state help. The community urged that Stetson be an anchor of the new complex. So the city plans to build a 12,000 square-foot addition to the new Q to house a new Stetson (which currently has 7,500 square feet), along with plans to expand the programs taking place there. It has an application pending for a $1 million state library-construction grant.
And this week Brown welcomed a new tech-savvy staffer, Rory Martorana (pictured). Martorana plans to hold computer classes to help people create email accounts, learn online research tips, apply for jobs—building on what has become part of Stetson’s mission, bridging the “digital divide.”
Martorana talked about that, and Brown discussed her inspiring personal story as well as Stetson’s history and future plans, on the “Dateline New Haven” episode.
Click on the above sound file to listen to it, and find out how a public library has adjusted to, and thrived in, a new century.