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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes coming to Portage for library's community read Thursday
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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes coming to Portage for library's community read Thursday

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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is coming to Portage on Thursday to speak about racism and answer the community’s questions, capping the Portage Public Library’s 2021 community read program.

Adult Services Librarian Chris Baker said everyone is encouraged to attend the free event starting at 6 p.m. at the Beasley Pavilion in Pauquette Park, even if they didn’t engage in the community read. Fifty chairs will be set up, but people also can bring their own, according to the event flyer.

“We’re hoping for a terrific turnout and that people come with their ears open, ready to listen, ready to learn and ready to be excited to work together to try to combat this (racism),” Baker said.

For the community read — first suggested by community member Ellen Swan — the library purchased 45 copies of New York Times Bestseller “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee for patrons to read and discuss from July 19 to Thursday. It was checked out 73 times this summer “so I’m pretty impressed with that,” Baker said, and 18 community members participated in the library’s recent book discussion.

He said he contacted Barnes, the first African American lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and the second to ever hold statewide office, “on a whim” to see if he would be willing to speak to the Portage community on the issues addressed in McGhee’s book.

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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes

Barnes

“It’s a unique opportunity, I think, for us to kind of bridge the gap between local and state government,” Baker said. “Obviously, I think when it comes to tackling big issues not just for our state but for our community, the more unified we can all be and the more advisement we can get from people that have decision-making and change-effectuating capabilities, the better.”

Community members have been submitting questions to the library over the last few weeks, which Baker compiled and will ask Barnes during a roughly 40-minute Q&A after the speech. According to Baker, they submitted “just enough,” so he didn’t have to pare them down.

Barnes, a Democrat, is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Ron Johnson. However, Baker said the library has been approaching the event “from an apolitical perspective.” He said he wants people to come with an open mind even if they are “feeling resistant” to Barnes’ participation. Baker personally invited everyone on the Columbia County Board and the Portage city council to attend, he said.

The goal, he said, is to unite people across racial boundaries, eliminate divisions and work together to improve equity in the Portage community. “The Sum of Us” contends that people are stronger together, Baker said.

“If we can come together across those (racial boundaries), I really think that we can foster improved equity in Portage, in Wisconsin, and genuinely increase the quality of life for people,” he said, “so I think a big part of this is having the discussion, acknowledging that racism and systemic racism exist as a fact and encouraging folks to be comfortable with the discomfort of having that conversation, especially white folks in Portage.”

The lieutenant governor’s office is not doing interviews about the event, according to Baker, and did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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