The Waukegan Public Library had a problem. By 2010, the city was over 50% Latino. But library patrons didn’t come close to matching these demographics. The library had several programs they thought were relevant to Latinos—English as a second language classes, GED certification, citizenship classes—but they weren’t getting the word out effectively. Their standard marketing techniques were not motivating Latinos to participate. How could they reach the Latino adults they felt confident they could serve?

Inspired by a health care model for community engagement, the library started a program called “promotores.” The idea was to recruit Latinos who had direct experience with the library to promote library experiences to others in their community. The library hired Carmen Patlan, a Latina leader who had worked previously for one of the largest Catholic churches in the state. Carmen used her connections to build a team of promotores—library promoters—who all had a personal story to share about how the library had affected their lives.

Gloria Velez was one of the first Waukegan Public Library promotores. Gloria had immigrated to Illinois from Colombia, and she earned her GED at the library. Like a lot of immigrants, Gloria didn’t initially know that libraries offered useful, free services—but once she discovered them, she was eager to share her experience with others.

Gloria and her fellow promotores went out into their own communities to talk with other Latino adults about their hopes, dreams, and fears. They heard about community needs that fit the library’s offerings, like many parents’ desire to expose their kids to educational enrichment. They heard about community concerns that changed the staff’s approach, like many adults’ fear that the library might share personal information with immigration officials. The promotores linked up Latinos with programs at the library that were relevant to their interests, and they provided the library with feedback to improve their offerings. The result was more Latino engagement at the library, driven by the voices of the community the library wished to serve.

Promotores are a kind of inside-outsiders. They are inside the library enough to know that it offers something valuable. But their social lives exist outside the library enough that they can effectively create a new door for newcomers—and see what aspects of the door make it suspicious, unappealing, or invisible.

The most powerful way to gain access to a new community is not by creating programming or marketing campaigns you think might fit their interests. Instead, it starts with networking. You don’t need a formal program like the promotores to start learning more about a new community. You just need to go outside. Meet people in your community of interest. Try to identify their leaders, both informal and formal. Get to know them and the organizations they trust. Listen to their interests and concerns. The more you understand what matters to them and what experiences they seek, the better you can assess whether and how you can connect with them.