Unsatisfied that there was no library her children could easily access within her Corona, East Elmhurst neighborhood in New York, Tanya Simons-Oparah joined forces with a local advocacy group and organized a demonstration.
“It was 1967 and our children had to walk about 15 blocks,” Simons-Oparah said about the distance to the nearest library. “I was a young mother then. We shut down Northern
Boulevard to demonstrate our need for what is now the Queens Borough Public Library. That’s where my role in the library systems began, through activism.”
This restless aspiration for improvement forged a path for Simons-Oparah, who eventually moved to Florida and built a trailblazing career within the Broward County library system, where today she serves as director of outreach services.
Simons-Oparah, 61, of Lauderhill, who joined the Broward library system in the late 1970s, recently celebrated 30 years of service.
Now married with three adult children and raising three grandchildren, Simons-Oparah said it took a while to adjust to life in South Florida, but when she became involved in building libraries, “things changed for me. I was doing something I loved. It has been a well-rounded experience.”
Her colleagues agree.
“Tanya reaches many populations through her citizenship classes, literacy and outreach services,’’ said Vonda Bryant, the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center’s learning services coordinator.
Bryant added that Simons-Oparah’s dedication to the community “includes everyone, especially African-Americans. She’s well organized and an excellent planner; has served as my mentor throughout my career here at the library.”
Before joining the Broward library system, Simons-Oparah became one of the first staff members at the Langston Hughes Library and Cultural Center in Manhattan, which opened in 1968.
She said she was always an avid reader and that was “something we did in my house. We read the newspaper, we read books, magazines; it was a part of our lives. I cherish books, I buy books. And to this day, I still do. There’s something about owning my own books even though I’ve made a career of being around so many of them.”
Simons-Oparah was recruited by Tyrone Bryant in 1976 to work in the Broward County Library system’s Libraries-In-Action division.
Libraries-In-Action was an outreach service to economically disadvantaged people. It was established by Tyrone Bryant in 1976.
Those libraries were the first ones built in Broward County, Simons-Oparah said. The program was disbanded after 14 years.
Tyrone Bryant later served as the library’s head of special services.
“Tyrone recruited three of us from New York to come down and work,” she said. “Eric Rollins, Joel Robinson and me. I’m the last of the three still around.”
Simons-Oparah admitted that after visiting South Florida, she “liked the idea of bringing libraries to underserved populations in Broward County.”
At the time, she recalled, there were only three libraries in the county, including one in the black community on Sistrunk Boulevard and Northwest 11th Avenue.
Simons-Oparah said her journey has taken her from picketing on the streets to becoming an administrator for the library’s division.
“I worked for Libraries-In-Action five years, and was then appointed staff development officer for the division. I held that position for about five years.”
Throughout her tenure, she garnered community support to build five libraries in unincorporated areas of Broward County. One of the libraries for which she helped gather support is the African- American Research Library and Cultural Center, described by many as the “crown jewel’’ of the library system.
In 1995, she was appointed project director for the library.
There, she established a community grassroots awareness campaign and worked with organizations to get support for people to make donations for the new building.
She would hold that appointment for the next five years. The library construction was finished in 2002.
Samuel Morrison, the retired director of the library system who first envisioned the African-American Research Library, praised Simons-Oparah’s work.
“She was not simply instrumental in helping build libraries throughout Broward County, but was passionate about it,’’ Morrison said. “She had a vision.”
In an effort to develop a dialogue between the library and ministers of culture throughout the world, Simons-Oparah visited the African countries of Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal and Ghana, reaching out to ministers of culture.
“That was part of my commitment to the community and to the library,” she said. “I wanted to establish and make communications with the ministers of culture; bring programs into the library that reflects our community.”
She said international relationships offer an opportunity to bring in artifacts; bring culture to the table. She also works closely with the Israeli government, the Argentinean and Colombian consulates; Nigeria, Bahamas and Haiti.
Yet the most challenging but enjoyable project for Simons-Oparah has been right here at home: the Sistrunk Historical Festival, which recognizes the history of Fort Lauderdale’s historically black community with a parade and festival each February.
“I worked with the festival for 18 years, and served as chair for 8,’’ Simons-Oparah said. “It was always a lot of work, but each year it got better.”
She attributes her longevity and success within the library system to positive mentoring:
“There were two [mentors], Cecil Beach, who was filled with charm, enthusiasm and a contagious energy, and Tyrone Bryant, to whom I could never say, ‘I haven’t done that before.’
Tyrone would say, ‘Just go ahead and do it; get your research together, make a way.”’
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Tanya Simons-Oparah