Discovering the Leader in Me

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Evelyn Keolian is a librarian in the Chicago Public Library’s Assistive Resources Center. She is also the founder and chair of the library’s Diversability Advocacy Committee and a member of the board of directors of Changing Worlds. In 2018 Keolian was a Fellow of ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, a first-of-its-kind leadership development program for emerging leaders with disabilities. She was recently named one of five inaugural Equity Fellows by the Association of Library Services for Children.


I didn’t always think of myself as a leader.

As a child, I dreamed of helping others as a nurse or sharing my talent for hamming it up as an actress. But time and time again, I was told no: people who were deaf could never successfully hold those jobs.

Librarian and @ADA25AdvLeaders Fellow Evelyn Keolian didn’t always see herself as a leader. Learn how she discovered her own voice + the #disability #leadership program that helped her see her strengths

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Becoming a librarian has allowed me to pursue my passion for making libraries more welcoming and accessible. I never took my own children to story hour because my library didn’t offer ways for patrons with hearing loss to experience the stories. But as a children’s librarian for Chicago Public Library (CPL), I got the great opportunity to be in charge of designing programs at my branch that could be enjoyed by all visitors.

To help ensure wider accessibility at CPL, I founded (and still chair) the Library’s Diversability Advocacy Committee. Because of our committee’s work, CPL now celebrates Disability Awareness Month, is a prominent participant in Chicago’s Disability Pride Parade and is opening an Assistive Resources Center at the central branch in downtown Chicago.

CPL connected me to the Leadership Institute, where I was a 2018 Fellow. Despite my contributions at the library and my active community service as a volunteer tutor, I still didn’t consider myself a leader. Through the Leadership Institute, I started to see myself differently.

A woman writes the word Leadership with a brown marker on a flip chart
Image description: Evelyn writes the word “leadership” on a poster board.

The leadership assessments that were part of the program helped me recognize my strengths and weaknesses. While I’d always thought of myself as introverted and creative, I was surprised to learn that I can also be extroverted and analytical.

I started observing and interviewing other leaders in my field to see how they approach different situations. It helped me see that one of my strengths—leading by example—is a great leadership skill to have.

The Leadership Institute gave me the flexibility to pursue my own interests. It also connected me to people with similar passions who were potential collaborators. When my CPL committee was looking for an artist to showcase for Disability Awareness Month, I arranged for the artwork of Grishma Shah, another Fellow in my class, to be exhibited at Harold Washington Library.

The Leadership Institute was terrific in providing accommodations like real-time captioning that helped me fully experience the program. Having sign language interpreters at receptions and networking events made it possible for me to socialize with the other participants.

The path to leadership isn’t always a straight line. But if you stay open to the possibilities, keep speaking up and push yourself a little bit more every day, you will discover that your voice can indeed be powerful.

Since becoming a Fellow, new leadership opportunities have continued to open up to me. Advancing Leadership connected me to BoardLead, a program that matches leaders with nonprofit board service. I now sit on the board of Changing Worlds, an organization that builds community through art and storytelling.

I was recently selected for one of five inaugural Equity Fellowships for children’s librarians of color through the National Association of Library Services for Children. I’ve also advanced at work, moving from children’s librarian to a librarian position with CPL’s new Assistive Resources Center.

My journey has taught me that the path to leadership isn’t always a straight line. But if you stay open to the possibilities, keep speaking up and push yourself a little bit more every day, you will discover that your voice can indeed be powerful.