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ARL Fall Forum 2016 Explores How to Create Libraries That Facilitate Social Justice

Alden Habacon
and Sofia Leung
(left to right)

This is a guest post by Sofia Leung.

Attending the 2016 ARL Fall Forum, “Libraries and Archives as Agents of Social Justice,” as the recipient of the Julia C. Blixrud Scholarship was a true honor. Many people whom I respect and admire, including Julia’s husband, Keith Russell, have told me not only of Julia’s many accomplishments and contributions to our profession, but also of the force of her personality and the generosity of her spirit. I feel very fortunate to be able to represent the memory of such a well-loved and dynamic figure as Julia. Thank you to everyone who helped make this scholarship available, especially Julia herself, for being an inspiration to those of us just beginning our careers in librarianship.

To kick off the day, Chris Bourg, director of the MIT Libraries and chair of the ARL Diversity and Inclusion Committee, set the stage for openness and authenticity by stating, “Libraries are not now, nor have they ever been, neutral.” Although this shouldn’t be a radical or new idea (read Todd Honma’s mind-blowing article from 2005 “Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies” for more on this), I think many librarians and administrators still struggle with this as a statement of fact and what this actually means. However, I don’t think we can answer the following questions that the Fall Forum posed without accepting that truth and holding ourselves accountable to it:

  • What does it take to build diverse and inclusive library environments that contribute to social justice?
  • What intercultural competencies should librarians and information professionals develop to ensure organizational equity?
  • What steps can be taken to make certain that collections, records, cultural heritage materials, and research are diverse and inclusive?
Ajay Nair

This year’s Julia C. Blixrud Memorial Lecturer, Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University, gave an excellent, compelling talk that focused on what it might mean to be your authentic self and how to create inclusive spaces that allow students to be their authentic selves. Ajay opened his lecture with a piece of Emmanuel Ortiz’s powerful poem, “A Moment of Silence, Before I Start This Poem”:

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

These words resonate very strongly with me because people of color in every situation are told (both subtly and blatantly) to keep silent about their experiences of physical and emotional violence. There are few spaces where white people are held accountable for their words and actions; instead, as people of color, we are asked repeatedly to swallow our pain and suffering, or when we decide to speak about that pain, white folks decide how and when that pain matters to them. We see this on all of our campuses, but whether or not we choose to recognize this is happening is another question. For example, recently, on the University of Kansas campus, a transgender woman of color was verbally assaulted by a car full of frat boys while she was walking to work in the evening. Individual units on campus expressed support and solidarity with the student who was attacked, but no official action was taken against those young men nor was the problematic culture surrounding fraternities addressed whatsoever. What message does that send to those fraternity brothers?

Alden Habacon,
Chris Bourg,
Mark Puente
(left to right)

Ajay asked all of us to shift our perspective of multiculturalism, in which we include diverse cultures in a community but don’t encourage the crossing of cultural boundaries, to a framework of polyculturalism, in which we create spaces where students who have been continuously marginalized can become empowered in the larger community. This is one of the reasons I became a librarian—to lift up those who have been pushed down again and again. To me, that means making space for all students to be their authentic selves. In practice, this is a difficult thing to accomplish. The other fantastic speaker for the day, Alden Habacon, the senior advisor of intercultural understanding at the University of British Columbia, shared a really great insight about newcomers to US companies: 90% of the responsibility is on the newcomers to adapt to the company and only 10% is on the company. If we carry that over to our academic institutions, or any institution, I would argue that the same holds true. What are we asking our students to do in order to “succeed” in our institutions? What are we asking our staff to do in order to be “successful”? Who determines what that success looks like? And who determines how we evaluate that success? How do we create a polycultural environment on campus?

Ajay touched on this when he asked us to struggle intellectually with our own cultural beliefs and really think about why we think the way we do. Throughout the day, it felt as though the focus was on making sure our students felt safe and welcome on our campuses, which was great. But, we never discussed the frontline staff, like me, who are the ones who interact with students most, and what we would need to help our students feel as though they belong. One of Alden’s most useful tools was the diversity change curve (PDF), which illustrates the eight stages of developing an intercultural mind-set. The second stage is awareness, which Alden said most people think is higher up on the curve than that. For me, this really highlighted the fact that most of us are still trying to break free of the structural and internal systems of oppression that restrict even our recognition of the fact that something is wrong—that in fact, our libraries are not neutral and that by continuing the way we always have is hurting our staff and our students.

Before we can even answer the questions the Fall Forum posed, library administrators need to ask themselves, one another, and their staff (and then actively listen to those answers):

  • Do library staff feel as though they can be their authentic selves at work?
  • Do librarians of color feel as though their experiences are valued equally to those of white librarians?
  • Who is held accountable when librarians of color are not retained?

I wish everyone could have heard Ajay and Alden speak, but if you weren’t able to attend, I highly recommend reading through the Storify roundup of #arlforum16 tweets for more highlights. Thanks so much for having me, ARL!