The 2021 ARL Fall Forum was a prime example of a successful virtual event made possible by months of diligent program formation, intentional speaker selection, and a highly engaged participant group. The theme of talent management through diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging provided an impetus for discussions that planted seeds for real change. Diverse academic library staff and the patrons they serve will benefit from the knowledge shared at the ARL Fall Forum and experience more equitable and inclusive libraries, even if the knowledge must travel or incubate before being implemented. As the 2021 Julia C. Blixrud Scholarship recipient, I am honored to have received the award and the opportunity to meaningfully engage with library leaders and other professionals committed to making libraries the dynamic safe havens they should be.
ARL’s incoming president, K. Matthew Dames, took space at the beginning of the proceedings to provide a land acknowledgment highlighting the Piscataway people who previously occupied the region containing the ARL offices in Washington, DC. Dames also acknowledged the Haudenosauneega, Miami, Peoria, and Potawatomi people who previously occupied the region of Dames’s institution, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. He later graciously welcomed 530 participants and acknowledged several individuals and their essential contributions to the forum ahead of the program.
Aiko Bethea, the Julia C. Blixrud Memorial Lecturer, started the program with a rich discussion of how institutions can transform their environments to be catalysts for equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI). She recalled that libraries were always a safe place for her and encouraged the audience to ensure that libraries welcome everyone and meet them exactly where they are, insisting on inclusivity in service and also in culture. Further, EDI work is integral to successful leadership and not an optional supplement. However, Bethea acknowledged that the change is emotionally challenging and elicits the question of “what torch we are carrying, and what impact can we have?” Because the emotions “mad, glad, or sad” are the most accessible, natural responses to challenges, effective communication through an investment of emotional intelligence is also required for meaningful change. Leaders must look inward to determine if misguided attitudes about diverse candidates are activated during the hiring process. Statements like “We can’t find qualified talent (of color)” or “They’re not a culture fit. They won’t fit in here” require some interrogation. In light of this, Bethea encouraged the leaders at the forum to look inward before leading outward, because taking a closer look at “stealth” intentions often results in more successful EDI initiatives. If personal intentions are not judiciously evaluated, trauma can go unacknowledged, important details can be missed, and long-term harm to groups benefiting from EDI initiatives is more possible. Lastly, during the course of the presentation, Bethea provided several pieces of information that when combined, can provide any institution a great start to any successful EDI effort:
- “If you don’t bring in history, you are not going to understand equity.”
- If you want to be a competent and successful leader, you must cultivate EDI-led environments.
- You must continuously ask, “Who needs to be at the table and who is missing from the table?” Figuring out whose voice is not present is essential.
- Psychological safety in groups working on EDI issues is important because the entire group is responsible for cultivating a safe space. Accountability is key.
- Building daily practice spaces that are brave helps to move difficult conversations forward.
Alexia Hudson-Ward, associate director for Research and Learning at MIT Libraries, led the next discussion on creating an equitable workplace. Joe Lucia, dean of Temple University Libraries, contributed as moderator. Sara Goone of Ink Factory collected and synthesized keywords and phrases from this presentation into a colorful visualization showing relationships between key themes. Hudson-Ward started the discussion by highlighting the existence of the “twin pandemics” of Covid-19 and racism, asserting that the collision of these two pandemics has made a shift in pursuing more equity in our workplaces. Re-envisioning organizational culture and staffing models through the lens of residual impacts of the twin pandemics was a key theme. Hudson-Ward also framed the twin pandemics as drivers for opportunity instead of merely stubborn hurdles to grapple with, which resulted in a palpable positivity that permeated her virtual interactions with the participants, as well as interactions among the participants themselves. Hudson-Ward asserted that organizational culture drives everything and articulating the guiding principles of an organization before pursuing change must be prioritized. She quoted Peter Drucker to illustrate the point: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” EDI initiatives are more likely to die on the vine or be devoured immediately upon first growth if the culture does not provide an environment for them to thrive. Hudson-Ward echoed sentiments shared by Aiko Bethea regarding looking inward for change. She encouraged participants to change themselves along with the workplace culture, which is just one step in ensuring that culture can be maintained once it is changed.
Following Hudson-Ward’s presentation, diverse groups of participants were hand-selected for breakout sessions to allow for a variety of perspectives while exploring the topics. While all topics addressed in the pre-event registrants’ survey were important to understanding the intersection of the twin pandemics, the top six results from the survey were used as frameworks for the breakout sessions:
- Addressing new forms of privilege and exclusion among staff as a result of Covid-19
- Aligning staffing models with evolving institutional priorities
- Helping teams understand the difference between equity and equality
- Supporting BIPOC employees’ transition back onto and into campus life/the workplace
- Managing flexible work schedules
- Establishing workplace agreements and shared norms among all staff
Next, Joanne Bowman, Jennifer Garrett, Maha Kumaran, and Jackie Lorrainne contributed as panelists on the discussion: “How to Hire in an Anti-racist Way.” Julie Hannaford, deputy chief librarian at University of Toronto Libraries contributed as moderator. The panel was focused on outlining the fact that equitable hiring involves a deep understanding of how racism affects the intricacies of recruitment and its ability to seep into various levels of candidate searches, interview processes, and onboarding. The panelists addressed points similar to the previous speakers’, again highlighting that being an active participant in the cycle of identification, interrogation, problem-solving, implementation, and ongoing revision of organizational culture is essential. Maha Kumaran mentioned that not hiring librarians with degrees from foreign institutions is still quite pervasive and must be addressed. Further, she stated that exceptional talent originates from every corner of our world, and we must interrogate why this is not acknowledged through inclusive hiring practices in a way that is transparent. Overall, there was a significant call for accountability and the careful consideration of what lies on the other side of inaction. Joanne Bowman called for an unbiased, 360-degree review of EDI practices, because blind spots are widespread and can be hard-wired into our institutions, another reference to the power of organizational culture. She also mentioned that the dialogue must remain active and authentic for any meaningful relationship-building to occur. Maha Kumaran left the participants with a memorable Hindu story that illustrated how negativity must be unearthed and cleansed in order to reach light, positivity, and change. She compared organizational culture to groundwater that may require de-poisoning to allow EDI transformations to thrive.
The last session was led by David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behavior and HR management at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Joanne Bowman, director of Human Resources at Columbia University Libraries contributed as moderator. Zweig opened the presentation, “Reimagining the Organizational Culture Post-Pandemic,” by relating leadership to a thermostat in that certain aspects of leadership require adjustments to maintain equilibrium in an organization. However, Zweig identified distrust, deviance, dissatisfaction, and disengagement as negative states that employees can experience in the workplace that, when unaddressed, can lead to undesirable shifts in culture. These shifts result from wavering trust in leadership and are important because they have the power to undermine improvements in organizational culture. Conversely, trust, truth, tenacity, and meaningfulness are proven antidotes to these systematic problems in library workforces. Zweig underlined that the sentiments of “that’s how we’ve always done it” or “that’s how we do things around here” are leading causes of failures in organizational culture improvements. Organizations can be frozen in inaction due to a lack of willingness to embrace cultural change, and this presentation presented the many ways that organizations can be frozen and what is required to move forward. Zweig covered aspects of the previous sessions, namely the chaos and wake-up calls that arise during a transformational change. He also identified a “death” or mindset shift that occurs as a result of this change and noted that how organizations navigate those mindset shifts, with values and morale still intact, is the true measure of a great leader in these challenging times—because leaders build trust.
“Trust will elicit dedication.”—David Zweig
The 2021 Fall Forum transcended the familiar virtual environment of Zoom into what felt like a living room of good friends, discussing the state of academic libraries in concern and frustration but also in profound hope and optimism. K. Matthew Dames mentioned several times that the “Zoom chat was on fire” and “on fire” it was. While an ongoing pandemic, strained communication through ones and zeroes, and distance may physically separate us for the time being, the spirit of collaboration and passion for EDI prevails. In closing, I would like to thank the Association of Research Libraries, the Julia C. Blixrud Scholarship Committee, and every participant for their engagement, especially Twanna Hodge for her endless resource sharing throughout the Fall Forum. I would also like to wish all of you a healthy passage through what remains of the pandemic and many transformative days ahead as we collectively bolster equity, diversity, and inclusion in our libraries.