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Judith H. Katz Discusses Structural Equity and Inclusion for Research Libraries and Archives

Last Updated on December 4, 2020, 10:03 am ET

photo of Judith Katz
Judith H. Katz, photo courtesy of
The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group

ARL Executive Director Mary Lee Kennedy talked with Judith H. Katz, Executive Vice President Emeritus, The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, about improving structural equity and inclusion in research libraries and archives. This interview complements the latest issue of Research Library Issues on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” published December 2.

Mary Lee Kennedy: There is heightened awareness and action taking place in our society and our organizations regarding deconstructing structural inequity and addressing racism. What opportunities and what challenges do you see in sustaining the awareness and making enduring changes?

Judith Katz: The response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people has brought a renewed and important focus on anti-Black racism and structural inequality. We and many organizations can no longer deny or avoid and must address the inequality to enable every person a good life and a safe life, and our organizations to be enablers of that life. The ongoing protests and uprisings by people across the globe continue to remind us all of the work ahead in significantly changing the very nature of our organizations to truly move to greater inclusion and equity. As we have seen, many organizations initially have spoken out and pledged their commitment to substantive and significant change…and now the question is will they really follow through on doing the deep work that is needed?

Mary Lee Kennedy: What advice would you give leaders of research libraries and archives to create an inclusive organization in which everyone can do their best work and feel like they belong?  Are there any specific resources you might point them to?

Judith Katz: Obviously the 1619 Project has reshaped our understanding of the history of this country and our understanding of how deeply the legacy of slavery and its aftermath is woven into our psyche and systems. To be able to move to an inclusive organization we must fundamentally understand the blocks and barriers that exist and the ways in which systemic racism (and other isms) are a part of our libraries and institutions themselves. I appreciate the work ARL members are doing in looking at Dewey himself and the ways in which his racism and other isms have impacted library science from its founding.

I would suggest that leaders understand “The Path to Inclusion” and that moving to an inclusive organization is not simply accomplished as a result of intent alone, or hiring greater diversity, and in fact often what may occur is a revolving door if the organization does not have a culture that supports and enables all people. Our definition of inclusion has three components: people have a sense of belonging; they feel valued, seen, and respected for who they are (their diversity and all the dimensions that go along with that); and most importantly, they experience supportive energy from leaders, peers, colleagues, and others so that both individually, and collectively, they can do their best work (which refers to the culture itself). Leaders and each one of us must address bias, and microaggressions. We each need to know where our organizations are along the path to inclusion—is the organization seen as a club in which the systems and culture support one style, approach, and group? Or is the organization moving closer to inclusion in which the systems and culture truly support the value added by differences and are reflective of those differences at all levels? And once identified do the work to move along the path to greater inclusion and diversity.

Many leaders would like to believe they are welcoming and inclusive. But in an inclusive organization a different set of competencies and capabilities are needed. As one client said about inclusion, “I know we are really inclusive if the same group of leaders don’t go into the same room to solve every problem.” The real key is in an inclusive organization we ask a different set of questions: “Who are the right people, with the knowledge that is needed to solve this problem? What perspective is missing that we need to include?”

Like any other problem or opportunity, we all need to get smarter about the problem, our path for addressing it, how we will measure progress, and what success looks like. Mapping that as an organization journeys along the path gives that clarity.

Mary Lee Kennedy: We often hear about the importance of being comfortable with discomfort and being open to being vulnerable. What can people do to make it possible for themselves and for others to do so? What can leaders of organizations do?

Judith Katz: A key element of creating an inclusive culture is the ability of everyone to lean into discomfort. It is one of our cornerstone “Conscious Actions for Inclusion.” We have all grown up with our own unconscious and conscious biases. We must all step out of our comfort zones if we want to learn something new. As educators we know that just staying with what we know limits our ability to learn and expand our experiences. So too with understanding diversity and creating a more inclusive organization we must expand our range of experiences, this takes the ability to lean into discomfort. Leaning into discomfort means challenging ourselves to not always go with the comfortable option. It means we must have the important and needed conversations across our differences and, when we make a mistake, rather than defend our position, be open to learning and exploring that mistake. To create an inclusive environment, it takes all people being willing to learn and grow and understand others’ experience and create work partnerships and friend relationships across those differences.

Leaders set the climate and must model their willingness to lean into discomfort. Demonstrating their own willingness to learn and be vulnerable is key. Leaders too, must recognize their need to explore their own attitudes and behaviors, their blind spots and biases, and take actions that demonstrate their willingness to “get different.” We have seen many leaders and organizations today, for example, making public statements of support of Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd. For many leaders and organizations that was a major step. One CEO with whom we are working talked about how in the past he saw his role as being neutral as a leader, but not anymore. He discussed that as a leader now his role is to create space for people to engage about the social and political issues that the people in the organization are experiencing. Other leaders talked about their role being to show up and not needing to be perfect. A major element of that “showing up” is listening, being vulnerable, and focusing on building trust. And we know the more leaders demonstrate these behaviors, create these spaces, and are on a learning journey themselves, they enable others to take the risk and exhibit those behaviors themselves.

Mary Lee Kennedy: You interact with many leaders in the for-profit and nonprofit world. If you were making closing remarks at a keynote or in a workshop, what would you want to leave leaders with as they head back to their organizations and their lives?

Judith Katz: We have an opportunity for major transformation in this “new normal” of the pandemic and addressing issues of racism and other forms of oppression. It will take courage and a willingness to lean into that discomfort and pave a new way. We can do this!! We have to do this!! And you have an organizational responsibility to give leadership to this opportunity, to enhance your organization and the experience of all people.

I’d like to close with this quote from Arundhati Roy’s recent essay “The Pandemic Is a Portal”:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers, and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.