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Iowa State University Library Staff Build Cultural Competence to Improve Equity, Inclusion

Are you able to understand, appreciate, and interact with people who have different beliefs, values, and practices from your own? Cultural competence is an essential skill to have in a diverse society and is necessary for equity and inclusivity to flourish. Iowa State University Library staff have been improving their cultural competence significantly over the past few years.

During the 2017–2018 academic year, the Iowa State University Library leadership realized library staff were at varying levels of awareness and competence regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. The library’s previous efforts in this area were isolated and perceived as disconnected. The library had joined the Association of College & Research Libraries Diversity Alliance and had re-established a Diversity Committee, among other efforts, but the committee was not empowered to make a library-wide impact in helping a predominantly white staff understand their role and responsibilities in creating and maintaining a more inclusive organization. When the inaugural attempt at a residency program ended with the resident leaving after the first year, the administration recognized that major changes were needed for the organization.

A key part of the solution was appointing an assistant dean for equity and inclusion, to address the University Library’s lack of appropriate staffing for consistent and focused leadership in this area. The library also reaffirmed its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and updated the hiring statement for all positions to read, “ISU students, staff and faculty strive to overcome historical and divisive biases in our society. Library staff must embrace an environment of inclusion that moves beyond simple tolerance to recognize the richness in individual identities of people, and diverse perspectives.”

covers of 3 books: White Fragility, Is Everyone Really Equal?, and Race on Campus
Books read and discussed by Iowa State University Library staff

Once the new assistant dean was in place, the University Library took a number of steps to develop staff competencies, build community, and ensure that staff gained a shared foundation in issues vital to diversity, equity, and inclusion. A few of the steps taken are described below.

  • The library increased the number of learning sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion for all library staff. The assistant dean began assessing those sessions with a focus on learning outcomes and soliciting feedback on future topics. The library shares these assessment results with all staff.
  • The library gave all staff a copy of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler. All staff attended 10 hours of facilitated, interactive training in having difficult conversations. While this book does not address diversity, equity, or inclusion, its framework for addressing “uncomfortable” issues rather than staying silent was useful.
  • The Library Management Team read and participated in semester-long facilitated discussions of White Fragility by DiAngelo. Three additional book groups were formed for library staff to discuss White Fragility, gaining by year’s end the participation of approximately half of all library staff.
  • The library rebranded its Diversity Committee as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and shifted the charge from “celebrating” diversity to taking action. While the previous committee was already inclusive, with members from every library division and from all employee classification groups, the reworked charge emphasized active participation of all members. Committee members also engaged in a semester-long training through reading and discussing Is Everyone Really Equal?, the social justice textbook by Sensoy and DiAngelo.

Iowa State University Library staff are learning that growing cultural competence needs to be an ongoing process in order to build a truly inclusive and equitable environment. To change the organization, the library is helping staff connect diversity, equity, and inclusion with their daily work. The library is also building this into fundamental human resource practices of recruitment, hiring, orientation, training, and performance management. In early 2019, the library implemented the requirement that all library staff report their diversity, equity, and inclusion activities as part of their annual evaluations, along with the requirement that staff supervisors provide feedback on those activities. This change emphasizes that learning about and getting involved with diversity, equity, and inclusion is part of everyone’s work responsibilities.

An early indicator of progress came when the University Library was selected as Conference Champion for the 2019 ISCORE Conference, Iowa State’s conference modeled on the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE). Another sign of progress is that more library staff, and particularly those who participated in the various in-depth book discussions, are taking on ownership of their own continuing education and involvement with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. In 2020, relevant programming and facilitated book discussions continue, with How to Be an Antiracist by Kendi selected as the next title. The library is currently working through its first iteration of evaluating diversity, equity, and inclusion learning and activities on annual evaluations, and continuing to build the path toward improved cultural competence, antiracism education, and greater inclusion.