October 20, 2017

Andrew Jackson and Mikisha Morris: Moving Forward At the Langston Hughes Library

Andrew Jackson_Mikisha MorrisThe Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Corona, Queens, opened in 1969 in a former Woolworth’s as an independent, community-run storefront library, which it remained until its incorporation into the Queens Library system in 1987. Langston Hughes moved to its current location, a few blocks down Northern Boulevard, in 1999, where it is home to the Black Heritage Reference Center, made up of some 40,000 volumes of material about and related to Black Culture, and a thriving Cultural Arts Program.

Later this year executive director Andrew Jackson, also known as Sekou Molefi Baako, will be leaving the position he has held since 1980 to write and teach. A Queens native, Jackson grew up in East Elmhurst, receiving a degree in Business Administration from York College at the City University of New York and his MLS from Queens College. Stepping into the role will be Mikisha Morris, who has spent the majority of her career in nonprofit and public education administration in Philadelphia. Morris recently earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership, focusing on the use of cultural arts programs to serve urban communities.

Library Journal recently caught up with the incoming and outgoing executive directors to learn more about the handoff, and what’s in store for Langston Hughes.

LJ: Andrew, much of the work you’ve done over the past 35 years has extended beyond the walls of the library.

AJ: I do a lot of different things in terms of outreach and with the community. [I’m] past president of the America Library Association (ALA) Black Caucus, 2004 to 2006. I’m a member of the ALA Taskforce on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, from 2014 to 2016, and cochair of ALA’s Martin Luther King Jr. Sunrise Celebration for the past 15 to 20 years. Locally, I’m on the York College President’s advisory council; Louis Armstrong House Museum community advisory board; and cochair of the Queens Borough President’s African American heritage planning committee. I was the lead editor for The 21st-Century Black Librarian in America: Issues and Challenges (Scarecrow Press, 2012).

I’ve been actively involved in community affairs for at least since 1985—past member of Time-Warner Cable board of directors, past chair of the Renaissance Charter School board of trustees, and [on the] community advisory board of Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York.

I’m an adjunct professor at Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies—I’ve been doing that since 2007—and an adjunct professor at York College history and philosophy department, Black studies program, and cultural diversity program since 2001.

All this is possible because of what I do [at Langston Hughes]. The outreach has connected me with a lot of different people—elected officials, community organizations. Based on that [outreach], I was invited to be on all of these different boards. My purpose in doing this was not necessarily to give myself more work, although it did accomplish that, but to represent the library and to give the library a voice in the community, and speak as a librarian to issues that would help…education or cultural arts. That’s what all of that has been about.

Now that you’re looking at your Langston Hughes career in the rear view mirror, what stands out?

AJ: The first thing that would stand out was that this was a second or third profession…. I didn’t start out to be a librarian, but I wouldn’t have been anything else. I worked eight years in human resources with the City of New York. I loved doing that. I worked three years with Chevrolet, in automobile sales, in customer service, and I enjoyed that. I happened into libraries—I said I was going to be here for a couple of years and then go back to California and do something else. But once I got here, my eyes opened up. It became my life’s work. I never thought about leaving.

The second thing would be working at Langston Hughes is a nontraditional approach to library services. Langston Hughes was founded by this community and presented to Queens Library as a resource for Queens County that reflected the black experience. It was a federally funded special project of Queens Library from 1969 to 1987, with a nontraditional approach to library services and experimentation and how to serve an urban community through nontraditional means.

Our mission was to attract nonreaders and nonlibrary users and transform them into readers and users by any means necessary. We tried everything. We circulated comic books before they were popular. We hosted and still have the Black Heritage Reference Center of Queens County, which is the largest circulating black heritage collection within the state of New York, and we think in the country. Using cultural arts is a means to attract people who might not be too comfortable [in a] library.

The third thing was that because this is a cultural institution, it can’t be run just like any other library. It has to be run like an institution that reflects the culture of the people that live in the community. Having that as a barometer to work from makes it easier to try anything, do any outreach into the community, and attempt anything that you can afford to do with the budget. Being able to work in an environment like this I didn’t have to worry about functioning outside the box because there was no box.

Today, arts is part and parcel of library services across the country, but when we started doing this back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was just about circulating books. Books have not always been a part of the lexicon of the black experience. Our goal was to change that and welcome all those people in. We have fourth and fifth generations [of patrons] come to our homework program. Every day, now that people know I’m leaving, I’ve got people stopping in to say, “Oh, I remember when I came here when I was a child, and now I’m bringing my grandchildren to the library.”

I can’t imagine having done anything else. I can’t imagine any other profession that would have been as rewarding or as fulfilling. If Mikisha’s experiences as director at Langston Hughes is as much fun as I’ve had in 35 years, she’s going to have a good time.

Mikisha, what’s your background like?

MM: I earned my undergraduate degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, in Film and Media Arts. I have my Master’s Degree from Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, in Educational Leadership and Administration. I recently earned my doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from St. Joseph University in Philadelphia.

I am from Philadelphia, where for the bulk of my career I’ve worked for public education in the Philadelphia School District, and also for nonprofit organizations—primarily focused on building programs in schools, creating safe school environments for students, conducting a lot of community outreach events, and anything that would serve children, serve communities, and bring them all together for the city of Philadelphia. Because the arts are a passion of mine, I always found some sort of way to sneak in some music, some theater, and some dance, because I [saw] very early on—just through my personal experience—how that is such a valuable asset to a young person’s life. Working in a city like Philadelphia where there’s extreme poverty, a lot of different lines racially, and different tensions, that was the one unifier. My dissertation was on how cultural arts can empower urban communities.

I’m passionate about the arts, and what I have done and still do well is managing operations and building programs for communities—also program management, grant management, and handling things from an administrative perspective. That is what attracted me to this position, and when I came in and interviewed and met Andrew, I was just like “Oh, well, this is perfect.” It blended the two things that I’ve been looking for—what I’m good at, and what I’m passionate about.

How long will you two work side by side?

AJ: My effective retirement date is June 28th. So I’ll be here full time through then and I’d love to come on part-time after that, to keep the transition through the end of the year because we have so many big programs coming up, and grant writing and reports and things she still needs to learn. I’ll be available after that because I’m still in the neighborhood.

MM: I really want to be able to take advantage of the opportunity that I have to sit here and work side by side with Andrew—the experience and all the connections that he has, and everything that he’s done is phenomenal. This is an amazing culture that’s been established here. It feels like a family and I want to keep that going, so this work can continue to move forward.

Mikisha, how do you feel your work in public schools will translate into a public library context?

MM: I think it’s going to translate pretty well. What I’m able to do here is what I used to do years ago in the school district when it wasn’t as tight. You had this autonomy, you had a budget, and you used your creativity and worked on what was best for students and the communities you were serving. With that freedom, and with people on board who support it—and hopefully with the buy-in and the participation of the community—I think it’s going to be a smooth transition.

AJ: Schools and libraries are like first cousins anyway. The connection between the two is automatic. One of the things that I looked at when we did the interview was that Mikisha has an expertise, especially with the focus on cultural arts, that should be valuable to the growth of Langston Hughes, and ideas that may be geared toward the educational system but can be translated to the library community as well. That’s something that excited me when I was listening to her presentation.

MM: I want to come into this community and have people embrace me, because I know it can be a challenge when you’re coming from another city. I’m coming with my Philly attitude, my Philly way of working and whatnot—but the great thing is that Philly is not too far of a reach from Queens. So I feel people will appreciate the type of person that I am, but I want to make sure that I [maintain] these great relationships that Andrew has established and not lose partnerships, not lose people who have supported Langston Hughes for years, and just keep that piece of the work moving forward.

What’s next for Langston Hughes?

MM: This community is transitioning, [from] one that used to be African American into one that’s highly Latino with a lot of immigrant populations. To bring them in without taking from the history of what Langston Hughes stands for and what its purpose is in the city, that’s going to be the balance I’m trying to strike. I don’t want to exclude anybody, but I want to maintain the integrity of the work and what the purpose of Langston Hughes is.

I want it to be elevated to another level that will meet the needs of this community, that will stand in line with where we are as a society [in terms of] technology, be a great resource, and hopefully get people—even from outside this community—to come into the doors of Langston Hughes and see what we have to offer here.

I can’t express how I excited I am to start this work. What I want more than anything is for Andrew to come back two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, and say. “I’m proud of the work you’ve done.”

AJ: I think my last word has to be: thank you. Thank you to Queens Library, the communities that I’ve been involved with, all of the people that I’ve worked with over 35 years, and people who have allowed me to come into their circles and be the librarian that I am, and grow and add to the profession. I have to say thank you to everybody who was part of that formula.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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