After the July 2016 shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively, the #librariesrespond hashtag was a safe place for librarians on twitter to share everything from programs to resources to self-care tips.
During this time, Amita Lonial, Learning Experiences Manager at Skokie Public Library (IL), wondered if libraries should release a statement about racial equality or racial justice, especially after seeing collective enthusiasm and support for equality.
The Libraries 4 Black Lives team includes Lonial along with Amy Sonnie, Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Librarian at Oakland Public Library; Jessica Anne Bratt, Branch Manager at Grand Rapids Public Library; and Sarah Lawton, Neighborhood Library Supervisor at Madison Public Library. The team moderated a panel on Monday, January 23 on the interaction between librarianship and social justice.
Shortly after the site launched, a combined 4,000 people took the pledge on their site to receive information about how to be change agents in their communities, and started following them on twitter @Libs4BlackLives. Lonial (a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker) attributes this success to the fact that our profession is “hungry for a statement beyond equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
Lonial also expanded upon the dialog surrounding neutrality within librarianship. Emphasizing that we must be advocates against marginalization and for justice, Lonial recommends finding the roots of oppression in your communities and working from there.
“Some libraries pride themselves on being neutral. We respond that equity is a core library value. Civil engagement is a core library value. Intellectual freedom is a core library value. Democracy is a core library value. Marginalization in all forms, and racism in particular, disrupts and limits equity, civil engagement, intellectual freedom, and democracy.”
Sonnie reasoned, “When we omit conversations about race and racial justice from the conversation, we allow exclusion and oppression to happen.” She continued by saying that it’s impossible and ahistorical to be race-neutral, and that we don’t live in a true democracy so long as exclusion, racism, and other forms of oppression exist. In maintaining that libraries are not neutral, Sonnie repeated there is nothing neutral about the process of advocating for change, and stressed that librarians must engage in the practice of changing things that create barriers.
When asked how social justice plays out at her library, Bratt (a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker) explained her journey from working in segregated neighborhoods in Chicago to becoming a children’s manager and then branch manager in a predominately white community where people constantly questioned her credentials. “It’s personal and it’s professional,” Bratt pointed out. “This is who I am.”
One of her successful programs for both children and adults was a collaboration with the city on a lecture about the effects of police brutality on society. There was a large turnout from the community, and Bratt is grateful there were tough, but civil conversations from people with opposing viewpoints. In her role as branch manager, Bratt now focuses on asking people, “Why don’t you enjoy coming to the library? What can I do to change that?”
“We need to normalize conversations of race and racism in our libraries and our city departments and allow the space for people of color to talk about race without feeling like it will lead to marginalization,” Lawton asserted.
Reiterating that the work of librarians is both challenging and political, she described Madison’s efforts to create a racial justice and social equality initiative by partnering with the city’s local civil rights and public health departments along with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.
Some of her takeaways include the need for libraries to be open to feedback from the community, and to think about how our policies and practices might impact communities. By focusing “on the communities that are facing the greatest barriers and access, [and] then reforming our decision-making process,” libraries can make their services more accessible.
Panelists urged librarians to actively break down white cultural dominance in their institutions and embrace multiculturalism with an emphasis on human rights and social justice. All were encouraged to take the handout, “Everyone is Welcome Here,” and display it in their library. The posters, created by artist Micah Bazant, were donated by a non-profit organization based in Oakland, CA. If you’d like to place a bulk order of these posters to distribute and post in your community, visit micahbazant.com.