August 18, 2017

Evanston Public Library’s Lesley Williams Resigns as Community Calls for Equity Audit

Update: According to a FOIA request submitted by the Chicago Tribune, EPL will pay Williams $110,000 as part of her severance. The agreement carries a stipulation that neither party will pursue legal action, but does not include a confidentiality clause.

Community rallies with Lesley Williams at June 2 hearing
Photo credit: Michael Deheeger

Following two disciplinary hearings, a suspension, a FOIA request, and years of conflict with the library director and board, Lesley Williams, former head of adult services at Evanston Public Library (EPL), IL, announced her resignation on June 29. Williams, a longtime Evanston resident who worked at EPL for more than 20 years, has been an outspoken advocate for a more equitable distribution of resources and services on the library’s part. Until Teri Campbell stepped into the role of assistant director on June 5, Williams was also EPL’s sole African American full-time librarian.

Williams’s disciplinary hearing on April 20, and subsequent 15-day suspension, galvanized many Evanston residents—as well as members of the library field— to take EPL to task for what they perceived as its lack of diverse hiring practices, collection development, and branch locations, and calling for the library to conduct an equity audit.

Her posting of, and comment on, library signage on her personal Facebook page resulted in a second hearing on June 2. Nearly four weeks later, Williams announced her resignation.

“After lengthy discussions with the City of Evanston, I have decided to resign from my position as Head of Adult Services at the Evanston Public Library,” She wrote in an emailed statement. “The current hostile atmosphere and mistrust would make it impossible for me to continue to be effective.”

ONGOING CONFLICTS

The difficulties leading up to her resignation, Williams said, go back several years.

She was initially placed on paid administrative leave on April 18, following charges by the library administration of “gross incompetence, insubordination, not contributing to a healthy work environment, and conduct unbecoming,” Williams stated.

While she was not at liberty to discuss the details or reasons for her suspension, she told LJ that they involved four separate interactions, the oldest of which dates back to Fall 2016—according to Williams. One involved a disruptive audience member at a library program, one a speaker she cut off because of time constraints, and two instances involved interpersonal communications with other staff members. She was not disciplined for any them at the time they occurred.

But these charges, Williams told LJ, were influenced by ongoing conflicts she has had with EPL director Karen Danczak Lyons beginning in July 2014, when Williams booked Palestinian American journalist and activist Ali Abunimah to speak about his book The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket). Initially, said Williams, Danczak Lyons had instructed her to put the event on hold until additional speakers could be scheduled to provide a balanced point of view.

This was not a matter of library policy, Williams explained. “I have booked programs on political topics for years…and I have never once, in any other circumstance, been asked to provide an alternative or a balanced program to counterbalance the first program.”

She added, “There should be no such policy in a public library. That is actually directly contravening the American Library Association’s (ALA) guidelines on intellectual freedom.”

After a public back and forth with the author, the program was reinstated for its original date, without any accompanying programs.

A year later, Williams was again reprimanded by EPL administration for her handling of communication on behalf of the library. In 2015 the nearby Winnetka Public Library was preparing to deaccession a valuable local genealogy collection. Williams expressed interest in the collection at a Winnetka Public Library board meeting, she recalled, telling the board that “although I was not authorized to speak for the Evanston Library, and would have to go back to my board and my director, I would love it if it could come to Evanston.”

EPL’s response, Williams told LJ, was to suspend her for a week without pay for “misrepresenting the library…. Even though three people who were at the board meeting submitted signed sworn statements that I did not say what the director claimed I said”—that she had committed the library to taking the collection.

Since then, Williams told LJ, “I feel that there’s been a deliberate attempt to marginalize my achievement[s] and basically keep me at a distance.”

At her April 20 hearing, some 100 members of the community filled the Evanston Civic Center to support Williams, many of them carrying signs. EPL announced its decision to suspend her on April 27.

SPEAKING OUT

Williams has long advocated for the need for more diverse library materials at EPL—particularly in its ebook collection—and distribution of resources. None of EPL’s three branches are located in the lower-income areas of town, although a proposed new branch would be closer to a predominantly African American neighborhood. In addition, she has been vocal about the fact that the library has the smallest percentage of minority employees of any department in the City of Evanston; the population of Evanston is about 20 percent African American, and the town has a rapidly growing Hispanic population.

Supporters who turned out at Williams’s hearing included representatives from the town’s synagogues, churches, mosque, Interfaith Action of Evanston, Evanston Open Communities, the NAACP, and local high schools. The Reverend Michael Nabors, senior pastor of the local Second Baptist Church and president of the Evanston branch of the NAACP, led off a series of speakers praising Williams and her work.

If there was any silver lining to her suspension, Williams told LJ at the time, it was the vocal support of friends, colleagues, and patrons. “It’s obviously been very turbulent and stressful,” she said, “but walking into a hearing that’s going to decide your job and seeing 100 of your friends standing there with signs that say ‘We support Lesley’…that was my George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life moment. ”

CALLING FOR EQUITY

The day before Williams’s April hearing, the EPL board voted to renew Danczak Lyons’s contract—she took the helm five years ago after serving as first deputy commissioner at Chicago Public Library since 1993. On April 25, the EPL board issued a public statement in support of Danczak Lyons addressing its consternation with the gathering of Williams’s supporters, as well as what it described as “social media attacks” protesting Williams’s suspension, some of which directly criticized the director’s leadership.

The board admitted that “there is a paucity of degreed librarians of color at EPL,” but added, “This problem is not restricted to EPL; the entire public library field is grappling with it,” and cited ALA statistics that only 5 percent of credentialed librarians are African American.

“What we are trying to do is to grow our own librarians,” library board president Michael Tannen said. EPL has a tuition reimbursement program to assist library workers pursuing their MLIS, as well as an endowed scholarship for Evanstonians to attend library school. And the library plans to encourage high school juniors and seniors to work at the library over the summer. EPL recently hired Miguel Ruiz as its first librarian dedicated to engaging with the Latino community.

After a national search in early 2017, the library hired Campbell, an African American woman, as assistant director. Campbell was previously director of finance at the Chicago Public Library and served in the Chicago Office of Budget and Management as a senior budget analyst. She stepped into the role on June 5, and will lead budgeting, financial management, procurement, and human resources at EPL.

The community was quick to respond. In an open letter to the board dated April 25, Nabors spoke up for Williams’s supporters: “We are not undermining EPL. We were [at the hearing] because we love EPL…. In fact, we were celebrating one person who has been responsible for building any number of bridges between EPL and the community.” But as he praised the community of Evanston, Nabors also called on EPL to step up its diversity efforts.

EPL board member Shawn Iles addresses community members at May 4 Donor Recognition Event
Photo courtesy of Shorefront

Evanston residents have also rallied to call for an equity audit at EPL. But Tannen is not convinced that that this would be productive. Such audits, Tannen told LJ, “are almost exclusively, to our knowledge, used in the public school context, where there is a disparity between inputs which are equal and outcomes which are deemed to be not equal…. We are not familiar with that sort of evaluation tool being used in the public library context because libraries don’t promise outcomes.”

However, libraries often do set outcome goals and, per the ALA Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, some libraries are using such tools as equity audits. In June 2016, for example, the San Diego Public Library discovered through an audit that resources were not distributed equitably among the city’s 36 branches, at least partly due to a “matching funds” policy for donations within each location. It was recommended that donations instead be pooled.

A SECOND HEARING

Williams spent her suspension involved in volunteer and nonprofit activities. On her return, she noticed flyers on the library bulletin board proclaiming “Free & equal access for all” and stating that “We believe in equality of service.”

“I just thought this was an insulting, arrogant, hypocritical slap in the face of…all the people who demonstrated, all the organizations like the NAACP and the YWCA that have written letters encouraging [EPL] to adopt an equity plan, all the people in the community who’ve complained about not having enough African American books for their children,” Williams told LJ.

She posted a photo of the flyer on her Facebook page, tagging the library, with the comment, “Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion. And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards.”

On Tuesday, May 30, Danczak Lyons informed Williams that she was once again on administrative leave until further notice. The following day Williams received an email informing her that she would be subject to a disciplinary hearing on June 2, as her Facebook posting violated the city’s Healthy Work Environment Policy and Information Technology Use Policy. Because the post tagged EPL, it appeared on the library’s Facebook page and “serve[d] to defame or damage the reputation of [EPL].”

FOIA REQUEST REVEALS CONFLICTS

As Williams prepared for her second hearing in two months, however, documents from an April 27 FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request by the Evanston Patch, a local news outlet, were made public, revealing a longstanding impasse between Williams and her administration. In one email, dated March 9, board member Margaret Lurie wrote to Danczak Lyons about a Facebook post by local activist Tiffany Rice, head of the nonprofit Dajae Coleman Foundation, criticizing the director and her handling of Williams’s suspension and the library’s equity issues.

“One unspoken truth about the Tiffany Rice business is that her source is clearly Leslie [sic],” it read in part. “LW is clearly the thorn in our sides, but at this point, unless she really oversteps her role, we are stuck, Agreed?” Danczak Lyons responded, “Agreed.”

Other emails included in the FOIA request included correspondence from Tannen stating that he was “vehemently opposed to an equity audit.”

Some of the documents, wrote Jonah Meadows for the Evanston Patch, “included the comments from members of the board as part of the 2015 annual performance review of Evanston library director Karen Danczak Lyons. In the comments, at least two unidentified members of the board acknowledge efforts to fire Williams as early as September 2014…. The comments also show that Danczak Lyons’s largely positive performance review was docked in the spring of 2015 for not having fired Williams already.”

Community members again rallied in support of Williams at the June 2 hearing. Willliams has also been granted an award from ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund for librarians who have been denied employment rights or discriminated against on the basis of race, or who have been threatened with loss of employment or discharged because of their stand for the cause of intellectual freedom, and at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, outgoing ALA president Julie Todaro told the ALA Council that further awards from the fund could be made if needed.

At a June 21 EPL board meeting, more than 70 members of the community turned out—some expressing support for Williams, some calling again for an equity audit, and some rallying in support of EPL and the board.

In the end, Williams decided it was best to step away from the library. However, she added, “Although I will no longer be employed by the Evanston Public Library, as an Evanston resident and an advocate for social justice and intellectual freedom, I will continue to work with community members determined to push for full racial equity in library services, collections, hiring, and locations. These are critical concerns which go far beyond a mere ‘personnel dispute.’ I hope that by removing my individual status from the debate, Evanston will be able to focus on the injustice of a publicly funded government institution which continues to resist confronting the inequitable service it provides to lower income, African American and Latinx residents.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Thank for this thoughtful and comprehensive coverage.

  2. Shawn Iles says:

    Ms. Peet,

    That is not a picture of Michael Tannen. That is a picture of me talking to protestors at our Donor Recognition Event on May 4th, 2017 (https://dailynorthwestern.com/2017/05/05/city/residents-call-for-library-equity-audit/). I am listening to their concerns and telling them that I believe we should have a public discussion about equity.

    Thank you,

    Shawn Iles EPL Board of Trustees

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