Context is Everything

I’m sitting at my desk during an unexpected moment of free time (a meeting got cancelled) and reading Maura Seale’s excellent “Compliant Trust: The Public Good and Democracy in the ‘ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship'” when I come across this paragraph about the myth of library neutrality, using the Ferguson Public Library during late 2014 as an apt example:

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.16.27 AM.png

To be honest, I stopped there. I still haven’t finished reading Maura’s amazing article, though I fully intend to. This paragraph, and the broad set-up of Maura’s argument, unleashed a host of feelings and thoughts that have been bubbling within me for a while now.

It’s about the vitally huge importance of socio-political context.

Context wraps around everything we do. EVERYTHING. And by “we,” I mean, us human beings here on planet Earth. Not just librarians. Not just Americans. All of us. Context is everything.

I’ve said it before and others have said it before (here and here and oh look! here) and I’m sure we’ll all say it again: Neutrality does not exist. We live in a system of oppression. We LIVE a system of oppression. ← [No, I didn’t leave out the preposition there.] I said this in a recent talk I gave at the Association of College Libraries of Central Pennsylvania and again at Temple University (so, Pennsylvanians should really have it by now):

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.48.49 AM.pngRacism and other forms of oppression are like a river with a fast moving current. If you attempt to stand still in the form of so-called “neutrality” or “colorblindness,” you will quickly be swept away and become little more than debris in the mess. To make any kind of difference, you must actively fight against the current of oppression. Otherwise, you are just part of the problem.

Nothing about oppression is an accident. It’s all rooted in the broader context of systemic and structural oppression that goes beyond individual motivations and good intentions. In fact, good intentions mean precious little.

So, every single time a white man opens his mouth to say something to me or ask something of me, that experience is rooted in the history and socio-political context of slavery, Jim Crow, race and gender oppression. Even if we never mention race or racism, sex or sexism, it is there. It saturates the context. And it matters.

All of my encounters with white women are rooted in the context of racial oppression. Even if the encounters are pleasant. Even if we’re friends. It doesn’t matter. The context is everything.

Every time I open my mouth about my life as a woman, I am bringing in the context of gender identity politics that affects the lives of trans and non-binary people.

Every time I say anything about what I do, physically or mentally, I am implicating disability politics that touch the lives and experiences of people with disabilities.

Every time I even hint at general life or resources as a middle-class person, I am bringing class politics into the mix in a way that affects poor folks.

The list goes on.

This is something that can be so difficult for people to understand but is so vital to DOING THE WORK. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered folks who are so caught up in their innocent intentions that they fail to realize the broader contextual implications of what they’re asking for, saying, doing.

Let’s all do the world a favor and take a step back to observe the context around us. Let’s be mindful of how that context rests on the lives of others. And let’s do our work from that place of mindfulness.

Let Labor Be Labor

I’ve been thinking a lot about labor lately.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 10.37.25 AM

“Work in Progress” by Gleb Khorunzhiy via                  The Noun Project, CC BY 3.0

Maybe it has to do with Mother’s Day (see what I did there?), but mostly it has to do with the fact that I’ve been really busy and doing a lot of extra stuff. It’s all stuff I enjoy—some directly connected to my job, some only tangentially so—all of it requiring my time and effort.

And all, I’m finally fully realizing, deserving of payment.

I really struggle with this. I struggle with demanding that I get fair credit for the work I do. Like many other non-male, non-white people, I tend to sell myself short and allow others to do likewise. I’m fortunate to have parents who get really vocally frustrated with me about this and who lovingly push me to demand fair recompense for my work. And while I don’t always get it right, I do try to push beyond my discomfort to get what’s rightfully mine.

One of the challenges that gets wrapped up in this struggle, though, is the insistence in many circles on qualifying what is meant by “labor.” Too often, work gets placed in categories based on its importance, value, emotional versus physical or intellectual requirements, etc. We talk a lot about “emotional labor” and “invisible labor” and “feminized or gendered labor.” And what we’re getting at is that work that gets done, often behind the scenes, and often without recompense. That extra stuff that certain people—often non-male, often non-white—get expected to do. The work that gets relegated to “the help.”

The fact is, though, that all this labor is really just labor. And all labor should be paid/credited/recognized. Period.

It makes no sense to create false dichotomies for our labor, particularly in a service-based profession like librarianship. Everything we do has emotional and physical and intellectual components. All of it is labor. All of it requires our time, effort, and talents. Even when we love what we’re doing.

One thing that has helped me shift my thinking about this is to go back to my roots as a corporate attorney. When I worked at a high-powered law firm, we had to account for everything we did in 6-minute increments. Paid client work got counted and billed, of course, but even work we did for pro bono clients and internal firm work got counted, as well. The thinking was that all our labor involved valuable time and effort that should be accounted for.

I’m by no means suggesting that high-powered law firms have it totally right. There was certainly “invisible” labor going on at the firm. And having to bill every minute of your time in a day is stressful and tiring (hence the fact I’m no longer doing it). But some of that, shall I say, mercenary thinking that powers law firm billing could be of great use to us in the library profession. Yes, we love to talk about how we’re called to the profession and how we love to help and we love to serve. But our help and service also involve labor. And that labor should be recompensed and credited accordingly. Being called and being credited are not mutually exclusive.

So, for example, as I get invited to speak with groups about diversity issues in libraries (which I thoroughly enjoy doing), I realize that I’m doing work and that work should be recognized. I should get paid for it; I should get credit for it as outreach and scholarship at my job; I should get recognized for having shared my time, effort, and thoughts.

Even when people reach out to “pick my brain” about something, before agreeing, I take time to think about how much labor I’m willing to put in and how much that labor should cost. In the end, I may agree to speak with that person for free, but it will always be with the understanding that I’m giving them free labor that should otherwise come with a cost. I make sure I’m clear on this to myself and I even go so far as to make it clear to them. I’m also very careful about how much labor I give away. When I reach my limit, I stop. No exceptions. Again, my legal training comes into play here. I imagine that the work I’m doing amounts to offering free legal advice and I determine how much of that free advice I’m willing to fork over before the billing clock should start to run.

It’s the same with time you may spend consoling a student who came to get reference help but ended up needing to vent about exam stress. Or the time you spend listening to a patron battling homelessness describe how difficult things have been lately. Or the time you spend sitting with a new colleague going over unspoken office politics so they can avoid the pitfalls of interpersonal interaction on the job. Or the time you spend serving on the diversity committee for your organization. You may love doing it, but it’s still work. Your work. And it’s worth something.


I say we stop qualifying our labor and just start sweeping it into our reports/CVs/stats/etc. I started doing this at my former job. There were times when some of the very few students of color would stop by the ref desk during my shift to chat about life. They did so because I was the only librarian of color there and they felt comfortable chatting with me. And even if we never discussed anything remotely related to library services per se, I always logged those interactions into my reference stats, under “general reference consultation.” Because as much as I loved being there for those students, my time with them involved important labor and that labor was worthy of credit.

I know we can’t all make this kind of change in our places of work. You may not be able to sweep all your labor into the same pot for payment or credit. But to the extent that you can, I challenge you to do so. And either way, be on the lookout for ways in which you can get credit/payment/recognition for all your labor.

Let’s stop bothering with false divisions of emotionality or invisibility. Let’s stop “other”-ing the important work we do. Let’s instead try to get credit for all aspects of our very valuable labor.


Open Letter to Baby Bro on His Graduation


My sweet Baby Bro,

Congratulations! We’re all gathering together this week to celebrate you and your achievements. Getting your Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. Going on to rock the world with your knowledge. I’m so proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

It seems only yesterday that Mom and Dad told us you were going to be you. Dr. Sis and I were expecting a tiny person who would be named Amy Melissa, another A. M. H. for our collection. When the possibility of a male child came up, we requested a puppy instead. But thankfully, God gives us what we need rather than what we think we want. You came into our lives and completed a little trio beyond what we could have imagined.

Now, you’re graduating from college and moving off into the “real world,” whatever that means. (And yes, grad school is the “real world.”) I wish I could say that this world is better than it used to be, but sometimes I wonder

This is still a world that seeks to discourage, denigrate, and destroy people like you, black men full of life and love and talent. This world will take one look at your powerful frame and chocolate skin and label you a “thug” or “monster,” little suspecting the brilliant, intuitive, and sensitive soul who lives inside.

I know we’ve taught you many ways to stay safe in this world, to protect your treasure. We laugh about it sometimes, when Dr. Sis and I pretend to be annoyed with you and you throw up your hands in surrender, crying with a smile, “Okay, okay. I got it. Don’t attack me!” We joke to cope because it’s better than the alternative—dealing with the full force of the realization, frustration, and fear that we live in a world full of Michael Browns, Tamir Rices, and Trayvon Martins, young black men much like you. Indeed, we shudder even more because we know it could happen anywhere; Trayvon was gunned down in a neighborhood less than 30 minutes from our parents’ home.

It’s okay to laugh, Baby Bro, to maintain your sanity as you maintain your survival. It’s okay to laugh as you rely on God’s protective grace to keep you safe and help you thrive in this nasty world. It’s okay to laugh because you know you are here to make it a better place.

As you go off to do your thing and live your dream, designing video games that tackle social justice issues, remember your worth. You are a treasure, Baby Bro. You’re a man in tech, which is an advantage for you, but you are black man in tech, so people will try to sell you short. Know your worth and be ready to demand what you deserve. Mom and Dad tell us this all the time, and I still struggle with it a lot, but do as I say, not as I do. You know the drill.

And wherever you go, whatever you do, know that Dr. Sis and I are here for you, proud of you, fiercely loving you. Cradle to the grave, Baby Bro.

Love always,