More Thoughts on Diversity Initiatives in LIS

The National Diversity in Libraries conference has been over for almost two weeks, but I’m still reflecting on all I encountered there. What a great time.

Right now, I’ve been thinking about some conversations and presentations that arose as a response to my article in In The Library With the Lead Pipe on diversity initiatives in LIS. During our panel on “Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce,” Mark Puente pushed back on my assertion that diversity initiatives have been largely unsuccessful in increasing the numbers of librarians of color, noting that to date ARL programs have helped over 440 underrepresented librarians in entering the workforce. He also talked a bit about the intangible benefits these programs have provided for librarians from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups: Being a part of a program cohort provides many opportunities for peer and informal mentoring and networking, which is vital for librarians of color who very often end up working isolated in a profession that is 97% white.

In their poster session “Beyond Diversity ARL Initiatives: Peer Mentoring,”Genevia Chamblee-Smith and Christian Minter also picked up on this thread, detailing their in-depth focus group/interview research with current and former program participants on their experiences with peer mentoring as a result of participation in these programs. As a former participant in an LIS diversity program myself (2012 Spectrum), I can attest to the importance of these networking and mentoring opportunities.

Ultimately, we all agreed that more can and should be done to increase both recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups in our profession. But for Puente, Chamblee-Smith, Minter, and others, it was also important to note the successes, however intangible they might seem.

I agree. But. But. The conversations also got me thinking. Because throughout the conference—and indeed this happens at any library conference whenever I attend sessions that focus on how program participants feel about their diversity initiatives—I noticed one glaring fact: Many, many, many of these participants are repeat participants. It is more than common to have someone begin a panel discussion on diversity initiatives by saying, “Hi, I’m a 2012 Spectrum Scholar, and I participated in the Mosaic, IRDW, and CEP programs.”

Don’t get me wrong. That’s great. I’m glad people are taking advantage of and enjoying these programs. But it also makes me wonder, of the 440 participants that have come through, how many are actually unique participants of a diversity program? For every repeat participant, how many folks didn’t/couldn’t participate because they were unable to meet the application requirements that are, as I argue in my article, rooted in our system of whiteness and false meritocracy?

And when it comes to the mentoring and networking opportunities—again, who’s missing out? Which of our could-be colleagues, who are otherwise perfectly qualified to do the work of librarians, are missing out on these opportunities to learn and connect because they were unable to get transcripts in on time? Or couldn’t come up with a professor with whom they were close enough to get a recommendation?

The fact is, once you participate in one of these programs, you become exponentially more adept at successfully applying for and entering any of the other programs. You’re in a unique position to leverage your peer mentoring and networks to put forward a stellar application for any number of other opportunities. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. More power to those folks. But we still have to ask about who’s missing out.

So, those are my thoughts. A quick note to close out, though. As I said during our panel discussion and several times after publishing my article, none of my thoughts are a critique of the incredible work done by the inimitable Mark Puente. To the extent anyone reads critique of diversity initiatives as a direct critique of Mark, well, you’re demonstrating our problem right there. Improving diversity in our profession should not and cannot be the job of one lonely man of color. That’s ludicrous. These critiques are meant for us all. They are meant for all of our initiatives: the ones put forward by our national organizations, but also the ones cooked up in our local institutions.

We should all be asking that essential question: Who is being left out? And then, we need to work together to make things better.

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