Race Matters Unconference 2017

On Friday, March 10, my dear friend and colleague Davis Erin Anderson and I, along with a kick-ass group of committee members, hosted 75 library and information workers at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for a series of conversations about race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, and the library and information profession. It was a ton of work getting this event off the ground, and the irony was not lost on me that I, a woman of color, along with several other women of color on the committee, were putting in all this unpaid labor to help teach others about how and why race matters. But the day was an incredible one and proved to be well worth the effort.

The idea for the Race Matters Unconference was birthed after the 2016 LACUNY Institute on Race Matters: Libraries, Racism, and Antiracism. I was honored to be asked to deliver the morning talk at that event and thoroughly enjoyed the ensuing day full of open and honest conversations, workshops, learning, and listening. After the day, Chanitra Bishop, librarian at Hunter, gathered a few folks together to plan ways to keep the conversations going, and the idea for the unconference was born. While Chanitra had intervening commitments that kept her from being able to participate to the end, we are all grateful to her for getting this much-needed ball rolling.

Prior to the event, we asked attendees to read Asian-American studies scholar and librarian Todd Honma’s article “Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies” and to watch legal scholar and black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TEDtalk on “The Urgency of Intersectionality” (Crenshaw is the one who coined the term “intersectionality.”) We also offered discussion and reflection questions to get people ready to engage with these issues ahead of time. We were inviting people of all stripes to attend the unconference—from the antiracist veteran to the person new to talking and thinking about race—so our hope was that the pre-unconference resources would help set a bit of a baseline for engagement for the day.

We started the day of the unconference with a time of facilitated activity led by professional diversity facilitator S. Leigh Thompson. Leigh and his adorable 2-month old son braved the late-winter NYC snow and slush to come lead us in a series of exercises that forced us to confront the ways we internalize and systemize notions of racialized power and other forms of oppression. There was a lot of aha moments and laughter and reflective thinking, not to mention a lot of much-needed physical movement for a cold Friday morning. Even the security staff at the School of Journalism got in on the fun, offering thoughts and tips from the background.

With such a great opener, we were ready for a full day of discussion, tackling topics like unionizing, class, and race, library instruction and race, patrons and safe spaces, and a catch-all session on hot topics and emotional responses, during which we reflected on how these conversations and current events have been making us feel. You can catch all the notes from the various sessions in our open documents: Room 1, Room 2, Room 3, and Room 4.

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Session planning board from #RaceMatters17

Throughout the day we also had wall activities going where we asked attendees to share a story on a post-it about the moment they first realized and acknowledged their race and to share short descriptions of how they were feeling about the day thus far. Responses to the first ranged from “preschool” to “the day I moved to NYC.” Responses to the second included “excited” and “ready to learn.”

In the afternoon, we had a great panel discussion with Danilo Campos of GitHub and Jenn Baker from We Need Diverse Books. They talked about how issues of race and diversity play out in tech and publishing, respectively, two industries closely linked to libraries and information. It was such a pleasure to hear their personal stories and realize that this struggle that we’re in in libraryland is in many ways not unique.

Finally, we closed the day out with a moment of grateful reflection to honor the Delaware, Mohegan, and Poospatuck peoples, on whose stolen land we were meeting. And then we ended with an open mic session, during which attendees offered the “closing keynote” of the day, sharing reflections, questions, challenges, and next steps.

It was a beautiful, wonderful day and still only a single step in the full process of engaging in antiracist work in our profession. The hope is to keep these conversations going and to plan for another unconference in the next year. Davis and I need a break from co-chairing the efforts, but if you’re in the NYC area and want to get involved, please let us know! And wherever you are, think about setting up a space for these conversations in your own neck of the woods. Because in a profession that is 87% white, race definitely matters.

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