ALAMW: What Happened, and What Should Happen Next
**Update at the bottom of this post
TW: racist and misogynistic trauma
It seems I will never be able to attend an American Library Association meeting without encountering some kind of racist, sexist trauma. ALA just isn’t a safe space in our profession for me. And I’m not the only one.
During Council Forum, a small, informal discussion session for ALA Council and general ALA membership, a fellow councilor, a white man, verbally attacked me. He accused me of being a hypocrite, for doxxing people and making “racial innuendos” on my blog. He accused me of being uncivil and unprofessional (yes, he accused me of this in a tirade in a public forum amongst our colleagues). Then, he ended by claiming that I give him “nightmares.”
There were about 30 people sitting around witnessing this, including the Council facilitators; including some Councilors who have served repetitive terms for the last decade or more and are well-versed in how Forum should be conducted; including a couple of newly elected Executive Board members; including members of the Ethics Committee; including a slew of library professionals who tout our profession’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
No one said a thing.
There was an awkward pause and then business continued. Someone raised their hand to discuss other business. Someone else did the same. The meeting ended. No one said a word about the verbal attack just launched against me.
Me? I said nothing. I was struck dumb with fear. I have been attacked by white men just like this person through trolling and harassment in the past. These people have called and emailed me at work. They’ve called my library dean. They’ve called the president of my university. One even sent me a postcard full of vile language. Why? All because I speak up unabashedly against racism and systemic oppression. And now here I was living my own worst nightmare face-to-face in person. And no one was there to protect me.
Please note, I have never spoken directly to this person before. I know from debates on Council floor that we stand on opposite sides of many issues. But we have never interacted directly before the day he verbally attacked me. I have never said anything to or about him. I barely know him. There was no history between us. He came for me in a public space in a personal way out of the blue.
Immediately after the meeting ended, this person tried to approach me. While I was still terrified. I told him to stay away from me. To not speak to me. I told him he made me feel unsafe. Then, I ran to my room to curl into a ball and cry in terror. At some point, I realized I needed to report him. I saw what lack of support I received in the moment; I needed to report the incident and get it through official channels. I knew if I didn’t do it, no one else who was there would. I had my doubts, even about the official channels, but I wanted what happened to me on record. I tweeted about my experience, as well. I refused to be silent and let this slide.
The next morning, less than twenty-four hours after my traumatic experience, I received a call in my hotel room. I don’t know how they received my room number; that information is supposed to be confidential for all hotel guests. It was from someone named Paula from ALA who wished to meet with me at that moment to talk about what had happened. She said President-Elect Wanda Brown would be joining us. I thought they were following up on my incident report, so I gladly agreed, impressed that things were being handled so swiftly. Boy, was I naive and wrong.
It turns out Paula is the legal counsel for ALA. I don’t remember her identifying herself as such. As a lawyer myself, and one who has conducted these kind of conversations before, I feel like I would’ve made note and probably declined the meeting. I know from experience that when lawyers jump in early, it’s usually a matter of intimidation. I’ve done my fair share of that jumping.
In any event, she wanted to warn me about posting about my trauma in a public forum like Twitter in the event anything happened to my attacker and I “found myself liable.” “We’re just looking out for you and ALA,” she kept saying. She then turned to Wanda Brown and asked her to “take over from here.” Paula is white. Wanda is Black. And this meeting was not framed as an official response from the organization: there was no reference to the progress of my pending report; the current president was not present; and neither was the interim executive director. No, I was being handled by the company lawyer, and they’d brought a Black lady along to help out. I terminated the meeting in the midst of the lawyerly bullshit to inform Paula that as a lawyer I knew full well what they were trying to do. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I would not be intimidated into silence, and with the most ridiculous, baseless claim of legal liability possible, no less (um, hello, First Amendment? you know, that constitutional right that we love to talk about so much in our profession?). I had exercised my constitutional right to speak of my personal trauma. I had not named names. I had not spoken of my attacker, really at all. The experience was mine, and I was sharing it. I also warned them that the real liability they faced was in not enforcing the ALA Conference Code of Conduct, leaving me in fear for my safety. I then threatened to contact my own attorney if need be, and left the room.
Keep in mind, this was less than twenty-four hours after I was verbally attacked in front a crowd of my colleagues. In less than a day, I had been publicly berated by an angry white man and then had the company lawyer sicced on me with the token Black woman in tow. And I still had one more Council session to attend.
To start the session, President Loida Garcia-Febo took a moment to acknowledge, without details, what had occurred. And some great allies proposed that Council take time out of the agenda to talk more broadly about the ways in which racism and white supremacy have been plaguing our profession, and thus, our professional gatherings. It turns out this ALA Midwinter was a doozy for people of color; several of us had to file reports on incidents of racist aggressions. You’d think, given ALA’s oft-repeated committed to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, that Council would jump at the chance to begin addressing these systemic issues. Those who proposed the discussion made clear they weren’t looking to dig into specific events; they wanted us to allow those events to spur a much-needed systemic conversation.
Whoo boy. What followed was about 15 minutes of gaslighting and victim-blaming that left me paralyzed in my seat. Several councilors, including some who were actually present at the time I was verbally attacked, made excuses for their silence, claiming they “didn’t know who was being referred to” and “didn’t know the history or background of the two individuals.” I don’t see how any of that mattered. What was done and said in that moment was completely unacceptable and a violation of the ALA Conference Code of Conduct. What is more, there is no history! I barely know this person. But even if there were history, there was no excuse for that behavior and others’ complicit silence. None.
The discussion then devolved into a conversation about looking into “civility and professionalism.” But I could read the white supremacist undertones, same as they aways are. I know there are members of our profession—mostly white, though not all—who do not like me, do not like that I write and talk about race, do not like the direct and unapologetic way in which I call out systems of racial oppression. They find my work “divisive,” “uncivil,” and “unprofessional.” Some of them are leaders in our profession. Some of them were there sitting quietly as I was being harassed. When they talk about having conversations about “civility and professionalism,” they’re not talking about the inexcusable behavior that happened to me; they’re talking about tone-policing and silencing me. It’s a common tactic in white supremacy’s arsenal. But I won’t have it.
Council eventually voted to move on with regular business and leave the questions of systemic racial oppression in our field and our events where it always is, quietly hidden and not dealt with. I’ve returned home and finally feel a little of my sense of safety returning. Meanwhile, I continue to wait on real progress on my incident report.
In the meantime, I’ve had several people ask me what I want, and on the long flight home, I’ve had a chance to think about that.
- I want meaningful consequences enacted against the person who verbally attacked me, including barring his future participation in Council. What good is a Code of Conduct if it’s not enforced?
- I want ALA to apologize and acknowledge that what happened to me at Forum was unacceptable, not only a violation of the Code of Conduct on the part of my attacker, but also on the part of the members present who allowed it to happen without intervening.
- I want ALA to apologize and acknowledge that it was inappropriate for their lawyer to contact me the morning after my traumatic experience to attempt to intimidate me into silence (a lot of good that did; this is my longest blog post yet).
- Finally, I want ALA to set up town hall sessions with Council, the Executive Board, and the general membership to talk about the way white supremacy and racism has permeated our profession and our professional events. Like I said, I am not the only POC to have a traumatic racist experience during this and other conferences.
We deserve a better organization. We deserve a better profession. What happened to me and what happens to so many others cannot be allowed to continue.
Update: After a bit of emailing back and forth with President Loida Garcia-Febo, the ALA Executive Board has released this statement. The initial draft did not include reference to my ambush meeting with the ALA attorney, and a nice, weak, sort-of apology has been added after my pushback. Also, the verbal attack is referred to as “the incident” and my attacker as the person “who instigated the incident.” Clearly, this response is not ideal, but I appreciate its release and the action items it includes.
Statement from the ALA Executive Board
We should not – and do not –accept harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind in our profession or the work of our Association. These behaviors go against our values. Violations to our code of conduct will not be tolerated.
We established a code of conduct because we take the responsibility of being respectful to each other very seriously.
We send our sincere apologies to Councilor April Hathcock for what she went through at Council Forum, which is unacceptable and doesn’t align with our core values.
The ALA attorney and President-Elect met with Councilor April Hathcock in the Council meeting room shortly before Council III to share some nonpublic information about events after the incident in question. ALA leaders deeply regret any distress this caused; it was not intent of the attorney or ALA to threaten Ms. Hathcock in any way.
The Councilor who instigated the incident has resigned and the Executive Board has accepted his resignation.
We also offer our sincere apologies to members who also experienced violations of the code of conduct at the Midwinter meeting.
We want to recognize that this incident has caused a lot of hurt and we are working diligently to ensure that at all ALA events participants are – and feel – respected.
The Executive Board will form a working group to look at Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space up to its continued viability.
We will review the current code of conduct complaint process to make it stronger and more effective.
We will work on facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference during Council 1; that training and the code of conduct will be built into Council Orientation moving forward.
In collaboration with the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, we will coordinate online and in-person resources on equity, diversity and inclusion for all members and for ALA staff members.
ALA and its Divisions have developed resources to embed principles of equity, diversity and inclusion in the work library workers do; see specifics for 2018 here. Last October during the 2018 Fall Executive Board Meeting, the Executive Board voted to affirm that ALA will apply a social justice framework to the ALA Strategic Directions for the next three-to-five years in the areas of Advocacy, Information Policy, Professional and Leadership Development, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. We are building on the 2019 President’s Program about “White Fragility.”
This work can be messy, it takes time, but the Executive Board strives to create a better association every day. We ask for your collaboration to help us break through the systems of oppression and do the right thing at the right time, each time, as it should be done.
Of particular importance to me are the following plans:
- To convene a working group of the Executive Board to examine Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space;
- To review the current Conference Code of Conduct reporting process to make it “stronger and more effective”;
- To arrange for facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference Council Session I and to build that training and the Code of Conduct into future Council Orientation sessions; and
- To coordinate with the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services to provide online and in-person resources on equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’d like to note that I really, really appreciate the work of Jody Gray and the team at ODLOS. They do amazing work and help to move our profession and our professional organization forward in a huge way. However, this work is not their responsibility alone.
This experience has been truly awful. To have experienced that kind of personal attack and then to have so many colleagues attempt to turn the conversation into a discussion of “professionalism” and “civility” that aims to silence the work of POC rather than reprimanding those who attack us. It has been truly disheartening. But I am also glad to see this experience serving as an opportunity to move our profession and our professional organization forward. And I am so grateful for the overwhelming support I’ve seen from those aiming to make things better. Now it’s time for us to get to work. Let’s do it.