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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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:

  1. To convene a working group of the Executive Board to examine Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space;
  2. To review the current Conference Code of Conduct reporting process to make it “stronger and more effective”;
  3. 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
  4. 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.

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Why Don’t You Want to Keep Us?

I’ve been thinking about temporary job appointments and precarity, especially as it relates to people of color in the library profession:

Whenever this topic comes up, there are always some interesting discussions to help explain how and why things like diversity residencies and temporary jobs are okay. More than okay, beneficial to new career folks, even. They can provide experience with pay. They expose early career professionals to new and different types of work. They help to diversify the profession.

That last one is totally not true because our profession has been holding steady at 85+% white for the last several decades despite all the programs.

So my question—to all the folks who proudly tout these precarious temp appointments—is: Why? Why is it so important to have and maintain these precarious positions? Why are your institutions so excited to spend money year after year on a different set of POC to do the work that a more permanent staff member could do? Why are you so willing to welcome POC into your temp positions for a year or two or even four, but you don’t want to invest in keeping us for the long haul? Why do you parade us before your search committees, like many of our ancestors on the auction block, year after year after year for short-term appointments; yet fill your tenure-track lines and full-time, long-term positions with the same young, white, female faces? Why is it okay to help “diversify” the profession within your institution for a little while but not for the course of our careers?

Why don’t you want to keep us?

I’ve seen the job postings for many of your positions that you claim require “3-5 years of experience.” Hell, I’ve served on search committees for them. Very often, those jobs don’t require 3-5 years or even any experience. A talented and hardworking POC new to the profession could learn what they need to do within the context of your unique institution (that institutional learning curve is always significant no matter your experience). They could grow and develop; and likely, if it’s a good place that has shown its willingness to invest in their career, they’ll want to stay and grow and keep making it better. What’s more they’ll want to remain in the profession, instead of leaving feeling tired, microaggressed, and demoralized. You take on white people without the requisite experience and keep them and train them all the time. I’ve seen it. You could keep us. So why don’t you?

I’ll tell you. It’s because many of you and your institutions aren’t serious about diversifying the racial and ethnic homogeneity of our profession. You aren’t serious about dismantling whiteness in your institution and in our profession for good. You’re happy to have POC visit your institutional and professional neighborhoods, but you’re not ready to have us move in. You’re just not ready.

We, as a profession, need to be brutally honest about this. We need to stop dancing around these coy discussions about early career experience and shifting budgets and confront the true nature of these temporary solutions we uphold. The whiteness of our profession is a problem that is persistently and historically entrenched. We need to get to the root and develop persistent, permanent solutions.

Hiring us, supporting us, and keeping us isn’t the only answer. But it’s a good place to start.

Building and Being Welcome

It’s that time again.

A new school year is beginning, and for those of us who work in academic libraries, it’s a time when our work ramps up. Students flood our campuses and library spaces; teaching faculty race to finalize syllabi and set up last-minute instruction sessions. New materials bound in awaiting processing for what will undoubtedly be heavy use throughout the year. It’s a fun time. And for those of us who work in this space, it’s a familiar time.

But it’s not familiar for everyone.

This morning—as I sauntered through the morass of humidity and the aroma of eau de garbage that is New York City in late August, sipping on my tall latte with almond milk and two pumps of vanilla syrup (sigh, yeah, I’m one of those)—a fellow Black woman stopped me in front of the library doors and hesitantly asked, “Excuse me, but where did you find a [insert name of big corporate coffee shop here]?” She seemed new to the campus and unsure. Even in the course of our brief interaction, I saw that she moved and spoke uncertainly, like she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to fully inhabit the space. I also noticed that she moved past several other people with similar cups but less melanin to approach me with her question. I gave her a giant smile and replied, “There’s one right on that corner. You’re almost there.” She grinned in relief and solidarity and made a beeline in the direction I pointed. She’d found a familiar face to guide her to what I’m sure was a familiar place.

Black and white photograph of Welcome sign

“welcome” by ☻☺ via Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

As we’ve been gearing up for orientation and the start of classes on my campus, I’ve been reminded of how alienating our institutions can be for some and how important it is for us to do what we can to those folks know they belong. Institutions of higher education can be very white, male, ableist, colonial, classist, hetero- and gender-normative spaces, and for those who don’t inhabit those identities, they can feel like harsh, uninhabitable planets. We all put in a ton of labor in our jobs already, I know, but to the extent we can, we should each make an effort to seek out those most marginalized and carve out a place of welcome in these spaces in which we work.

We should also make sure we’re all sharing in this additional labor and not just relying on our colleagues from marginalized identities to do this work. There is a role that members of privileged groups can play in crafting welcoming spaces. Treat folks with dignity. Interrogate your biases. Don’t make assumptions. Look beyond and step beyond unspoken norms. Engage in microaffirmations—those small acts of encouragement and solidarity that show a marginalized person that you acknowledge and respect their belonging in the space. These things can seem minor, but to a new student, faculty, or staff member who already feels marginalized and out of place, they can make a world of difference.

I hope that woman found what she needed at the coffee shop. But more important, I hope she found welcome and belonging while in the library and that she continues to find welcome and belonging there and everywhere else she goes on campus.

My Bought Sense, or ALA Has Done It Again

Mama. Daddy. Aunt Doll. Granny. Muz. Big. Aunt Pearl. Sutta. All my ancestors, all the way back, have always told me, “Don’t you never sign NOTHING a white man gives you without reading it first.” As a Black woman, I hold this advice dear. As a lawyer, I hold this advice dear. Before the first of the six figures of my law school loans hit my Sallie Mae account, I knew this basic tenet of legal practice.

But I didn’t do it. I slipped one time. And now this.

I’m on ALA Council. It’s a pain and a lot of work, but I do it anyway because the American Library Association is a big opaque beast (though one that has shown it doesn’t care much about the marginalized) and those of us with anti-oppression principles and financial privilege need to do what we can. When the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, which is led by a privileged white man, sent a draft of this interpretation out around May, I read it carefully and commented. I was frustrated that they were doing it. I knew it grew from misguided interpretations of the tiresome “Nazis in the library” question. The endless debate about free speech that is really by and for and about straight, cis, Christian, white men. But I was heartened to see comments and edits incorporated that seemed a reasonable (if not altogether desirable) compromise that most of us could live with.

The statement I read and commented on, all the way up until ALA Annual in late June, had no specific mention of hate speech or hate groups. It just reiterated that generally people can’t be turned away from public library spaces for their beliefs. And there was at least one line about none of this having anything to do with regulating behavior to maintain safety. I figured it was the best we could do. And I trusted that the document with the final resolved comments and edits would be the document I’d vote on during the hectic frenzy that is ALA Annual. I thought I’d done justice to my office as an ALA Councillor and to my status as an ALA member who cares about anti-oppression and who knows libraries are not now and never have been neutral. I thought I could trust my colleagues in the ALA OIF, though led by a privileged white man, to be upfront and honest and not make any additional changes to the document that had been vetted and commented and edited by the membership for close to two months. I thought that, at the very least, last minute changes wouldn’t take place during a historically poorly attended and poorly advertised side session of Council. I thought any changes that did take place would be highlighted right before the vote and opened for discussion as is usually the process. In short, I thought I could vote on the document during the ALA Council Session, which always runs at a frenetic pace, without having to re-read it.

I was wrong.

Oh, ancestors, I should have heeded your time-honored advice.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t take the time—even spoken up to stop Council proceedings (which we totally can do)—to re-read this document and notice the change. I’m sorry that I voted for a document (essentially signed my name to a document) that I wholeheartedly do not support and cannot endorse. I’m sorry that library workers, whether they’re ALA members or not, who count on me to represent them were failed in this way. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to my ancestors.

And I’m angry. I’m angry this new document was, I’m convinced, deliberately slipped past me and others who would have vehemently opposed it beforehand. I’m angry that my fellow socially conscious, anti-oppression Councillors—folks who are conscientious and thoughtful and who really care about this work—have been bending over backward to take responsibility and apologize and make things right while the bad-faith actors have glibly dismissed the concerns of their colleagues. I’m angry that other socially conscious, anti-oppression library workers who have already put in plenty of labor in this profession have had to step up to mobilize a response. I’m angry that it is again and always the women of color and white women, queer folks, non-binary folks, disabled folks stepping up to save this profession from itself.

During this same ALA Annual, ALA Council voted to pass a resolution honoring the African-Americans who fought against the segregation of public libraries during Jim Crow. Like the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, Jim Crow was also THE LAW. But these brave librarians put their bodies, lives, and livelihoods on the the line to fight for what they knew was right, regardless of what an unjust law said.

Though that’s all moot, because it is my expert legal opinion that ALA OIF purposefully mis- and over-interprets the law surrounding free speech. I just point it out because it is so typical of the hypocritical whiteness of the library profession.

Anyway, for those of you who want to help do something, several of our amazing colleagues have put together letter templates. Please continue to write and call. The folks of privilege and power in our profession have been trying to dismiss our response as “a few posts on Facebook,” but we won’t let them ignore us.

And as for me, I’ll know better than to trust my so-called colleagues over my ancestral wisdom. As Big always said, “Well, bought sense is better than told.”

 

Criticalizing Our Work: Timucua Language Collection

I came across this piece about a collection of Timucua language imprints that had been digitized by the New York Historical Society. It piqued my interest in particular because the Timucua were an indigenous nation in what is now known by us settlers as central Florida, my home.

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 11.28.35 AM

Title page from a Franciscan catechism written in Castellan and Timucua. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

The piece itself is interesting in that it talks about the historical and linguistic importance of these imprints—how they represent the only remaining evidence of a rich native language that is thought to be an isolate, i.e., a language not related to any other language. The piece traces the story of how these imprints came to be housed in New York and how they came to be digitized. All very neat stuff.

What the piece fails to acknowledge is the fact that the reason these imprints are the only things left of the Timucua language, and much of the culture, is because of the white European religious settlers who invaded the area. Indeed, this entire collection of imprints consists of Catholic religious documents that were created in both Spanish and Timucua in an undoubted attempt to force the Timucua to assimilate on pain of death. Nowhere in this piece are these historical facts laid bare. Nowhere is there a critical reflection on what it means that the only remaining evidence of a people’s language are translations of books representing the religion of their invaders and oppressors.

As information professionals—librarians, archivists, curators, digitizers, whatever—we have a responsibility to bring a critical lens to every instance of our work. We cannot erase difficult or oppressive histories from the materials we collect and preserve. We should not hide them. There is no neutrality in that kind of whitewashing of history, only more oppression.

I don’t fault the writer of this NYHS piece. They were just “doing their job” like so many of us do. But I do challenge this person and all of us to take more care in how we contextualize the materials we work with. Let us be careful not to perpetuate the oppressive power structures already represented in those materials. We can best do that by criticalizing our work whenever and wherever we can.

Pipeline as Meat Grinder

I just got off a group videoconference with members of We Here, a collective of librarians of color who gather every month online to chat about issues related to being one of only a few in a profession that’s 88% white. As we were talking, the topic of diversity initiatives, recruitment, and retention came up (as it often does). I’ve written quite a bit about our profession’s diversity initiatives in the past, but in the course of this conversation, I had a new thought:

Me: Y’all. Listening to this conversation makes me think that the so-called pipeline, when it comes to diversity, isn’t a pipeline at all but is actual a meat grinder. *shudders*

4978709667_edfdce7b2a_b

“Der Fleischwolf bei der Arbeit” which I’m pretty sure is German for “white supremacy meat grinder for diversity” (just kidding…a little); by Anfuehrer on Flickr.com, CC-BY-SA 2.0

It’s true. We take people from marginalized backgrounds and shove them into the meat grinder we call a pipeline. We churn them up in diversity residencies and diversity temp hires and diversity programs and diversity trainings. And then we spew out little white-sized (no, that’s not a typo) chunks for our organizations. We tell them to be people of color but not too much color. Be disabled but not too disabled. Be native but not too native. Be queer but not too queer. Be poor and working class but not too poor, not too working class. Just be a good little chunk with just enough quirk to make our organizational diversity look good.

Finally, we congratulate ourselves on how diverse we’re making our professional sausage, with no regard to the identities and backgrounds these folks held before they entered our grinding pipeline machine.

No wonder so many of our most talented leave the profession after a short while.

We assume that assimilating folks from marginalized backgrounds into our professional sausage is enough. We don’t work on our inclusionary practices or organizational cultures. We don’t work on providing systemic, long-term professional and personal development support. We don’t work on changing the ways we think about and treat people historically oppressed people in our workplaces. All of that is just way too hard. So meat grinder, it is.

I’m sick of the meat grinder mentality. We’ve got to do better. Many of us are starting to make those changes in our organizations from recruitment to staffing and leadership training. But we gotta do more. We’ve gotta do so much more.

That’s it. End of blog post. I’m not giving you any solutions here because quite frankly I (and many others) have done that already in other places. (Hello, click on all the links I put in this post for a start.) But also I’m not doing it because that’s not my job. This black woman is not here to save you. Save yourselves. Do the work. Go.

Post-ALA Race Fatigue

I just spent the last 5 days at the American Library Association annual conference in Chicago, and I am suffering serious race fatigue

Race fatigue is a real physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro- and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people. The more white people, the longer the time period, the more intense the race fatigue. 

My ALA Annual 2017 conference badge

I usually come back from conferences pretty exhausted anyway. I’m an introvert, an over-achiever, and an over-joiner, so I’m always faced with having to be conscious about taking breaks, saying no, and engaging in other forms of self-care. But when you combine that with 5 days of being talked at, over, and through by folks in a profession that’s 88% white…well, let’s just say I hit my limit. 

Its been 5 straight days of being tone-policed and condescended to and ‘splained to. Five days of listening to white men librarians complain about being a “minority” in this 88% white profession–where they consistently hold higher positions with higher pay–because they don’t understand the basics of systemic oppression. (They’re librarians. You’d think they’d know how to find and read a sociology reference, but whatever.) Five days of having “nice white ladies” tell you to be “civil” and “professional” when you talk about the importance of acknowledging oppression and our profession’s role in it. 

Even with well-meaning white people, friends even, it’s been exhausting; the fatigue is still there. Five days of having white colleagues corner you to “hear more” about the microaggressions you’ve suffered and witnessed, not because they want to check in on your fatigue, but because they take a weird pleasure in hearing the horror stories and feeling superior to their “less woke” racial compatriots. 

Five days of mounting anger and frustration that you struggle to keep below the surface because you can’t be the “angry and emotional person of color” yet again. 

Don’t get me wrong, there were delightful moments of reprieve. I went to the Spectrum Scholarship 20th Anniversary celebration and met the amazing Dr. Carla Hayden–first black, first woman, first librarian–Librarian of Congress. (She’s so wonderful. We chatted about my name, which I share with the main character of her favorite children’s book.) I caught up with friends and colleagues of color and met new ones. These moments kept me going. And I did have some moments of rest with a few absolutely invaluable and genuine white allies. 

But I’m tired. 

Luckily, the rest of my summer will be spent going on vacation with family, steeping in time with the people who love and know me best. I’ll be getting some much needed R & R in this racial battle called life. And when I get back to it all, I’ll keep on fighting, bearing in mind the inspiring words Dr. Hayden imparted to us at the Spectrum celebration: “You gotta be in the room. You gotta be at the table. You gotta fight.”

Grit? Git!

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately.

Angela Galvan, Jacob Berg, and Eamon Tewell gave a fantastic presentation on the myth of resilience and grit in academic libraries at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference in Baltimore earlier this year. While I wasn’t able to attend because (of course) the conference gods had scheduled one of my panels at the same time, afterward, I dove into their presentation, handout, and the related tweets with gusto. I sincerely hope Angela, Jacob, and Eamon take their work further because it’s really important stuff. They talk about how the myth of resilience reifies oppression and maintains the status quo. How grit is an excuse for the haves to continue having and the have-nots to continue without.

Now, the ACRL President’s Program is planning a program on “resilience (hopefully) in all its complexity” for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual meeting next year. They’ve asked for people to share (for free) their ideas about resilience so that the speakers (not yet identified) can use those ideas as the basis for their talks (likely without attribution as the originating comments are to be anonymized). In other words, ACRL wants us to show resilience by pouring out our gritty souls as fuel for what promises to be an interesting program.

Yesterday at the Untold Histories unconference, I sat in on a session about creating a diversity pipeline for the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) professions. We’d hardly gotten settled in our seats when the conversation quickly turned to the abysmally low pay commonly found in our professions, even when they require graduate-level degrees. As one participant put it, “I feel a little guilty encouraging people from underrepresented groups to enter this profession when I know they’re going to be paid so little for so much work.” In other words, they’ll be expected to spend the rest of their professional lives wallowing in grit and resilience.

All of this thinking has made me reach a conclusion: Our profession’s obsession with resilience plays a huge part in destroying our attempts at increasing diversity. I am convinced that a big reason why we’re still 87% white is because we are obsessed with grit. Grit keeps our libraries underfunded, our staff underpaid, our work undervalued. We wear our grit like medals of honor when it’s that same grit that keeps us mired in the status quo.

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“Grit” by Al Greer via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0

Grit is the magical fairy dust that makes “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” physically possible. Normally, that phrase, so common among those with privilege, is nonsensical. (No, really, it can’t be done.) But when you sprinkle on a bit of grit, all of a sudden, the hapless pickaninny floats up from his place in the dust and accomplishes the incredible. All without touching the much-protected privilege of the master in power. Resilience absolves those with privilege of the responsibility for dismantling oppression and erecting systems of equity. Resilience is the wheel that keeps the myth of meritocracy grinding.

And we, in the library, profession love it. We’re obsessed with it. We love our tales of the library staff who kept the place open after-hours, without pay, for the sake of the community. The library folks who continued to provide the same level of services even when their budgets had been slashed in half. We proudly share our job postings calling for a library unicorn with an MLIS, a second masters, and the ability to do the job of five people while being paid the salary of three-fifths of a person (that age-old fraction always at play). We shove our graduate students into unpaid internships where they pay tuition for the pleasure of handing out their free labor, and we tout their resilience for the sake of gaining “valuable” experience. We love grit.

And we are steadily choking to death on it.

If we truly want to diversify our profession, we MUST give up our obsession with resilience. We must give up our never-ending dreams of grit. As Angela, Jacob, and Eamon note in their work, we have to accept the possibility of failure. Services may (will) be cut. Libraries may (will) close. It’s tragic. But it’s happening anyway, even with our grit. We can’t continue to try to make do with nothing. Our resilience is doing us no favors. It isn’t the life raft sent to save us; it’s just extra weight dragging us down.

Let’s give up resilience and grit and follow in the steps of Christina Bell, that beautiful creature:

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Screenshot of tweet by @librarybell

Reflections: Untold Histories Unconference 2016

Hello, everyone! I’m baaaaack! I’ve had a really great month off and am ready to jump back into the swing of things with you all.

Next week is the 2017 Untold Histories Unconference at Rutgers University-Newark, a public history gathering of historians, archivists, librarians, community members, and more. I attended the unconference last year and had a really great time. This year I was honored to be asked to serve on their planning committee. The event is scheduled for Thursday, May 11 from 9am to 4pm and registration is still open.

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Banner image from untoldhistories.wordpress.com

At last year’s unconference, I proposed a session on walking the fine line between providing access to a community’s materials and exploiting that community for their material. It was a hugely popular session; the room was packed and we didn’t really get to finish the conversation. With this in mind, I’ve proposed the session again for this year in the hopes of keeping the conversation going.

Here are my notes and reflections from last year’s session. If you’re in the New York/New Jersey area, I hope you join us on May 11!


Break out session on fine line between providing access to a community’s material and exploiting that community. How do we help document these stories without exploiting them, especially stories that are not our own? Much of this conversation spilled over into the following session on archives for Black Lives. We essentially were teasing out the ways to tell stories without changing them.

A lot of great discussion about transparency of intention, open collaboration. Being open and honest about your motivations as researcher/archivist as you enter a community. Learn the language, be ready to codeswitch. Allow members of the community to tell their stories in their way.

Feminist methodology comes into play here with emphasis on transparency and collaboration. Allowing flexibility in entering community and working with them. Letting community share in power and authority over project. It takes time to build trust in a community. Your timeline and priorities may not work. Remember it’s not about the project but the people.

The focus on power is key: both the power you bring to the community in the form of your project as well as the power dynamics that exist within the community. Remember this can take a ton of time. Flexibility is especially salient when having to navigate the local hierarchies, power dynamics, and internal systems of oppression.

Also cast critical eye to the role you are playing in the project, the effect you have on the community. Examine the assumptions you enter with, the ways in which you become part of the work. You aren’t an objective, distant gaze. You are a part of the telling of the story.

Finally, remember to approach work with an intersectional view. People possess multiple interconnected the titles and they will interact with different communities in different ways.

We had such a rich discussion. I particularly loved the connections made because they resonated not just on a professional level but also on a personal level. A couple of the public historians in the room talked about research they’ve done and are doing with Black Seminoles in Florida and the Gullah and Geechee people of the Carolinas, groups which make up the bulk of my ancestry. Hearing about their work and being able to see my people’s stories in it was incredibly moving.

Ultimately, in engaging in this conversation we reached an important realization: These aren’t really “untold histories”; they’re just unheard histories. The histories are being told even if we don’t hear them in the mainstream.