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.

A Cure for the Common Whiteness: Diversity Recruitment

I want to talk about diversity recruitment.


“The Empire Wants You!!!” by leg0fenris via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’m on all kinds of listservs for librarians and academics of color and I’m frequently on Twitter and the like; and I’m constantly getting messages like these:

Our [organization/program/conference/group] needs more diversity! We are serious about diversity! We are recruiting diverse applicants! Please apply if you are diverse! Yes, that means you, [person of color, queer person, transgender person, poor person, immigrant, disabled person]!

I’m really getting tired of these messages.

I’m tired of them because they are lazy. They are a passive response to what is a very active, systemic, and institutional problem—capitalist, cis-heternormative, white patriarchy.

I’m tired of them because they are burden-shifting. I see these messages go out; and then several months later when no “diverse applicants” successfully apply—inevitably happens with such slapdash recruiting efforts such as these—I see the recruiting leaders bemoan how “difficult it is to get diverse people” because they “tried really hard and everything and no one was interested.” These lazy messages allow those responsible for recruiting to shift that responsibility to the marginalized communities they are supposedly trying to reach.

Finally, I’m tired of them because they are not solutions to the problem of lack of diversity. They are panaceas. They are Spongebob bandaids on gaping, festering, gangrenous wounds of oppression and bias.

So what should these recruiting efforts look like?

First off: Before anything else, you need to be ready to address both diversity and inclusion. You need to aim for recruitment while maintaining an eye on retention. Diversity gets folks from different backgrounds into the organization (recruitment); inclusion creates an environment in which they can remain and thrive (retention). Both are equally important upfront.

If your organization/program/conference/group struggles with homogeneity, then one of the very first questions you should be asking is “Why?” What is it about your organization/program/conference/group that is keeping people from diverse backgrounds away? When people from underrepresented groups show up, why don’t they stay? What is going on in your organizational culture that is not conducive to a person from a marginalized community?

Think of your lack of diversity as a cough (I’m really feeling the medical analogies today; go with it). There are many reasons why you may have that cough. And while you can down bottle after bottle of cough syrup to suppress it for a time (like sending out those lazy messages), in the end, your cough will still be there. And it will likely get worse because you’ll have grown inured to the cough medicine; meanwhile, the underlying cause of the cough will still be there, getting progressively more problematic. You need to find out if you’ve got emphysema or bronchitis or an inhaled piece of broccoli, so you can figure out how to get rid of the cough for good.

Likewise, you need to figure out what kind of barriers to entry and success exist in your organization and organizational culture, in order to meaningfully address your lack of diversity.

Second: Once you’ve uncovered the roots of the problem (and there will be many), you need to begin taking steps to fix them. This is going to take a lot of candid, brutally honest discussions. You’ll have to confront a lot of individual and organizational biases. So be ready. It will also take a lot of time. While you don’t need to have things fixed before recruiting, you should at least have started addressing your organizational issues.

Third: Now you can start sending out messages, but those messages should make clear that diversity is important to the organization/program/conference/group without being tokenizing or causing unwarranted and unwanted visibility. (Hey, you’re gay/latinx/disabled/etc! And you do the stuff they want! You should apply to that thing!) This can be a fine line but it can be done tactfully and respectfully.

Our [organization/program/conference/group] is recruiting. Also, we are very serious about diversity and inclusion* and welcome applicants from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Our goal is to maintain a non-oppressive work environment where diverse perspectives are accepted and valued.

Finally: You need to accompany those messages with proactive, off-the-beaten-path outreach. If you want diverse applicants, you HAVE to go outside the pipeline. Think of folks from underrepresented groups who may be in your professional networks. Reach out to them and ask if they know of specific people who may be interested in your organization or program.

Note: If you can’t think of any folks like this in your networks, then go back to the first step above and do that same work on an individual rather than organizational basis: Why don’t you have diverse folks in your networks? How are you further marginalizing already marginalized people in your professional life? What biases are at work in your professional networking?

Once you have a list of specific people to approach, approach them, but make sure you do so professionally and fairly. Don’t expect them to jump at the opportunity to join your organization just because you “need” them for diversity. Their work should be fairly and adequately valued just like anyone else’s, while still acknowledging that some accommodations, not otherwise thought of in a oppressive normative environment, may be called for.

If they refuse, ask them if they’d be willing to provide you with feedback. (But don’t assume they want or are able to do so!) Take note of their critique, don’t defend or justify, make the necessary changes.

You’ll also want to ask them if they’d be willing to share the names of other potential applicants or to spread the word about your recruitment effort.

You may find that you need to run through this process several times before successfully recruiting people from different backgrounds to your organization. That’s okay. It is an iterative process.

You may have also noticed this process is labor-intensive and time- and resource-consuming. It is not easy. And it shouldn’t be. Oppression didn’t arise overnight; correcting for oppression likewise takes time. But if you’re really serious about brining diversity into your organization/program/conference/group, then you will do what it takes.