As the nation grapples with a resurgence of hateful rhetoric and white supremacist violence, public libraries are finding themselves, naturally, at the center of critical community conversations around inclusion, tolerance, and safety. It's timely that the PLA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force began our work in earnest this summer at ALA Annual in Chicago.
Task Force members participated in a day-long workshop facilitated Mia Henry, director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo (Mich.) College. This day provided us the opportunity to get to know each other better and begin to develop a shared language and framework around the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in public libraries.
We collectively agreed on some core assumptions about why we gather to do this work:
- Oppression exists. (Oppression is prejudice towards a particular group plus the power to unjustly distribute resources through the control of institutions, cultural attitudes, economy, and political systems.)
- The goal is collective liberation. (For all of us to become more free.)
- We do this work through compassion and accountability. (We have to both care about and feel responsible for each other.)
- We all have work to do.
Over the course of our lives, each of us has the potential to experience oppression, to act as oppressor, or act as liberator. It’s important to acknowledge this language can be challenging for those of us who don’t want to think of ourselves as either oppressed or oppressor. If it helps, we can imagine the condition of children – a condition we’ve all experienced first-hand. Young people do not have power in society, and as adults we tend think of that as just. But we can all remember feeling differently. We also don’t have to put a moral judgement on these three roles – we can consider them simply a fact of life in society so far.
Task Force members explored our individual experiences of identity using an exercise called the power flower. Each of us filled out our own power flower, identifying many aspects of our own identities in a number of categories (e.g., race, gender, class, geography). We discussed the implications of being able to choose certain aspects of our identity and not others, as well exploring why we may think about certain aspects of our identity more than others. We recognized that the aspects of our identity which we think about the most tend to be tied to our sense of human value.
This exercise illuminated identity categories that are often invisible to each of us as we go about our daily lives and may be especially important to keep in mind as we strive to create more inclusive libraries. We talked about moving away from the discussion of privilege, which often seems to derail discussions about equity, and focusing instead on the idea of solidarity across our many human differences. We encourage you to fill out your own power flower and consider the aspects of your identity you think about the most and the least in your day-to-day life. Does thinking through these categories affect your perspective of yourself, patrons, or co-workers?
In the wake of events in that have taken place in Charlottesville, Va., we are all asking ourselves what we can do that is meaningful in this moment. Our plan for the Task Force is to provide some tools and resources as we navigate these issues within our profession and with our communities.
We’d love to hear from public librarians, administrators, and library staff. How are your libraries addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion? How does your library staff talk about identity and experiences of oppression?