Taking Equity into Account: Our Experience with Project Ready


By: Kate Aubin, Teen Educator, Providence Public Library; Anne Kilkenny, Early Childhood Services Coordinator, Providence Public Library; Bonnie Lilienthal, Senior Children's Librarian, Providence Public Library; Mireille Sturmann, Teen Librarian, Providence Public Library

For the past 14 months, Providence Public Library’s (PPL) Children’s and Teen departments, consisting of two librarians and two formal educators, have been following the Project Ready: Reimagining Equity and Access for Diverse Youth curriculum. The Project Ready curriculum is extensive, with more than 27 modules, and covers a wide breadth of topics from foundational knowledge about racism, structural inequities, and cultural competency and humility, to facilitating student voice and agency, building relationships within the community, and transforming library spaces and policies.

We decided to use a book club style format, reading the material individually, working through 2-3 modules at a time, and then getting together once a month for an hour to discuss our personal and professional reactions to the content and how we might incorporate/implement our learning into our library work.

We began in October 2019, and in December 2020 we finished the last of the modules and held our final meeting to debrief on the whole experience (though we’ve decided to keep meeting monthly as a group). We all agreed that we learned a lot and that the experience wouldn’t have been as powerful if we were all working through this individually.

By having an open, relaxed format, we were able to build trust as a group and create a safe and comfortable environment sharing personal experiences and feelings with each other. We also felt that the size of the group—fewer than half a dozen people—allowed for everyone to get a chance to talk/share and gave us the time to get to know each other better.

Our experience with Project Ready has changed the way we think about the work we do and has helped broaden our perspectives (though we vary in age and sexual identity, we are all white, able-bodied, English-speaking females). PPL is a 145-year-old nonprofit, free public library located in Providence, Rhode Island, the capital and largest city in the state, with nearly 180,000 residents. Providence is a diverse community, with around 43% of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino (Census terms), 33% identifying as white (not Hispanic or Latino), 16.8% identifying as Black or African American, and 6% identifying as Asian. This diversity is reflected in the patrons we serve in our programs in the Teen and Children’s departments, but clearly not reflected in the staff who deliver those programs. Part of the reason we decided to pursue Project Ready was to learn to better engage with and serve the community.

White library worker speaking with two Black teen girls

During our final meeting, one group member said she now looks at possible barriers that might prevent someone from participating in a library program, whether it be cost, technology access, transportation issues, language, etc. Another group member reflected on an experience from the summer when she inadvertently made an offensive comment to a teen of color. She noted that before doing Project Ready she would have known it was wrong, but probably wouldn’t have known how to handle the situation. Because of what we learned throughout the curriculum, she instantly reflected on what she had said, why she said it, the possible impact it would have on the teens, and then was able to appropriately respond and apologize.

As a group, we’ve been able to apply what we’ve learned, not only to our programming and interactions with youth, but also to our spaces and policies. We’ve recently begun using Project Ready’s Culturally Sustaining Library Walk Framework tool to examine and rewrite the Teen Loft and Children’s Room policies. Even with the training we’ve had, there’s still much more to learn and there is a need for input from the community.

Earlier this month we shared our rewritten policies with a local organization that teaches teens about social justice issues and advocacy. The teens in their program gave some very thoughtful feedback on our policies, pushing back on the concept of policies, in general, who they’re really written for, and who they leave out.

Our group has also taken part in a staff-led Learning Circle on The New York Times 1619 Project; the group has attended trainings from organizations like the Racial Equity Institute, read numerous books and articles, and participated in webinars. But we know this work is ongoing and that we still have a lot more learning and listening to do.

We hope that more library administrators will support this type of professional development in libraries and that library frontline staff will have the opportunity to engage in important conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion together.