Candidate Q&A: Interviews with candidates for ALA President 2021-2022

The Spectrum Advisory Committee compiled topics from the Spectrum community and created three questions to pose to the candidates for the 2021-2022 ALA Presidency, Patty Wong and Steven Yates. Each candidate's responses are included below. The 2020 ALA Elections open March 9, 2020 and close on April 1, 2020. Be sure to also check out our 2020 Spectrum Elections Guide highlighting Spectrum Scholars standing for election across our organization.

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1) What is your understanding of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion (EDI) initiatives and how have you implemented them in your library?

Patty Wong: The concepts of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion have been a part of my entire life experience. As a third generation Chinese American, growing up in the 60s in San Francisco, we enjoyed diversity but also experienced discrimination. We learned that equality meant living in a home surrounded by caring neighbors, but a lack of equity meant that we couldn’t live in the exclusive community just a mile away. I was often the only one in the classroom, the only one at storytime, the only one in the library who looked like me. I didn’t have a teacher who wasn’t Caucasian until high school, and it wasn’t until college that I found a mecca of Asian Americans involved in education at UC Berkeley. I became involved in Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminism, Gay Rights, the rights of people experiencing disabilities. I spent a great deal of time supporting homeless youth in the City. And I was fortunate to have mentors throughout my life who shared the difference between Equity and Equality, the beauty of Diversity and the need for Inclusion as an absolute.

To build a stronger world that is people centered and community based, equity, diversity and inclusion goals and values are pillars for the foundation of the work we create through libraries. I believe that libraries as institutions can leverage this work to create community change.

There are several organizational changes that I have made everywhere I have worked. Today, the language I might use, is to develop an equity agenda, to identify policy and procedures that are barriers to access and to adjust or eliminate them to create equity. Equity work is strong team work – even though sometimes we are alone when faced with prejudice, collective impact is so much more effective so bringing others with you is key to success.

  • Human Resources: With HR as a partner, I work with a team of staff to learn and lean in from a position of strengths and assets. We develop a recruitment and selection strategy that reflects an equity commitment: recruit for positions in most diverse local, regional and statewide arenas including active advertisement with the ethnic professional library associations; compose diverse panel members; revise interview questions to highlight candidate’s support for EDI efforts; share the questions with each candidate; change the language, removing bias driven MQs in job descriptions and create new positions that focus on equity as a value and promote services to underserved and diverse populations (e.g outreach librarian, multicultural experience required, bilingual experience required or highly desirable); coach and mentor other sister departments to create equity HR plans; provide diversity training as mandatory for all staff – share training resources and support for education in bias, microaggressions, youth development and other key areas; develop informal and formal mentoring programs for staff at all levels; embed EDI language and focus in system/city leadership academies; review performance appraisal process to safeguard against implicit bias; engage HR department as partner in maintaining and sustaining changes; developing reorganization based on equity and inclusion efforts. In two of my work communities we introduced the concepts of Strengthsfinder 2.0 so we could move to using language based on assets and strengths rather than deficits which I believe is critical to positive change.
  • Organizational Change: As an active leader in local Government Alliance on Race and Equity efforts in my city we continue work on a race and equity action plan. Santa Monica is a city of Wellbeing and Sustainability. Through our Office of Civic Wellbeing and two tools, the Wellbeing Index and the Youth Wellbeing Report Card, we monitor how residents are doing in Santa Monica from an equity perspective and determine policy and process priorities for stronger outcomes. I also jumpstarted change in policy for city wide training to include an equity lens in all staff development and a survey reflective of those needs. We developed an Equity Think Tank at the Library that creates opportunities for staff training on EDI and a safe place to discuss and address inequities. My work with all of ethnic professional library associations has led to successful recruitment and retention efforts. I worked with our team to eliminate fines for children and we are working towards elimination of fines for all customers. In one city, I organized a community conversation between our local police and dozens of youth of color who were being targeted for curfew violations. The discussions took place in patrol cars on the top of our local newspaper building. The result was a stronger understanding of youth development amongst the officers and a reduction in youth arrests for the better part of a year. In that same city, the Library created youth commissioners on the Library Commission and a citywide Youth Summit. In another city, the Library trained dozens of youth to educate thousands of city staff in youth development. The opportunity led to a community-based youth leadership academy. I am very proud that the current Mayor of Stockton, Michael Tubbs was one of those graduates.
  • Legislation: I took a lead in creating a case for change in charter language regarding Library Board participation. The charter read that nominated individuals needed to be a “qualified elector” – which means “citizen” – to participate. The language excluded community members who were not citizens from this basic area of engagement and civic participation. A change in charter language requires a vote of the people and the library led the process to develop substitute language – “resident” to ensure equity in library board composition. Our revision also impacted the Personnel Board and the Airport Commission. The change passed with close to 87% of the vote – the highest voter count for any initiative.
  • Statewide: For more than twenty years I have worked in the area of diversity in the workplace, as a speaker in many work environments, conferences and for the Spectrum Institute. With colleagues Camila Alire, Luis Herrera and Chantel Walker, we developed a training- the Color of Leadership – to develop library leaders for JCLC and the California Library Association. I have authored and co-authored writings on EDI in the workplace and in LIS training. Most recently, I am currently implementing a statewide grant in CA funded by the California State Library: CREI – California Libraries Cultivating Race, Equity and Inclusion focused on training for cohorts of 3-5 library staff from more than 20 systems to develop and implement equity action plans in their home libraries, reviewing staffing an internal and external policies and procedures. All of these efforts contribute to the organizational readiness and commitment of maintaining an ethnically diverse work environment.

Steven Yates: Building and honing skills related to cultural competency and equity, diversity, and inclusion are an important part of my professional goals. As a library educator at the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies, I led the initiative to require cultural competency training for all faculty and students. This training has sparked multiple conversations centered on departmental strategies for creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment. For students, this has provided a strong platform to support continuous building of their cultural competency skillset throughout their educational journeys. I intentionally seek underrepresented voices across our field when working to develop course readings and when inviting guest speakers. When working in school and public libraries earlier in my career, I sought out authors from underrepresented groups and made an explicit effort to develop large print fiction and nonfiction collection items. This work is never done. I remain thankful to work in an environment that challenges me to continue to reflect and grow in these areas. As ALA president, I would challenge the Committee on Accreditation to weave EDI skills development throughout our accreditation standards for master’s programs.

2) Why does diversity among staff matter and what does that representation support?

Patty Wong: Diversity among staff brings a variety of life experiences that enriches the learning, conversation, and engagement of all, community and employees and volunteers, at every level. When a community member, a child, a student, a customer sees themselves reflected within the staff, there often is a sense of trust in that organization. Diversity is an indicator of a commitment to equity in the workplace and the value of diversity as a strength in organizational culture. Libraries are welcoming institutions. What better way to demonstrate an investment in the community one serves than to be inclusive in recruitment, selection, and staff development? A diverse staff brings different ideas, lived experience, culturally resonant perspectives and a multitude of knowledge, talents and skills that support the institution’s health and wellbeing. A diverse staff is an indicator of strong organization.

Steven Yates: The library workforce must reflect the communities we serve. This impacts the success of our user services, collection development, and the ongoing obligation to our communities to remain the cornerstone of equity, access, and intellectual freedom. The role libraries play in society centers on the ability to sustain relationships across our communities. When libraries and other community service providers act intentionally to foster diversity in our workforce, our collections and our service models, those institutions are able to foster equity and access as a right for all rather than a privilege for a few.

3) Understanding that many from underrepresented groups are discontinuing ALA membership due to racist incidents experienced at ALA events and meetings, what is your response and what are your ideas for repairing these relationships?

Patty Wong: I am the proud recipient of the ALA Equality Award in 2012. I consider my investment in ALA for the past 35 years as one of the best ones I have made. I am also a member of the American Indian Library Association, and a life member of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, the Black Caucus of ALA, the Chinese American Librarians Association and REFORMA. I am also a long-time member of the Rainbow Round Table, the Social Responsibilities Round Table, and the Ethnic Materials Information Exchange Round Table. I have been active as an advocate for each of these extraordinary communities. In fact these were my first homes before I really became active in other parts of ALA. There is a reason why these diverse library organizations were formed and it is because their members did not feel at home within ALA. BCALA will celebrate its 50th Anniversary this year so it’s been a long time. But things are changing. ALA currently has one of most diverse Executive Boards in its history. We have approved EDI work as part of ALA priorities and indeed, as core to what we value. My own career within ALA has been one of advancing EDI for the past three decades. I have been a member of the Spectrum community through participation in the Advisory bodies and as a juror and speaker. I am so pleased that JCLC, Inc. and ALA are affiliated and discussing ways to contribute to ALA learning beyond the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. And I am very proud that AILA, APALA, CALA and REFORMA have all openly endorsed my candidacy as ALA President.

First of all, I think we need to acknowledge that as members, as human beings, we have bias, we make assumptions, and we bring those with us to work and to our professional environment. Decisions based on that bias that result in actions or deeds that are based in intolerance or racism cannot be allowed to permeate ALA as an institution. Our new Executive Director, Tracie Hall has the commitment, energy and strategy to address these needs and as President I would work as her partner in transparently mobilizing the organization towards a culture based in equity. I would bring my strengths in relationship building through my network to bridge communication and trust. That can only take place through a basis of transparency and open dialogue.

In other words, the EDI priorities in our work and how we approach that work needs to become part of ALA DNA. And I believe that transformation will come about from a multifaceted approach in addressing the recommendations from the EDI report but also changing the culture at our basic organizational levels. We need to demonstrate that it’s not just talk.

That begins with supporting our goals externally and internally within our operations. We also need to address incidents as they occur with sensitivity, civility and cultural understanding that comes from a place of compassion, active listening and openness. And we need to set common expectations for behavior.

Part of the work is to activate ALA to create and cultivate change internally and to strengthen the good work already being done. One way is deepening the bench for more diversity within leadership amongst ALA staff and within our volunteer community. Organizational readiness is key and so we need a set of systems in place to strategically work on the root causes of inequity.

We are ALA and ALA is us. We are the oldest and largest library profession in the world, and we are changing – we should be changing to reflect our commitment to becoming the equitable, diverse, and inclusive organization we value. I would ask my colleagues that are questioning whether the investment at ALA is worthwhile to make a commitment to collective impact, to stand with us, with me, to come back! We need your voice. I need you. We can make the change a reality, but we can only do this if we work together.

Steven Yates: Conference codes of conduct only work if they are thoughtfully engaged on a regular basis. An association and membership-wide commitment to building EDI capacity throughout ALA members and staff is essential to creating an inclusive environment. The “C” of my ACTT platform for ALA president is cultural competency. I believe that we have to demonstrate an active, association-wide commitment to better understanding what cultural competency can be for all of our stakeholders. These are tough discussions for many members, but the work is overdue to decenter whiteness and other privilege to ensure a space where our profession can come together. If our association is serious about equity and access in our communities, we must expect it from our professional association with the recognition that there is work to do and we are all responsible for doing it. I want ALA to serve as a resource for cultural competency and racial equity. We have made progress in this area on the shoulders of the few, but it is up to all of us to better demonstrate a profession-wide commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion to show that our words and actions align in our workplaces and at our conferences so that members of underrepresented groups see that ALA is more than idle words—it is a committed group of workers who respect one another. Once we can show that, our actions should be our recruitment tool for those who have, for good reason, temporarily lost faith in our professional association. It is OUR association and it is up to us all to do this important work.