This interview was conducted via email with Sofia Leung and Jorge López-McKnight, co-editors of the recently published Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory, an anthology of essays focused on challenging the foundational principles, values, and assumptions of library and information sciences (LIS) in the United States. Sofia and Jorge opened up the conversation to include several authors who contributed to this anthology: April M. Hathcock, Dr. Antonia (Toni) Olivas, and Lalitha (Lali) Nataraj.
Mimosa Shah (MS): What does knowledge justice mean to you in relation to library and information science?
April: For me, knowledge justice really centers on that second key word: JUSTICE. It’s about more than “making space” for other voices and perspectives. It’s about us (BIPOC thinkers and knowers) taking space in the worlds we inhabit and making our knowledges, our views, our perspectives heard and celebrated. Knowledge justice necessarily involves knowledge reparations: there must be a reckoning of what has been taken and erased before there can be any talk of reconciliation. Epistemic justice—knowledge justice—stands at the very root of any meaningful decolonial, anti-racist, anti-oppression practice.
Toni: I take it to mean that knowledge is power, and power can help bring justice. Our communities have so much knowledge, and we have the potential to change systems with what we bring to the table.
Lali: Knowledge justice means the recognition and respect of epistemologies and ways of knowing that have been historically undermined, hidden, or completely erased. In addition to being a reckoning, it is also a visible celebration of cultural assets that validates those of us who have always existed in or have been relegated to the margins. It’s our time, now.
MS: How did you move from the genesis of your idea to the writing?
Toni: I give all the credit to my co-authors Torie and Lali. While Lali originally brought the concept of relational cultural theory (RCT) to our attention, Torie guided us in the writing process by helping us to connect RCT, validation theory, and motivation to lead theory under the critical race theory (CRT) umbrella.
Lali: Our ideas evolved from frank conversations related to retention and support of BIPOC colleagues within our institution. All three of us were at very different stages of our careers and talked about building a community to feel supported throughout the retention, tenure, and promotion processes. Our frequent meditations on this idea of community got us thinking that we should write all of this stuff down for posterity and to help others. Since we started writing, our trio has become a community of six!
MS: What communities do you turn to for supporting your creativity?
Toni: I turn to my colleagues all over the country, especially fellow BIPOC colleagues. I am so inspired by the work they do and learn so much from what they produce and what they do.
Lali: In addition to the community I have at CSUSM, I turn to colleagues in We Here, as well as a Relational-Cultural Theory community of practice that includes Veronica Arellano Douglas, Anastasia Chiu, Joanna Gadsby, and Alana Kumbier. I have been writing/researching with the latter for almost three years, and the process has been illuminating and restorative on a personal and professional level.
Jorge: What a lovely question! My family, including ancestors, comes to mind. And loved ones outside of the profession, whose imaginaries are expressed through various shapes and forms. nicholae cline (a Knowledge Justice contributor) deserves specific mention as they have lovingly nourished and encouraged creativity in our decade-plus relationship.
Sofia: I am lucky enough to have a number of friend-colleague-collaborators, including many of the folx in this book, and they continue to challenge-support-love me in ways that I often don’t expect or know that I need.
MS: What steps did you take to find co-authors or co-conspirators? How did that help your editing process?
Toni: My co-authors/co-conspirators found me. I'm so grateful to Torie and Lali for allowing me to work on this project with them.
Lali: The writing with Torie and Toni evolved organically, but I have also found writing partners by sharing ideas on social media and at conferences and have been fortunate enough to connect with wonderful people.
The editing process can be complex when you write with others (regardless of how well you do/don’t know them). To maintain accountability, it’s always good to have frequent check-in meetings, which helps the editing go a lot more smoothly.
MS: What Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other person of color scholars inspire you? What aspects of their scholarship do you carry forward?
Toni: I have been devouring everything Ijeoma Oluo has written. Her work inspires me to take action on social justice and equity issues, especially in our communities. I hope the work that I produce can inspire folks to take on leadership roles (at any level) to help make much-needed changes in our libraries and educational systems.
April: Muz, my paternal grandmother. She was a preacher and a sustainable, local food grower and organizer, and she raised 9+ kids. She said, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you better listen twice and speak once.” She taught me the power of knowledge as an act of exchange that foregrounds listening. Big, a maternal great-grandmother. She was a church-builder and village-raiser. She said, “Bought sense is better than told.” She taught me the epistemic value of lived experience. What? That’s not what you meant by “BIPOC scholars”? Sure, it is. These women were some of the best scholars of my life. My knowledge justice means reclaiming their legacy of knowing and sharing knowledge.
Lali: Even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye, I continue to be inspired by my mother, particularly the ways in which she tried to raise my sister and me with an appreciation of our Indian heritage, while also providing the space for us to cultivate our Americanness. It wasn’t always easy for her and I recognize that today, now that I’m also a parent. I am also inspired by my sister, Nirmala, who is a consummate editrix and helps me cohesively organize and eloquently express my ideas. Other BIPOC scholars who inspire me include: Eve Tuck, Sara Ahmed, and Inderpal Grewal.
Jorge: Leigh Patel. Her analysis is so strong and incisive. And creative, with care, generosity, and all grounded by a love for justice. Perhaps not a scholar, but the Black American photographer Roy DeCarava’s work I try to honor and hold. His images have texture and layers, are still and thoughtful, and have a distinct atmosphere. Leigh Patel's work has that, too.
Sofia: Both the individual work and collaborative work of Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom always inspire me. They stay bringing the heat and it was what Roxane Gay said about institutions never valuing us, no matter what we do, that really helped me reckon with my own experiences in institutions and whether they were really places where I, personally, could thrive.
MS: For new or emerging library workers, how would you like to see the writing of Knowledge Justice taught or shared in classrooms and beyond?
April: I want to see these works used as theoretical bases upon which new and emerging library and archives workers can find empowerment to reclaim their own knowledge justice. I want folks to be able to read these pieces and then dive deep into what their own ancestor knowledges, current community knowledges, and speculative future descendant knowledges were, are, and can be. I want all of us to be able to bring that wealth of knowledges into our daily practices as information workers and as human beings. It’s a tall order. But this book is just meant as a starting point.
Lali: I hope that Knowledge Justice provides the foundation for new and emerging library workers and scholars to begin crafting their own research, telling their own stories such that we can dismantle existing LIS curricula and re-envision more inclusive ones.
Sofia: One of the reasons Jorge and I wanted to make this book a reality was because it’s the book we wanted when we were in library school. I hope that the work of our contributors becomes integral to the way that LIS is taught and starts the kind of change this book is pushing for.
April M. Hathcock is a queer Black Southern cis-woman of Mvskoke Seminole and Gullah/Geechee descent, a daughter, sister, aunt, friend, lawyer, and library worker. She is the Director of Scholarly Communications and Information Policy at New York University and a 2012 Spectrum Scholar.
Dr. Antonia Olivas has worked in libraries for over 20 years as both staff and faculty. She is currently the Engagement and Inclusion Librarian (full status) at Cal State San Marcos and is a Spectrum (2002) and Knowledge River (cohort 1) Scholar. Her research centers on the motivation to lead of underrepresented minority librarians, and she identifies as not only an educator but also a life-long learner.
Lalitha Nataraj (she/her) is a South Asian (Tamil/Telugu) immigrant (by way of the UK) and a lifelong resident of California, where she’s lived since the age of one-and-a-half. She is the Social Sciences Librarian at Cal State San Marcos and her research interests include feminist pedagogy, relational-cultural theory in LIS, and South Asian Americans in librarianship.
Jorge López-McKnight is a community college library worker in Austin, Texas. He’s worked in libraries since 2005.
Sofia Leung is a Chinese American, daughter of immigrants, who also happens to be a librarian, facilitator, and educator invested in BIPOC solidarity in libraries, archives, and other information spaces. More about her work can be found here.
Mimosa Shah (she/her) is a South Asian immigrant currently residing in the Chicago area. She is a 2020 Spectrum Scholar, and is currently pursuing an MS in LIS via the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.