Spectrum Scholarship Program: a Long Time Coming

By Elizabeth Martinez, ALA Executive Director 1994-1997

Elizabeth Martinez

The Background

Nine months of my three-year contract as Executive Director of the American Library Association (ALA) remained. My accomplishments to that date included creating and adopting ALA Goal 2000, an agenda of ALA’s priorities to prepare for the 21st Century; establishing the Office of Information Technology Policy (name later changed) as an arm for research on innovation and technology; and passing a membership dues increase to fund a new modern ALA Washington Office with technology and intellectual property experts. I was waiting to hear if Bill Gates would fund my proposal for public access to computers in public libraries for the 21st Century. These were all professional advances of which I was proud, but I felt there were serious issues pending.

One of my personal concerns was how to increase the number of librarians of color in the profession. For over 20 years, it had been claimed that diversity was a priority of ALA, yet no major program addressed this responsibility. I had hoped that adding diversity as one of the principles of ALA Goal 2000 would ignite conversation and bring forth solutions, but that did not happen.

Other professions, such as medicine, nursing, and teaching were already making visible strides in increasing the number of non-white professionals. These professions emphasized the potential for better service, including improving communications with diverse communities. They had progressed from talking about the problem to funding recruitment.

What about librarians? Bilingual lists of phrases and words to communicate with English language learners had been designed by various ALA Division groups, and it was suggested that smiling and sign gestures could help welcome and serve non-English speaking patrons. While these tools made an impact, they did not address the core issue - the lack of culturally competent and diverse librarians of color. 

My colleagues and I were tired of attending meetings and hearing that diversity was needed but that “we don’t have the money” or “it’s not the right time” or “we need more information.”  It was my belief that this was the time for an initiative to address these inequities. The time for a concrete plan to increase diversity in the library profession was now. There was no guarantee that it would ever happen, and chances were also slim that these issues would become prioritized while I was Executive Director. We had to try.

I had scrutinized ALA’s budgets, and learned that there was money, resources, and I hoped ganas (desire). With the knowledge that ALA’s financial portfolio included $25 million in unallocated funds, I decided to propose a diversity initiative to recruit librarians of color. Indications were that most of the Executive Board would be supportive of such a recruitment plan. In prior discussion of these matters, Betty Turock, Betty Blackman, and Cesar Caballero, in particular, had already echoed their agreement that concrete action was needed.

Could I propose 5% of the unallocated funds? How far would $1.5 million go toward recruiting librarians of color? What would the financial stewards say? Would they agree? Would they be against using more than the interest on ALA’s financial portfolio?

What kind of a program did we need? What would be the reaction of the Executive Board when I proposed it at their fall meeting in 1996? What questions would they ask, and would we get drowned in them?

Wanting a national scholarship program for librarians of color, one that targeted American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Black American, and Chicano/Latino students, I struggled with these questions. In order for it to make a difference, student financial support was needed for at least 5 years, and a substantial number of scholarships should be given each year to make a difference.

The Meeting

For confirmation on the path I wanted to take and to get substantial buy-in from the four targeted groups, in 1996 I hosted a meeting with six librarians of color in Pasadena, California, in City Librarian Luis Herrera's office. Our honest dialogue reaffirmed the direction I was taking. The group included six librarians of color which eliminated time spent justifying the need for an initiative.  As long-time activists for diversity, we all knew about the problem more intimately than most people in the profession. Most importantly, this was a group of trusted friends ready to make professional history together. We were from California, then the most increasingly diverse state in the nation, and we had participated in a “State of Change” conference in the mid 1980s that forecast a majority-minority state by the year 2000.

With me at the Pasadena meeting were Cheryl Metoyer (Cherokee), Janice Koyama (Asian, Japanese), Binnie Tate Wilkin (Black American), Jose Aponte (Latino, Puerto Rican), and Luis Herrera (Latino, Mexican American). Grant writer Patricia Tarin was there, hired by me to write the proposal which I would present as Executive Director to the Executive Board. Patricia originated the name Spectrum Initiative.

The discussion was lively and friendly, and we were all excited to contribute ideas to a plan for recruiting librarians of color. Since we weren’t developing a needs statement or citing research data, the meeting went quickly. Our energy was placed on designing the program – talking about how much money each scholarship should provide, how many scholarships should be given out each year, and how best to win the endorsement of our constituents. Finally, we settled on proposing fifty $5,000 scholarships per year for five years totaling about a $1.5 million investment.

Our thinking was that, if approved, developing the structure and management of the program would follow. ALA committees were good at implementing ideas, and Patricia Tarin was talented at developing need statements, framework, and evaluation. Her suggestions would be added to the proposal.  We felt inspired by our work, and confident that the time had come to “walk the talk".

But, we did wonder about the money and the impact. Was it too much to ask for a program though the need was acute? What impact would the program have in five years? How would it be sustained? What would the program look like when implemented? What could be accomplished with $1.5 million that would make a difference?  How would the program be administered, and could we hire a librarian of color for the job?  Would the Executive Board and the Council agree to the urgency of the initiative with a majority vote of Yes?

In spite of these questions, lunch after the meeting reflected relaxed comaraderie. Cheryl remembers Jose laughing, and bursting into a familiar song. We knew that Patricia had challenging work ahead, but she was exceptionally capable, and perfect for the task.

The Approval Process

When knowledge of the initiative began to spread, benign opposition began to take root because “everyone really wants a program like this.”

The financial stewards balked at the request for $1.5 million. Along the corridors and hallways could be heard conversations with such phrases as “it’s just not the right time” or “that money is for a rainy day.”  When I asked a financial advisor what constituted a rainy day, there was no answer.  Most of the stewards were against releasing more than the interest from the unallocated funds stating “the principle can never be touched.” Everywhere the phrase "fiduciary responsibility" was heard, as if the plan wasn’t a responsible one. We understood that we had a responsibility to protect ALA’s funds, but this plan’s time had come. More money than mere interest was needed for the Spectrum Initiative.

A courageous Executive Board listened carefully to the proposal, and then enthusiastically approved the Spectrum Initiative. Past-President Betty Turock led the vote, and she became Spectrum’s champion. Betty Blackman and Cesar Caballero hailed the plan, and guarded cheers erupted, yet everyone seemed to sense a fight coming for Council approval, especially since the financial advisors were against the plan.

At the January 1997 meeting of Council, there was tension, and heated discussion arose with personal attacks directed at me. While walking along conference halls prior to the meeting, an Arizona library columnist was encountered handing out flyers citing my salary, quoting what staff said about me, and giving reasons why I should be terminated.  It was Jose Aponte who came to my rescue, facing the man with clenched fists before leading me away. Later during Council debate, I left the stage for my room, having a panic attack and wondering how a beautiful initiative designed to benefit the profession’s future could bring on so much animosity.

There would be a close vote with clear sides, and loud voices on both. “We’ve been talking about this for years!” and “Walk the talk” could be heard along with “irresponsible use of funds,” and “it’s too much too soon.” Council members cited the lack of details on implementation, and demanded clarification before voting. In my opinion, it was Past-President Betty Turock’s speech that settled the issue after hours of debate. She shamed her colleagues and friends into approval, reminding them of their hypocritical statements. Because of long-standing respect for her, and her history at the organization’s governance level, she was likely the only one who could have forced them to agree.

The Spectrum Initiative was approved on a very close vote. Past-President Betty Turock and her friends had made it happen. We rejoiced, and celebrated a victory, finally. But there were hard feelings left that would have dire repercussions for me.

Once the initiative was approved, ALA appointed a special committee to oversee the implementation of the initiative, and to develop procedures, structure, timelines, and evaluation.  Going forward, ALA Past-President Betty Turock guided its development, and, I believe, became Spectrum’s formidable godmother. Jose Aponte later began work on the Spectrum Leadership Institutes designed to bring scholars together for training and inspiration. Lillian Lewis was engaged as the first staff liaison for the program, and a year later Sandra Rios Balderrama was hired as Director of ALA’s first Diversity Office which became the home of the Spectrum Initiative.

Personal Ramifications

Approval of the Spectrum Initiative, most likely, cost me my job as ALA Executive Director. Others probably can think of many other reasons I was terminated. But knowing the association’s politics at the time, I believe this to be true. With my record of accomplishments, and Spectrum Scholars now becoming a vital aspect of ALA’s future profile, I fully expected renewal of my contract for another three years. Instead, four hours after Bill Gates appeared on a big screen on stage at the San Francisco 1997 annual conference announcing that he was giving $200 million to ALA, coupled with a two-sentence outstanding evaluation by the new ALA President and an Executive Board member, I was told that my contract would not be renewed. The Gates Foundation appropriation was in answer to my proposal for public access computers in public libraries as they entered the 21st Century. Except to a few very close friends, writing this article for Spectrum's 20th Anniversary is the first time my frustration and disappointment has been revealed.

20 Years Later

Over time, Spectrum grew in importance, thrived, partnerships were formed, and contributors found. ALA members embraced it, and gave of their time on Spectrum Institutes, and gathered supporters. To date, more than 1,100 Spectrum librarians are working as public librarians, school librarians, academic librarians, special librarians, archivists, preservationists, and government agency specialists. 

From afar, I’ve watched Spectrum become a brand, and I’ve seen business cards proudly indicating "Spectrum Scholar." Many, but not enough, library degree programs match the scholarships for their students, and ALA Divisions sponsor some of Spectrum's awards.  Numerous ALA members have contributed money in their names.

Two decades later, I see the Spectrum Scholarship Program as one of ALA's most visible and popular initatives. It’s an initiative whose time had come that fall day in Pasadena, California in 1996.

What’s Next?

Some of the original group of six from Pasadena will reunite at ALA New Orleans with a group of Spectrum Scholars, and possibilities for the next 20 years will be imagined.  Can we forecast the future of our profession?  My prediction is that Spectrum librarians are among the most prepared future leaders.  We’re in their good hands.

As part of Spectrum's 20th Anniversary, we are sharing reflections on our history. Community members with historical information about the Spectrum Initiative and Scholars interested in sharing reflective pieces in honor of the Anniversary are invited to contact us at spectrum@ala.org.