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On Diversity Initiatives

IMG_2829Like a lot of introverts, I suffer from what I’ll call “social regret.” It’s a feeling of wishing I’d spoken up or volunteered coupled with an ability to only come up with a witty retort or thoughtful comment hours (sometimes days) after the social situation is over. It’s also usually accompanied by a solid dash of disappointment that I couldn’t quite get the thoughts in my brain to connect with the words coming out of my mouth. After Friday’s unconference at the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium I’ve been feeling some acute social regret that I hope to work out in writing.

The Context 

After David James Hudson’s stellar opening keynote I felt this strong sense of connection and validation. His discussion of the ways in which “diversity” as a concept and “diversity initiatives” as action born out of that concept are problematic was a thoughtful, intelligent expression that resonated with the deep feelings of discomfort I’ve long held as a participant in diversity programs and the target (woman, Latina) many institutions aim for as they “diversify.” In other words, David is brilliant and said what I don’t think I would have been able to come up with on my own: Changing the colors of faces in an institution doesn’t change the dominant power structures that created that institution. Inclusion does not necessarily equal agency or empowerment. This idea, combined with my Type-A tendency to want to problem solve, led me to propose an Unconference topic on alternatives to “diversity initiatives”–not the term but the actions and the spirit in which these actions are undertaken.

Come the day of the Unconference, and I’m kind of a mess. I’ve just listened to the closing keynote speaker talk about trauma studies and I’m feeling all kinds of ways about it (that’s a different, upcoming post). I’m tired, my brain is full, but I go to the session anyway, because I proposed it after all. Then I fail.

Miserably.

I choose not to moderate because suddenly I’m in a room with some frighteningly smart people and I’m intimidated. I’m unable to clearly articulate my thoughts. I can’t seem to nudge the discussion towards constructive solutions or suggestions. I’m hard on myself, I know, so this post is my attempt at self-care. After much thought and reflection…

Here’s What I Wish I’d Said

David James Hudson’s keynote, combined with a brilliant discussion on libraries and accessibility facilitated by Alana Kumbier and Julia Starkey helped me better understand why I bristle at “diversity initiatives”–the term and practice. Diversity feels like a checklist. It’s a way to make a room visibly browner without actually remodeling the room. A college library can start a Diversity Residency Program and wash their hands of diversity. Done! Check! Diversity initiatives put the onus on the people of color (women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, etc.) to do the work of “diversification”–whatever that might mean–within a structure that may not be supportive or even want to change. Some might argue that at least it gives us a seat at the table, but what does that table look like and where exactly are we sitting?

I wanted to take the time at the Unconference to discuss the ways in which those of us in the LIS world with a critical point-of-view can and have work(ed) to change racist, homophobic, transphobic, patriarchal power structures within libraries, higher education and our larger societal context. I don’t think I made that clear. I’m kicking off my discussion below, and would love to hear/read your thoughts.

On Spectrum 

At the start of the discussion I called out the Spectrum Shcolars program in a way that I did not intend. Spectrum has been good to me. It helped me pay for library school. It introduced me to some lifelong friends. It gave me a chance to travel to ALA for the first time. I love Spectrum, and I encourage library students to apply every chance I get, but I’m also critical of the program AND the way it’s been treated within ALA and the library profession over the years.

Spectrum has never carried the same cache as Emerging Leaders, despite being around much longer. Many people in the room and in the profession have never heard of it before. It’s been understaffed for years, championed by its alumni and allies, but has rarely found traction among ALA leaders. It’s disappointing but not surprising. It is ALA doing diversity. Done! Check!

It’s primary aim is to introduce more librarians of color into our libraries, which I fully support, but there’s also a big focus on being successful within the machinery of ALA and our profession as it currently exists. I wish it did more to encourage new librarians to question existing power structures and work to dismantle and change them. I know I need to shut up and actually do the work of helping Spectrum make these changes.

What Do Diversity Initiative Alternatives Look Like?

If I think, thanks to David’s insight, that diversity initiatives are inherently flawed, what then, are examples of alternatives? One Unconference discussion attendee, shared a deep dissatisfaction with a residency experience, but later on Twitter commended ARL’s Career Enhancement Program for creating and experience that was about her needs rather than those of the institution. Perhaps that’s a first step in the right direction? Create programs for librarians of color that are not about adding a different face but about giving us opportunities to grown, learn, and create positive change that is meaningful to us, not them. It’s a subtle shift in focus but it’s important. It takes the pressure off the librarian of color to educate and be the face of diversity and let’s them explore ways to critically engage with work and the library/greater community in a meaningful way.

Annie Pho shared a great example of this: Just in seeking out other Asian faculty she found a scholar with an amazing queer Asian archival collection that was then included in her library’s archive. Granted, much of the success of this example is a result of Annie’s initiative and warm, open personality, but think of all the wonderful opportunities we could take advantage of if we are able to work in a supportive structure that values difference and encourages critical reflection.

I wonder sometimes if Spectrum and other diversity initiatives like it would be more effective if they spent less time encouraging librarians of color to be successful within existing structures and institutions (ALA, libraries, academia) and more time encouraging us to be critical of these structures, to call them out and develop our own alternatives. I realize this is vague, but I could see it playing out in a variety of ways.

We could mentor librarians of color to better organize and empower disenfranchised patrons, students, and colleagues at their place of work (a skill set I desperately need). We could devote a solid, good faith effort to creating processes that routinely examine our library’s policies, collections, practices, and expressions of language (shout out to language justice!) for instances of bias and oppression. We could employ our diverse interns and residents, but make critical librarianship a part of the work we all do, rather than something that our “diverse librarians” teach us.

I’m running out of steam and low on words as my caffeine high subsides, but I so want to engage in conversation with you about this. Comment. Tweet. Respond in a post. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I need to do more reading. I just don’t want this conversation to end. I have too much to learn.

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