Talking at Harvard about Libraries and Social Justice

 

Text of talk I gave at Harvard University recently as part of the Strategic Conversations at Harvard Library series.

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Thank you so much for inviting me to talk with you today. It is customary at invited talks to say what an honor it is to be invited, but in this case that’s really true. This Strategic Conversations series has quite a reputation, and I am a bit intimidated by the slate of speakers and topics you have invited over the years. I truly am honored to be a part of this.

The truth is, ever since being invited to speak here some months ago, I’ve been having some feelings that go above and beyond the usual stress about giving a talk to a roomful of peers that likely includes plenty of folks who know more about whatever topic I decide to talk about than I do.

I’ve been having some special feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome about talking at Harvard.

I mean, its Harvard.

What has been popping up in my head on and off since I got the invite is that people like me don’t give talks at Harvard.

I suspect that may sound odd — after all, my CV is full of elite private universities a lot like Harvard; including the Harvard of the South — Duke — and the Harvard of the West –Stanford.  Although, as best I can tell so far, MIT is a different beast and despite our proximity, really doesn’t consider itself the Harvard of anything.

But let’s just all be honest, in the American (and maybe the global) psyche there is no place that carries the kind of reputational weight that Harvard does – especially for the vast majority of people who are not deeply entrenched in the nuances of higher education and therefore would not necessarily know that actually MIT is ranked #1 overall in  world rankings and Stanford beats almost all of the Ivies in certain disciplines (cough – sociology – cough). Sorry – had to get that part in there … But I digress.

My point is that Harvard, and all that it represents and symbolizes, always seemed to me like a place other people went to, other people worked at, and certainly other people gave talks at. Those other people, in my mind, were the kind of people born into a lifestyle and a family where going to Harvard, working at Harvard, speaking at Harvard was normal. Now I know that not everyone at Harvard comes from the kind of white upper middle class background that most of us associate with Harvard; but it is a powerful cultural association that has at least some basis in reality.

Anyway, the lifestyle and background we typically associate with the Harvard type is definitely not my background. Now I’m not going to spin a tale of woe about some horrid upbringing, but I do want to just be up front about who I am and where I’m coming from. 

My grandparents are from small towns in Virginia and North Carolina; only 1 of the 4 graduated high school. Neither of my parents went to college. But they worked very very hard to make it possible for me and my 2 older sisters to go to college.

Still, when I showed up at Duke University 30+ years ago (with my tuition payed for by an Army ROTC scholarship), and I parked my beat up 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon among the new BMWs and Mercedes, and next to the Porsche with license plates that read “Busch” (owned by one of my new hallmates; Susie Busch, heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune), I can’t say I really felt like I belonged there.

And when I walked into my new dorm room, with my clothes in garbage bags because I spent my graduation money on a new-fangled boom box instead of luggage, a vaguely familiar man with large ears and red hair greets me

“Welcome to Duke. I’m Ted Koppel; Deirdre’s father.”

Deirdre was apparently going to be one of my roommates that disorienting freshman year. But far from making me feel at home, Ted’s well-intentioned welcome just reinforced for me that I was entering a world that belonged to other people, not to me or people like me. I was being “welcomed” and given a chance to live and study amongst folks like Deirdre Koppel and Susie Busch for a few years, but this world belonged to those from very different socio-economic and family backgrounds than mine.

That feeling of being out-of-place and not quite belonging  came back over a decade later, when I showed up as an Army veteran and single parent foolishly starting graduate school at Stanford University.

And nearly 2 years into my job at MIT, I still pinch myself a few times a week because I sometimes can’t quite believe that a kid like me — a 1st generation college student whose dad worked a 2nd job stocking produce shelves at a grocery store — really is the director of the libraries at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.  That feeling of not quite belonging still crops up from time to time.

I tell you all of that only partially because admitting to those feelings, and admitting that giving a talk at Harvard really triggers them; helps me put them aside and give you the best talk I can; but also because the topic I chose – how libraries are responding and can respond to student demands for social justice – has a lot to do with how we might help more and more students (and staff and faculty) who are from backgrounds and social groups who have not always been welcome on our campuses feel included and feel like they belong.

Several years ago, I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by Beverly Daniel Tatum, the then president of Spelman College. Spelman College is not just a historically black college, but it is a historically black college for women of African descent.  I still remember the “a-ha moment” I had when Dr. Tatum described how important and powerful it is for young black women to be on a campus that was literally and intentionally built for them. It was at that moment that I could see how most of our campuses are literally not built for people from marginalized communities — our campuses were not built for people with disabilities, our campuses were not built for transgender students or any students who fall outside a gender binary, and our campuses were not built for students of color.

In fact, many of our colleges and universities were not only not built for people of color, but were actually built by and at the expense of enslaved African Americans.

Right now dozens of universities – including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, and UVa — are in the process of publicly acknowledging their ties to slavery, including their dependence on slave labor; and these schools are beginning the work of trying to find paths to restitution, if not full reparations.

I believe that if we want to make progress on making our campuses more welcoming to marginalized students, we have to acknowledge our histories of exploitation,  appropriation, enslavement, and displacement. We have to acknowledge that we labor in institutions with often troubled histories with regard to the treatment and acceptance of women and non-white men.

We work for institutions that were founded as exclusionary places, and in many cases remain exclusionary – if not in official policy, then certainly still in culture.  Our colleges and universities were mostly not built for anyone who was not a well-connected white male with considerable cultural and social capital.

While higher education has a progressive recent record of increased openness; histories and legacies matter. Moreover, we cannot ignore the very real current ways in which we fall short of being truly diverse and welcoming communities; just as we as a nation must come to grips with the ways in which the life chances, opportunities and lived experiences of people of color are not equal to those of white people.

And here I think we have to give credit to the students who came together on campuses across the country last fall to demand that universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and in our nation, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

I am talking not only about the high visibility student protests at places like the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but also about the actions of students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation; including at places like Harvard and MIT.

Students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias. And they have insisted that we affirm that Black Lives Matter.

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Black Lives Matter banner, Stanford University Law School

In short, they have said – it isn’t enough to welcome students from marginalized groups to our campuses with words, we must take concrete action to create welcoming, inclusive, and integrated communities. And in some cases, they have called on us to leverage the academy and its resources to address societal failings.

So how (and why) should libraries respond to these calls to action? And more generally, how can libraries and the library community as a whole advance diversity, inclusion and social justice?

Maybe best to start with the why.

For me, one obvious answer to “why libraries and why librarians?” is because of our values – we are one of the few professions that boldly proclaims diversity, democracy, social responsibility, intellectual freedom and privacy as core values.

Our spaces are interdisciplinary gathering spots, and we have the expertise and the organizational mission to provide access to the information and the tools students and other community members need to understand both historical patterns of exclusion and oppression and to make sense of current events and controversies.

And while I reject the notion that libraries are or should be neutral, we can and should be inclusive in our services and our collections. By doing so we can provide much needed credible context for evaluating news and issues in this increasingly polarized political and social environment. We can and should and are at the forefront of equipping people with the critical thinking skills needed to make sense of a real time global news cycle, competing opinions, and ubiquitous data.

Another important answer for me to the question of why libraries should be involved in promoting social justice and responding to students and others on issues of diversity and inclusion comes from the nature of the role we play on campus.

We are smart, caring people, who are dedicated to helping students succeed; but we are some of the only adults on campus who generally have no real authoritative or evaluative role over students. We aren’t going to grade them.

This makes the library a place where students might be especially free
and comfortable asking questions, experimenting with nascent ideas and thoughts, and making mistakes.

Libraries can operate as essentially judgement-free zones for our community.

When we also ensure our libraries are welcoming places where all students feel a sense of belonging; we can leverage those characteristics to advance social justice on our campuses.

I guess it is obvious that I really do believe that libraries and those of us who work in them can and should be leaders in promoting diversity and inclusion on our campuses.

And I suspect that plenty of you do as well.

The motivation and the intent is there, but sometimes the question of what to do and how and where to start seems overwhelming.

I’m not suggesting I have the answer to that, but I do want to share with you a framework that I have been using to try to organize my thinking and ultimately the work we do at MIT and in ARL on these issues.

So let me show you a model I’ve been kicking around at MIT, and so far in just one other public forum – I showed a hand-sketched version to a crowd of library students at Simmons last spring.

What I’m trying to do with this model is to suggest that it might be useful to think about a diversity & social justice agenda in libraries as being manifest within and through different communities; and to think of these communities as concentric circles.

slide2

A framework for social justice work in/through libraries

I think of the boundaries between the communities as fuzzy and porous – with plenty of overlap. And actions in each circle affect and are affected by actions at the other levels.

As with most actions, this models starts with the individual at the center.

At the individual level, examples of things we might do to advance diversity and inclusion goals might include:

  • Learning to recognize and avoid micro-aggressions and unconscious bias
  • developingInclusive interpersonal communication skills, learning techniques for bystander interventions
  • inclusive and equitable treatment of peers, supervisors, subordinates, and student employees,

At the Workplace level, I think it is useful to think about policies, practices, and organizational culture:

  • develop and promulgate best practices in hiring & retention practices,
  • training and learning opportunities for staff
  • generally includes all the things we might do to Develop inclusive organizational climate/culture

These first 2 circles are really about making sure our own house is in order even as we also try to work in our broader communities.

Within our local communities (on our campuses, for MIT and Harvard in the Cambridge/Boston community):

  • being really intentional about representing and promoting marginalized communities in our services, programs, and resources
  • here we really have to be intentional to correct for histories of not very inclusive collecting; and for the fact publishing and book reviews and literary awards also lack diversity and are usually dominated by the works of straight, western, white males.
  • we can evaluate our policies and practices to see if they are in any way unintentionally exclusive or not welcoming to some populations of students or community members
  • we can do directed outreach and advocacy to student and staff affinity groups – which is a great way to find out how welcoming we really are and how we might improve
  • we can work to ensure our community/local archives reflect the diversity of our communities and we can ensure our collection and archival practices are developed in concert with members of the communities

Within the professional LIS communities, we also have plenty of work to do:

  • sharing of best practices and lessons learned
  • mentoring and networking outside your own workplace
  • conferences, presentations, publications
  • advocacy for professional standards
  • one of the most pressing things we need to do at this level is make some progress on diversifying the profession — we are still at 85% white as a profession and the MLIS student population isn’t much more diverse.

In our Global communities, there are also a number of ways to advance a social justice agenda:

  • promoting open access is a social justice issue
  • making collective collection development and preservation choices to ensure full spectrum of scholarship and of human experience is collected and preserved.
  • advocacy, policy work (ex. Marrakesh Treaty)

I find this model helpful, because there are multiple ways to engage these issues, and there is work to be done at all levels of community. And I sometimes find we get stuck focusing on a single community or level; and for me this model helps move us to a more holistic approach. The model really is very much a work in progress, so I’ll be anxious to hear your feedback.

But I think I promised via my title and abstract that this presentation would not be all theoretical, but that I would also talk a bit about what we are doing at ARL, and what we are doing at MIT to try to make some progress and to engage more fruitfully in conversations on our campuses and in our communities.

At the ARL level, the cornerstone of our efforts around diversity and inclusion has traditionally been a set of recruitment, retention and leadership programs.

These include the flagship program – the Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce. The IRDW provides tuition assistance, leadership training, and mentoring to MLS students from racial and ethnic minority groups. Since 2000, the program has supported approximately 200 MLS students, and over 75% of participants do end up working in academic libraries.

ARL also sponsors the Career Enhancement Program – which provides MLS students from racial and ethnic minority groups with internship experiences in ARL libraries; and the Leadership and Career Development Program is an 18 month program designed to provide leadership training to mid-career librarians from racial and ethnic minority groups. And there are special programs to recruit members of racial and ethnic minority groups into music librarianship and into archival jobs.

These programs are well regarded and generally quite successful – successful in the sense that the vast majority of individual participants rate the programs very favorably and consider the programs important or very important to their career in librarianship.

But … since 1999, the percentage of non-white librarians in ARL libraries has increased only 4% – from 11% to 15%. Over that same time the percentage of non-whites in the US population has grown from 29% to 37%; and non-whites made up 42% of the college student population in 2012, and that figure continues to grow (credit to the incomparable Mark Puente at ARL for these data).

Put another way, we are a really white profession – whiter by far than the communities we serve.

So while I absolutely agree with my colleague and hero, Mark Puente, the Director of Leadership and Diversity Programs at ARL, that we have to consider what the demographics of librarianship and of the ARL workforce might look like if these programs didn’t exist; we also have to acknowledge that we remain a very, very white profession that does not reflect the diversity of our communities.

And while I don’t think numbers are everything or that representation should be our only or even necessarily our primary goal, I do think having a more diverse profession matters. I think our role in campus diversity conversations and in social justice efforts in our communities is to some degree hindered when as organizations and as a profession we are so lacking in racial and ethnic diversity.

So one of ARL’s goals in the next 12-18 months is to review our diversity programs – with an eye towards making sure they remain well supported; and looking for ways to amplify the most effective elements of our existing efforts while simultaneously beginning to think about ways we might intervene earlier than the MLS stage to attract members of marginalized groups into librarianship.

We at ARL are also taking a hard look at the ways in which the structure, requirements, application process, and expectations of our diversity programs actual reflect, reinforce and perpetuate the “whiteness” of the profession.

I recommend to you an article from the online open access peer-reviewed journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe called White Librarianship in Black Face: Diversity Initiatives in LIS by my dear friend and colleague April Hathcock at NYU. 

In the article, April asserts that “Our diversity programs do not work because they are themselves coded to promote whiteness as the norm in the profession and unduly burden those individuals they are most intended to help”

It is a harsh criticism, but one I think we have to take seriously. We have to be willing to question the model of diversity programs that are designed to attract underrepresented minorities to “our” profession and our libraries and then mentor them so they “fit” in.

What student protestors have been telling us is that rather than focusing on teaching marginalized people how to fit into cultures and organizations that weren’t built for them; maybe we need to spend more time changing our cultures and acknowledging our histories.

With that in mind, another big priority for the ARL Diversity & Inclusion committee right now is to execute a very deliberate pivot in our focus – to pivot from focusing primarily on programs designed to recruit members of underrepresented groups into libraries and archives; and then train “them” on how to succeed in “our” institutions and “our” cultures; to a deliberate focus on preparing and equipping library leaders – the directors like me – to create and sustain diverse, inclusive, and welcoming cultures and practices.

This is really, really important. Because I believe that we absolutely mean well in libraries and on our campuses; we are a generally liberal open-minded, accepting, tolerant bunch and for the most part we genuinely believe that libraries and higher education are welcoming places for members of marginalized groups.

But if we look at the demographics, and we really listen to what students from marginalized groups are saying; we have to be willing to admit that we may not be as welcoming as we think we are; and we probably aren’t doing all we can to make progress.

So, specifically ARL has introduced programming at our ARL meetings – these are the semi-annual gatherings of the directors of the top 125 or so research libraries in North America and Canada.

At our meeting last fall, we had someone from Project Implicit lead us in an interactive workshop to help us recognize and try to counteract our own unconscious biases. At our recent spring meeting, the most popular session was all about how to engage in uncomfortable conversations around social justice issues on our campuses.

 And this Fall, we are hosting the 1st even ARL Fall Forum devoted entirely to Libraries and Archives as Agents of Social Justice.

We encouraged library directors to invite those senior leaders within their libraries and in their universities who are working on social justice and diversity issues at their campuses.

And of course, individual ARL Libraries are doing any number of things to address diversity issues and to engage with student activism around social justice. The staff at ARL collected info from ARL libraries last spring documenting some of their activities – which ranged from archiving social media, web sites, and other materials related to student protests; hosting events within library spaces; recommitting to intentionally diversifying our collections; and providing workshops for staff on topics like microaggressions and how to be an ally.

So again, activities at multiple levels of engagement in that model of concentric communities I showed earlier.

I am new to ARL, but I can tell you that I sense an energy around these topics and a real hunger amongst the leadership to equip themselves and their staff to make a difference.

Before I wrap up, its only fair that I talk a little bit about what MIT is doing to engage with diversity, inclusion, and social justice work.

And first, let me just say that MIT Libraries has an active and very effective committee for the promotion of diversity and inclusion that pre-dates my arrival. In fact, lunch with that committee during my interview for this director job was one of the key factors that ensured that when MIT made an offer, I was ready to accept.

So we do have an active committee that arranges speakers and workshops, and sends out a weekly resource email with readings and local events of interest. They also convened the set of conversations that led to our recently released Diversity statement that you see here.

One of the overarching themes of what we are trying to do around these issues at the MIT Libraries is that we are consciously trying to inject a focus on diversity, inclusion, and social justice throughout the library – in every department, at every level, pertinent to every job and every staff member. To that end we added a section to everyone’s annual performance review where the employee can describe ways in which they sought to promote the organizations’ values of diversity and inclusion in their work and in their interactions on the job.

While that move has not been easy or entirely non-controversial; it has sparked some really great conversations and led to the formation of a task force within our collections directorate focused on Creating a Social Justice Mindset. One of the powerful things that is coming out of that work is a commitment to incorporating and expressing our values in everything we do – including our budgeting, our license negotiations, our access policies. We see open access as a social justice issue, and we believe a more equitable world is one in which there is abundant, meaningful access to information in all communities across the globe.

Our recent move to put our collections budget under the oversight of our scholarly communications program was explicitly about our commitment to using our collection dollars in ways that reflect and transmit those values.

One final example of something we are sponsoring through the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press that is literally about engaging in and promoting campus conversations on diversity is our new MIT Reads program.

 MIT Reads is an all-MIT reading experience that aims to build community and foster understanding. Our goal is to bring the campus community together through the act of reading; with a theme this year of diversity & inclusion. For our inaugural reading, we are partnering with LBGTQ@MIT and the Gender Fluidity Group and we are reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, a black transgender activist. Throughout the fall, we will schedule community discussions about the book and the topics raised. The MIT Press bookstore is selling copies of the book at much reduced prices and we have several copies on reserve in the libraries of course.

There is so much more going on at MIT, the staff of the libraries are doing amazing work in these areas and they inspire and challenge me daily. But I think that is probably enough from me.

I hope I’ve provided some food for thought, and for discussion, on how and why libraries can engage in promoting diversity, inclusion, and social justice on our campuses and in our communities.

I really look forward to your comments and to a discussion. You can, of course, ask questions, but I can’t pretend to be the only one with answers; so feel free to share comments and stories even, especially if they aren’t really questions. Let’s talk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Talking at Harvard about Libraries and Social Justice”


  1. 1 klmccook September 25, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Recommend 2 rcent books:
    Harger, E. (2016). Which side are you on?: Seven social responsibility debates in American librarianship, 1990-2015.
    and
    Kagan, A. (2015). Progressive library organizations: A worldwide history.
    and the journal
    Progressive Librarian.
    http://progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/jnl_contents.shtml

    Thank you for the speech text.
    Kathleen de la Peña McCook
    School of Information, University of South Florida

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 3 teh y September 25, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    so what you’re saying is, if i have this right:

    “As a librarian, my real job is social justice”

    ?

    this is why you never hire an SJW, ever

    Like


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