Racial Justice and Libraries at Citizen University Conference

Anna Shelton /

Jennifer Peterson, Nadiyah Browne, Meira Jough (both from Seattle Public Library)
and Anna Shelton at the Citizen University Conference.

By the year 2044, the United States will no longer be a white majority nation.[i] For libraries interested in advancing racial justice, what opportunities might this pose? Since attending the conference Citizen University with WebJunction colleagues in March, I've thought about this question every day. I still have a great deal to learn, but my key conference takeaways are summarized here. As Jennifer Peterson shared, few conference-goers came from libraries, but the parallels to library work were clear.

Note: To dig into the topic of racial equity in much more depth, please see WebJunction's excellent resources on our Access & Equity topic page.

Build bridges across difference.

Alicia Garza

#BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza called us to identify what divides our communities and to disrupt those divisions. I learned at the conference that 75 percent of white people living in the United States don’t have any friends who are not white.[ii] Projects such as the Dallas Dinner Table provide a structured opportunity for people to eat together with others whose racial and ethnic background is different than their own, in the hope of sparking greater cross-racial understanding and possibly friendship. What new ways might libraries help build bridges across difference?

Learn about yourself.

Rinku Sen

Rinku Sen, President and Executive Director of Race Forward, encouraged us to take some time to reflect on and understand our racial identity. Sen advised white people (I am white) to acknowledge and talk about ways we've benefited from structural racism, which may help others see race-based privileges that have previously gone unnoticed. For example, as someone with a "white-sounding" name, I slide by without ever experiencing name-based discrimination when I apply for a job—a very real barrier for many African-American, Asian-American and Latino people.

Another strategy is to become more aware of unconscious or hidden biases that affect all of us. Vernā Myers has a great TED talk with advice on overcoming our biases. Mentioned in Myers's talk is a series of 10-minute online tests, offered by a research collaboration called Project Implicit, which attempt to measure unconscious bias. Although this type of test has been somewhat controversial, I find it an interesting doorway to think more deliberately about my own biases, raising awareness of possible prejudice in myself as I interact with everyone around me.

An unconscious bias might show up as a greater likelihood to interrupt someone of a certain race, gender, age or sexuality—raising a flag that we may unconsciously place less value in some people's opinions than others. Although this type of discrimination may be unintentional and seem small, Sen said, the impacts are cumulative and just as harmful. "Unconscious bias . . . is not our fault, but it is our responsibility," she noted. Raising awareness of our own hidden biases can give us information we need to make a conscious change.

Stay personally connected with your community.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed

The head of public health for the city of Detroit, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, shared his perspective that reviewing hard data about pressing community issues—in his case, infant mortality rates—is not enough. For El-Sayed, connecting at an individual level with the community is an essential part of rethinking public health. "I think there is a responsibility for folks who do this kind of work to make time, no matter what, to go see the faces. To spend time with the people who suffer. Because it makes it concrete, and it gives you a face and a name and a story that you are fighting for," shared El-Sayed. Libraries can identify who in our communities are suffering right now, and can learn a great deal by spending time with them where they are.

Work on racial equity projects even if you don't feel "ready."

If we waited to engage on racial equity projects until we have our own head straight about race, says Sen, we would never act. Unlearning racism is a lifetime's worth of work for all of us. A good way to start to see and change policies and practices (which Sen calls "unwritten rules") that have greater negative impact on people of color is to engage with others on a concrete project.

A key recommendation from Sen is to "focus on impact, not intention." It's not enough just to create equal opportunities, she says; it's important to ensure equitable outcomes. As an example, Sen described a 2014 decision by the Minneapolis School Board to take a closer, explicitly race-based look at all future policies that have a significant impact on student learning and resource allocation (see a sample Racial Equity Impact Assessment tool from Race Forward).

This approach is important, Sen said, because policies that appear to be race-neutral can have a disproportionate racial impact. For example, a library system may charge fines for overdue materials. On the face of it, this policy is "fair"; fines apply equally to everyone. But in a community where far more people of color than white people are experiencing poverty, far fewer people of color than white people have access to a car, and public transportation is very limited, barriers for people of color to return materials on time may be much greater.

In this scenario, while not an intentional outcome of library policy, people of color could pay a higher percentage of their income for overdue fees than patrons who are white, and be more likely to lose borrowing privileges if the fees get out of reach. What other types of policies could be explored that still address stewardship but avoid a disproportionate racial impact?

Recognize your power.

In the closing, Sen noted there is "connective tissue between me . . .  and the institutions that shape my life." Her comment inspires me to think about the power that libraries have as established institutions in our communities, and what libraries can do to better wield that power with respect and humility.

Jose Antonio Vargas

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in an article published by the New York Times magazine, spoke of the isolation he felt growing up in California as an undocumented teen from the Philippines. As a teenager, when Vargas first saw his name on a newspaper byline, he was transfixed. After spending so much time feeling invisible, Vargas said, that print byline proved his existence.

Although I don't claim to understand the experience of living as an undocumented person in the United States, I immediately recalled a similar feeling when I signed up for my first library card. I am reminded that for so many individuals—people without legal immigration status, children, individuals transitioning from prison, people who have survived domestic violence—the seemingly simple act of being issued a library card can serve as powerful validation that they exist.

At the same time, it's crucial to remember a point made by #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza: access is not the same as power. Power is not simply being present at the table, but having a chance to define the shape of that presence. As I think about libraries, this means to me more than having access to a library card and a reasonable expectation that one's identity will be reflected in library personnel, collections and programming, but also an expectation to help set the course of the library's future.

Give oxygen to possibility and potential.

Rory Taylor

All of us have some days when we don't feel very powerful. On those days, we can take advice from Rory Taylor, Executive Director of IndigeNATION, who said "I may not be in the places where people power is, but I have power over myself." I left the conference with a new commitment to choosing a hopeful outlook, perhaps especially at moments when the path to racial justice looks long. We can choose hope as we tackle tough issues facing our community, well before we see any visible indicators of change.

Listening to Citizen University co-founder Eric Liu, I felt a personal responsibility to "keep (my) frame of possibility from shrinking." Garza's advice on how to do this? "Surround yourself with people who imagine what is possible . . . potential and possibility exist all around us if you give it oxygen."


[i] https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf

[ii] http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/self-segregation-why-its-hard-for-whites-to-understand-ferguson/378928/