Effecting meaningful change and investing in people (CIDLIS 2015)

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“Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.” ~ Jacqueline Woodson

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The UMD iSchool Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC) hosted its third annual Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Science (CIDLIS) on October 15th & 16th. [It was previously known as the Symposium on Diversity in LIS Education.] The purpose of the conference was to highlight issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, as it relates to the LIS profession. This could include working with library users, relating to other professionals, considering LIS as a profession, and/or thinking about curriculum and instruction in LIS education. The format consisted of two concurrent workshops on Thursday evening (one for practitioners and one for faculty/graduate students interested in research focuses on diversity and inclusion in LIS) and then daylong concurrent presentation sessions on Friday. There were also two main speaker sessions. Overall, the content was interesting, though its usefulness varied for me, personally. Below are some thoughts I had concerning the sessions I attended. (Sorry, it’s kind of long.)

The people

People are complex and multifaceted creatures. I really liked how Dr. Hill and Dr. Cooke addressed diversity in the Thursday evening workshop. Each of us have things about us that make up our cultural identities. This may include things such as race/ethnicity, nationality, religion, class/socioeconomic level, gender, sexual orientation, and educational background. These things affect how we look at life, approach situations, and relate to other people. There is no crime in owning any one of these identities, but it’s important to understand that we do not approach life as any one of these identities. The combination of these identities is what makes up our personal culture. We may then relate strongly to others of any one (or more than one) of these identity groups. For example, while two people may identify strongly with each other as African Americans, their personal experiences (and deeper identities) may be further shaped by the one person being Muslim and female, while the other is a gay male and Christian. Recognizing these complexities is key to fostering environments of diversity.

I don’t remember which session it was, but one of the presenters made a good distinction between diversity in numbers versus diversity and inclusion when it comes to social acceptance. True inclusion happens not when we’ve reached the magic number of minority employees or the right amount of books that are pertinent to underrepresented populations of library users, but when library users and library staff alike are able to be themselves, strive for the best, and not be distanced, ostracized, or held back because of the categories they hold as personal identities.

During the first keynote speaker session on Friday (Dr. Renee F. Hill), the example was provided of using “what are you?” to try to determine someone’s ethnic heritage. Aside from it being a tiresome and potentially rude and invasive question, most people don’t appreciate being classified as a what. “What” is for objects, not humans. For those for whom family origin and ethnic heritage is an important part of their identity, they will reveal that information as it is appropriate. Chill. Focus on getting to know the person first and who knows, once you put away your burning curiosity, you may find out they’re a really cool person. This also applies to issues of race and social justice. I often hear people ask, what can I do to be a better ally? How can I help? First, calm down. Second, get to know people. Let them get to know you. Articles and papers are definitely great for educational purposes, but trust is built through relationships. And then, speak up, unapologetically, when you see things that are wrong. But always, listen.

During the Thursday evening practitioners’ workshop, someone asked the question, can libraries encourage diversity-centric approaches to librarianship if they’re short on financial resources? Um, yes. Diversity is not a shiny toy that only those with money can afford. It doesn’t cost money to recognize people as people and to be willing to self-evaluate (as well as encourage peers to self-evaluate) the attitudes and biases you may bring with you to the profession. In particular, those in administrative roles set the tone for how libraries functions on a personal level. It’s not a comfortable process to go through, this self-examination and growth, but its necessary. Look at yourself. What are your identities? How do those identities relate to the identities of the people you work with or for? Once you know yourself, you’re ready to get to know other people.

The professionals

Oh, LIS field…we are innovators and game changers, we say. And we are, except when we’re not. The LIS field has a long history of whiteness. Any time you talk about diversity, this information will come up. The most recent ALA member demographics study of September 2014 showed that the profession is over 87% white. Granted, not all librarians are ALA members, but this particular study surveyed over 40,500 professionals. That’s a lot of people…Additionally, in the ten years since they’ve been running this study, the numbers have remained virtually unchanged. Now, why is this even important? I mean, maybe people of color don’t want to be librarians or information professionals. It’s not like the salary is as high as, say, a doctor. Or someone in the STEM field. Reality check: people of color aren’t exactly welcomed across the board there either. The reason why it matters in LIS is because it matters everywhere. It’s because if librarians & information professionals are supposed to support access to information for people, all the peoples, then there should be all the peoples supporting access to said information. I’m sure anyone who follows this topic is aware of the power of community. People gravitate towards those who look like they are safe and familiar. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s color-based, but given our nation’s history, it often is.

Speaking of professionals, there have been conversations and research about the lack of representation of people of color in positions of leadership. Maybe people of color don’t want to be in leadership…maybe. But I seriously doubt it. (Here’s looking at one.) It all goes back to recognizing and evaluating identities and…being an ally. It’s about creating spaces where people of color can not just be employed, but are also given equal opportunities to grow professionally and pursue those higher level opportunities, if they so desire. LaVerne Gray spoke on Friday about the muting of African American voices in librarianship, with a focus on African American women. She also spoke to the sense of community that black women build, based on similar identities and the knowledge of being “the only one in the room” (Gene Dembey).

Being innovators and game changers means we have the responsibility to effect change right in our back yards, or in our cubicles. No two libraries are the same, but there are some issues that are just commonplace across the board. Retention of librarians of color is a topic of interest for me, yes, but you don’t have to be a person of color for this to be your interest. In fact, since people of color are so scarce in positions of leadership, one could argue that it should be the interest of non-librarians-of-color in particular.

The program

Ah yes, grad school. That wonderful place where we stocked up on bags under our eyes, with a side portion of shadows. We stressed ourselves out and procrastinated, basically giving up our social lives to balance work and professional development. Oh. That was just me? Sorry.

I’ll try to keep this part short, because I’m looking at my word count (oops). The logical place for change to start is not when professionals enter the field, but before they even get there. There is great potential in LIS education to begin the interrogation process. It is a time to ask (and answer) hard questions, posture future LIS professionals to work with people who are different than them, and take off the rose colored glasses. Of course, in order for this to happen, there needs to be critical education taking place. LIS professors and educators, I’m looking at you.

Whether it’s learning how to evaluate information, teach information literacy courses, classify and name information items, or preserve materials for future researchers, there is always room to “to critique, disrupt, and interrogate [the historical, cultural, social, economic, and political] forces” of our society (Kenny Garcia).

Remember, we’re innovators and game changers. Let’s start changing some things.

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