Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The personal is political is personal

I'm currently reading a book by Frances E. Kendall called Understanding white privilege: creating pathways to authentic relationships across race. In the chapter titled "Understanding white privilege," Kendall tells an anecdote about something that happened in conjunction with one of the diversity-related training sessions she facilitated. During a break on the second day of the workshop, a white woman and a Latina from the class ended up at the same store. The white woman watched how the Latina was treated by the sales clerk from which she was trying to make a purchase--being asked for additional identification when she presented her credit card, being told that the security guard would want to see her receipt when she left--and contrasted that with her own experience. The white woman came back to the training session and told Kendall that she wouldn't have believed how her Latina colleague was treated if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. Kendall writes:
even though Debbie had been listening to employees of color talk about their painful experiences for a day and a half, she had essentially chosen not to believe what they said; she had continued to say that she thought the different experiences were individual, not race based. She used her own privilege of expecting to be educated about race by the people who were most affected--those of color--and then chose not to believe them (61).
I read this passage right around the time that people were starting to express their outrage over the press releases that ALA sent out regarding its desire to work with the newly elected administration and which highlighted a trio of initiatives that it felt aligned with the newly elected administration's stated goals for its administration. People have addressed this situation in smarter, and more nuanced ways that I have. If you're interested in reading other people's points of view, I would suggest checking out #notmyALA on Twitter. A lot of opinions and posts are aggregated there.

There is a piece of this conversation that relates to the passage from Kendall's book that I want to highlight. In its most recent communication on this issue, the ALA President stated "the ALA executive board will discuss these issues and our processes and will use your comments to help guide us in our discussion and planning as we work to earn back the trust of our members and prepare for the work ahead during this new administration."

So, let's talk about trust.

ALA has identified diversity as one of its key action areas, charging a task force and then a subsequent implementation working group with considering how equity, diversity and inclusion could be built both within ALA and in wider library community. You can read the task force's final report here. By charging people at the Association-level to do the work  of identifying and proposing ways to further DEI-related initiatives, the Association has both implicitly and explicitly asked the margainalized people throughout ALA what can be done to make ALA a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place. The Association has asked people to entrust us with their stories and told people that it is part of our value system that we will hold those stories and respond in an appropriate way. And then we have chosen not to believe them when they tell us that they are afraid that they will be the targets of state-sponsored violence.

In the same week, ALA's President released a statement affirming ALA's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and two statements affirming ALA's commitment to working with the incoming administration. And, yes, one of those statements was taken down and an apology issued. But one can see how people within the Association's membership would be outraged that such an affirmation was issued in the first place. ALA asked people what they needed to trust the Association as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization and then didn't listen to them as they expressed their loudest fears and their deepest concerns.

In the days following the election, Hugh Acheson posted to Instagram a letter he sent to the staff at each of the restaurants he owns. In the letter he writes "The customer is always right, until they are wrong. And when they are wrong with epithets or cruelty they will be asked to leave. This is not me giving you an aggressive power to wield, but rather making sure you understand the ethos I have in protecting what I believe in, and what I do not have the patience for."

I understand that ALA has a dual responsibility to serve both libraries and the people who staff them. To that end, I believe that our goal in libraries should be to serve the communities in which we find ourselves, even when their beliefs don't align with ours. Libraries should be places that foster conversation and an exchange of ideas, but I believe that in libraries, as in Acheson's restaurants, there is a point past which the patron isn't always right--especially when a member of our user community is wrong with cruelty.

So how does the Association go about the work of rebuilding trust?

First, I think it is incumbent upon Association-level leadership to restore the relationship between the Association and its members by centering the voices and taking seriously the concerns the people among its membership who will be most vulnerable in the coming years.

Second, I think it is incumbent upon the membership to make even more space for people who are traditionally underrepresented in librarianship to take on leadership roles. The includes not only providing increased support for programs like the Spectrum Scholarship Program but also the development of a pipeline for leadership both at the Division-level and Association-level.

Finally, I think it is incumbent upon both Association-level leadership and Association membership to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable members through both our words and our actions.

I'm sure that the path toward a restored relationship between the Association and its membership will not be without bumps and will probably look different than what I've suggested here. But I do hope that it happens. And I'll continue to attend ALA Council meetings and ALA Midwinter and ALA Annual in the hopes of seeing signs of the Association working toward that restoration.

Stay positive,

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