I had a dream the other night about my high school history teacher Mr. Farina who I haven’t seen since I graduated and he retired. I was ridiculously happy to see him, even in my unconscious mind. Back then, he saw something in me that I clearly didn’t at the time and his belief in me had a huge impact on my sense of self-worth. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know how deeply I was in the grips of insomnia and depression (my anxiety I’m sure was fairly obvious) and how unhappy my homelife was, but he took me under his wing. He made me feel seen and feel like I had something to offer. He made me want to do well, both for myself and to please him. I don’t remember him doing all that much or going way above and beyond for me, but there’s something so powerful about having a teacher take an interest in you like that. It was great to feel like there was an adult on my side who believed in me. I needed it back then.
Yesterday, I learned about the death of librarian, former ALA President, and all around mensch, Jim Rettig. He truly was a wonderful person. Jim emailed me early in my career in response to a blog post I’d written about something I was struggling with. He told me a private anecdote from earlier in his career and offered me encouragement. Later on, he asked me to be part of his Presidential Initiatives Advisory Committee when he was ALA President, supporting me and Michelle Boule in creating the first ALA Unconference. As a someone who has never been an ALA insider, his including me meant A LOT and I think he saw my being really critical of ALA at the time as an asset. He believed that ALA needed to change its structure and the way association work got done. He saw that the profession desperately needed to diversify and that library workers needed better pay. He wasn’t just relying on his own deep wisdom to design the initiatives of his presidency, but respected the perspectives and voices of people with much less privilege and experience. He made people feel heard. He made me feel heard.
I look back and I’m amazed that someone with decades of experience in a University Librarian position wrote to me, a super brand-new librarian, and encouraged me that way. That he supported my wacky ideas when he was ALA President and it very easily could have been all about HIS initiatives. That he addressed me more as a peer than a pupil. There was no paternalism there. That is care.
I’m a member of the Oregon Library Association’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Antiracism committee and we produce a podcast called Overdue: Weeding out Oppression in Libraries. I recently recorded an episode with the deeply inspiring librarian Roland Barksdale-Hall, Branch Manager of the Stey-Nevant Library in PA. After talking with him for an hour, it was very clear that he’s the sort of person who brings out the very best in everyone around him. I don’t want to give away too much from the podcast (which will drop at the end of October), but I did want to highlight one small thing Roland talked about. He discussed how he was inspired to join the profession by a librarian who was focused on social justice and had the backs of the student workers. She didn’t suggest he become a librarian; she herself was the inspiration. I’m sure this woman had no idea that the way she simply behaved in her day-to-day work had such an impact and brought an absolute treasure into the profession. And I’m sure we all have a story about someone who, through the way they treated us or their example, changed the course of our lives.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what really matters and where/how I want to invest my time and use my privilege. I’m pretty settled in my job. I’m not in a position where I need to prove anything to anyone. I want to put my time and energy toward creating positive change. And it got me thinking about those people who were important influences in my own life. In many cases, they didn’t do a lot and probably wouldn’t even recognize the importance of what they did for me. Sometimes it was just a small piece of encouragement when I needed it. Sometimes it was about making me feel seen. Sometimes it was having my back in a meeting so I wasn’t the only one sticking my neck out. Sometimes it was a useful piece of advice they gave me. Sometimes it wasn’t anything they specifically did for me; just the way they conducted themselves or lead by example. But these small ephemeral actions deeply impacted me. And all of them were rooted in care. Caring for me for more than just my work productivity. Seeing me for more than what I concretely contribute to the library.
In the long run, I don’t think about the colleagues who got a lot of work done or went above and beyond in that way. I don’t even think much about the ones who didn’t. That stuff might be helpful or annoying in the moment, but in the long term, making people feel appreciated, seen, and supported means a hell of a lot more. That’s what stays with me.
I’ve also been thinking about the opposite – when the small things people did truly harmed me. Most often it was when people who I knew privately agreed with me about something didn’t have my back publicly. It’s always a surreal experience to have something you said in a meeting met with silence only to have multiple people from the meeting talk to or email you later agreeing with what you said. Yet you were the one who stuck your neck out. You were alone looking like a lone malcontent, allowing the administration to continue to ignore the issue. It’s the loneliest feeling. I’ve had colleagues I greatly respect and care deeply about who are amazingly kind to me one-on-one who just clam up in meetings when solidarity is critical. In most cases, these are also people who had the incredible privilege of job security and were really risking nothing by speaking up (I totally understand why those working in precarity would not speak up). And I can’t understand that silence. I just can’t. I’m sure they have no idea how their silence in that moment impacted me. How in some cases I remember it a decade later; I still viscerally feel the way I did in those meetings when I think back to it.
It makes me wonder what small things I’ve done (or not done) that have really harmed or helped others. I never want to be responsible for making someone feel the way I did when I had no support or when I felt excluded or unappreciated. Since 2018, I’ve been really focused on making sure my colleagues know I appreciate them, but I know I could do more in this area. I want to make people feel seen. I want to make people feel supported. I want to support other people’s visions rather than leading projects. After interviewing Roland, I want to work more on my active listening and making sure people feel heard and valued when they tell me things. Looking back at emails from Jim Rettig made me want to make sure I’m never paternalistic in my support of others. I’ve long been someone willing to speak my mind and speak up for others in meetings or via email, but I know there have been times that I should have said something and didn’t. I know there will always be concrete work to be done, but at this point in my career, I want to focus more on care and fighting oppressive systems than anything else.
When I see the direction that DEI work has gone in in libraries, I worry that there’s too great a focus on working on ourselves rather than supporting our BIPOC colleagues in any real way. We learn about our privilege through the invisible knapsack; about our White fragility; about how structural racism operates throughout our laws, our institutions, our technologies, etc; about how we uphold White supremacy through our own actions and how we have benefitted from it; about microagressions and things we might have said or done in the past that could have been hurtful. Every workplace training I’ve been to (and I’ve been to a lot) have been focused on education and self-work, not on how to dismantle these structures in our workplaces, both for our students and our colleagues. Even the action-focused ones are about our own teaching, our assessment work, etc., not about how the academy itself, the library itself can be alienating, can be inequitable, can cause deep harm, and can be changed. David James Hudson writes about this in his incredible critique “The Displays: On Anti-Racist Study and Institutional Enclosure:”
the institutionalization of a particular definition of racism that has detached it from political economy, that has de-emphasized racism as a collective structuring force within capitalism and that has relegated it—through political discourse, scholarship, legal rulings, and popular culture—to the realm of individual psychology and education—that is, to the realm of self-work.
The Displays: On Anti-Racist Study and Institutional Enclosure by David James Hudson
I’ve read a lot of library EDI plans and I find most of them are not focused really on confronting the organization itself. They work on safer things — diversifying the collection, diversifying displays and events, getting rid of fines, changing policy language, and recruiting BIPOC to a library that will likely crush their spirit and make them feel both invisible and hypervisible. Hiring more BIPOC doesn’t magically make a library more inclusive. I work at a library where if you’re not on the Library Leadership Team, not only are you often totally out of the loop about big decisions being made, but you pretty much have no voice in the future of the library. It’s deeply paternalistic. We never hear in advance about what is being discussed and often get meeting notes months later if at all. I once proposed something only to not be invited to the Leadership meeting where it was being discussed (and without a champion it was unsurprisingly shot down). The priorities/objectives for our last library plan were decided by Leadership and we were allowed to give a tiny amount of input on action items within our prescribed silos. There’s plenty of listening theater, with survey after survey that we answer and never hear about how our feedback is actually being used or get any response to the concerns we raised. The community college where I work is supposed to be all about inclusion and belonging, yet how included do you think those of us who are not on Library Leadership feel in this climate? Yet Library Leadership used to discuss DEI readings at every meeting. I and others have gone to our Dean with concerns about most of us not having a voice. But nothing changes. Who cares if White librarians have confronted their privilege and biases if it doesn’t actually lead to material changes that make the library a more inclusive space for library workers and students alike?
Those of us who have the privilege of being White and/or having job security owe it to our BIPOC colleagues and those working in precarity to have their backs. If we stay silent or convince ourselves that something is not our fight, we are wasting our privilege. When I was allowed to work from home in March 2020 but my colleagues in Access Services and our part-time reference and instruction librarians weren’t, I didn’t just sit back. I worked with my colleagues and both unions that represent library workers to develop a letter (signed by most library colleagues) demanding that the libraries close to protect all library workers. And I’m not saying this to make myself look good, because there have been times when I should have spoken up or taken a stand and didn’t. This feels like the minimum any of us should all do as a duty of care for those with whom we work. I’m in a faculty position with continuous appointment and I don’t deserve that privilege any more than my other colleagues who don’t have that job security and/or status. The very least I can do with the privilege I have is stand with my colleagues working in precarity to try and create more equitable working conditions. And give my labor toward creating a more inclusive and antiracist library/Oregon Library Association.
I know our society socializes us to believe that individual achievement is most important and that we are in competition with our colleagues for scarce rewards. In spite of all the bullshit, some people still believe that we’re actually living and working in a meritocracy. Managers like to see us isolated and anxious because it makes us grind harder. There’s a lot of manufactured scarcity in our field — only x# of people can get the highest rating on their annual review, only x# of employees can get performance-based raises — and it’s designed to push us to work harder because we can’t just be good at our job, we have to be better than everyone else. And the reward for all this overwork is often just MORE WORK. Only when we come together collectively in solidarity, when we see our colleagues’ struggles and liberation as being entwined in our own (because it is!), can we truly improve our workplaces. Leaving your colleagues behind to grab the meager rewards you can get from outdoing them is only going to create a dog-eat-dog work environment where you feel like you always have to watch your back. I worked in a place like that and it nearly destroyed me. Now, I work in a place where my two fellow reference and instruction librarians on my campus have my back every time I’ve had a migraine that prevented me from doing some of my work. And I’ve had their backs when things came up in their lives. We never know when we’re going to need the solidarity and support of our colleagues, but if we don’t build a culture of solidarity, it may not be there when you need it most.
For me, building a culture of care and solidarity is also resistance to the dominant forces in our world. It’s a “fuck you” to the administrators who want us isolated and grinding away. When society is so broken and polarized and destructive, I feel like it’s easy to just burn out and say “I’m going to focus on taking care of myself.” I understand that impulse, but it’s nihilistic. It will only make things worse for everyone. And I don’t think it will help with your burnout in the least. Focusing on care and solidarity is a powerful resistance to the status quo. Taking collective action, collective refusal, unionizing, and taking care of each other are the only ways we will be able to pull ourselves out of burnout. We can’t necessarily rely on our managers to fix things; we have to build the world we want to work in ourselves. There is power in imagining and trying to build something better.
If the worst thing that can come from speaking out or having the back of a colleague is that your boss is unhappy with you, how can you justify not doing it? What are you doing to create cultures of care and solidarity in your library?