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2019 ACRL President's Program

Discussion, information, and additional resources for the 2019 ACRL President's Program. Opinions expressed by blog authors are their own and do not express the views or opinions of their employers or of ACRL.

The Role of Empathy in Improving Academic Library Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

by Hallie Clawson on 2019-01-16T07:00:00-06:00 in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Advocacy | Comments

This post comes from Adriene LimDean of Libraries and Philip H. Knight Chair at the University of Oregon (UO). Learn more about our guest authors on our Featured Authors page.

At this point, most academic librarians are well aware of the lack of proportionate racial and ethnic diversity in the US library profession; this has been documented and examined in numerous studies and articles in our disciplinary literature.1 This disappointing state should motivate us to achieve better results as we embark on the new year. We know that continuing to address these issues is the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, in terms of demonstrating our commitment to our library values and the equitable treatment of our colleagues, but the effectiveness of our programs and services also depends upon including more people of color in our organizations and at our leadership tables.

Through our institutions and associations, we have tried to address these racial and ethnic diversity gaps for more than two decades, but our diversity and inclusion initiatives have not yet significantly changed the levels of underrepresented groups in our profession. A 2017 report on diversity released by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) found that the administrative leadership composition of academic libraries was among the least diverse, racially and ethnically, of other units on U.S. campuses.2 Academic libraries fared better only when compared to groups charged with fundraising and public relations. This stark picture again illustrates the powerful, systemic forces that maintain our society’s racial hierarchies, helped along by the reluctance of some in our profession to grapple with the racism affecting our community. Yet, for those of us who attribute such outcomes to unwanted supremacist ideologies and systems of inequality, we must not be deterred from trying new approaches. We must strengthen our resolve to counteract these negative forces, by asking: What can we do differently to improve the equitable recruitment and advancement of colleagues of color in our organizations? How can we improve the retention of colleagues of color, especially once they have advanced to leadership positions and face new obstacles and racialized pressures in the monolithic academy? How can we move beyond serving as mere advocates for diversity and inclusion to becoming actively anti-racist in our approaches?

Before we can tackle these questions in a meaningful way, I believe we must do a better job of infusing interpersonal empathy into our discussions and approaches. A good definition of empathy comes from Michael Ventura in his book Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership:

 

Empathy is about understanding. Empathy lets us see the world from other points of view and helps us form insights that can lead to new and better ways of thinking, being, and doing. Empathy… is a skill that each of us can make a part of our daily practice and ultimately bring into the organizations we serve.3

Learning to have more empathy for others can help us become better leaders and more caring, ethical librarians. We need to infuse diversity and equity into our professional and organizational interactions, because it is the connections we make with real people and their experiences and stories, that deepen our understanding and inform our strategies for the much-needed change in our profession.

One personal action we can take to become more empathetic is to engage in continuous learning about the intractable racist frames that affect the way we engage, work, and respond in our environments. This understanding is not easy to incorporate into long-standing paradigms but tackling these forces with fewer euphemisms and with stronger theoretical backgrounds will enable us to empathize at deeper levels with our colleagues of color about the barriers and differential treatment they face on a daily basis. It can also lead to fewer reactions of defensiveness, emotional distress, umbrage, and denials from white colleagues. This is key to our ability to achieve transformative change. I call upon all of us to read and/or revisit the scholarship about critical librarianship and the passionate calls to action about race that can be found in our disciplinary literature.4 I also encourage colleagues to read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Derald Wing Sue’s Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, and to consider all of the seminal works listed on Zeba Blay’s “16 Books about Race That Every White Person Should Read”, to expand the foundational underpinnings about the systemic nature of the situation at hand. Let us think of this as a massive, intensive common-reading initiative in which we can absorb, reflect, and come to the table well prepared to devise the more-effective strategies we need to affect substantial, lasting change in the years ahead.

Another step toward interpersonal empathy is to improve our capacity to listen to and consider the perspectives of colleagues of color in our library gatherings. As an Asian American woman who has served as the appointed library leader at three universities, I have witnessed the myriad ways in which colleagues in the academy and our profession reinforce the racial status quo. If a leader of color is perceived to have crossed a racial boundary in a discussion, then silencing behaviors, institutional exclusions, and differential treatment often ensue. In my experiences, leaders of color, both inside and outside the library, have learned to share their personal perspectives on race or describe their encounters with macro- and micro-aggressions with care and caution, and only on rare occasions — such as meetings intentionally focused on the topic of diversity, or in situations where the experiences can be addressed in as non-personal, analytical, or abstract a manner as possible. Too many of us have experienced professional and political fallout from attempting to communicate honestly about race in our predominantly white libraries, institutions, and associations. This is not to imply that leaders of color are silent on all such occasions, but when we do speak up, we know it will likely cost us in some way, so we pick our battles prudently. My observation has been affirmed anecdotally by several other library leaders of color. Improving our ability to seek out and listen to the hard truths about racism in the academy and the library is paramount, and is a key component to deepening our empathy.

We cannot continue to bring leaders and colleagues of color into our profession and hope to narrow the glaring racial and ethnic gaps in our ranks, while trying simultaneously to keep all of our structures, systems, and approaches exactly the same as they have always been. If we do, we should not be surprised ten years from now when significant changes in the racial composition of our profession continue to elude us. For our New Year’s resolution then, I propose we commit ourselves to joining library colleagues who are far ahead of us in understanding the systemic, insidious impact of racism on otherwise well-meaning attempts to increase diversity and inclusion in our academic libraries.5 I propose we embark on an intensive self-learning and reflection journey, and then re-examine and redesign our educational programs, retention efforts, early-career initiatives, and institutions, to demonstrate our love and support for the relatively few colleagues of color we already have. We need to enhance our empathy and change the ways we work together to truly transform our profession and our academic institutions. These are the commitments that our library values of diversity and social justice demand, and they are crucial resolutions worth keeping.

1 For examples, see:

Bourg, Chris. (2014). “The Unbearable Whiteness of Librarianship,” Feral Librarian (blog). https://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-librarianship/

Morales, Myrna, Em Claire Knowles, and Chris Bourg. (2014). "Diversity, Social Justice, and the Future of Libraries," portal: Libraries and the Academy.

Vinopal, Jennifer. (2016). “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/;

Schonfeld, Roger C., and Liam Sweeney. (2017). “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity: Members of the Association of Research Libraries: Employee Demographics and Director Perspectives”. https://sr.ithaka.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/20170830-Mellon-SR-Report-Inclusion-Diversity-Equity-ARL.pdf.

2 Bichsel, Jacqueline, and McChesney, Jasper (2017). “Pay and Representation of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in Higher Education Administrative Positions: The Century So Far.” Research report. https://www.cupahr.org/wp-content/uploads/cupahr_research_brief_minorities.pdf.

3 Ventura, Michael. (2018). Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership. New York: Touchstone Press.

4 For recommended titles, see:

ACRL Instruction Section Research & Scholarship Committee. (2016-2017). “Five Things You Should Read about Critical Librarianship.” at https://acrl.ala.org/IS/wp-content/uploads/20170602_research_5Things.pdf.

5 For an example, see:

Hathcock, April. (2015). “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe., October 7, 2015.,  http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/.



 

Further Reading

ACRL Instruction Section Research & Scholarship Committee. (2016-2017). “Five Things You Should Read about Critical Librarianship.” https://acrl.ala.org/IS/wp-content/uploads/20170602_research_5Things.pdf.

Batson, C. Daniel. (2011). Altruism in Humans. Oxford, NY Oxford University Press.

Bichsel, Jacqueline, and McChesney, Jasper. (2017). “Pay and Representation of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in Higher Education Administrative Positions: The Century So Far.” Research report. https://www.cupahr.org/wp-content/uploads/cupahr_research_brief_minorities.pdf.

Blay, Zeba. (2015). “16 Books about Race That Every White Person Should Read,” Huffington Post.https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/16-books-about-race-that-every-white-person-should-read_us_565f37e8e4b08e945fedaf49.

DiAngelo, Robin. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Hathcock, April. (2015). “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe. October 7, 2015.  http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/.

Morales, Myrna, Em Claire Knowles, and Chris Bourg. (2014). "Diversity, Social Justice, and the Future of Libraries," portal: Libraries and the Academy.

Oluo, Ijeoma. (2018). So You Want to Talk About Race. New York, NY: Seal Press.

Schonfeld, Roger C.and Liam Sweeney. (2017). “Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity: Members of the Association of Research Libraries: Employee Demographics and Director Perspectives.” August 30, 2017. https://sr.ithaka.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/20170830-Mellon-SR-Report-Inclusion-Diversity-Equity-ARL.pdf.

Segal, Elizabeth, et al. (2017). Assessing Empathy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sue, Derald Wing. (2015). Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Ventura, Michael. (2018). Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership. New York: Touchstone Press.

Vinopal, Jennifer (2016). “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/.


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