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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.

Climbing the Stairs: a New Model for Organizational Change from Dr. Terryl Ross

by Hallie Clawson on 2019-02-06T11:21:00-06:00 | Comments

This post is written by Hallie Clawson on behalf of the ACRL President's Program committee. Our thanks to everyone who attended our Discussion Forum with Dr. Ross at ALA Midwinter. We hope it was informative and useful! 


At ALA Midwinter 2019 in Seattle, Lauren Pressley invited Dr. Terryl Ross to lead a discussion forum around his model of organizational change towards equity. As part of our commitment to making the President’s Program accessible, we are reporting back for anyone who was unable to attend or wants to share these concepts with their institution. Dr. Ross is a Seattle local with over thirty years’ experience in this field. He is currently the Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Washington College of the Environment. He has previously done similar work at University of Washington Bothell, Oregon State University, and Green River Community College.



As I summarize Dr. Ross’ presentation, I want to mention that he spoke twice during Midwinter - not only at the discussion forum on Saturday but also during the ACRL Leadership Council meeting. Portions of this post will reference both presentations. Pressley has emphasized the need for ACRL leadership to do antiracism training and self-reflection to better guide the organization as a whole towards equity and inclusivity. This included an intensive workshop led by DeEtta Jones and Jerome Offord at the ACRL Board’s Strategic Planning and Orientation Session last fall, and was reiterated in the recent ACRL Board Statement Against Racism, Harassment, and Discrimination in the Profession.


In academic fashion, Dr. Ross began by giving us citations about United States demographics - which are included at the end of this post. These works provided context for the generational, racial, and cultural shifts we are seeing in this country. We have slowly moved over the decades from a white-and-male status quo to one where many kinds of people are allowed to “sit at the table of opportunity” and have a voice. He singled out certain dates as relevant to that shift; one that stuck out was 2014 - the year that students of color became the majority in public schools. As academic librarians, we should pay attention to the fact that in less than twenty years, that group of racially diverse students will be attending colleges and using libraries.


He gave us his vision of what an organization would look like if we took the principles of EDI to heart:


A 21st century organization that leads with diversity and inclusion. Everyone feels welcomed and included. You accomplish your mission and are a destination of choice for the region's best talent.

Then Dr. Ross described his model, Climbing the Stairs to Diversity Success. He envisions a staircase of five steps which can describe your organization - each one having particular characteristics. He emphasized “no judgments”! Wherever your organization starts on this staircase is fine, the goal is just to move the group as a whole up to the next step. If you actively engage with diversity from leadership to entry level, Dr. Ross believes it is possible to move any group up one step in two years.


The steps are:

  • Hostile - Most people in the organization are actively hostile to the idea of diversity. At this step you’ll find outright anger, confusion, and obvious white fragility. There will be no commitment to diversity work.
  • Visitor - Most people pay lip service to the importance of diversity. Dr. Ross used the example of people who come to an MLK Jr. Day event and sit in the front row to be seen and lauded, then don’t think about diversity at all until next year’s event. There is no commitment to doing consistent work. He pointed out that despite white folks’ best intentions at this stage, people of color can easily tell when efforts are only “token”.
  • Citizen - In a citizen organization, people are honestly committed to doing the work but may not know how. There may be an enthusiastic diversity committee, which spends a lot of time in planning and discussion. During our small group discussions, most attendees felt their organizations were on the citizen step.
  • Diplomat - When your organization reaches the diplomat step, people are not only committed but also know what to do to. They are implementing plans, and have a deep understanding of issues like equity and identity being central to the work.
  • Ambassador - This step is the goal. Ambassadors are exemplars, models of how to succeed at doing this work. They have implemented a culture of accountability, focus on daily teachable moments, and they not only do the work but also empower others. Dr. Ross described ambassadors as the people you’ll never see, because they are out in your community getting things done.


After sharing his model and having us discuss in small groups, Dr. Ross clarified and defined our terminology. He differentiated between equality, in which everyone gets the same thing regardless of what they need, and equity, where each person gets what they need to be on the same level. One point that stood out is that equity is inherently unfair because people are not going to get the same amount of resources; historically undersupported people are going to get more. This makes many of us uncomfortable because we value fairness. Dr. Ross argued that we have to embrace unfairness in order to correct the history of inequity affecting people of color and underrepresented groups in this country.


He also emphasized the importance of taking action. We must be proactive rather than reactive, talk about where we’re going to rather than where we’re coming from, and place value in work rather than words. As he put it, 40% of people are going to criticize no matter what you do, so accept that criticism is inevitable and move forward anyway. Don’t wait for an impossible “perfect” solution, and don’t let one person stop the group. That doesn’t mean ostracizing that one person - you should go back and address their concerns later - but ask for their support in taking the action the group thinks is best. And if you are that one dissenter, don’t set the rest of the group up for failure! Instead, stand in solidarity with them so that some kind of change can be made.


In summary, diversity work takes everyone pulling together in order to create change, and it also takes strong leadership to enforce action and make the tough decisions. That change doesn’t have to be tremendous, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But if you focus on what action you can take with the organization you have, it is possible to climb the stairs together.



Citations from the presentation

Frey, W. (2015). Diversity explosion: How new racial demographics are remaking America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Kotkin, J. (2010). The next hundred million: America in 2050. New York: Penguin Press.

New York Times Books. (2005). Class matters. New York: New York Times Books.

Taylor, P. (2014). The next America: Boomers, millennials, and the looming generational showdown. New York: Public Affairs.

Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. (2010). “State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation”.

Lewis, K., & Burd-Sharps, S. (2010). The measure of America 2010-2011: Mapping risks and resilience. New York: New York University Press.






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