This week’s post was written by Hallie Clawson, Special Projects Assistant at the University of Washington Tacoma Library, on behalf of the ACRL President’s Program Planning Committee.
We often hear about EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) initiatives at large academic libraries, where they are more likely to have correspondingly large budgets, outreach staff, and equity centers on campus. This week, the ACRL President’s Program Planning Committee wanted to recognize that important work is happening at smaller institutions as well, often without any fanfare. This post is dedicated to the important EDI work happening in community colleges.
I’m lucky enough to see a bit of both worlds working at the University of Washington Tacoma Library. We are part of an extremely large research institution and benefit greatly from tri-campus resources. But UW Tacoma prides itself on being an urban-serving campus: embedded in the city of Tacoma, serving a diverse student body, and devoting energy not only to UW but to Tacoma as a vibrant urban center. Despite being a small team, my colleagues do so much every day to embed social justice principles into their work. They, and the community college librarians I have been fortunate enough to meet, are the inspiration for this post.
In partnership with the the ARCL Community and Junior College Libraries Section, the President’s Program Planning Committee conducted a short survey to surface the ways that community college library staff incorporate equity and social justice into their work. I have synthesized the survey responses below. As a note: I’ve pulled specific quotations from the responses and cited the authors only with their permission; some of our respondents preferred to be cited anonymously.
Question 1: What does it mean to be diverse in your community?
Diversity is a slippery, complex term in EDI work. In some cases, as previous guest authors have pointed out, it’s a corporate buzzword distracting attention away from an actual lack of change. Most times, “diversity” becomes a list of societal labels for classifying people, with a vague charge to include “all” of those classes in your workplace.
Unsurprisingly to me, then, intersectionality was the most consistent theme among responses to this question. Any labels based on race, origin, ability, sexuality, gender, etc., overlap with and inform each other. As Nancy Persons from Santa Rosa Junior College said: “Our past, present, and future represent the wealth of difference and community that we each possess.” Acknowledging and serving each individual with all their myriad complexities becomes paramount.
Another theme across the responses was the differing expectations that people have because of their varied backgrounds—sometimes involving fear, mistrust, or apathy towards the library. We must acknowledge the validity of people’s experiences and advocate for those who may not know how (or want) to follow traditional pathways. One respondent focuses their advocacy with “an explicit focus on racial justice, because in our community, racial injustice has the most harmful impact on the largest portion of our population.”
Question 2: How does your organization demonstrate its commitment to equity?
With this question, I should probably have included the caveat that not every organization is actively committed to equity. Among those who did respond, one noted that community colleges “provide affordable educational access to a largely poor and working-class population, and that includes a lot of students of color.” Another respondent cited committees for student success, an institute on campus working for cultural change, and equal employment opportunity advisory committees.
In one case, a college’s strategic plan includes explicit language to “eliminate institutional racism.” It is described as a commitment, which “shows up in our pedagogy, class offerings, hiring practices, and programming.” UW Tacoma Library uses similar language in our Equity Statement, pledging “to be an active partner in combating systemic discrimination on our campus and foster skills and resources that students, faculty, and staff can use to confront discrimination in our world.”
Question 3: In what ways do you target your lessons, reference work, and practices to best reach your students and faculty?
This question garnered so many great ideas! Many, like Ryan Randall of the College of Western Idaho, focused on the need to serve ESL students, being mindful of “widely disparate comfort levels with computer use,” and empowering students to question their circumstances and research ways to improve society.
Specific ideas for cultivating an inclusive learning environment included:
Question 4: What unique challenges does your community face as opposed to more “traditional” universities?
Answers to this question took two major tracks: reiterating the wide range of student experiences, or lamenting the lack of resources available at the community college level.
To address an exceptionally diverse student body without making assumptions (be it language, past academic experience, familiarity with technology, etc.) requires special responsiveness from library workers, faculty, and everyone in your institution. Ryan Randall describes it thus: “We routinely work with go-getter 15-year-old high-school students taking college credits, 50-year-old students who might be savvy with or scared of computers, and students who do 40 hours a week of construction on top of working for their college education.”
Another challenge is lack of resources on both sides of the reference desk—students are often economically disadvantaged for a variety of reasons, and the community college library can only do so much to help. Small, old buildings can engender conflicts because of insufficient room to study and rising noise levels. Lack of renovation can result in ADA-non compliance and unreliable equipment. Inadequate staffing can lead to overwork, projects getting back-burnered, and limited operating hours.
One respondent eloquently expressed the frustration felt in their library: “It is infuriating because our students are brilliant, interesting, focused, motivated learners who don't deserve to have so much working against them. And yet, they still engage more fully with their learning than the students who I worked with at the flagship university in the state.”
Question 5: What value do you think EDI has for you, your community, and librarianship as a whole?
For themselves, respondents report feeling that their lives are enriched by working with a diverse student body, and that their community is stronger. For students, library workers perform EDI work to help remove barriers that are keeping them from engaging fully with their education and improving their lives. By defying the idea that we must remain “neutral” and instead embracing EDI, we are better able to relate to and support the people in our community whose lives have never been neutral. All of this moves us towards justice and equity.
Question 6: What other experiences can you share about EDI work at your college?
One thing is clear from this question: EDI is not going away anytime soon! These principles are becoming embedded in every part of librarianship. Respondents described initiatives like providing food at evening workshops, adding children’s books to the collection so that parents can borrow them and read to their kids, and purchasing textbooks so that lower-income students can participate fully in their coursework, all as examples of incremental steps that libraries take.
A more powerful and lasting change is made when the entire library staff is engaged toward transformative justice. This change requires a great deal of trust and vulnerability on the side of library workers as well as the campus. Transforming means pushing through the inevitable conflicts, misunderstandings, and growing pains that will arise when people from different backgrounds negotiate how to work together. If done well, the effort can foster healing and change lives no matter the size of our community.
Knowing your community—students, faculty, and fellow library workers—is key. Respecting diversity begins with acknowledging the ways that varying identities intersect, and continues by addressing the injustices relevant to each person’s unique situation.
I see immense value in making sure official library and institutional policies explicitly call out the systematized inequality embedded in academia, and commit to ameliorating that inequality. This can be done with an established strategic initiative (like ACRL), a public-facing equity statement, a goal area in your strategic plan, or other options. I’d love to hear from more library workers how your library demonstrates a commitment to equity!
The EDI strategies mentioned earlier can be mixed, remixed, designed, and deconstructed to apply to your students and other patrons. I’d like to add from my brief experience: learn from and share with others within your library, across your campus, and through national and international professional organizations. ACRL has given me chances to meet people from across the country and internationally, which I value highly. Granted, the financial cost of conferences and organizational dues can make involvement impossible - one reason why this committee chose to make our blog series free and available online. Social media, for all its ills, can sometimes provide resources, as can free webinars, local conventions, and state organizations. Whatever works to connect you with other colleagues, pursue those avenues.
I was thrilled to hear from community college library workers as I worked on this blog post, but I know there are so many more of you out there! On behalf of the committee, I invite you to continue the conversation and help us all move the needle towards equity, no matter the size of our libraries.