Libraries, Diversity, and Leadership

Yesterday, my LIS school, Emporia State University’s School of Library and Information Management, hosted a leadership institute for the students benefiting from their Emporia Diversity Initiative scholarship program. Some of the students in this program are the coolest cats I know, including my friend Paul Mascaranes from Adams State College and the well-known Max Macias up in Portland.

For those who are unfamiliar with the EDI program, it’s an IMLS funded program that pairs students with a mentor, provides money for their MLS, and provides for further professional development throughout the program and beyond (such as this weekend’s leadership institute).

So, what was I doing there? Aren’t I one of the OVER-represented populations? Yes… it’s true. SLIM was kind enough to open up the institute to all Colorado students since it was being held here, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Speakers included my own Dean of Libraries, James Williams, (one of the most amazing human beings I know–honestly, absolutely no a$$-kissing in saying that); Dr. Mark Winston of the John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers; and a panel of local library folks.

One of my favorite talks of the day was from a school librarian, Janet Damon. She was one of the most forward-thinking professionals I’d heard speak at any library event I’d been to. She stressed the need for the profession to adopt ways of handling decisions in a much more responsive way or we will lose Millennials (not only in recruiting them to the workplace but as users of our services). She talked about applying techniques from software development, including RAD, to speed library’s response to changing user needs and expectations.

However, I don’t want to neglect the topics of the day– leadership and diversity. Dr. Winston stated clearly some of the problems with both of these subjects, and offered up real solutions for handling them.

Leadership– there are hundreds of definitions of leadership. He pointed out that this means that while many people aren’t clear on what it means, they are talking about it. It’s important. One of the best things he mentioned was the need for leaders to have PATIENCE. This is something I needed to hear. I have been learning patience since entering the library world, and the confirmation from someone who has been very successful was nice to hear. As he described it, (I’m paraphrasing) “you’ve already made the change– you’re past the scary part. But your ideas, your presence, represents a threat to the structures that people have built for their comfort. We have to have patience to allow for that.”

He also stressed that leaders lead– in any conditions, from whatever their position, and how those of us who are young or low on the organization chart can affect change through building spheres of influence, support networks, becoming experts, doing the research, and most of all– having patience.

He also described what we can do about diversity and why it is important. He first discussed the usual arguments such as “the demographics are changing” or “we must address past or current inequities”. He explained that these are emotional appeals that produce resistance, and are therefore ineffective. As someone who has put together a panel on Affirmative Action– I can attest to this. When the conversation centers around arguments like this, it just produces entrenchment and defensiveness that can also turn ugly far too quickly.

The real argument to make for diversity is that it increases the effectiveness of your organization. It makes you smarter, wiser, more efficient. That’s research that can be backed up with data. That’s why commercial entities encourage diversity– it helps their bottom line. That’s not to say that one can’t feel that it’s important for reasons of fairness and representation, it’s just not the basis of an effective argument for support.

So, what can we do to support diversity in our organizations?

1. First– listen. Ask people about themselves, their experience, their background, what’s important to them. This helps anyone realize that you actually have a real interest in them.

2. Don’t just listen–act. If a person from an under-represented group (or anyone new, of course) has joined your organization and has new ideas, new perspectives, new questions, new requests–then actually do something about it. For example, when I learn that one of my students has an interest in a particular subject, I will invite them to develop an exhibit on that subject. That’s a small example, but it can be applied more substantially throughout the organization.

I remember once being asked for some of the basic pages to be available in Spanish on our website because many of our students are international students and learning English while starting an academic career. This idea was rejected because “learning English is considered an important part of becoming an academic researcher.” Whether you agree with this or not, why maintain an additional hurdle for some students instead of providing tools to make that transition easier? The students who took the time to share their needs with our organization were happy that we cared enough to listen, but left more frustrated because they felt it was an empty gesture.

3. Recognize that when someone from an underrepresented group becomes part of your organization they are likely to be asked to handle a “hidden workload”. Everyone wants to be “inclusive” and so they will invite the one African-American on staff to join every committee. This is not fair. If you’re in a position to be a supervisor or manager, check in with the diverse members of your staff. Ask them if they really want the opportunities given (and the responsibility that comes with it). Make sure that in the quest to mean well, you don’t unfairly pile work on. Don’t necessarily put all the responsibility on them to have to say no.

4. Be available. Another part of being “the only one” means that they probably end up having some stupid things said to them. In fact, inadvertently I am probably saying some stupid things in this post. That’s the point, no matter how well-meaning people are, you can’t truly understand someone else’s experience or perspective, and this is that much more difficult when you add cultural differences. Sometimes people will say or do things that are hurtful, offensive, patronizing, whatever. Try to be the kind of person that your friend can come and talk to about this. Be willing to hear it when you’re guilty as well.

I can’t pretend to have any authority on this subject, but I’m glad to have attended this institute and to have had the chance to meet Dr. Winston and hear him speak. I’m also willing to step up inside and outside of my organization to try and do something about it. I hope more of us will, too.

If any of my 17 readers (you know who you are) see this and know of ways to contribute to the diversity of our profession or know of other resources, please leave a comment!

Some opportunities within the profession are:

ARL Diversity Initiatives

Spectrum Scholarships from ALA

Emporia Diversity Initiative

LEADers II Library School Scholarship Program (scholarship administered through Denver Public Library)

Diversity Web sources in higher education: Looking at our rich heritage (From: C&RL News, September 2000)