I woke to news of tear gas and riot gear in the streets of Minneapolis, an arrested Black journalist, and a presidential tweet threatening to mobilize the military and violence against citizens. This comes on top of police killing an innocent Black man over a $20 bill and a white woman in Central Park calling 911 in a racist attempt to use police against a Black bird watcher because she felt entitled to have her dog off leash. This all comes on top of an executive order seeking to undermine the first amendment even as it purports to uphold it.
It seems that rather than bringing out the best of us this crisis enables too many to embrace their worst nature. But of course, that’s too simple. The crisis may be the backdrop, but the institutional racism that kills Black men and calls out troops against Black protestors instead of gun wielding white ones has nothing to do with a virus. It is part of the country and institutional racism and discrimination in housing, in policing, in education, in all aspects of life.
I want to do something. I want to fix things, and I will do what I can. Which is the purpose of this post. Not what I can do as an individual, but as a director of an information school, as an educator of librarians, as a scholar. You see, a week ago, I was worried about a contentious debate in the library community around safety and reopening. I was worried about neighbors not wearing masks and folks partying on beaches as the deaths of the coronavirus passed 100,000. I now see these as connected.
As a director, professor, and scholar I must instill radical empathy in my students and information institutions and equip them to directly fight racism. I often talk about democracy and community. Yet do I do enough to connect those concepts to responsibility, equity, inclusion, and mutual support? The true participatory community is one that is culturally competent and anti-racist, where difference is sought out, the vulnerable are actively protected, and service is listening and learning more so than teaching and telling.
The pandemic has exposed how fractured and inequitable our information infrastructure is in this country. It has exposed how health outcomes disproportionately affect people of color. It has demonstrated how economic inequity furthers a digital divide and too often a racial divide. It has demonstrated how misinformation and propaganda can lead to censorship through noise and promote stereotypes and conspiracy theories. It has shown the privilege of the majority in how we choose which data we disregard. It has shown, once again, that willful ignorance is a destructive force and antithetical to the values of our field making the elimination of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny an active target of our work. A goal we may never reach but must never tire of attempting.
The easiest thing for me to do starts with my own work. I need to not only promote equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in my writing but reach out and deliberately include the work of people of color. I need to not only use the phrase “vocational awe” in its true nuanced and complex form, but also acknowledge that it is a phrase created and developed by librarian Fobazi Ettarh, a queer, and disabled woman of color .
The next thing I can do as a director is hire, support, and promote people of color on my faculty and staff. It means not stereotyping or tokenizing them and not letting anyone else do that either. It means putting in place a concentration and soon a formal certificate in diversity at the graduate level. It means protecting in these challenging economic times community literacy centers and diversity laboratories. It means supporting and encouraging faculty with research agendas in uncomfortable and “challenging” topics like microaggressions (inside and outside of the profession), service to the LGBTQ+ community, and the refugee population. It means supporting and defending faculty who are active on social media and give presentations on #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality as they impact LIS. It means supporting the work of my associate dean of diversity Dr. Shirley Carter in connecting with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to create joint programs. And it means recruiting and retaining these students of color in our graduate program and in the profession. I present this list not as a self-congratulatory check list, but as a public commitment to continue this work.
The information discipline has greatly benefited from the explosion of technology investment and growth. Our programs are growing as more people seek to be part of the knowledge industries be it at Google or the local library. We must acknowledge that the growth of our programs and the industry came at a cost. We must also acknowledge that this growth comes with greater responsibility as well. A lack of diversity, and liberal amounts of sexism, classism, and ableism, in the tech industry and libraries alike are our shared responsibility and we share the blame. We must not only critically self-reflect and improve, but actively advocate on issues of social justice, diversity, and addressing systemic racism in our society and in our own academic houses.
Higher education is granted a unique position in society. It is set aside through public funding, through concepts like tenure, through accreditation, and legal authority to grant credentials to be a place of ongoing debate and investigation. It is an investment beyond the immediate return of product for the promise of a better society in the long term. This unique and privileged position is to be used to pursue knowledge and further a meaningful society outside of the normal market. To be sure we often undervalue this mission to the business of education and the very real pressures of the economy, and even more the negative impact on the debt of its graduates. However, in the face of global pandemics of a virus and racism, it has a duty to take a stand and act.
I would like to thank Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Chair at the University of South Carolina for keeping me honest and holding me accountable on this post and in my role as director.
Photo by Lorie Shaull https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/49943807607