Posts in social justice

Reflections on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Holiday

Recently I’ve been thinking about why I became a librarian. A generous reading of my motivations is that being a librarian allows my idealism to run free. I want to believe that in devoting my labors to the library I’m actively working to build a better world. A less generous reading of my motivations is that librarianing[1]Dr. Chris Bourg is to be thanked / blamed for my use of librarian as a verb. is one of the few ways someone with an excellent education in the humanities but few practical skills can keep a roof over their head. Most of the time I assume librarianing is a good thing and most of the time I don’t feel the need to question this assumption. However, as I write this, it is the Doctor Martin Luther King Jr holiday. As the United States spends the day celebrating the life and work of Dr. King I’m questioning how well my avocation is serving the work of Dr. King. The standard narrative is that libraries provide the public with free access to information;  libraries are a necessary element of an open society. Openness and freedom are the natural enemies of bias and institutionalized privilege and thus libraries are creating a free and open future.

I like this narrative. It’s nice. It’s comfortable. It’s the kind of thing that can help one believe in one’s work when the tasks in front of us are tedious and unpleasant. It’s also the kind of narrative that enables me to remain blind to the contradiction in claiming love for humanity as a whole while loathing the particular examples of humanity that I interact with. It’s the kind of narrative that needs to taken out and examined on occasion. Today’s holiday is one such occasion.

Today I’m re-reading Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I’m asking myself if the comfort I take in the goodness of libraries is the comfort of the white moderate. Am I preferring a “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice?” To help me answer these questions, I’m considering the story of Paul Coates, founder of Black Classics press. Paul’s story both make me wonder why I am comfortable in my nice library profession and he was not.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiography The Beautiful Struggle he tells the stories of a son and his father. The father, W. Paul Coates, is a veteran and a Black Panther. Paul earned a BA and then a Master’s degree in library science.  He found work at the Howard University library, but did not remain a librarian for long. As his son tells the story, Paul became fascinated by hidden or lost classics of black America, classics that were frequently not found in library collections. These books contained narratives that counter or even contradict the stories Americans tell ourselves about racial reconciliation and healing. Libraries, even the library at Howard University, have a bias towards the published record. Unpublished knowledge or out of print works aren’t always protected by libraries and archives. Coates and de jesus both remind us that the structural bias against this kind of knowledge is neither accidental nor unforseen.

See, brother, those books are out of print. You know what that means? The white man ain’t gonna let you see those. He don’t want those books in print. (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle, 90)

Paul Coates left librarianship to become a publisher. He founded and ran Black Classics Press and returned some of “those books” to print and provided an publication venue to a perspective that too frequently been excluded from the American record. I think he’s done more good as a publisher than he would have as a librarian. He has certainly done more good as a publisher than I have done as a librarian. He’s also not the only example of a trained librarian realizing that our profession can hinder justice as well as enable it. nina de jesus has also written persuasively on the complicities of libraries in institutional oppression.

So today, as our nation reflects on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I’m thinking about how my work intersects with The Good Work of Dr. King. Am I librarianing for social justice or am I living comfortably in denial of tension and injustice? I think (hope) that the answer is mostly the former. I’m satisfied with my values and with my goals. I’m satisfied with the course I’ve set to reach them. I am not satisfied with the position I’m currently occupying. There is work yet to be done. To look into this more fully, I’m writing a series of three further reflections. The first tells the story of the values and ideology that led to me choosing librarianship as a profession. The second tells the story of the ugly realities and compromises that clash with those values and ideologies. The third reflections wraps things up by explaining how I can be committed to working for these values through a system even when I recognize that this system is often flawed and complicit in the injustice I’m trying to undo.

Notes

1 Dr. Chris Bourg is to be thanked / blamed for my use of librarian as a verb.

On allying myself with #TeamHarpy and others

I Am #TeamHarpy

I ally myself with Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus. Lisa and nina are friends of mine and colleagues who are facing a SLAPP suit to silence their frank and open discussion of another colleague’s behavior.  While there is a lot to be said about the case and the deep-rooted conditions in our professional culture that are behind it, this post is a personal meditation on what it means to ally with others.

The Ally Label

I don’t like to describe myself as an ally. It feels more like a marketing campaign than a positive action. Still, I don’t have a better term to describe collaborating with the oppressed to work towards justice. With the way the world is organized, I’m much more likely to benefit from injustice than to be a target of it. So, when I read @evilangela’s words about this on Twitter, they resonated.

@evilangela:  “Ally” only has any meaning when used as a verb. As a noun, it’s meaningless, self-congratulatory bullshit.

I’ve also been thinking about nina de jesus’ clear and sharp words about finding herself on the front lines of a fight for justice. She framed her involvement in a way that helps me frame my support.

#TeamHarpy has my support, but I’m not their ideal supporter. I’m biased and I my internal censor is unreliable in its advice on when to speak and when to be silent. I also am more interested in where we disagree than were we safely agree and so I focus on divisive issues. I have to wrestle my stubborn independence in order to be a team player and I’m more concerned with avoiding fundamentalism than I am with enforcing what’s good. I’m also complicit in the problem. I’m trying to be the best colleague I can, but I’m a flawed human and the product of an oppressive culture. I’m trying to be part of a solution but my intentions go astray and I’m not always guided by the better angels of my nature.

Researching the Topic

In the past after I had asked for help sorting through a different situation , I was guided to Community Change Incorporated and their excellent resources on social justice, including insights into how to support justice efforts in productive ways. These, plus voices for social justice on Twitter have guided my thinking. I have been guided by wiser minds and I’m curating what I’ve learned from them in this post. I don’t claim credit for any wisdom, but all of the faults are mine.

 Grounding Thoughts

These are points I’m using to keep me from getting swept away in a movement. While there are other thoughts out there for how to do good work, these are mostly about avoiding common mistakes.

  1. I’m complicit in the problem.
    It’s tempting to hide my guilt behind enthusiasm for the cause, but changing teams doesn’t change who I am.
  2. I don’t just benefit from the problem, I participate in it.
    This is not a confessional (see point 3) but I have behaved badly and will again despite my best efforts to the contrary. So any self-righteousness I feel is going to be a kind of hypocrisy.
  3. The problem is bigger than my feeling bad about something, so its resolution can’t be the first thing that stops me from feeling bad.
    If I stop allying with others at the point I stop feeling bad about the injustice, I’m less useful as an ally than if I simply ignored the injustice in the first place.
  4.  I need to own my risks.
    Sometimes the best action is for me to speak up. Sometimes the best action is for me to shut up and listen. It may be up to others to decide which choice was best, but the choice and the risk are always mine. It takes courage to stand for one’s values, in front of friends as much as in front of foes, but I’m not bringing anything useful to the table if I’m not willing to own my risks.
  5. It’s not about me.
    I’m not responsible for finding the solution, (even though I should participate.) I’m not responsible for the problem, (even though I’m complicit.) If I’m allying myself with others, it’s not about me. If it is about me, I’m not really allying myself with others, am I?

These are the best thoughts I can gather on allying with #TeamHarpy and other movements. I didn’t invent them and I don’t embody them particularly well, but they sum up what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to avoid doing.