Wes Moore Kicks off Conference, Calls on Audience to Address Poverty | ALA Midwinter 2020

The 2020 American Library Association Midwinter conference, held January 24–28 in Philadelphia, officially kicked off with featured speaker Wes Moore’s opening session on Friday afternoon. Moore—an author, social entrepreneur, television producer, and decorated U.S. Army combat veteran—linked his journey as a reader to pressing issues of social justice and the role libraries can, and should, play.

Wes Moore speaking at ALA Midwinter
Wes Moore
Photo courtesy of EPNAC (Event Photography of North America Corp.)

The 2020 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter conference, held January 24–28 in Philadelphia, officially kicked off with featured speaker Wes Moore’s opening session on Friday afternoon. Moore—an author, social entrepreneur, television producer, and decorated U.S. Army combat veteran—began with the expected recounting of how books and libraries opened the world to a non-reading, troublemaking kid. But his story quickly moved beyond the standard narrative, explicitly linking his journey as a reader to pressing issues of social justice and the role libraries can, and should, play.

The book that sparked Moore’s love of reading was Mitch Albom’s The Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream. When his mother passed it along, hoping that the book might jump-start his interest, Moore recalled, he was in fifth grade and reading at a third-grade level. Her hunch was right: He finished the book in a day and a half, and “she almost fell off her chair.”

Moore soon moved on to authors such as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. The formerly difficult kid whose single mother sent him to military school eventually went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. “You will never find me not in the middle of two or three books,” he told the room packed with librarians and library workers. “I stand here today because you all helped to inspire and spark something.”

Moore was always aware of the young people, so similar to him, who never managed to escape the systemic poverty into which they were born. His extended consideration of what separated him from so many others led to his 2010 best-seller The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (Spiegel & Grau). The book examined the divergent paths of Moore and another young man—also named Wes Moore, raised in the same low-income Baltimore neighborhood as the author—who ended up serving a life sentence in prison for killing a police officer.

The Other Wes Moore was published on April 27, 2010, Moore told the assembled crowd. Five years later, to the day, he found himself in the back row of the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore at the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African American man who fell into a coma while in police custody and who became a national symbol of police brutality and racial inequity. Gray’s death propelled the city into a state of unrest, with widespread rioting and calls for justice. A curfew was imposed and the governor called in the National Guard. Baltimore imploded, said Moore, “but anyone who was paying attention should have seen it coming.”

Moore’s newest book, Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City (PRH, Apr. 2020), coauthored with journalist Erica L. Green, looks not only at the events leading up to the Baltimore uprising of 2015—from the point of view of seven people on the frontlines—but at the myriad ways in which society was complicit in Gray’s death. Born underweight, to a drug-addicted mother, and suffering lead poisoning by the time he was two, Gray never had a chance, said Moore. Gray’s life was an unbroken chain of poverty, dysfunction, arrests, and incarceration—not challenges, but insurmountable odds.

“The heartbreaking thing about Freddie Gray was that the week he was lying in a coma was probably the most peaceful week of his life,” said Moore. That week he was attended to and cared for, surrounded by nurses and doctors who knew his name—something he never got in life.

Five Days is not a story about Baltimore, or about policing, he emphasized. It’s about poverty, and about what we as a society will tolerate: “How much pain we will allow others to endure, who gets a shot and who doesn’t, who gets an opportunity and who doesn’t.” In a year when voting issues are at the forefront of the news, he said, he could think of no more important issue than poverty “and the pain and trauma that is attached to it.”

Moore then turned the focus on his audience, speaking of the people they serve in the libraries where they work: “The children you see every day who are returning to a shelter, who are wearing the same thing they wore yesterday, whose meal that they got at school might be the only meal they have all day.” What is our collective responsibility?, he asked, and then answered for the room. Your job and responsibility, said Moore, is to ensure that knowledge and access are equally distributed, that education is something everyone can strive for, that the library is a place not only to check out books but to look for jobs, connect with the Wi-Fi, and fill out census forms. “You are the community organizers,” he emphasized. “You are the community uplifters.”

What set him apart from the other Wes Moore, he explained, was not that his mother moved him from Baltimore to New York, or that she enrolled him in military school. “What happened to me is that I found myself surrounded by people—role models, mentors, librarians, community activists, people who let me know the world was bigger than what was directly in front of me.”

Every person in that auditorium can make a difference, Moore said. The people in his life “told me what it meant to be free. That’s what you all do. You provide places of freedom. You provide places where people can dream.”

There’s a state of urgency around poverty and social equity right now, Moore reiterated. In closing, as several thousand library workers, leaders, and supporters prepared to mingle and learn from one another for the next four days, Moore sent them on their way with a directive. What’s needed, he said, is “for every one of us to simply get up and do our job, and heal this pain.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Dellana Diovisalvo

I wholeheartedly agree with Wes Moore's sentiments. Libraries have been my home away from home since I was a teen and I came to understand the value of libraries as Democratic institutions of freedom and equality while in college. Raised in a modest household by working class parents, I was proud to be the first member of my family to earn a Bachelor's degree. I loved school and valued education so much I went on to earn 2 Masters degrees, 1 in Library Science. After 15 years experience in libraries I am now I'm a single mom, trying to support myself and my son, while paying student loan bills, on $30,000 a year. I am fully aware that many library patrons are in worse financial situations than mine but I feel a conversation about libraries and poverty should include the fact that so many librarians are part of a new population--the highly educated working poor.

Posted : Jan 29, 2020 09:09


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