ACRL President’s Program Tackles Organizing for Action While Caring for One Another | ALA Annual 2021

The subject of the Association of College and Research Libraries President’s Program at the 2021 American Library Association Annual conference, Making Change: Organizing for Action While Caring for Each Other, on June 24, was a timely one for library workers keeping their advocacy energy up after a challenging year and a half. Speakers discussed taking community organizing approaches to the work of dismantling institutional racism, widening the circle to care for colleagues and community in the ways they need without burning out.

screen shot of Mariame Kaba, Dean Spade, and Emily Drabinski
Clockwise from top l.: Mariame Kaba, Dean Spade, and Emily Drabinski

The subject of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) President’s Program at the 2021 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference, Making Change: Organizing for Action While Caring for Each Other, on June 24, was a timely one for library workers keeping their advocacy energy up after a challenging year and a half. Speakers Dean Spade, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, and Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA in New York—which works to end incarceration of children and young adults by promoting restorative and transformative justice practices—discussed taking community organizing approaches to the work of dismantling institutional racism, widening the circle to care for colleagues and community in the ways they need without burning out. 

Moderators Jon E. Cawthorne, ACRL president and dean of Wayne State University Library, Detroit, and Emily Drabinski, interim chief librarian at the City University of New York Graduate Center, began the session by noting that the conversation carries forward themes of accountability from previous President’s Programs. We talk a lot about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), said Drabinski, but less so about what we can actually do, and asked, “How do you see libraries as spaces for liberatory work?”

Libraries are spaces for exploration and sanctuary, Spade said, but at the same time, are often institutions designed to reproduce the work of white supremacy. We need to dismantle the fantasy that the library is a place of free-flowing information, as well as the liberal myth that “if we all just got educated, we’d be free.”

Kaba, who has just finished her first semester in an LIS program, noted that forces of oppression may live in all institutions in a capitalist state, but that doesn’t dampen their liberatory potential. They don’t need to be romanticized, she added, but we can make them places of possibility—the library is “a place where you don’t have to be a good student, only a learner.”

In response to a question from Drabinski on how libraries can be sources and sites of mutual aid, Spade offered examples ranging from disaster relief to childcare—essentially, any offering that serves as an invitation to collective action. It’s important to distinguish that from charity, he added—charity is about deciding who is deserving, whereas mutual aid invites everyone in. Mutual aid is also important because it builds movements—for example, the increase of uprisings against white supremacy and police violence during the pandemic—and prepares us to cope with disaster.

There is always a role libraries can play here, Spade noted, as places where people come for what they want and need. “The more we know each other and know how to share stuff and know how to make decisions together…the more we’re likely to survive,” said Spade.

“Hope is a discipline,” stated Kaba—a notion that she heard years ago that has stuck with her. “I don’t actually have hope—I do hope,” she added. Hope isn’t a substitute for action, but a basis for it, and a large part of that has to do with repeatedly showing up for the community, colleagues, and friends. Kaba cited the Jesuit practice of accompaniment: living and walking alongside those you serve, and radical hospitality, the idea of making others feel valued and seen.

Libraries have space, she noted, which is at a premium in many communities. That resource should be used for justice work, which can range from serving as a re-entry hub for people getting out of prison to providing a community fridge outside as a welcome for children after school, the elderly, or the unhoused. Dean cautioned against thinking that this work can only be done within one’s professional role as a librarian; Kaba agreed, but added that there was a lot to be done within that role.

We all get tired, said Drabinski. How do you sustain your commitment to activism?

“Has anyone ever had a choice?” countered Spade. Burnout is related to a cultural norm of avoidance—we’re practiced at resenting work. He recommended cultivating a feeling of being “on purpose,” staying in touch with—or reclaiming—the reasons why we do the work in the first place and figuring out how to orient to long-haul work.

Wondrous things happen alongside the terrible all the time, said Kaba; hard news is not the only news. We can work to help lessen suffering knowing that we won’t ever stop it completely. She is also a big fan of “small is all,” she added: she can only do so much as an individual, and then she needs to find partners to help. Everything worthwhile is done with others.

If you don’t know how or where to get started, they said, start by looking online for what’s going on, then follow the people involved on social media. Spade and Kaba suggested Mutual Aid HubIt's Going Down, One Million Experiments, the Abolitionist Library Association, the podcast Rebel Steps, and 9 Solidarity Commitments to/with Incarcerated People for 2021 as jumping-off points.

If you’re a library worker you’re already connected, Kaba pointed out. See what your peers and colleagues are talking about and ask people in your community what they need, never falling back on the assumption that you know. Do hope daily, she concluded. Sincerity is a virtue; you can’t be cynical when you’re building toward an improved future.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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