Free Library of Philadelphia Director Siobhan Reardon Resigns After Criticisms of System-wide Racism

Siobhan Reardon, who served as president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) since 2008, has resigned in the wake of accusations of systemic racism throughout the library. The library has been accused of discrimination for several years, including in public discussion during City Council budget hearings in April 2019.

Philadelphia Free Library main branch
Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Library
Photo by Beyond My Ken CC BY-SA 4.0,

Siobhan Reardon, who served as president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) since 2008, has resigned in the wake of accusations of systemic racism throughout the library.

The library has been accused of discrimination for several years, including in public discussion during City Council budget hearings in April 2019. A subsequent progress report revealed that full-time Black FLP employees earned the least of all racial groups, and that a full-time diversity and inclusion officer promised in 2017 had yet to be appointed.

Over the past month, three groups of employees sent three open letters to library leadership criticizing FLP’s lack of action around equity, inadequate plans for safely reopening, and a lack of responsiveness from the administration.

Dissatisfaction with the library’s responses mounted, and many workers spoke out both within the library and to local press, calling for Reardon’s resignation. Reardon stepped down on July 23. In a letter to the library’s Board of Trustees and the Foundation Board of Directors, she announced that she would resign her position as president and director, and transition to president of the Foundation.

“It has been an incredible 12 years full of highs and lows, and we have achieved much during this time,” she wrote. “I leave knowing that the mandate that the boards gave me years ago—to turn the Free Library into a world class, 21st century library—has largely been achieved.” Reardon was named LJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year.

Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement that read, in part, “I want to thank Siobhan Reardon for her service to the City, and I wish her well in her future endeavors. The Free Library of Philadelphia strives to be a welcoming and inclusive public space, and that mission must endure. After hearing calls for reform from Library employees and the public, it is clear that a change in leadership is necessary.” Kenney had reportedly pressured her to resign, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The library has not yet released information on its search for a new director, or how the Foundation board will be reconfigured; representatives of FLP and the two boards were not available for comment. A meeting of the Board of Trustees is set for Tuesday, July 28.

 

PUSHING FOR EQUITY

While recent events have pushed the national conversation around equity to the forefront, it has been a topic of contention at FLP for years. In 2017, Alexis Ahiagbe, director of volunteer services at the Parkway Central Branch, received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to mount a social justice project. She proposed programming around the killing of African American men by the police, hoping to invite members of the community and police force for conversations in neighborhood libraries. But she met with resistance from the outset. According to Ahiagbe, she was told by Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Sara Moran that the title she picked for the project, “Black and Blue,” was “controversial and could present problems,” portraying law enforcement in a negative light; she was told to change it.

She continued to plan the project under the new title, “The Legacy of Race and Policing,” and began conversations with colleagues and potential partners. That August she convened a meeting with Lynn Williamson, chief of the neighborhood library services division; Andrew Nurkin, director of civic and cultural engagement; Moran; FLP Community Organizer Fred Ginyard; and several others. When Ahiagbe presented her programming outline, she told LJ, Williamson told her that “my people and my issue were violent, and that we should give the money back to NEH and we should not have the program. Of course I found that to be offensive, and I said so, and so did Fred.” Williamson also stated that if the library was going to give space to groups such as Black Lives Matter, they should also invite in “divergent opinions”—which, she said when Ginyard questioned her, could include hate groups. The other white people in the room looked shocked and embarrassed, Ahiagbe said, but didn’t speak up when Ginyard challenged Williamson on her language.

Ahiagbe complained about the incident, giving FLP’s HR department a verbal statement about what had occurred. A week later, the library’s chief of staff and deputy director of customer engagement brought Ahiagbe in for an investigational interview. Nothing further was said until Reardon sent an email on December 29 acknowledging that there were issues to be worked on, and that Williamson’s comments were ill-considered, but that no action would be taken.

This lack of concrete action, and other incidents, inspired Ahiagbe to create a survey asking employees about their experiences of racism at FLP, which she posted to the online staff forum—with her supervisor’s approval—in December 2018. Within hours, she told LJ, Reardon had taken it down, but not before nearly 60 anonymous respondents—72 percent of whom identified as Black and 19 percent white—detailed accounts of harassment, discrimination, and racial bias. Eighty-six percent said they had experienced or observed racial bias at work.

When the librarians’ union reposted the survey in March 2019, more than 100 gave similar answers, which noted homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, biased hiring and placement practices, and an insufficient process for reporting complaints, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a statement, Reardon called the survey responses “deeply concerning,” and said that system-wide diversity trainings and workshops had been instituted in 2017; one librarian told the Inquirer that diversity training had only begun in fall 2018.

At the April 2019 budget hearing, the rift between FLP management and Philadelphia City Council was evident. When asked about getting more Black board members, FLP Community Organizer Andrea Lemoins told LJ, Board Chair Pamela Dembe said that it was difficult because board members were required to raise $10,000 for the library—to which councilmember Kenyatta Johnson answered, “I know plenty of rich Black people. Ask me. We’ll get them on the board,” according to Lemoins. City Council member Cindy Bass called for Reardon to step down, telling her, “You need to do more, you need to do better.” Council members were not available for comment. (Although City Council approves its budget, it has no direct power over the library, which is an independent city agency.)

During an all-staff day later that month, Reardon stated that the library planned to start a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. This turned into two separate committees: one for the boards, and another for staff and stakeholders, volunteers, and friends. Staff members were not permitted to elect anyone to a cochair position within their committee, said Ahiagbe; rather, a member of the FLP executive office was appointed.

At a remote meeting of community organizers in mid-June, convened to discuss how the library could show its support for social justice issues and Black Lives Matter, Lemoins found herself frustrated. “I suggested the library support a Black caucus, where Black workers could come together, talk about their issues in the library, and come up with plans that are actually heard,” she said. “I suggested that it be on-the-clock-work, that it be paid—there's a line item, strategic initiatives, that actually supports this work. That's the way that we're actually going to make institutional change at the library.”

But management was hesitant to form such a group, so Lemoins reached out to Black coworkers on her own, including Ahiagbe. A Zoom meeting confirmed that “there was a unanimous call to make the institution, Siobhan, and leadership actually take action.”

 

CONCERNED BLACK WORKERS

On June 25 the group, Concerned Black Workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia, issued an open letter to the administration voicing their concerns about routine discrimination, harassment, microaggressions, and other forms of workplace bias, and demanding change, citing “racial discrimination and disregard for Black safety, success, prosperity, and life” at the library, stating that the situation “will no longer be tolerated.”

Black workers in particular felt that deficiencies in safety measures as the library prepared to reopen put them at risk. According to American Public Media’s APM Research Lab, Black Americans experience the highest overall Covid-19 mortality rates—2.3 times as high as for whites and Asians, and 2.2 times as high as for Latinos—and the most disproportionate deaths. The predominance of frontline positions among Black workers threatened to put them at risk upon reopening, whereas many higher-level staff members could continue to work remotely. In addition, Black library workers have been asked to return to their positions in areas where armed white vigilante groups have been patrolling in recent months.

“Now is the time for the Free Library to be anti-racist,” the letter stated, demanding a commitment from FLP to protect Black staff lives. This included a “formal and transparent investigation of Black staff’s concerns regarding physically reporting to Free Library locations.”

The letter’s signers also demanded a plan, to be developed with Black staff, to provide library services that take into account the increased COVID-19 infection and mortality rates of Black employees; support and accommodations for Black staff whose work puts them at risk for racial violence; the same opportunities to work remotely for Black staff as are offered to white staff; and that degreed librarians who work in managerial or executive positions should be redeployed to cover staff shortages caused by COVID-19—207 employees have been laid off since the system shut down in March, 103 of whom are Black and 61 white.

In support, least six authors canceled scheduled events, including Colson Whitehead, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction for his novel The Nickel Boys. Referencing the Concerned Black Workers’ letter, Whitehead tweeted on July 2, “I love doing events at the Free Library, but I am canceling my appearance next week as I am told the situation has not improved.”

Princeton University professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. stated that he would not participate in a July 16 virtual event for his book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own , and a number of other authors slated to appear followed suit.

An Instagram account, @changetheflp, began collecting stories from staff members of color, including reports of having projects micromanaged by white supervisors, having their language in personal conversations criticized, and being reported by fellow employees as having “an odor problem.”

 

VOTE OF NO TRUST

Around the same time as the Concerned Black Workers’ letter was posted, members of AFSCME Local 2187, the library workers’ union, posted a vote of no confidence in library leadership in an open letter to Reardon and the FLP executive staff, Board of Trustees, and FLP Foundation Board of Directors, along with a petition calling for Reardon’s resignation that had garnered more than 1,900 signatures at press time.

Among other concerns, the letter cited alarm at “the utter lack of written safety protocols or communicated best practices from our administration during the COVID-19 pandemic and the re-opening of our libraries and offices—after having more than 100 days to do so.” All locations have remained fully closed, with all staff working remotely. A promised COVID-certified cleaning in all 54 branches had not taken place at the time the letter was written, and questions about staff safety were not addressed at the two FLP town halls held virtually this summer.

It also addressed concerns for the library’s insufficient action around racism and DEI; its “unresponsive and unproductive” human resources department; mishandling of funding for programs and services in neighborhood libraries; a lack of digital equity planning and technology growth; and an incident in June when the city’s Department of Emergency Management (OEM) allowed a branch to be opened as a shelter for the National Guard during citywide protests.

The post called on the board of trustees to terminate Reardon’s presidency, for the Managing Director’s Office to investigate the actions of the three Deputy Managing Directors, and for the city’s Office of Human Resources to begin an immediate audit of FLP’s Human Resources Office. Union representatives should be involved in the selection of the next director, the letter added.

The letter stated, “We are appalled that Free Library administrators let our community libraries become a safe haven for the National Guard when they occupied our City.” On June 3, as protesters took to the streets and many city officials proclaimed their solidarity with the marchers, the OEM directed library officials to unlock the shuttered Wadsworth branch to harbor National Guard troops.

When they learned of the National Guard’s occupation from local news outlets, said FLP Librarian and union shop steward Perry Genovesi, library staff were angry—both at the city’s directive and the lack of communication from library management. “We decided to take matters into our own hands, because enough of us were angry and fired up about it, and dropped a petition,” he told LJ. “The goal was to call out the contradictions in the city’s support that it's giving Black Lives Matter—or at least the lip service it's giving, on the one hand—and on the other hand letting these troops rest inside our library.”

Genovesi launched a petition, National Guard OUT of Philly Libraries!, which garnered more than 2,200 signatures before the Guard was demobilized on June 10. Addressed to OEM director Adam Theil, it read, in part, “All 54 neighborhood libraries of the Free Library of Philadelphia are for the community. They’re for advancing literacy, guiding learning, and inspiring curiosity. They’re not for the housing of state oppression and police terrorism.”

“Branch staff have long been undermined by leadership in all public facing departments,” wrote one signer. “It’s always been left up to us to make the best out of weird directives, demands, and famines. I think this time though, we can stand more closely together and ask some tough questions about why a branch was used as shelter for a militarized killing force.”

 

INADEQUATE RESPONSES

Reardon responded to the Concerned Black Workers in a letter on July 14, stating that “The Free Library of Philadelphia is committed to being an anti-racist environment, one free of discrimination, bias and microaggressions and where our Black employees and other employees of color know they belong. We began this journey years ago, but we have not always gotten it right, and I recognize there is much work to be done.” The letter also noted that FLP had begun its search for a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer. While the letter was signed by Reardon, metadata attached to the document identified its author as Rae Robinson Trotman, SVP of SKDKnickerbocker, a public relations firm.

On July 17, non-Black members of the FLP staff sent another letter to Reardon, executive staff, Board of Trustees, and Foundation Board of Directors expressing solidarity with the Concerned Black Workers.

The Concerned Black Workers did not get a response to their letter from the full Board of Trustees, but rather received an email from Folasade A. Olanipekun-Lewis and Christopher S. Arlene, Board of Trustees members and cochairs of the board’s DEI committee, stating that they “share deep and genuine concern for the issues raised in it” and expressing their commitment to “confronting and eradicating any form of institutionalized racism at the FLP.”

The group also received an email requesting a meeting from Patrick Oates of the Foundation Board of Directors—a body that oversees grants and fundraising but does not have the power to address the concerns of FLP’s Black workers. The trustees have oversight of library policy and the director’s position.

The Chairs of the Board of Trustees sent a response to the non-Black workers on July 19. While the board stated that it agreed with the points made in the Concerned Black Workers’ letter, and that “a detailed plan has been developed by Ms. Reardon and her staff and will be available shortly,” it also expressed the board’s commitment to Reardon’s leadership.

While Reardon has now resigned, the Concerned Black Workers, their allies, and the library union will continue to demand accountability from the FLP Board of Trustees.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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Tony Detwiler

Please do an investigative follow-up article...you may be surprised. Things are not always what they first appear to be.
Thank you

Posted : Jul 27, 2020 08:41


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