Indianapolis Public Library CEO Steps Down in Response to Allegations of Systemic Racism

On the evening of August 20, Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) CEO Jackie Nytes announced that she would step away from her role, effective at the end of August, in response to accusations that IndyPL leadership has perpetuated systemic racism throughout the system. 

interior of Indianapolis Public Library Central Library
Indianapolis Public Library's Central Library

On the evening of August 20, Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) CEO Jackie Nytes announced that she would step away from her role, effective at the end of August, in response to accusations that IndyPL leadership has perpetuated systemic racism throughout the system. Black staff members and the library union spoke to the press over the summer about their experiences with racism, ableism, homophobia, and sexual harassment from other workers and leadership, and called for Nytes, who is white, and Board President Jose Salinas, who is Latino, to step down. In August the Central Indiana Community Foundation announced that it would withhold funding for the library until those charges are addressed.

Nytes, who had been CEO since 2012, was most recently reappointed at the end of 2019, with her three-year term originally planned to conclude at the end of 2022. Chief Public Services Officer John Helling will take the role of interim CEO effective September 1; the search process for a new CEO will begin immediately. Salinas will not step down from his position as board president.

“It has been my greatest joy to serve the Indianapolis community in this role, and I feel fortunate to have facilitated many significant and lasting changes for the library and how we serve our city,” said Nytes in a press release. “From our efforts with technology literacy and ebooks to partnerships with arts and cultural organizations to our intentional efforts to diversify our materials, I am proud to have worked with an amazing staff to steer the Library with passion and commitment.”

Prior to her resignation, Nytes stated that equity efforts at the library are a work in progress, and that she believed IndyPL can tackle these challenges. “Is there racism within our library system? I’m certain there is,” Nytes said. “We would not be an American institution if we did not have threads of racism woven through our policies, our practices—frankly, through our hearts. That’s what we’ve got here in America nowadays, and we’re no different. But I do feel there are many ways for people to address their concerns, and they are doing so.”

 

INADEQUATE RESPONSE

Allegations of racial inequity and bias at IndyPL were amplified last spring when former Activities Guide Bree Flannelly came forward to talk about her experiences. Flannelly, who worked at IndyPL for five years, left the library in February, citing a decline in her health she stated was brought on by job stress and “gaslighting,” which included bullying by her supervisor; she said she felt “dismissed” by her peers and leadership.

As she prepared to speak at the May 24 virtual board meeting, Salinas muted her; he later said he was concerned that Flannelly, who was having trouble with her internet connection, may not have heard his warning not to discuss personnel issues in public before she began, so he turned off her audio in order to read the statement again. Board members Patricia Payne and Khaula Murtadha immediately objected, and he unmuted Flannelly, but the action angered many viewers.

“My intent was not to silence her—it was to make sure she understood the parameters of the open public comments section of the meeting,” Salinas told LJ. “I have apologized. It was inartfully done in my part. I relied on the process I use as a criminal court judge, in Zoom meetings.”

Stephen Lane, currently Indianapolis special collections librarian, worked with Flannelly for several years in the Learning Curve, Central Library’s children’s and teens’ area. In 2017, he recalled, a fellow employee used a derogatory term, “porch monkeys,” to describe Black people—an incident that other IndyPL workers reported to local media outlets as well. At the time, said Lane, several other employees began discussing whether they thought the phrase was offensive. “I turned around and told them it was offensive, and why,” said Lane, but they insisted it wasn’t. He attempted to bring it to the attention of management, he said, but “When I tried to bring it up with my supervisor, she would argue, or she’d push back and say, ‘Well, I think they were just trying to figure it out.’ I’m a person of color, and when I tell them it’s offensive, I think they should listen to that. They didn’t.” Flannelly met with a similar lack of response, he said.

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, Flannelly wrote a letter to library leadership alleging that Central Library employees also made other denigrating remarks about Muslims, Africans, and Asians. Flannelly brought up these issues at the May 24 board meeting as well.

The seven-person board is appointed by three bodies: Indianapolis Public Schools, City-County Council, and Marion County Board of Commissioners. Several employees LJ spoke with felt that board members tend to side with Nytes. Former trustee Terri Jett was reportedly often critical of Nytes’s decisions, but she was not reappointed by the City-County Council when her four-year term ended in April 2020. While several library employees have stated that Jett was not reappointed because she often clashed with Salinas and Nytes, and have written to the City-County Council to support her reinstatement, neither Nytes nor Salinas have influence over the appointing entities’ decisions when a board member’s term is up.

In June the board agreed to conduct a climate study to assess balance of power, morale, and racial equity issues at the library, although not how it should be done. Murtadha and Payne feel the study task force should be made up of library workers, school librarians, patrons, and outside experts, to be led by Murtadha. At the July 26 board meeting, Salinas stated that he would prefer the study be conducted by an independent party to maintain confidentiality.

About 35 people attended the meeting, several of them holding signs that read “Equality now!” and “Racists out now!” At issue was also a July 23 email Nytes inadvertently sent to staff at the Eagle Branch, among others, asking leaders of the Black community for letters to the editors of various local papers and signed testimonials in support of her and the board. In it she cited “the recent press about the Library, much of which is the result of some personal disagreements.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several people spoke out against IndyPL leadership, and seven—including former and current library employees and patrons—called for Nytes and Salinas to resign.

 

GETTING HEARD

In a city that is nearly 30 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census, about 18 percent of IndyPL employees are Black, although those numbers are not evenly distributed—the majority of Black employees are front-facing staff, with far fewer in leadership positions. According to library statistics published in the Indianapolis Business Journal, as of the end of 2019, 73 percent of staff were white, incrementally down from 77 percent in 2011; a number of the staff members who spoke to LJ and the local press have noted that the library has struggled with hiring and retaining workers of color.

Several library workers LJ spoke with feel that Black employees in managerial roles don’t realize what lower-level staff are dealing with. “You might talk to someone in our system and they will say to you, ‘Everything is fine here. We have a couple of problems, but not a lot of big problems,’” said one staff member. “For some people, it’s okay. They’re just not hit with what’s going on. We’re operating in silos, so if you’re at one branch, you might never hear about what’s going on in another branch. Or you don’t even know what’s going on in your branch because people are trying to make it work—they’re just putting a smile on their face, gritting their teeth, and doing what they need to do.”

“When you’re having issues, either with other staff or with leadership, and you try to raise those, you get seen as a troublemaker in the system,” said Lane. “You get a lot of pushback.”

In a July conversation with LJ, Nytes acknowledged that not all complaints get heard equally, but believes that has more to do with position than race. “I think most administrators probably do end up getting listened to more than frontline staff, because administrators and managers are in a position where they’re supposed to be speaking up,” she said. “And that has nothing to do with race. It’s because of their roles and their responsibilities…. I don’t know that our frontline staff of color have any more difficulty getting their voice through to upper management than the frontline white staff does.”

People often don’t come forward to their supervisors proactively, noted Public Service Associate Michael Torres, president of AFSCME Local 3395, the library’s union. Employees are afraid of retaliation, so they come to him, as union representative, instead. “They don’t feel that anything’s going to get done unless the union gets involved,” he told LJ, “because [management] can’t ignore us.” About 260 to 280 full-time, salaried public service and support staff out of 575 are eligible to join the union, which represents approximately 60 dues-paying members.

Much of the problem stemmed from Nytes’s lack of trust in those under her, several library workers said. “As you can tell from the news reports, [Nytes] doesn’t want to believe what’s right in her face. People are saying, ‘This is what I’ve experienced. This is a problem. This is a concern,’” noted an employee who wished to remain anonymous. “‘But she wants to say, ‘Oh, no, that’s just your perspective. We’re working on these things. Everything is fine.’”

Not all of IndyPL’s Black staff took issue with Nytes’s leadership. One librarian LJ spoke with, who asked that her name not be used, commended Nytes, noting that she knew many library workers by name and looked out for their well-being—for example, making sure the employee had enough sick time after a long illness. “I know my story is not everybody else’s story,” she said, but noted Nytes’s push to renovate and open new branches in underserved neighborhoods—three since 2019 and three more currently in construction—and a number of Black hires for managerial positions. “A lot of us have been elevated,” she told LJ.

 

EQUITY WORK

Nytes said that IndyPL has been taking steps to address these issues across the system.

In September 2020, IndyPL presented its Budgeting for Equity plan to the City-County council, and in February launched a new 2021–23 strategic plan that acknowledges the need for racial equity to drive the library’s efforts, according to an April 30 press release.

In May, managers and supervisors began a learning series focusing on implicit bias and microaggressions in the workplace facilitated by an outside consultant, including a group read and discussion of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which will run through October. The library also launched its first organizational Equity Council, with a diverse mix of staff from all departments and various position levels. The council is tasked with a series of outcomes, including increased racial equity training and development opportunities across all departments; revamping the library’s recruitment package to reach a broader audience; using the library’s Racial Equity Toolkit, adapted from the GARE (Government Alliance on Race and Equity) Toolkit, for programming, training, communications projects, and other initiatives; and more.

“The training isn’t just for me and my executive team—the training has to work its way through the organization,” noted Nytes. “While our big keystone training moment is racial equity training, because we really feel it’s instrumental in getting everyone to a kind of a point of acknowledgement, we’re not all the way through that yet.” The library recently added both pre- and post-training exercises about applying what has been learned, said Nytes, “because one of the things we started realizing is that if you don’t talk about the training you have been through, you are much less likely to be able to put it into practice.”

Going forward, the library plans to conduct a staff climate survey and review, offer optional bystander training, and revise the staff grievance and whistleblower process.

“We are talking about a lot of very difficult things,” Nytes told LJ. “We’re talking about the way people have been treated, talking about the way people feel, talking about our own organization and how it functions. Things are being said that people held back and didn’t say before, and we’ve committed ourselves to hearing those things. We want to hear those things. But that means there’s a lot of really tough stuff being talked about. And if you’re sincere about this effort, you keep listening.”

But damage has been done, Torres said in July. “It seems to me like this [issue of racism] is being swept underneath the rug—they’re trying to dress it up with, ‘We’re doing this, we’re apologizing.’ But at the same time, we’re still dealing with it,” he told LJ. “[Nytes] talks about, ‘I’m going through this journey.’ As one of my members said, her journey is our trauma.”

 

LOOKING FORWARD

Some don’t feel that IndyPL’s transformation should happen gradually. “To make this different,” said an employee LJ spoke with, “you have to have wholesale change. You can’t just do a little piece at a time—that’s not going to get us to where we need to be.”

IndyPL is not the only Indiana library institution facing calls for rapid equitable change: at the Indiana Library Federation (ILF) an external investigation looked into allegations of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Lucinda Nord, executive director since 2016, left ILF in July; leadership has not commented on whether she resigned or was terminated.

On August 9, the Indianapolis Foundation, an affiliate of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF)—which oversees a $28 million library fund that offers grants for innovative programming by public, academic, and school libraries in Marion county—announced in a Facebook post that it would not give money to IndyPL “until the planned race climate improvement process has concluded and significant, meaningful and measurable change toward a more equitable internal environment is evident.”

Grants from CICF do not pay for library general operations, which are funded through tax dollars, but support special projects and access to databases—which have been funded through May 2022. “It is our hope and expectation that the Library will make meaningful progress in creating a more inclusive and equitable daily culture of respect for all of its employees and daily users of the Library,” a comment on the post from CICF read. “If assessing and improving its internal culture is taken seriously and progress is being made, we will happily make that grant again next May and hopefully others before that.”

When asked if she thinks Nytes is racist, a staff member LJ spoke with felt that it came down to an unwillingness to listen to what is being said. “Like many white progressives, she thinks that she has the answers to lots of questions. But she doesn’t. So instead of operating in a way where you go to people and are collaborative about how things could be better, she just goes off on her tangent about what needs to be done. It’s a real control issue,” she told LJ. “As the CEO she has oversight, but she should be operating at a higher level.”

The Equity Plan is a good start, the employee noted, but it won’t necessarily answer all IndyPL’s problems. Jessica Moore, the library’s former diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, conducted a series of listening sessions, noted Lane. “I was bringing all these same issues forward with her. And then nothing happened.” Instead, he added, Moore began to focus on bringing in businesses and vendors owned by people of color, rather than focusing on work culture. She did establish an Equity Council, which he sees as a step in the right direction. Moore left the library on June 1, after two and a half years in the role. On August 5, IndyPL announced that Genira Newell, a library services supervisor at the Lawrence Branch and a graduate student studying human resources development at Indiana State University, will serve as the library’s Human Resources Diversity Fellow.

Torres is pleased that Nytes stepped down, noting that the months-long campaign demonstrated the strength of union members, staff, and community members standing together. “We persisted in asking for the change that finally came,” he told LJ, noting unding and donor issues could well have escalated if the conflict had continued. At press time, CICF had not issued any statement about their plans for future funding.

Torres and Lane expressed hope that Salinas will resign the board presidency, and both want to see the union play a greater role in library affairs, including helping push the climate study forward now that Nytes’s participation in the study is not a sticking point.

“We’re going to ask to be involved in committees, in management meetings,” Torres said. “If the union was there, I believe they could fill in some gaps, and we would play a more significant role in shaping the library, because we’ve already proven that we can take steps to create change.”

Lane agrees that strengthening the relationship between library leadership and the union will help both sides. “The union has been on the frontlines of doing real DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work for the Indianapolis Public Library since 2006,” he told LJ. “I think the union has to be a big part of the process in selecting a new CEO that will represent the combined interests of the public and library workers. We need a CEO and leadership that supports the amazing initiatives that come from library workers making connections with the communities we serve, and not the other way around where we support the private interests of the CEO that don’t always align with the needs of our communities or library workers.”

In a joint statement on August 20, the board said, “We thank Jackie for her dedicated service over the years and agreed that this is the correct time for a change in leadership.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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