PLA Headliners Speak to Power and Passion | PLA 2020

The engaged and engaging slate of speakers at the Public Library Association (PLA) 2020 conference, held from February 25–29 in Nashville, TN, featured guests ranging from politicians to lawyers to journalists to satirists. Audiences filled the ballroom at Nashville’s Music City Center for each keynoter, and every session ended with an excited buzz and plenty of conversation.

The engaged and engaging slate of speakers at the Public Library Association (PLA) 2020 conference, held from February 25–29 in Nashville, TN, featured guests ranging from politicians to lawyers to journalists to satirists. Audiences filled the ballroom at Nashville’s Music City Center for each keynoter, and every session ended with an excited buzz and plenty of conversation.

Stacey Abrams with microphoneStacey Abrams—nonprofit CEO, 11-year Georgia House representative, 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, and acclaimed romance novelist under the name Selena Montgomery—kicked off the opening speaker session by providing the audience with multiple photo ops, so they could then put their phones down and listen to her conversation with Mia Henry, founder of Freedom Lifted and facilitator of PLA’s social justice workshop Equity Starts with Us. Once Abrams got down to business, she was all about public power—the right to vote, the right to be counted, and the right to be heard.

Abrams’s mother was a college librarian, and she grew up with a view of libraries as both places to ask for help and safe spaces where people can question what they learn. “Public libraries are ground zero for public access to our public power,” she said.

This year libraries will be also ground zero for the census, said Abrams, a powerful tool for public equity. Some $8 billion in federal funding was not allocated as it should have been over the past decade, thanks to failures to count everyone in the last census, she noted; libraries can play a critical part in communicating information about the questions and procedures involved. “If you do not get counted,” Abrams said, “you do not count.”

The one power held by everyone in a democracy, Abrams pointed out, is the ability to vote—“We’ve been taught to decouple voting from power,” she said. “I want to change that.” She spoke of her ongoing work for voting rights, noting that voter suppression was built into the founding of this country and that fighting it “is the only way we make real the promise of the Constitution.” Voting rights are not an old issue that has been solved, and voter suppression is pervasive across the country in ways that are not always visible. “We do not have one democracy in the United States,” she said. “We have 50 different democracies,” with varying rules and levels of access.

What drives Abrams, she told the packed auditorium, is the question: “How do we fix it for everyone so anyone can participate?” It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that nothing matters, she said—but she’s encouraged by those who continue to persevere.



Bettina Love head shotPLA’s Big Ideas speaker program featured a stellar lineup as well. Bettina Love, associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia and author of We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Beacon Pr.), launched the series Thursday morning with a rigorous look at racism and what can be done to disrupt it. Love spoke directly to the library workers and educators in the room, pointing out how the school system works against children of color and exhorting them to learn black and brown history to help dismantle that. “Education can’t save us,” Love told the crowd; “We have to save education.”

She urged those present to move from being allies to becoming co-conspirators, away from the futility of white guilt. White privilege was not earned, Love said, “so let’s spend it,” and use that privilege to take risks. Love finished with a focus those doing the work of antiracism, including Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, United We Dream, and the Black Educators Network. “Sometimes we try to do change on our own, but that’s against history,” she said. “Things are changed with a group. It’s called Power to the People.”

Haben Girma head and shouldersHaben Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, is a disability rights lawyer and author. She spoke with passion and humor of her life, from growing up in Oakland as the child of Eritrean immigrants and learning to surf (with the aid of a water guide who “helped steer around sharks”) to her undergraduate days at Lewis & Clark University. There, the menus in the cafeteria were not posted in any accessible format and she was unable to determine which meals she could eat as a vegetarian. The manager told her they were busy and didn’t have time to accommodate special needs—“Just to be clear,” Girma noted wryly, “eating is not a special need.” Once she read up on the Americans with Disabilities Act and confronted him with what she had learned, however, he began emailing her daily menus and she discovered the power of advocacy. When the admissions staff at Harvard told her that they had never had a deafblind student before, Girma responded that she had never been to Harvard Law School before, so they should be on equal footing.

Disabled people are the world’s largest minority group, Girma explained, and any innovation that helps the disabled community tends to benefit everyone—such as curb cuts, instituted to help those with mobility disabilities but that also benefit travelers with suitcases, parents with strollers, and skateboarders. The first typewriter keyboards were invented to aid blind writers; deaf users were early adopters of email protocols. “I define disability as an opportunity for innovation,” she said. “Disability, any kind of challenge, is an opportunity to come up with a new solution.”

When advocating for accessible innovations, Girma suggested, tell people that innovating for disabilities float all boats. And if that doesn’t work, she added, mention the legal requirements. “Don’t be afraid of the unknown,” she told the audience.” Don’t be afraid of people who are different. Ask questions. You will find a way.”

Soledad O'Brien head and shouldersOn Saturday, February 29, broadcast journalist and producer Soledad O’Brien took the stage to talk about the need for compassion to accompany the advocacy of storytelling. She outlined her own story of rising through the ranks, from her start at WBZ TV in Boston to her time as Bureau Chief at NBC in San Francisco. Her turning point as a reporter, she said, was when she found herself being pushed to badger a grieving mother for more commentary. The first time she realized that journalism was a form of service was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, living in an RV on New Orleans’s Canal Street and going out with the coast guard. “I got what the job is,” said O’Brien, “and the job is figuring out how to tell stories and elevate people’s experience to serve them better.”

When her Cuban mother and Australian father got married in 1958, interracial marriage was illegal in Baltimore, where they lived, so they were wed in Washington, DC. People advised her parents not to have children because they would be discriminated against, but O’Brien is the fifth of six. “My mom said, if you wait for people to get what you’re doing, you may wait a long time,” she noted. Her parents’ journey, O’Brien said, taught her that opting out was not a solution: “To help fix society’s problems you actually have to dig in and talk to people.”

Her broadcasts about food insecurity on campuses and the “Black in America” series are the results of that lifelong call to action—and when her producers wanted her to frame one of her documentaries’ young protagonists as the daughter of a crack addict and an alcoholic, O’Brien held her ground to describe the young woman in terms of her studies and activities. The story, she said, about the power of education to change people’s lives, and using her parents’ dysfunction to label her was dehumanizing. “We imbue middle-class stories with a sense of agency, but not people of color or poor people,” O’Brien pointed out.

For many, she concluded, libraries are an introduction to what makes democracy possible. There’s a mission for everyone present to bring people in libraries’ doors—and for libraries to work with their communities, including journalists, to tell stories that serve the greater public.



Samantha Bee head and shouldersWinding up an idea-packed conference, comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, actress, and television host Samantha Bee gave the closing keynote on Saturday afternoon. Speaking with journalist and producer Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, Bee wasted no time cutting to the current political moment. “In this current era,” she said in answer to Modarressy-Tehrani’s question on motivation, “it’s not just TV people who have to find the energy to keep going. Everybody does. I think we all know what I’m talking about.” On her show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, she and the writers try hard to be purposeful, and even joyful, she noted—although she admitted that they also “do a lot of dick jokes.”

Finding the humor is harder this election cycle, she noted. “The comedy presented itself on a delicious banquet in 2016,” she said. “Now we’re having to fashion a banquet out of tofurkey.” And many of the themes have only amplified since then, Bee pointed out, such as rampant misogyny. Someday in the future “we will leave this planet in a vessel, and someone will mansplain to the female captain how to park this ship.”

Who and what inspires her? “I don’t like books,” said a deadpan Bee. “That’s my surprise reveal.” (Also an untrue one—she grew up reading as an escape from the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her grandmother, she recalled, and still reads extensively.) In addition to Gourmet Magazine and Sigourney Weaver, Bee expressed enormous admiration for the conference’s opening speaker Abrams, adding that former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who won a pot of some $50,000 in Full Frontal’s “Totally Unrigged Primary” game for his campaign and then dropped out of the race, should give the money to Abrams—and that she would gladly pull the lever this fall on a Bernie Sanders–Abrams ticket.

When it comes to this year’s election, Bee acknowledged that “I have a sense of existential dread, and I’m not different from anyone else in this room.” Still, she appreciates that her work involves constant learning and surfacing new ideas and ways of looking at them—although certain subjects are not debatable, Bee added. “You should not put children in cages at the border. There are lines in the sand—I don’t care about any of the nuances.”

“I’m not sure how to put this democracy together again,” she said. “It’s something I think about all the time.” One place to start, however, is media literacy—“This is where you come in,” she told the room. And when an audience member suggested that she hold the planned “Rock the Census” show at a library, Bee’s wide-eyed, enthusiastic take on the idea earned roaring applause.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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