Jessica Bratt on Let's Talk About Race and the Legacy of Libraries 4 Black Lives

In summer 2016, four librarians—Jessica Anne Bratt, Amita Lonial, Sarah Lawton, and Amy Sonnie—created Libraries 4 Black Lives (L4BL), an online space for libraries to support the Movement for Black Lives and develop a support community for advocates doing racial justice work in libraries. While L4BL is no longer active, Bratt, youth services manager at the Grand Rapids Public Library, MI, has continued her advocacy and social justice work. LJ recently caught up with her to find out more about what she’s been doing.

Jessica Anne Bratt head shotIn summer 2016, four librarians—Jessica Anne Bratt, Amita Lonial, Sarah Lawton, and Amy Sonnie—created Libraries 4 Black Lives (L4BL), an online space for libraries to support the Movement for Black Lives and develop a support community for advocates doing racial justice work in libraries. The #libraries4blacklives hashtag was active on Twitter and L4BL moderated a panel at the 2017 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting on librarianship and social justice, and that year Bratt was featured in an MTV News article titled “In Trump’s America, Activist Librarians Who Won’t Be Shushed.”

While L4BL is no longer active, Bratt, youth services manager at the Grand Rapids Public Library, MI, has continued her advocacy and social justice work. She developed the Let’s Talk About Race toolkit to provide library staff and caretakers with resources for story times, programming, and conversation. Together with Freedom Lifted founder Mia Henry, she helped develop the Policing Doesn’t Protect Us list of resources for different learning styles. In June, Bratt and Brigitte Vittrup, professor of childhood development at Texas Woman’s University, spoke with WNYC’s The Takeaway on why White Parents Need To Talk to Their Kids About Race—and where they can start. LJ recently caught up with Bratt to find out more about what she’s been doing.

LJ : L4BL was a strong, timely concept. Have you considered taking that work further in a different iteration?

Jessica Anne Bratt: Back when we started it, we got support from individual librarians. Now people are outwardly supporting Black Lives Matter, and that wasn't necessarily true when we started. Those were risks for all of our careers. Luckily my work supported me—a few of my friends had a run-ins. It wasn't something that the field was even comfortable supporting at the time. So it was a lot on us.

The Public Library Association [PLA] reached out to us and said that they were resurrecting their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion task force, and asked if we would be willing to get it started in whatever way it needed. PLA at that time had the money to steer forward, and figure out how to create a shared framework and language. They really gave us the legs to start building the breadth and depth for whatever the next iteration of L4BL would look like on a national scope.

At that point, we didn't have the capacity or funding to do anything more [with L4BL], so we switched over to this task force and put in our efforts to bring in a facilitator, Mia Henry. She did initial training to give us a shared knowledge in oppression work and liberation, and PLA, from there, was able to do regional trainings that were happening up until COVID.

At this point, while it would be super easy to resurrect it, it would also be very reckless. It was just the four of us. If there was an industry push where people were committed, I could see that being talked about. But for the four of us to try to uplift a huge undertaking, especially when money is involved, we didn't feel like it would be right for us to handle that.

I don't know if we would be open if there were [other] passionate librarians. I feel like a lot of librarians are trying to out-woke each other, and have not been committed to this work. We had a lot of dreams and a lot of good ideas, but couldn't figure out how to do that in a widespread effort at the time. I feel like now that there's a resurgence of energy. I don't know if we're in the space in our lives where we could do justice to that work. But the others might have a different take.

What have the other members been up to?

Sarah Lawton's work is really steeped in GARE [the Government Alliance on Race and Equity]. She has gone forward to bring the GARE analysis to libraries and help its work. I know Amy Sonnie was doing a lot of research in the field. And Amita was heading up, for a while, the PLA task force.

Where did your advocacy work go after L4BL?

I went the route of trying to figure out what would be the best way to bring this work to the field. Going to these different [EDI] trainings, a lot of times people would still come away with, “How does this directly apply in the work that I do?” I also realized children's or youth services were overlooked. So I went at how to take this work and narrow it to youth services—primarily early childhood development work, age zero to five—and how do I equip both the librarians and community parents and caretakers with the tools to be successful in talking about race and oppression, and celebrate differences? How do I package that for childhood educators?

Part of my goal in helping youth services librarians, whether it's nationwide or directly in my library, was empowering them to figure out how to correctly talk about race. A lot of times you would hear from white people that they don't feel comfortable talking about race, and a lot of people of color don't want white people talking about race because they do it wrong. So it was really trying to help white people understand what it is about when they go into race talks, why it's hard for them—whether that is their upbringing, or the fact that it makes them uncomfortable, all of the loaded stuff that they've been conditioned to understand about race—and then the fact that when they do speak about race, it's not in a way that is affirming for people of color, especially for young kids. It's usually othering or pointing out differences in a way that makes light or doesn't normalize it.

It's really un-training how people’s conscious and unconscious biases come out. A lot of times white people’s exposure [to people of color] isn't until college or even on a job, and then a lot of harmful stuff ends up coming out and they perpetrate a lot of trauma. In that same vein, you have a lot of people who want to do their best, they want to empower kids and they have really good intentions, but those intentions don't really execute well.

I was trying to figure out how to take all of that and make the necessary work that needs to be done—self-work—for the librarians, so then when they do come out in front of people, whether it's an all-white audience or a mixed audience, they're empowered and they can accurately represent a shared American history. And if it does include a shameful part, acknowledge that, and give those parents a way to model and see that you can have these talks that aren't laden [with] all of the fear that a lot of parents have of “I'm going to destroy my child's innocence” when these are people’s everyday lives.

I feel like there's a way for people to be able to engage in this work, that it helps the next generation have those tools to disrupt their own biases. That's really what it's about, having people have the courage to do that, giving them the tools, and then helping them in a solidarity way—like, you may not be a Black professional, you might not be a Black child, but you understand that these are the issues that are facing us as a nation, and this is a way that you can help stand in solidarity.

I particularly appreciate how you address the assumption that children living in diverse communities, or going to racially mixed schools, will just pick up antiracist concepts—how that’s not the case, and that caregivers and other adults need to be proactive.

When I was putting this work together, I sat and talked with a lot of parents and kids, young and old, to work with the anecdotal evidence. It was really eye-opening because there was this circular reasoning—Is this something that needs to come out of the home, or will the school do it, or will [children] pick it up from the environment, and there never seemed to be a general consensus.

I was always taught to check in. So often we're taught, Oh, you checked in around gender, or you checked in around sex education, with your kid. And then I started seeing that people weren't really checking in around race. It was just this assumption that they'll figure it out, or school will do it.

Do you have further plans for Policing Doesn’t Protect Us?

Mia and I collaborated on the first iteration because we knew that there were a lot of Google lists floating around, and we know not everyone is a list person—some people need visuals. We know that not everyone can pick up a 300-page book. Some people are consumed with podcasts, or they might have time when the kids are asleep to see a documentary. We have a few ideas. Currently Mia is doing a history of policing class for 12 to 18-year-olds in conjunction with the Freedom School, so once that gets off the ground we're going to talk about what needs to happen after that. That was just an initial way to make sure that as talks are happening around the country about reform or abolition, people can feel that they have a way to figure out what people who are pressuring for policy are talking about, and have accessible ways to consume good information.

Where will you take your work next?

For Let's Talk About Race I'm thinking of writing a book. I was already doing trainings primarily aimed at librarians. I have been asked about trainings for early childhood education, specifically teachers and parents, so I'm looking at packaging content and figuring out how to make it accessible for the different groups and their needs. A handbook [that is] part narrative, part self-reflective, and would provide Let's Talk About Race and story times [would] help this work be accessible to the field, or provide supplementary activities for people trying to move forward doing this work.

Since COVID, most trainings are virtual, and that is going to be super interesting, because I heavily rely on in-person and group interactions. I have done webinars, but it still isn't the same. So I'm taking time to get content that I truly believe will be effective and smooth, whether it is virtual or in-person.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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