Positioned for Power: Hiring an EDI Officer | Equity

Hiring an EDI officer requires system-wide support, a clear definition of the role’s parameters, and providing authority to effect changes, not just make suggestions.

Hiring an EDI officer requires system-wide support, a clear definition of the role’s parameters, and providing authority to effect changes, not just make suggestions

As public libraries continue to prioritize integrating equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) throughout programming, services, and hiring practices, many are restructuring their org charts to include a top-level EDI position.

Having an individual who can work across departments, influence policy, and have a direct line of communication with the director and board helps move EDI from the realm of good ideas and intentions to actionable changes. A clearly defined mandate also guards against mission creep in what can be a demanding and challenging job. Because the role is relatively new, established metrics for what works are not yet available to guide directors looking to create an EDI leadership position. But best practices are emerging.

 

WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT

How does a director know that it’s necessary to create an EDI officer position?

It can be a leadership- or board-driven decision, but often employees will let them know, either directly or through back-channel communication. When King County Library System (KCLS), WA, went through its strategic planning process in 2017, EDI was added as a library value, and one of the library strategy team’s recommendations was that it hire an EDI director. Executive Director Lisa Rosenblum had decided to add the department after a planned 2020 levy increase ballot measure, but when the 50-branch system shut its doors in March because of COVID, she thought those plans should be put on hold.

However, that summer her staff told her otherwise. It was difficult for Rosenblum to hear at first, but she took their words to heart. “Staff were not happy. They wanted change now,” she says. “And it was like, okay, budget be damned, plans be damned, we’re going to make this happen.”

She knew right away that an executive position needed to be created: “People look at the chain of command. If this person reports to me, they have my ear. And the rest of the staff knows that we are not just window dressing—we mean business, and that we are going to make systematic change.” In October 2020 Rosenblum hired Dominica Myers, previously associate director of administration with responsibility for companywide racial equity and social impact initiatives at the Seattle Opera, as KCLS’s Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI), with a team of four reports.

Sometimes groundwork will have been done by a consultant making the case to an undecided board, or an EDI committee already in place. At Oak Park Public Library (OPPL), a three-branch system serving a suburb of Chicago, then-director David Seleb convened an Anti-Racism Advisory Board in 2020 after joining an informal community group made up of local administrators, leaders, and business owners to talk about EDI. The advisory board was made up of community members, a library board member, and library staff, including Stephen Jackson, who worked with vulnerable populations in the library’s Social Services Department. “For me, it was the first time within an organization that I really felt my voice was heard,” says Jackson.

The advisory board began work on an anti-racism strategic plan, and recommendations included hiring someone at the executive—rather than management or supervisory—level. The work was similar to what Jackson was doing, and he was ultimately hired out of more than 100 applicants. As OPPL’s director of equity and anti-racism, he reports directly to the executive director (currently interim director Lori Pulliam), and a team of six supports his work.

 

DICTATED BY EVENTS

During the first six months of 2020, with communities weathering COVID shutdowns and equity issues coming to a head nationally, some staff members who were deeply involved in EDI alongside other library duties found balancing multiple responsibilities difficult—and wise directors gave them the opportunity to prioritize EDI.

Before the library created the position for her, Erin Baker, director of EDI at Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL), OH, served as coordinator for organizational resources in HR. During the pandemic she found herself juggling leadership and COVID safety and reopening training and, after George Floyd’s murder, helping Executive Director Jason Kucsma take the library’s EDI work to the next level. “I didn’t feel like I was giving any of these things all the appropriate attention and focus that they deserved,” says Baker. Kucsma and the library board recognized that it was critical to create an EDI directorship position. Baker was confident stepping into the role because “I knew [Kucsma] was committed, he was engaged, and he was willing to do what needed to be done.”

Similarly, “Around 2016 we were in the real throes of a really hard time,” says Richland Library’s Tamara King, then community relations director. The year before, a mass shooting by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had affected many South Carolina residents; Confederate monuments and flags were being taken down, and the area was rife with tension. King sat down with Richland Executive Director Melanie Huggins and told her that staff were having a hard time, and were asking her how the library planned to respond.

Richland initiated a series of community conversation circles that eventually became “Let’s Talk Race” (see also "From the Top"). King began to devote more of her energy to EDI work, and in May 2021 Huggins created the role of chief equity and engagement officer to let her fully focus on equity.

 

WHY TOP-DOWN WORKS

Establishing an EDI position at leadership level has proved to be good practice. All staff may have a responsibility to advance library priorities, but equity needs to be part of the institution’s operational practice on par with maintaining a collection or keeping the facilities running—and requires an individual accountable for it. “There needs to be a designated point person,” says consultant Ozy Aloziem, former manager of EDI at Denver Public Library. “If there’s not someone monitoring it, maintaining it, and making sure that it’s happening, chances are it doesn’t happen.” (Aloziem left the position in May in response the need for a more supportive environment, and is currently consulting with her own company, HEAL INC LLC.)

Top-down EDI leadership works, notes Jackson, not only because it vests the position with authority but because it demonstrates those values throughout the library. “There’s modeling going on” at the executive level, he says. “They’re not asking the rest of the organization to do anything that they haven’t done themselves.”

King praises Huggins for carefully considering the position’s title. “One of the best things Melanie did was not calling it “EDI director” or “EDI manager,” King says. “She made me a chief. I don’t sit on the sidelines while people are making decisions about policy. I walk into the room and I’m able to say, ‘We need to work on this.’”

FULL CIRCLE Lisa Rosenblum (c.) sits in on a Japanese story time at King County Library System. Photo by Julie Acteson

MAKING THE HIRE

Crafting the job description should give everyone involved the opportunity to think about what the role will and will not encompass, and state that explicitly. This is important whether the position will promote an employee who is already doing some of the work involved, or when bringing someone in from outside who may not have a full picture of the existing culture of the library, or libraries in general.

There are pros and cons to hiring from inside and outside. Employees currently doing effective equity work may have found a good fit for their passions and the library’s needs, but might not have the right training to serve as the institution’s EDI point person. “That isn’t to say those skills can’t be fostered,” notes Aloziem. “But it does require recognition that this person is missing some important pieces that passion or context alone won’t be able to grant.”

When an internal candidate does have the right qualifications, though, it can make for a smooth transition. King’s previous successes and access to all departments, including a longstanding relationship with the board, made her a good fit. “You’ve been doing this job—you just didn’t have the title,” King remembers Huggins saying.

Rosenblum chose to hire from outside of the library; while there was a learning curve to the way a large system like KCLS functioned, she appreciated that Myers was coming in without preconceptions and knew she was a collaborative worker. At the time she had about 1,000 employees from a range of backgrounds, political persuasions, and familiarity with EDI work. “I wanted somebody who would not intimidate the staff, who would bring them along and explain why this work was important.”

In addition to a strong interest in EDI and lived experience with equity issues, a candidate should have the ability to build rapport, and keep dialogues going, with a wide range of people. A good candidate might have a facilitation background; experience working with data and research design is also helpful.

But “this job is not for everybody, and just because you identify with one of the particular groups that might be the focus of part of the work does not automatically qualify you for the job,” notes Baker. “A DEI leader is going to be someone who’s been doing the work and has strong communication skills, can think strategically, and has the awareness of implementing DEI initiatives specifically where your library currently is. That’s different across the country because we’re all starting from different spaces and places.”

However an EDI officer is chosen, the salary needs to be comparable to that of any other executive role. Aloziem suggests looking at how similar positions in other local organizations are compensated.

 

PREPARE FOR SUCCESS

The director and board’s support are perhaps the most important components for the role’s success. This requires leadership to have done its own preparation before hiring: learning about what EDI work involves, setting institution-wide and individual priorities, and creating space in their schedules to onboard and supervise the new position. The director needs to communicate clearly to other departments what an EDI officer means for the library and its community, and expectations for how they will interact. This is critical for every library employee to understand. “DEI work is all about collaboration,” explains Baker. “It’s important that your leaders in other areas are matching that same level of engagement and commitment.”

Directors should be clear about their expectations for benchmarks, and explain why. Sometimes strategy will involve slowing down; Baker recalls Kucsma suggesting that she allow some rollout phases of the BIG IDEA—TLCPL’s inclusion, diversity, equity, and access action plan that Baker helped develop—to last longer, depending on how much time staff needed to acclimate.

An open pipeline for collaboration between the EDI leader and the library’s human relations (HR) department should be part of the work from the beginning. That partnership will ultimately influence the creation of new positions, the way open jobs are filled, and how staff and management issues are handled.

Jackson is an integral part of OPPL’s HR operations, from job descriptions to hiring to onboarding, and meets with the HR director weekly. “It’s very important to have an extra set of eyes and ears on some of these processes,” he notes. The library is currently engaged in hiring a new director, and EDI values will be explicit in that search as well.

The EDI officer should not serve as a de facto employee relations manager, however. “Oftentimes folks don’t feel comfortable going to HR or had previous experiences that just weren’t great,” says Aloziem. “That was definitely not supposed to be in my role, but became a big part of my role—holding space for folks who did not feel that they could go other places for that.”

 

POLICIES, PROCEDURES, AND STRATEGIC PLANS

Creating a strategic plan for EDI work, or incorporating EDI into the library’s overall strategic plan, is a critical step toward ensuring that the work is both baked into the library’s mission and sustainable during personnel changes.

It is also useful when dedicated funding for the position doesn’t yet exist; directors can free up money from open positions or other areas, and having EDI in the strategic plan allows them to justify those decisions. This is how Rosenblum established an entire department. “You have choices—you don’t have to fund some things if something is more important,” she says. “It was a decision we made that this was the greater good.” (Another benefit of not filling open positions immediately, Rosenblum adds, is giving the EDI officer a chance to weigh in on what candidates or roles might better represent the community.)

Ongoing collection of quantitative and qualitative data about the library’s service area and staff will strengthen an EDI officer’s work. Not only do details from a strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat analysis or environmental scan offer a picture of community and library needs, they help everyone understand how the work needs to progress. “To make true change, it has to be systematic, and it has to be based on data as well as people’s feelings,” says Rosenblum. “There are assumptions that some of our libraries might have based on the population 10 years ago. [Myers] is telling them, ‘Here’s the reality of the people you are serving—how do you feel you’re doing with that?’ For a lot of them, it’s an interesting awakening.”

“Policies, procedures, and people” are essential to getting the work done and shaping organizational culture, notes Jackson. Because he has the authority that goes with a leadership role, “policies are being created, and antiquated policies that haven’t been reviewed for decades are being taken down,” he says. While not all EDI positions or departments have a specific anti-racism component, Jackson’s does. It is one of the library’s strategic focuses, and a standalone anti-racism strategic plan will eventually be integrated into OPPL’s overall strategic plan.

At Richland, King has opted to keep her EDI strategic plan separate for the time being. The library revises its strategic plan every three years, but she will revisit hers annually before integrating it with the larger one. “Who knows what’s going to happen in three years?” she wonders.

MANY WAYS TO SAY IT Inclusion posters designed for Toledo Lucas County Public Library

THINKING SUSTAINABLY

Directors should plan for sustainability on multiple levels, including how the role or department will grow, and provide a timeline for that progression, whether that involves boosting the EDI budget or bringing in more personnel. Using the role to craft infrastructure means that EDI policies “will be the standard operating procedures for the organization moving forward,” says Jackson, “so when I’m gone, these things will be here, and this role will still have relevance, and the organization will continue to be on this journey.”

Sustainable practices also include giving an EDI officer the authority to provide others with language they can use, rather than having to police staff themselves. “I’m not the bad guy or the bogeyman who’s going to say, ‘Hey, you can’t do this,’” explains Jackson. “I can coach the manager who may not have had the words.”

Enlist employees who have taken trainings early to help spread information and enthusiasm for the work. “You want your staff that buy in to be able to move your initiatives, making sure that you’re truly shifting the culture because they’re driving it,” says Baker.

Much of the work done around the BIG IDEA has involved trainings via videos and articles that staff can engage with at their own pace, and Baker finds institutional word of mouth a useful tool. “We fully understood that before we can move on to implementing things through application and practice, and ultimately growing with execution and measurement, we had to have our staff have a good foundational understanding.”

 

OPERATING AT EVERY LEVEL

Sustainability doesn’t stop with responsibilities and policies; library leadership needs to ensure that the role they create can continue to operate in a healthy fashion. These positions come with a strong component of emotional labor—especially if the EDI officer is a person of color and shouldering equity work in their own life. “You’re already carrying that emotional weight,” says King. “When you add the fact that now your job is to fight not just for your personhood, but for others…that’s not easy.” King feels confident that she can bring her concerns to Huggins. Her work and opinions are “valued and respected,” she says.

This regard for well-being requires a high level of understanding on the part of leadership, with clear lines of communication and time to recharge built in. “It’s not a sprint, it’s not a one-and-done program. It’s a marathon, and it’s a journey that can be really tiring and draining mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Baker. “I can’t pour from an empty cup.”

No matter how well-defined the role is, it still involves “operating at every level—individual, interpersonal, institutional—as well as looking at the tension that might exist within your local community, state, city, nationally,” notes Aloziem. “That can be a lot to manage.” Providing an EDI leader with opportunities and systems to network will help build institutional knowledge—and confidence.

It’s also important to make space for healing for the library as a whole as the work moves forward, advises Aloziem, “There needs to be the recognition that we have not been doing things as equitably as we could have, or we have caused harm,” she says. “We just assume that we create new systems and policies and it’s going to be fine. But hurt people, harmed people, show up in these new systems and then replicate the ways in which they’ve been harmed because they haven’t properly dealt with that.”

Perhaps the most critical thing to remember when hiring an EDI officer and helping them grow in the role is that meaningful change is a long process that’s never finished.

And if the time isn’t right yet, don’t despair. “This does not happen overnight,” King notes. “This is a slow, intentional process, and you have to give people a lot of grace. because this is uncomfortable work. It is not easy to find someone who can do it, because a lot of times you’re speaking truth to powers that be. You hope that people that are receptive, but that’s not always the case. So I always say, start small.” 

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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