DeLa Dos on the Equity Work Ahead for ARL

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) recently appointed DeLa Dos as senior director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), effective June 7. They will lead the association’s DEI priorities, working with and providing strategic guidance to ARL’s DEI Committee and Board of Directors. LJ caught up with them and ARL Executive Director Mary Lee Kennedy to find out more about their thoughts on DEI work and the association’s ongoing efforts.

DeLa Dos head shot - Man in black shirt smiling against green outdoor backgroundThe Association of Research Libraries (ARL) recently appointed DeLa Dos as senior director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). They will lead the association’s DEI priorities, working with and providing strategic guidance to ARL’s DEI Committee and Board of Directors.

With over 15 years of experience in higher education and nonprofit settings, Dos has helped corporate, nonprofit, and academic clients create and implement tangible change in their organizations. They most recently served as associate director of equity at work at nonprofit DEI consulting firm Beloved Community.

Dos steps into their new role on June 7. LJ caught up with them and ARL Executive Director Mary Lee Kennedy to find out more about their thoughts on DEI work and the association’s ongoing efforts.

LJ : What was the path that brought you to DEI work, particularly in academic libraries?

DeLa Dos: DEI has always been part of my lived experience, even prior to my knowing the language or the label. My personal social identities and my experiences in life have frequently led me to be a member of an othered group and/or marginalized. So that kind of perspective led me to operate in the world, from primary school all the way through my adulthood, as someone who is aware of when these things are happening, and strive to be aware of when I am creating systems that do the same.

I got involved in higher education somewhat serendipitously. I studied dance and movement studies, religion, and sociology. [Then] I got a call [from] one of the deans at Emory where I went to undergrad, and they said that they had an opening for an entry-level professional within their Multicultural Affairs Department. That was my first full time job. It was also in the realm of both higher education and DEI. I had done a lot of [this] work through my high school days, as well as my undergraduate, in terms of student involvement and personal interest. But connecting that to professional goals was a new idea. I didn’t realize there were actually careers for this.

What I found working in higher ed were the amazing opportunities as well as the amazing limitations. I view higher education as a place where knowledge can be disseminated, where there is a reliance on evidence, where information is valued—and there’s also bias running all through it barriers to access, and inequities that are ever-present. Certain spaces are more willing to lean into that, whereas others avoid it. Early in my consulting career, as an independent contractor, one of my first clients was a subdivision of ALA [American Library Association]. I [thought], I am not in this field, but I still feel very connected to it. I ended up working closely with our libraries division at Emory. The libraries were the ones that I didn’t have to convince to join.

That context led me to really be appreciative of the role of libraries, research libraries particularly. How can libraries create opportunities to decrease the limitations and access to information? And how are their policies and practices enabling and maintaining those structures and systems?

What will you bring to the DEI work that ARL is taking on?

DD: My master’s is in community counseling, my doctorate is in counselor education and supervision with a cognate in higher education leadership. It very much informs my everyday interactions and professional approach. I pursued both of those degrees with no intention of ever actually practicing clinically. I just knew that the skills and the knowledge and the topics, for me, are applicable in any situation. I define counseling as the ability to healthily navigate change in relationships, and I define life as a series of changes in relationships.

I don’t believe in a prescriptive approach, to say that this is how it has to be. I also often avoid using “best practices.” Particularly around DEI, I say better, not best, because the idea that any one practice is the best one, to me, is completely devoid of the recognition of the nuance and individual nature of each situation and community. Rather, can we have informed practices? And—who is informing those practices? It’s not just the people who are already at the metaphorical table, but it’s also who’s not there and what their roles are, and what’s there for performance’s sake or superficial reasons, what’s there for actual meaning, how is power actually shared, how are perspectives actually valued, and when aren’t they?

I think DEI is one of the areas where there’s no universal or all-encompassing statement or action that’s going to work. One thing that is beneficial and supportive in one community will be criticized heavily by another community. So any zero-sum approach in DEI is also, I think, a recipe for failure. Instead, it has to have complexity, it has to have ownership, and it has to say that, yes, we made this decision, it is intended to benefit this population, it’s intended that these outcomes also have these repercussions. It’s not a linear approach.

Tackling longstanding institutional inequities in academic libraries is a wide mandate. How will ARL help support that work?

MLK: I don’t want to put all the pressure on DeLa in this role. It takes every single one of us to advance our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. All of us are learning, we’re all on the journey. Awareness of our responsibility and our accountability as leaders, and openness to learning more, that’s a really important part. We were in a conversation the other day with our member representatives, and one of the representatives said, “If you’re the university librarian, you should be the chief diversity officer. You should be the one taking on this responsibility.” You can’t just hand this off to one role.

ARL has a long history of recruitment for diverse and underrepresented populations. But we know that this is not really getting [there] to the degree that we’d like—there’s a revolving door in our profession, particularly with BIPOC people. So in terms of our programming, we’ve redesigned our leadership Fellows Program to center diversity, equity, and inclusion in leadership development, period. It isn’t something you do as a module. It’s something we do as leaders. That has been redesigned and will launch in January [2022].

Just this week we started to talk with APLU’s [Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities] 1890s institutions ’ library associations. We’re working with the HBCU Library Alliance from the Leadership Fellows program. We have a strong history with ALA, ACRL [Association of College and Research Libraries], and PLA [Public Library Association], and we have a task force on racial equity competencies, but there’s so much more we can do. We’re building bridges, as well, with university-based publishing, which is very focused right now on antiracism in publishing.

DD: As I find myself considering DEI roles, the idea of trying to find an organization that is willing to do authentic work, not just the superficial aspects, is very important to me. That came through for me in both the practices and procedures [at ARL]. I believe that there are plenty of opportunities for continued work, but it’s not starting from zero. This is somewhere I really think libraries are leaning into. They recognize how this plays out.

So many organizations are looking at the need to do their own equity and antiracism work. What are your thoughts about what it takes to bridge that gap between good intentions and truly meaningful action?

DD: It’s one thing to say that a figurehead or a person in a specific leadership position can make a decision. Is that true? Sometimes it’s not, because most of them aren’t going to be able to flip the switch. It feels like an overly simplified statement to say it could just change tomorrow if we want to, and like an overly avoided statement to say it’s going to take forever to change. There’s a difference between tomorrow and forever, and hopefully it’s much closer to tomorrow. This is something that I really encourage, particularly with DEI: to make sure time is one of the things that’s mentioned. I can make all the promises in the world if I’m not giving any time[line] with it. If someone’s told there’s going to be an overhaul in what recruitment and retention looks like in-house, an employee of a marginalized background base may think, “Great, that’s going to happen tomorrow,” when the organization means we’re going to have a three-year plan for this. But if someone says a date, what happens if the date needs to change? Can we have a space where someone can have accountability without going immediately to “you have no value, you have no worth, because you didn’t meet this one deadline”? There has to be space for that. It often comes down to what is the headline, what is the quick statement that can be put out, and I think those things are important. But there also needs to be more complexity added.

I do not believe it is my responsibility, as someone with marginalized identities, to do the work to educate others to lift this forward. But it is my responsibility as someone who is committed to it. How can we have more flexibility to allow for people [to say], “Today is not the day for me right now—I’m not able to do this”? That shouldn’t mean that it has to stop. That should mean that the community and collective of support would be able to shift. I think it’s easier to try to compartmentalize things into neat groups, but in my experience that doesn’t actually work that well. Having more complexity makes things complicated and makes things take longer, but it gets to more robust and richer results.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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