UNC Libraries Release Open Source 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge Syllabus

The University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently released the syllabus of the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, focused on libraries and archives, as an open source interactive PDF. The syllabus was created as part of the multipart Reckoning Initiative at University Libraries.

University Libraries 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge text over monochrome image of libraryThe University Libraries at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill recently released the syllabus of the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, focused on libraries and archives, as an open source interactive PDF. The syllabus, a collaborative product of the University Libraries’ IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) Council, was created as part of the multipart Reckoning Initiative at University Libraries launched by Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks, which commits to using equity, inclusion, and social justice as a lens for the libraries’ work.

For three weeks in April, library employees were invited to follow the daily syllabus, which offered a series of articles, blog posts, podcasts, videos, webinars, and quizzes. Participation was optional, but 160 employees took the 21-day challenge—more than half of the libraries’ staff—and it was open to those who didn’t register as well. Resources ranged from articles by leaders in the library field to archived #critlib conversations to panel discussions featuring librarians actively engaged in equity work.

“So often we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion work as extra. But we want folks to be thinking about it as a part of daily work,” said Librarian for Inclusive Excellence and IDEA Council Chair Monica Figueroa. “I think a lot of these resources pushed people to think about it in that way. How I do acquisitions in an equitable way? How do I employ inclusive description in my cataloguing? That sort of thing.”



While it was modeled on similar challenge exercises for general audiences and other professions, this syllabus was customized specifically for education and training in libraries, Westbrooks told LJ.

The Reckoning Initiative, launched in summer 2020 in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the continuing social injustice across the country, “is in front of everything that we do” at the libraries, said Westbrooks. It includes IDEA Action Grants, which incentivize library employees to identify systemic racism or exclusionary practices in the library’s work and to move forward with solutions or new approaches; the Conscious Editing Initiative, which works to redress historical inequities and injustices in the ways language is used in archives and special collections; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded Community-Driven Archives project, which brings local history keepers together with UNC libraries to help tell, share, and preserve their stories.

With this syllabus, “the IDEA Council wanted to come up with an educational opportunity that could get folks really thinking about racism and racial equity and the work of libraries and archives,” said Figueroa, who took the lead on the project.

Dr. Allison DeMarco, who teaches at the UNC School of Social Work, had recently developed a similar 21-day challenge to use in her own work. The council was impressed with its reach and wondered if it could be tailored to libraries and archives. “It was really successful, this sort of daily habit-forming challenge to get folks thinking and reading and engaging and listening to resources about race and racism and racial equity,” said Figueroa.

The concept fit in well with Westbrooks’s Reckoning Initiative framework, and with the encouragement of library leadership, the IDEA Council began work on the challenge in January. They engaged DeMarco as a consultant, brought on Maria Estorino, associate university librarian for special collections and director of UNC’s Wilson Library, and began to gather resources. Working remotely, they used Microsoft Teams and Google Docs to brainstorm online.

As they compiled the syllabus, the team considered how parts of the challenge would build on each other, as well as what the individual pieces would look like. To start with foundations for examining equity, the challenge’s first five days asked participants to think about personal racial identity, whether or how they experienced racism, and their own levels of bias.

The syllabus went on to cover the history of racial segregation in libraries, broken down into topics such as whiteness, critical race theory, BIPOC voices, and the concept of neutrality in libraries. As it progressed to topics focusing on different areas of librarianship, each was given a color-coded hashtag, such as #collection-development, #preservation, #tech-services, #scholarly-communications, or the overarching #library-wide. Participants could look at each day’s post and see which resources related to their work, planning their reading and listening accordingly.

“While we did have some topics that we knew for sure we wanted to talk about, there were others that came together because of the resources that we had curated,” Figueroa told LJ. “We thought that that would be a good way for folks if they were pressed for time, and they just wanted to focus on one resource that was related or adjacent to the work that they do in the libraries.”



The challenge was synchronous, with staff participating on the libraries’ intranet during the same three-week period—although they could choose which, and how many, resources they wanted to engage with, or go back to items from previous days. Each participant had the option to track their engagement in a daily log, which was private but could be shared if someone wanted to work with an accountability partner.

The library hosted three conversation hours on Zoom and Google Jamboard—at the end of the first week, in the middle of the challenge, and at the end—to check in and reflect together. Comments on Jamboard, a digital interactive whiteboard, were anonymous.

Affinity group caucuses were offered for each of the conversation hours as well. “We know that coming together as a whole group is important, but it's also really important for us to process and reflect within shared and safe spaces, particularly for our Black and Indigenous staff of color,” said Figueroa. “They offered another way to learn, another way to reflect, another way to be in conversation.”

Upon completion, participants were encouraged to reflect on the challenge, examine how their assumptions may have changed, imagine actions they could take to create a more inclusive and equitable future for libraries and archives, and set at least one racial equity goal for themselves or their team.

Staff were largely positive about the experience, noting that there was a fair amount of material in the syllabus that they hadn’t encountered before. This included Westbrooks—“I consider myself very well versed, and there were resources there that I wasn't aware of,” she said.

“We got a lot of good feedback from folks saying, ‘Wow, I hadn't thought about this in this way before, but now, I can't not think about it in this way,’” said Figueroa. The syllabus has also opened up conversations offline, such as a monthly meeting in the technical services department to discuss resources that are equitable, inclusive, and antiracist. “Those are small steps, but I think small steps are needed in this in this area,” added Figueroa.

Participants also appreciated being able to scale the time spent on the syllabus to the ebb and flow of their workdays, said Westbrooks. “This didn't require ten hours of your life. If you only had nine minutes, you could engage, do something, and learn something in those nine minutes,” she noted. “It’s important to dedicate the right amount of time and energy for this to be meaningful, but that varies from day to day. We felt like it was really flexible.”

While they have not come up with concrete plans for new iterations of the syllabus going forward, both Westbrooks and Figueroa agree that it would be a good idea to update it in the future. Emerging material on surveillance and policing in libraries, for example, would be good to include, Westbrooks suggested.

“We will always be engaging in these learning opportunities as an organization because it is a strategic part of being a research library in this digital age,” said Westbrooks. “Being part of higher education is that we have to be knowledgeable, and if we have these values for social justice, racial equity, inclusion, and accessibility, then we have to constantly educate ourselves.”

Academic libraries are invited to use and repurpose the syllabus in their own work. “I would love for other academic libraries to take this up, use it, modify it if need be, share it, and really dig in and do the work,” said Figueroa. “It’s always challenging when there's nothing and you're [wondering], ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to even broach this topic with library staff?’ We found a way to make it accessible, and to make it engaging.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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