Editor’s Note: This piece is being posted anonymously, both for the contributor’s sake and for the college where he works. Images, unfortunately, cannot be shared at this time. If other librarians out there would be interested in any of the research materials used in this program, or in contacting the contributor for any further insights or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us at libraryasincubatorproject@gmail.com

A crowd of community members gather outside the Governor's Residence in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the 2 a.m. hour on July 7, 2016, following the police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, by a St. Anthony Police officer. Photo: Tony Webster / tony@tonywebster.com

A crowd of community members gather outside the Governor’s Residence in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the 2 a.m. hour on July 7, 2016, following the police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, by a St. Anthony Police officer. Photo via : Tony Webster on Flickr

Why Libraries Matter: My Experience Planning a Black Lives Matter Program

Throughout my time as a nascent academic librarian, students have sought me out to speak with me about the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter, and this summer, I was inspired by two articles via my professional memberships chronicling libraries being there for their communities through compassionate and credible resources and services:

Libraries Respond to Recent Crises

http://www.startribune.com/libraries-across-the-country-look-to-hennepin-county-library-for-response-to-black-lives-matter/386882471/

In recent months, answers have seemed needed more than ever. With the hurt in my community continually increasing along with the news coverage, and venues for positive public discourse in America scant, I thought providing an opportunity where students could be there for their peers, to express themselves and analyze objective library resources firsthand, would fulfill a crucial need for them. Students’ feelings could be strengthened by new understandings and new bonds. Libraries provide information and spaces that can cultivate the individual empowerment and collective strength needed to overcome tremendous obstacles.

I recruited a colleague who has helped me at several library-related events to collaborate, and his informed views on the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter and his exceptionally positive relationships with students were instrumental. We constructed what we felt could be a truly engaging and productive conversation for students as they returned for the fall. We wanted to create a significantly vivid experience for students in exploring their unique perceptions through a creative process that would engage them in critical thinking:

1-blm-first-draft

Firsthand Disconcertion
The planning process was initially very quiet as I coordinated the dates with colleagues to minimize interference with other events. I also sent the outline to the campus counselor, who was very impressed. Unfortunately, the planning would prove to be more daunting than I ever expected. I would feel exposed, pursuing something distinctly problematic for campus. There was a lot that would make me feel frustration and foreboding, and these feelings surrounded me constantly. At one point I completely expected to be told that the program would be too volatile.

At the dawn of the fall semester, I was visited by an administrator who told me that campus would be there for anything we needed, including finding a community speaker—but there was also a concern about what course the event would take. He scheduled a meeting between me, my collaborator, and two criminal justice faculty, whose primary concerns were:

  • How did my collaborator and I know for certain that talking about Black Lives Matter would be important to our students? (The majority of our students are African American)
  • Why didn’t we plan an event that went out into the community?
  • “Black” should not be in the program title, because it may do a disservice to our goal by not appearing welcoming and turning some people off, possibly creating a divide on campus.

Although my collaborator and I felt a distinct absence of support in the meeting, we integrated several ideas, such as a component to discuss more specific community impact, as well as implementing a survey to determine student interest on library programs about social issues (although I did not postpone the program for the survey as the faculty members had hoped). My collaborator and I hoped that we could channel the passion of these faculty members into a stronger program. After considering many titles discussed, I ultimately came up with a question:

“What Does ‘Black Lives Matter’ Mean to Us? A Student Family Conversation”

The administrator and two faculty were not happy with my decision, and I did not hear much from the latter two directly after that (including when I sought advice about the survey or research). Other colleagues, as well as students of many minds, were in contrast happy with the outline. I maintained that I thought it would be best for students to directly consider the issue they would be discussing. I also felt that calling it “Lives Matter” would imply that other lives have to matter more first, discrediting the pain that many African Americans are trying to talk about. But the title was adjusted a bit further with my library director for aesthetic reasons.

The survey was quickly approved and distributed in print and online to run alongside the program (I only received 11 responses total, mostly from adult students, but still generally in favor of social programs):

2-blm-survey

I met with the administrator, who was supportive of me and what I was trying to accomplish, but voiced concern about security at the event due to the sensitivity of the issue. I said that I trusted our students. To prepare for the worst, it was suggested that I have faculty and staff present. It was also pointed out that staff could provide extra support for students afterward. To do right by the event and minimize pressure that could hinder students’ expressions, I recruited colleagues who I felt would be comfortable in a supportive role. I was also told to tell my collaborator that although his involvement was still welcome, he was not allowed to moderate, since he did not have a related degree and did not have experience researching the topics at hand. I am white. My collaborator is African American.

I was able to begin advertising with just a few days to spare, and was so busy behind the scenes that I almost forgot about print ads. Luckily my collaborator had coordinated a meeting between myself and members of the Student Government Association who had been immediately interested in co-sponsoring, and they distributed flyers for the program. I was surprised to learn that they were also in favor of having staff present.

Our final outline was as follows:

BLM FINAL OUTLINE

Details for Night 1:

BLM NIGHT 1 DETAILS

The Program
For the crafts, I used library materials like construction paper, markers, and glue sticks, as well as confetti I had collected, and I bought posters. For the research packets, I printed out reports from our CQ Researcher database, as well as several peer-reviewed journal articles (walking the line between simple and comprehensive) and two websites. The packets were designed to be split further if attendance merited it. Although I was very familiar with scholarly research on these topics, it still took time to find the right information for the program.

There was decent attendance the first night—about 15 students (only traditional students attended both nights), and 9 faculty/staff/administrators, not including me; the two criminal justice faculty from the meeting above were among the attendees. As we gathered, a campus security guard also happened to stop by for a few minutes.

Not letting my behind-the-scenes concerns show for the sake of the students, I welcomed everyone and said that they were all there because they wanted to talk about this topic. I said that due to the complexity of the issues, they might hear more than one point of view, feel a lot of emotions, and hear things that they might not agree with. But I emphasized that we were all there to support each other and to come to our own understandings together, and that even if we didn’t agree with everything, we could at least leave with questions to think about.

The students’ creative expressions and the subsequent discussion were as thoughtful, positive, inclusive, and unique as I thought they would be—the epitome of an academic discussion. Some expressions were individual, others collaborative, combining images with words in ways direct and abstract, of many dimensions, to powerful and poignant effect. Some of the students were very quiet, and although all of the staff were very supportive by getting to know students beforehand, a few participated in the program’s discussion—certainly with good questions and responses, but becoming part of the conversation at times rather than letting the students drive it.

When we got to the research portion, the attendees began to leave because of the time, but they did pick up the majority of my research packets to read on their own. As they left, I told students that we hoped to see them next week and beyond, for community speakers, activities, and to hopefully make a positive impact on the local community if they would be interested.

The students I spoke with in the days that followed said they felt the program was a great opportunity, and many seemed interested in further programs. Many have also given permission to have their creative expressions posted in a library display about the productivity of the program.

I received very positive reviews on my moderation both nights from students and colleagues, but a staff member made a great point that the first night would likely have lasted longer had I not attempted to move on to the research portion. Since I consider the research portion essential to a program like this, I think with my timeline of activities that the research portion could have been very effective had it been immediately after the crafts.

The week between the first and second nights was much less eventful. Administrators coordinated with a local African American judge to speak with the students. Although this phase was quieter, I nevertheless felt very disheartened by the prospect of a smothered program—that the other planned activities would be pushed back in favor of adults trying to tell students what they should think.

Details for Night 2:

BLM NIGHT 2 DETAILS

I didn’t advertise for the second night as much. Our student turnout was much lower, with very few returning. But the judge was wonderful with the students who attended and spoke with them long past the end of the scheduled time. I began the night by asking the judge the prepared questions, and as he spoke, students and colleagues brought forward a variety of unique questions, insights, and points of view. Many of the students were very engaged, during the program and afterward, and I felt the room grow closer because of it, despite a large part of the discussion becoming one of students asking adults questions. While incredibly valuable, I would have preferred students developing more of their own understandings first. Some students stayed to speak with me as I reset the room.

Reflections
After this program ended, I was told by administrators that other campus programs about current events and social issues could be a good thing. I was told that I should highlight library resources in the process. A colleague reflected to me that maybe it was his presence keeping the students from fully expressing themselves, or maybe it was his own preconceptions, but the students really surprised him with how introspective they were. One of the faculty members from the planning meeting asked my collaborator if the program had turned out how we hoped.

My eyes have been opened in several ways that I was not expecting. For one thing, I have learned that despite all the research I have read regarding the American criminal justice system, I was naïve to not prepare for (and indeed, welcome) resistance, and also of the fact that I have the privilege of being able to turn off the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter when I return home at night. Most of all, I saw further into the chasm of society’s lack of understanding about libraries. Throughout this process, the reason for my anxiety was ultimately anxiety on the part of others that I would not deliver an objective program. This was not only from my colleagues, but also from student respondents in the survey. And why should I have been surprised? Objectivity is not a prominent thing in our culture.

It is thus very difficult for me as a librarian to hold any of what came to pass against anyone.

This is why the platform of libraries is so important to our communities. As a repository of reliable information, a library should be a safe place where ideas can be explored and discussed without fear, on a college campus or otherwise. To actually be there for one another in the light of education.

I hope this experience will be beneficial for the staff at my college in working with my library, and, more than that, in trusting our students. I’m glad that all of this happened, for what it can do for academic discourse on our campus, and perhaps for others. But for whom was this experience most valuable? Only time, and our efforts along the way, will tell.

Pin It