Evanston suspended its only Black librarian and I'm not having it

I was looking for a light read. The last book I read was Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson about 4 Black girls growing up in the 70's. I ugly cried at the end with a full heart and a sense of loss. So like I said I was looking for a light read.

The librarian; a Black woman with curly hair, glasses and freckles smiled knowingly when I asked her about "I Almost Forgot About You" by Terry McMillan. There were no copies left on the shelf but there were a number set aside for a book club that she ran for books written about the African-American diaspora.

She gestured toward the corner of the circulation desk where the book was propped up on display. She handed me a copy.

She told me more about the book club she ran which discussed books like Pulitzer Prize winner "Underground Railroad", by Colson Whitehead and "When Affirmative Action Was White" by Ira Katznelson. I learned that they'd be discussing "I Almost Forgot About You" in a week and "Another Brooklyn" on May 9th.

Here's how I felt; seen. I felt seen by this woman who was speaking my language by talking about books I was interested in. She handed me a flyer with titles the club had discussed and books that were scheduled for future discussions. This flyer became a recommended reading list. I felt recognized. I felt seen.

A few months later I learned that Lesley Williams was going to be subjected to a disciplinary hearing for "gross incompetence, insubordination and not contributing to a healthy work environment." I was appalled.

100 supporters showed up at the Civic Center in Evanston to support Lesley Williams who I discovered is a much loved librarian and as stated by Reverend Nabors of the Northshore NAACP "a tireless advocate for social justice, human rights and civil rights."

"None of the charges against me involve criminal behavior, sexual improprieties, or financial improprieties. One involves my handling of a library speaker, one involves my interaction with a patron and two involve communications with co-workers."

We had Lesley on my podcast Race Bait and she is one of the most thoughtful, well informed, passionate people I've ever met. Lesley Williams is the only Black librarian in the district. I believe that the accusations against her are racially charged.

OPAL (The Organization for Positive Action and Leadership) in Evanston states:

"Ms. Williams has consistently provided programming that counters the traditional mainstream library offerings and intentionally includes most diverse subsets of the community. Her work has made a positive academic, social, and cultural impact upon the City of Evanston," the letter read.

Why is Evanston's only Black librarian with a focus on equity and inclusion being targeted?

From the Reader: 

The incidents go back as far as last fall, and she wasn't disciplined for any of them at the time, Williams noted. So, she asked, in her written statement: “[W]hy this level of intense and vindictive action now? Why this apparent shoring up of charges, based on manipulations of the facts? Other staff members are not treated this way."

"People who work with me, who are familiar with my work, are shocked that something that sounds like normal work stuff would be subject to this level of scrutiny."

After the hearing Lesley had to wait 5 days (while on administrative paid leave) for the final decision. In the interim she had to cancel the discussion on "Underground Railroad". In the interim someone like me who was looking for help or support would lose out on the impact that Lesley had on me.

In my conversations with Lesley I've learned about the importance of racial-equity in library programming. Equity expert Stacy Gibson defines a racial equity plan in an interview with Dear Evanston:

A racial equity plan is designed by a specially convened committee and developed after examining how different racial and ethnic groups will be affected by an organization’s proposed actions or decisions. It works to prevent institutional racism and to come up with new ways to remedy inequities that have been in place for many years. It’s also shows a community that an institution is seriously committed to this work and is holding itself accountable.

Evanston Library has not adopted it's own racial equity statement and plan. Evanston Township Highschool and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 have.

Ms. Gibson recommends a library audit for Evanston Library.

The library should deliberately and intentionally consider a wide variety of ways it can become more equitable, from its branch locations and access, to its collections, staffing, salaries, services, community engagement, leadership structures, and programs.

What’s happening in Evanston mirrors what’s happening all over: so much energy is expended in curating diversity. What I mean is that a lot of energy is spent getting books onto shelves by a limited number of people of color—those who are credentialed and accepted by broader white society. But they’re not looking to push beyond the accepted norms of diversity.

This act of limited passive diversity implementation maneuvers away from looking at patterns that replicate limited experiences for non-white, non-wealthy folks. It’s a feel-good, prescriptive diversity. It’s very temporary. It’s transactional as opposed to transformational. Institutions like schools and libraries need to attain equity structurally, intentionally, and sustainably.

Institutional missions and visions are observable behaviors which makes those statements live documents that are worthy of inquiry and adjustment if need be.

Lesley Williams received 15 days suspension without pay. My heart hurts for her. My heart hurts for my community. I find this is unacceptable.

One good thing that has emerged is that my eyes are open to something I can advocate for on a local level. A direct way to #resist against the Trump administration is to find ways you can assert change in your community. Moving forward I will advocate for racial equity in my library.

Ms. Gibson says:

One of the key concepts in [Equity] work is “windows and mirrors,” windows into life experiences of other people, and mirrors that reflect and affirm a child’s life experiences. Children of color often don’t see mirrors, but rather windows. They don’t see themselves reflected, and they get discouraged often later embodying what Dr. Joy DeGruy labels as 'vacant esteem'.

Vacant esteem? Unacceptable.

You can listen to the episode that features Lesley Williams on Race Bait here.

Here's a full list of articles and media associated with information on Lesley Williams' suspension.

Lesley's blog is The Cranky Librarian

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