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Finding the Right Words in Post-Election Libraries and Higher Ed

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Nov. 15, 2016.***

This year’s election result has presented a huge challenge to all of us who work in higher education and libraries. Usually, libraries, universities, and colleges do not comment on presidential election result and we refrain from talking about politics at work. But these are not usual times that we are living in.

A black female student was shoved off the sidewalk and called the ‘N’ word at Baylor University. The Ku Klux Klan is openly holding a rally. West Virginia officials publicly made a racist comment about the first lady. Steve Bannon’s prospective appointment as the chief strategist and senior counsel to the new President is being praised by white nationalist leaders and fiercely opposed by civil rights groups at the same time. Bannon is someone who calls for an ethno-state, openly calls Martin Luther King a fraud, and laments white dispossession and the deconstruction of occidental civilization. There are people drawing a swastika at a park. The ‘Whites only’ and ‘Colored’ signs were put up over water fountains in a Florida school. A Muslim student was threatened with a lighter. Asian-American women are being assaulted. Hostile acts targeting minority students are taking place on college campuses.

Libraries and educational institutions exist because we value knowledge and science. Knowledge and science do not discriminate. They grow across all different races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, sexual identities, and disabilities. Libraries and educational institutions exist to enable and empower people to freely explore, investigate, and harness different ideas and thoughts. They support, serve, and belong to ‘all’ who seek knowledge. No matter how naive it may sound, they are essential to the betterment of human lives, and they do so by creating strength from all our differences, not likeness. This is why diversity, equity, inclusion are non-negotiable and irrevocable values in libraries and educational institutions.

How do we reconcile these values with the president-elect who openly dismissed and expressed hostility towards them? His campaign made remarks and promises that can be interpreted as nothing but the most blatant expressions of racism, sexism, intolerance, bigotry, harassment, and violence. What will we do to address the concerns of our students, staff, and faculty about their physical safety on campus due to their differences in race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual identity? How do we assure them that we will continue to uphold these values and support everyone regardless of what they look like, how they identify their gender, what their faiths are, what disabilities they may have, who they love, where they come from, what languages they speak, or where they live? How?

We say it. Explicitly. Clearly. And repeatedly.

If you think that your organization is already very much pro-diversity that there is no need to confirm or reaffirm diversity, you can’t be farther from the everyday life minorities experience. Sometimes, saying isn’t much. But right now, saying it out loud can mean everything. If you support those who belong to minority groups but don’t say it out loud, how would they know it? Right now, nothing is obvious other than there is a lot of hate and violence towards minorities.

The entire week after the election, I agonized about what to say to my small team of IT people whom I supervise at work. As a manager, I felt that it was my responsibility to address the anxiety and uncertainty that some of my staff – particularly those in minority groups – would be experiencing due to the election result. I also needed to ensure that whatever dialogue takes place regarding the differences of opinions between those who were pleased and those who were distressed with the election result, those dialogues remain civil and respectful.

Crafting an appropriate message was much more challenging than I anticipated. I felt very strongly about the need to re-affirm the unwavering support and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion particularly in relation to libraries and higher education, no matter how obvious it may seem. I also felt the need to establish (within the bounds of my limited authority) that we will continue to respect, value, and celebrate diversity in interacting with library users as well as other library and university staff members. Employees are held to the standard expectations of their institutions, such as diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, civil dialogue, and no harassment or violence towards minorities, even if their private opinions conflict with them. At the same time, I wanted to strike a measured tone and neither scare nor upset anyone, whichever side they were on in the election. As a manager, I have to acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their private opinions as long as they do not harm others.

I suspect that many of us – either a manager or not – want to say something similar about the election result. Not so much about who was and should have been as about what we are going to do now in the face of these public incidences of anger, hatred, harassment, violence, and bigotry directed at minority groups, which are coming out at an alarming pace because it affects all of us, not just minorities.

Finding the right words, however, is difficult. You have to carefully consider your role, audience, and the message you want to convey. The official public statement from a university president is going to take a tone vastly different from an informal private message a supervisor sends out to a few members of his or her team. A library director’s message to library patrons assuring the continued service for all groups of users with no discrimination will likely to be quite different from the one she sends to her library staff to assuage their anxiety and fear.

For such difficulty not to delay and stop us from what we have to and want to say to everyone we work with and care for, I am sharing the short message that I sent out to my team last Friday, 3 days after the election. (N.B. ‘CATS’ stands for ‘Computing and Technology Services’ and UMB refers to ‘University of Maryland, Baltimore.’) This is a customized message to address my own team. I am sharing this as a potential template for you to craft your own message. I would like to see more messages that reaffirm diversity, equity, and inclusion as non-negotiable values, explicitly state that we will not step backwards, and make a commitment to continued unwavering support for them.

Dear CATS,

This year’s close and divisive election left a certain level of anxiety and uncertainty in many of us. I am sure that we will hear from President Perman and the university leadership soon.

In the meantime, I want to remind you of something I believe to be very important. We are all here – just as we have been all along – to provide the most excellent service to our users regardless of what they look like, what their faiths are, where they come from, what languages they speak, where they live, and who they love. A library is a powerful place where people transform themselves through learning, critical thinking, and reflection. A library’s doors have been kept open to anyone who wants to freely explore the world of ideas and pursue knowledge. Libraries are here to empower people to create a better future. A library is a place for mutual education through respectful and open-minded dialogues. And, we, the library staff and faculty, make that happen. We get to make sure that people’s ethnicity, race, gender, disability, socio-economic backgrounds, political views, or religious beliefs do not become an obstacle to that pursuit. We have a truly awesome responsibility. And I don’t have to tell you how vital our role is as a CATS member in our library’s fulfilling that responsibility.

Whichever side we stood on in this election, let’s not forget to treat each other with respect and dignity. Let’s use this as an opportunity to renew our commitment to diversity, one of the UMB’s core values. Inclusive excellence is one of the themes of the UMB 2017-2021 Strategic Plan. Each and every one of us has a contribution to make because we are stronger for our differences.

We have much work ahead of us! I am out today, but expect lots of donuts Monday.

Have a great weekend,
Bohyun

 

Monday, I brought in donuts of many different kinds and told everyone they were ‘diversity donuts.’ Try it. I believe it was successful in easing some stress and tension that was palpable in my team after the election.

Photo from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vnysia/4598569232

Photo from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vnysia/4598569232

Before crafting your own message, I recommend re-reading your institution’s core values, mission and vision statements, and the most recent strategic plan. Most universities, colleges, and libraries include diversity, equity, inclusion, or something equivalent to these somewhere. Also review all public statements or internal messages that came from your institution that reaffirms diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can easily incorporate those into your own message. Make sure to clearly state your (and your institution’s) continued commitment to and unwavering support for diversity and inclusion and explicitly oppose bigotry, intolerance, harassment, and acts of violence. Encourage civil discourse and mutual respect. It is very important to reaffirm the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion ‘before’ listing any resources and help that employees or students may seek in case of harassment or assault. Without the assurance from the institution that it indeed upholds those values and will firmly stand by them, those resources and help mean little.

Below I have also listed messages, notes, and statements sent out by library directors, managers, librarians, and university presidents that reaffirm the full support for and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I hope to see more of these come out. If you have already received or sent out such a message, I invite you to share in the comments. If you have not, I suggest doing so as soon as possible. Send out a message if you are in a position where doing so is appropriate. Don’t forget to ask for a message addressing those values if you have not received any from your organization.