2017 ALA – Doing the Work

I’ve been attending the American Library Association (ALA) Annual and Midwinter conferences and Children’s Literature Association‘s (ChLA) annual conferences for more than 10 years. This year, the two conferences overlapped, and I had already committed to presenting at ALA (and seriously, who can afford both conferences every year?), so I was unable to go to ChLA. But there are some interesting things happening in both spaces that are worth talking about. The demographics of both organizations and related professions have shifted over the years, but they still remain very white (librarianship [88% white], K-12 education [82% white], and publishing [79% white].) For many years we’ve been having conversations and taking action in both associations to “diversify,” to dismantle and re-make and make space for those who aren’t typically there. This has been and continues to be exhausting. Edi is exhausted. April is exhausted. I’m exhausted. But there we were, and here we are, doing the work.

The week before the ALA and ChLA conferences, The Lion and the Unicorn published the essays that my colleagues and I wrote about being Women of Color (WOC) scholars in the majority white #KidLit field (huge thanks to Kate Slater and Karin Westman). Our essays are gathered together under the title #WeNeedDiverseScholars, a nod to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. We submitted these essays last fall; since then, we have been working hard to launch a new peer-reviewed, online, open access journal, Research on Diversity in Youth Literature (RDYL). Our journal makes space for voices and topics that are traditionally underrepresented, rejected, and delegitimized in the academy. Folks’ enthusiastic support of our #WeNeedDiverseScholars essays and new journal has been rewarding, but the whole thing has also been emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually exhausting. But we’re doing the work.

I know folks at the ChLA conference talked about our essays, our journal, the lack of diversity, and the macro and microaggressions toward POC/Native folks and scholarship. Phil Nel blogged about our essays, and ChLA president Kenneth Kidd talked about them in his presidential address. I heard the “Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of ChLA” roundtable, facilitated by some of the most woke members of the association, was legit. It was a packed room. Folks showed up to do the work.

Meanwhile, on Saturday at ALA, Edith Campbell, Jamie Campbell Naidoo, Irania Patterson, and I gave a presentation to a full room of (mostly white and mostly female) children’s librarians about how to more radically interpret the 2015 ALSC competencies. It was thrilling to see so many folks wanting to learn and do the work, but the work isn’t easy or comfortable. In addressing Competency VII, I asked participants to reflect not only on “the effects of racism, ethnocentrism, classism, heterosexism, genderism, ableism, and other systems of discrimination and exclusion within the profession” (Competency VII.5) and in our lives, but also to think about the effects of homogeneity and whiteness. I asked them to think about whether or not they are recruiting and mentoring (Competency VII.8) people who look like me, like Trayvon, like Philando, to LIS, or if they’re recruiting and mentoring more people who look like them. It’s uncomfortable, but let’s ask the questions. Let’s do the work.

I also heard, in different spaces, some white women use[d] the words “inclusive” and “welcoming” to describe our association. The first time, my head whipped up and I did a double take. Remember when novelist Chimananda Adichie told a white man he didn’t get to define racism? It’s not up to the majority to determine whether or not the space is/has become welcoming and inclusive. Those sentiments are aspirational, not reflective. Do we have to remind folks that we’re not there yet, that we haven’t been for a long time? (Thanks, Dr. Nicole Cooke, for addressing this at the Saturday ALSC membership meeting.) But yes, let’s get there. Let’s do the work.

Speaking of not there yet – many folks, especially WOC, who have come up before in both ALA and ChLA have worked hard to make these spaces safe. We thank you for your work and your sacrifices, for smashing ceilings and paving the way. But the way is still long. We’re not there yet, and we won’t be for a long while. Those of us coming up now are still fighting to be seen as human. This is the ongoing work.

So, like Edi and April, I am exhausted. But there remains work to be done, and there are others coming up after us. We see you. We’re here for you. We do the work for you, and for the young people we all serve.

Caldecott and CSK Award winner Javaka Steptoe said in his Caldecott speech, “I ask that we all keep fighting, and that we take this attitude with us in our day-to-day business. Please don’t feel overwhelmed — we can all pick an individual focus, and in this way everything will get accomplished. You will become better. We will become better.” (Here’s his CSK speech).

“We will become better.” I believe this too. And so, exhausted or not, overwhelmed or not, the work continues. We’re doing the work. Let’s get to work.

3 thoughts on “2017 ALA – Doing the Work

  1. Catherine

    I present at, at least, 2 national conferences per year. Not ChLA, though. I Stopped attending ChLA years ago. They are cliquish and that’s even to me–someone who is an Illinois State University, Adolecent lit PhD with Roberta Trites as my dissertation director. It’s not worth the utter discomfort of attending a conference that small, only to have to deal with feeling unwelcome.

  2. Pingback: NC is a no-go: bathrooms, libraries, and the limits of welcoming | Feral Librarian

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