In the column Diversify Everything (March/April 2017 Issue of American Libraries Magazine), Sarah Park Dahlen offers her reflections  on the state of our nation after the recent presidential election, expressing grave concern about the escalation of hatred, vandalism and violence toward immigrants and minorities that erupted shortly after Trump became President-elect.  Even in her own city of Minneapolis, stories of racist graffiti at local schools and other aggressions were happening. Dahlen asks the reader what library professionals can do to stand up for diversity and inclusion in the face of this uptick in overt aggression toward minority groups.  Her answer rests fundamentally in the collection development decisions we make.

American librarians are not a diverse group (88% white), yet the populations we serve in schools, public libraries and academic libraries are widely diverse–ethnically, linguistically, culturally, racially.  And so the collections of books that we purchase and make available for these people need to be filled with variety in their subject matter, characters, settings, viewpoints and more.  The ALA has stated that diversity is one of its primary strategic goals, extending that effort both to recruitment of minorities and the disabled into the profession, as well as collection development and programming. (see ALA Key Action Areas) In her column, Dahlen references conversations brought up at the Association for Library Service to Children’s community forum, where they debated issues of diversity, inclusion and support for youth, applauding initiatives like #WeNeedDiverseBooks (www.weneeddiversebooks.org) and #OwnVoices (bit.ly/2javA0f)-both projects that aim to support the purchase and publishing of books with characters of many ethnicities and cultures, settings and circumstances.

Today’s climate of racial turmoil makes the call of diverse books more urgent than ever. Not only do young black, brown, disabled, poor, trans and otherwise marginalized children need to see their own identities and circumstances reflected in the literature they read, but we all need to read across the cultural rainbow.  But reaching outside of our own tribes, we expand our world and increase our capacity for empathy, understanding and can potentially be more equipped to be compassionate to people who seem different from ourselves.  Perhaps we will notice that they are more like us than we ever realized. Literature has the power to do that magic.

How does a librarian make this difference and start to diversify everything? Dahlen offers some steps to accomplish this work.  It starts with constantly learning about the issues related to social justice and equity in the profession and in our local community. Then it involves speaking up and showing up in places that matter–in professional associations, at trainings, as a mentor to others, and urging the publishing industry to print books that reflect the many voices and viewpoints of our nation.  And of course it means buying those books, featuring those books, promoting those books to all the patrons of our libraries.

I noticed this topic pop up on my Facebook feed this week, in honor of Women’s History Month.  A short video with the headline “The Ugly Truth of Children’s Books” illustrated just how few of children’s books feature a strong and capable woman as the main character.  I’m certain the same illustration could be made for children’s books about people of color, disabled people, LGBTQi people, and more.  This is an area we need to work on and build up.  We need to support the writers and artists who can write the books, and advocate to publishers that they get printed, and then we must promote them in our libraries. It will take relentless advocacy.

Laura Summers, Asst. Professor, University of Colorado, Denver digs even deeper into how this  on the topic of culturally responsive librarianship applies in a school setting with her article Leadership in Libraries (2010). Noting James Bank’s levels for multicultural curriculum reform, she lays this framework for librarianship, each with a higher level of commitment and potential impact.  The first level, the Contribution Stage, involves the display of materials without further attempts to go deeper, like a poster with selected books on display for Black History Month. The missed opportunity there is to draw teachers and students into an activity or opportunity to respond to the ideas and views in those books and other items.  At the second stage, the librarian does collaborate with teachers to draw these materials into the lesson plans, but Banks advises it is important for the librarian and teacher to examine the books for cultural bias and seek to show viewpoints that are not only the culturally dominant view, but honor other voices too.  At the third level, which is described as Transformational, educators present materials from several perspectives, help students recognize the different biases of these narratives, and also develop their capacity to know and celebrate their own heritage. And lastly, at the most complex stage, the educator can take this to the Social Action Stage, where students, as part of the learning process, study a community issue related to their own community, talk about the issues at home, strategize ways to address the challenges, and in so doing, develop their self efficacy.

To reach all our students and support their learning and growth, it is clear that we need to be transformative teachers, vocal advocates and engaged learners ourselves both for our collections and our programs we offer and the curriculum we partner to deliver.  And the effort is needed no matter the color or class of the student body. Every student needs this kind of culturally responsive school setting.

Resources

Dahlen, Sarah Park (March/April 2017). Diversify everything. American Libraries Magazine, 31.

Summers, Laura L. (2010). Culturally responsive leadership in school libraries. LMC, 28(5). 10-13.

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