Guest Post: Sally Battle Discusses Library Programs That Aid Conversations Around Race and Culture
I am a public librarian. I work in a library for a city entity, am a city employee, and serve the residents of Evanston, Illinois. And, like many librarians, over the past few years my library has been working hard to make strides in addressing the inequalities that are inherent in every library setting. My personal focus is primarily on collections, so I’ve tried a variety of different methods to make my collection represent a range of historically marginalized voices over the years (and I’ll be co-presenting the talk “Conducting a Diversity Audit of Your Collections” for LJ/SLJ’s online course Evaluating, Auditing and Diversifying Your Collections on October 19th of this year, in case you’d like to see it).
But my work cannot even hold a candle to that of my co-workers.
This past ALA Conference I had the privilege of moderating the talk “Beyond Booklists: Family Engagement through Race and Culture Education at the Library.” Led by Sally Battle (Early Learning and Literacy Assistant) and her dedicated team from EPL, the presentation delivered impactful information and resources based on their racial awareness program, Dedicated to the Dream. If you work in a library and you’ve wanted to make a different with the public, presenting a program that can do real, lasting good in the world, “Dedicated to the Dream” can provide an amazing template.
Today, it is my great pleasure to hand the reins over to Sally. And, before I do, I just want to note that of all the guest posts I’ve done over the years, this one has a narrative hook that floors me:
Have you ever gotten stuck? Like, physically stuck. I’m not a spelunker, but somehow I’ve found myself in unintended tight quarters more often than I’d like. There was that time I had to humbly ask the fitting room attendant to help me get a dress off. Or the time that I made the poor decision to crawl with my toddler into the Chuck E. Cheese tunnels while 8 months pregnant. I’ve always been a bit oblivious to the space my body takes up. To this day my light-skinned body pretty much always bears a purple- and green- map of all the edges and corners in my life. Par for the course in my little world. But remembering one of my stuck-est moments still induces panicky, sweaty palms – and empathy for people in sticky situations (I’m looking at you, Gorilla Glue TikTok lady…you too….and you…).
I had headed to downtown Chicago with my new baby in tow, tucked snugly into one of those unwieldy car seat carriers. Our destination was just lunch with a friend, but I had an anticipatory feeling of adventure bubbling up. I was young and starstruck by the big city, and still found taking the train a happy novelty. I started above ground on the el and took the red line south to an underground stop. Success! Got off the train and headed towards the escalators and the fresh air. But first I had to exit the station.
At this particular train station, you either had to wait for CTA staff to unlock a door to let you out – or go through a one-way, single-person metal revolving door (not turnstiles, but a full-body revolving door – the spiky security kind). There wasn’t an attendant around, so rather than wait for like one minute for someone to show up, I thought it was a good idea to enter the narrow revolving door while holding the baby carrier. I did pause before going in but quickly assured myself that I could fit in there, no problem.
Within moments it was clear that, ahem, actually, there was a problem. And because the purpose of the door was to let riders out and prevent people from entering the station without paying, there wasn’t any way to backtrack. It was a one way revolving door. I was trapped with my child, on full display for all to see, in my very own self-made modern-day La Brea tar pit. My mind toggled between nightmare images of my child growing up within the confines of our tiny barred space and visions of firefighters rescuing us with the jaws of life.
I’d had good intentions of simply pushing through to the other side as one generally does using a door – but clearly this was going to take more time, thought, and patience than I’d anticipated. I find that to be a pattern that comes up in life time and again, from the small things to all the big things.
And one of the biggest areas where many of us feel stuck? Talking about race with kids.
We intend to address race and racism in our homes, classrooms, and libraries. But many of us end up stuck, paralyzed with inaction. There are lots of reasons why – maybe it’s because of our own discomfort with, or misconceptions about, race. Fear of saying the wrong thing. The fear of appearing politically driven even though naming race is not political. The fear of breaking the law. And the very real possibility of causing harm to BIYOC (Black, Indigenous, & Youth of Color).
Plus, there’s just never a “feel-good” time to talk about race & racism.
No wonder we feel stuck.
But racism hurts all of us, and kids make meaning about race whether or not we are part of their inner dialogue.
As librarians, we hold keys. Collections that offer life-giving mirrors, windows, and doors. Booklists showcasing true history. But – my colleagues and I started asking each other – could we do something more?
A couple of years ago, our team started considering options beyond those essentials – something we wished we’d had as kids. We’d all grown up making assumptions; experiencing and internalizing bias. Our parents did not have the tools to help us navigate experiences in our racialized world. What if we could create structure and space for families to bridge that gap, so there was less to unlearn later?
We started to dream and discuss; argue and work. Over time, we developed a program for families which we hoped would be “an invitation for curious families to listen, learn and grow through accessible, thoughtful, kid-friendly, challenging-yet-tender experiences and conversations around race and culture.”
While each of the 7 workshops centers around a different theme, the curriculum keeps spiraling back to our overarching goals: to affirm all shades of skin, explore our cultural & racial identities, learn accurate history, and talk about what we’re learning and how we’re feeling.
And throughout the series we weave the truth: That people made up race and racism. That there’s no way to predict how closely related people are based on their skin color or other features…that there’s no way to predict a person’s personality or character traits based on how they look….that racism is still here…and the truth that we are all fully human.
We employ best practices to create learning experiences that last, while reducing the high “activation energy” that can impede race conversations. We know you know this: Kids engage and learn through exploration and play. Play yields joy – and is also the best way to create new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new pathways in the brain – all of which we’re trying to do in the context of race. We also chose to use art so kids and families can take creative action with what they learn. Every workshop includes elements of play and creative output.
What does that look like? Unpacking the culture of The Bad Guys (and then our own). Exploring optical illusions to reveal how our brains create meaning using our past experiences. Playing games to help us understand that we don’t know a whole person’s story by just looking at them. Using magnets to mimic the invisible forces of structural racism.
Curious to hear more?
Sign up to get free access to the curriculum, branded as “Curiosity Lab,” at www.dedicatedtothedreamtogether.com. You’ll get all the details: Full descriptions and supply lists for the activities. Discussion prompts. Instructional videos. Printables. And tons of resources.
Even if you’re not able to present the curriculum in a multi-series program like we did with families in the public library setting, there are ways to adapt what we’ve created. Here are a few ideas:
- Market the curriculum to the families you serve, so they can sign up and engage on their own – we even created a printable flyer you can use.
- Offer take-home kits for the series. Or combine a couple of the workshops to create a single one-off program or a couple of take-home kits. To start with, we think Workshops 2 & 3 would work well together – check back on our site for more suggestions.
- Offer race-education-friendly booklists. Feel free to use these to start with or create your own: ages 2-6 | ages 7-12.
- Spread the word! Share our trailer on social media and link to our website. Write a review of our materials on your blog.
- Offer a parent/caregiver book group using a relevant title such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Raise an Antiracist. Support action steps by offering ideas and materials from the Curiosity Lab curriculum or other resources.
- Continue your own journey of understanding race by diving into the resources we’ve highlighted for program leaders. If relevant, be sure to read Jessica’s blog post “What if all the staff in my organization are white?”
- Form a book or study group with your colleagues.
- Take what we’ve compiled and change it or build on it for your community. The examples and resources we’ve put together are quite limited in scope (we hope to expand as time and resources allow). Share what’s missing or unclear so that we can improve the curriculum for everyone.
There’s no single best place to start since each community is unique and because we are all in different places in our journeys of understanding race. But there’s no question that the work is universally necessary: ”We have all been affected by racial and racist thinking since our earliest social encounters. Thus, none of us are free from misinformation, discomforts, prejudices, or behaviors that reflect the power relationships of racism” (Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia G. Ramsey; emphasis added). The question is, what are we going to do about it?
Have you listened to Jason Reynolds’ inspiring 2021 Zena Sutherland lecture (text | video)? In it, he uses lessons learned from his relationship with his father to urge teachers, librarians, and educators to work tirelessly to serve young people:
Why is it important that my father says, “Kid, if there is one thing left to tell you it is to give others the things you want, and not the things you don’t want”? Why is that important? Well, it’s important because — if you are a teacher, a librarian, a writer, young folks don’t deserve second-best. I know it’s hard, I know we are exhausted. So what? If you love kids, then you sacrifice. And to sacrifice, you have to give them what you would give you. Which is the best. Can’t be no shorts…. The part of us you would want for your kids, by the way. They don’t deserve the crumbs.”
Maybe our best gift to the kids we serve is to gather enough courage to face the pain of our own past ignorance or mistakes and then open ourselves up to learning, growing, and spreading the truth.
Sacrificing our own pride might be the hardest part; our sense of our own value is too often based on how “right” we perceive ourselves to be. But if you recognize your past microaggressions; if you uncover your own biases; if you realize you’ve inadvertently harbored racist ideas; then you’re in good company. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Ibram X Kendi. And me.
And thank goodness for Ijeoma Oluo, who frees us from paralyzing inaction:
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist.
Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.
And it’s the only way forward.”
Back to my little…situation. Between bouts of sweating, blushing, and cursing myself, I took teeny tiny steps, shifting angles and creeping forward, trying new ways of moving to turn the door a half-inch at a time. (I bet the people who invented the 5-point safety harness for the infant car seat never pictured a ridiculous woman tipping the infant at precarious angles to extricate herself from a revolving door.)
I had no one but myself to blame for my stuck situation. With racism, harm was done before any of us were even born.
But the solution is the same.
Accept our current predicament. Take tiny steps. Try new angles; take new perspectives; learn new information. Understand that despite good intentions we still harbor bias, and take responsibility for our unconscious & conscious actions. Open up to the idea that getting unstuck will take more time, thought, patience, and humility than we anticipated. We must find the support we need to keep working even when it isn’t easy.
Unlike medical doctors, librarians and teachers don’t take a Hippocratic oath. I don’t doubt our hard work and good intentions one bit. But isn’t the responsibility that we hold as shapers of a child’s developing mind just as precious and worthy of deep ethical care as the body? These kids are worth it.
“We gotta give a thousand percent as often as possible. I know we are only human, but if we can, we have to make sure we are giving them the best of us.” – Jason Reynolds
Let’s not get stuck spinning in the same revolving door. Let’s moonshot-stretch towards our own evolving. What small step can you take today that will turn into a giant leap for humankind?
Dedicated to the Dream.
Working towards awareness + celebration
Sally Battle (she/hers) is a multiracial (Chinese, Japanese, and white) cis-gender woman. She has a couple of Master’s degrees, but the only thing she’s truly mastered is the art of entropy, which doesn’t really need her anyway. She dabbled in several fields before deciding to stick with libraries as a career choice rather than just an excellent venue for a night out. Sally currently enjoys part-time employment at Evanston Public Library and feels grateful to work with such a fantastic team on the Dedicated to the Dream project. She hopes you experience a moment of joy today.
Thank you, Sally, for your incredible piece. And please, if you have a chance, check out the www.dedicatedtothedreamtogether.com site and resources.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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