"This town is committed to looking at equity and access in our schools. It’s time we also take a look at our library since libraries can transcend some of the boundaries upheld in schools. The library is a public place, paid for by our taxes, where people go to broaden their humanity."
Do all Evanston’s children have the chance to recognize themselves, their families, and their experiences in books, audiobooks and other materials on the library shelves?
Are library locations easy to get to for families without transportation? Does the library’s staff reflect Evanston’s population well enough?
With Evanston’s African American population at 18 percent and Hispanic population at nine percent—most of whom are lower income—these are just some of the questions Stacey Gibson believes Evanston’s public library should be asking in a methodical, intentional way—by adopting a racial-equity statement and plan.
“ETHS has one. Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has one,” says Gibson, who has lived in Evanston for 12 years, teaches high-school English, and works as an equity consultant locally and around the country with an organization called Transform the Collective. “It’s crucial that the Evanston Public Library has one too.”
Gibson says she learned this past summer that the library board had begun to meet to discuss a new strategic plan. “I strongly believe their plan should include a racial equity statement,” she says.
Gibson recently talked to me about why she feels the library should follow the example of Evanston’s school districts.
DE: How would you describe the purpose of a public library?
SG: Ideally, a public library should serve as an equalizer, a university of and for the people, a gathering place, providing quality free resources, especially for those who can't afford private sector books, technology or tutoring. And a library serves as a place where individual experiences can become catalytic forces to reshape communities.
DE: Does the Evanston public library serve this purpose for Evanston residents?
SG: That's the big question. This town is committed to looking at equity and access in our schools. It’s time we also take a look at our library since libraries can transcend some of the boundaries upheld in schools. The library is a public place, paid for by our taxes, where people go to broaden their humanity. We must have equity. I feel strongly about this because I use the library as a teacher, a student, and as a parent.
DE: Why should the library adopt a racial-equity statement to attain equity?
SG: The library should be a public resource for anyone in Evanston, regardless of age, race, education, ethnicity, language, income, or geographic barriers. It’s the library’s responsibility.
While we’re all proud to live in Evanston, we continue to struggle with the description, especially by Latino and African American residents, that there are 'two Evanstons,' one white, the other black and brown. There's a strong and easily observable history of institutionalized and normalized racism in our community, as there is with most communities. We need to examine that, and commit to the layers of change needed to stop replicating patterns of loss, lack, and inequity. To be committed to equity means looking at how to direct resources to those most in need, not to the most systemically privileged neighborhoods.
I believe that the library should consider doing what the high school and District 65 are doing regarding equity work. It’s imperative that an intentional, direct, and public racial-equity statement be a part of the library’s strategic plan.
DE: What exactly is a racial-equity plan?
SG: 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.
DE: What issues should the library’s racial-equity statement and plan address?
SG: 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. I have watched and supported organizations as they reframe and rewrite their mission and vision statements to reflect their intentional commitments to equity. Institutional missions and visions are observable behaviors which makes those statements live documents that are worthy of inquiry and adjustment if need be.
DE: How would the library achieve equity in its collections?
SG: I really want to emphasize the need for more diverse content and more diverse authors in the library’s collections. Both should reflect the diversity of our community. That includes the assurance that they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats, including electronic, audio, and print. The Skokie library, for example, is far more diverse and comprehensive than Evanston’s in terms of a global perspective.
I do a lot of equity work. One of the key concepts in that 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'. And while the library is not the sole entity responsible for upholding more equitable practices, it is a space that can more quickly participate in noticeable changes.
The library’s collections must include a variety of perspectives, cultures, races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds that reflect all its patrons. I don’t believe that’s the way it is right now. I don’t believe the library has done that legwork or has shown commitment to doing that work.
While it is not as easy to find adult novels or kids books written by authors of color for people of color, there are options and libraries can commit to the process of procuring these types of books just as they commit to obtaining other hard to find, out of print, collections.
Literature of color is not rare, but it requires a sensibility and commitment beyond the pre-existing standard. Sadly, publishing, especially children’s publishing, is not reflective of our country's racial and ethnic diversity. But when there isn’t a large selection, the library needs to at least make sure it has enough copies of the books that are available, so that they’re on the shelves when Latino or African American patrons visit the library. Again, it takes intentionality to make changes. It’s hard. It’s easier to keep dealing with what comes across your desk day to day.
I also want to talk about digital hotspots. The library currently checks out digital hotspots to Evanston residents, ostensibly to help bridge the digital divide. But do they know how many times those hotspots been checked out by residents living in low-income areas? Is the library making sure in a deliberate way that this expensive resource also goes to people who truly need it, whose lives would be changed by having 24-hr broadband access?
DE: How should the library address equity in its staffing?
SG: The library, like the schools, needs to intentionally hire and retain staff who aren’t white. At the moment, the library has a very low percentage of staff of color and that sends a message to the community, intentionally or not. They need to explicitly state that they’re looking to diversify and why it will be beneficial to do so. They must think about where they look for new staff; where they advertise. This is Evanston. If they reach out in a way that is responsible and honest, people will come! I’ve seen it happen—an institution will post a job and set a goal that 50 percent of the people they bring in will be people of color. They will also need to consider different models of hiring and assigning that allow for more innovative ways of staffing.
DE: I saw a job posting by the library several weeks ago for a Latinx outreach position. Doesn’t this show that the library is working toward equity?
SG: I’ve heard that the library plans to open a branch in the Robert Crown Center, and I believe they have plans to open outposts at Fleetwood-Jourdain and Gibbs-Morrison in the fifth ward. They have a community engagement librarian, and yes, they’re looking for someone to fill the Latino Outreach Position. These are positive steps, but they’re somewhat piecemeal attempts that don’t address overall systemic, sustainable equity. An equity plan needs to be comprehensive and intentional with observable and measurable outcomes designed with the intent to engage the full community.
DE: What about the library branches?
SG: It’s important that library branches are accessible and easy to get to for everyone. We know that a large portion of families who live in the 5th ward, for example, do not use or have easy access to the library. We need to ask, how close are African Americans, Latinos and low-income residents to a library location? The branches have long been a contentious issue in Evanston, largely because there are, in effect, two boutique locations [at Main and Chicago and on Central Street in Northwest Evanston] that cater to fairly well-off, and in the case of North branch, extremely well-off, residents and no locations close to high-poverty areas.
DE: Does equity only pertain to people of color?
SG: No. Our responsibility is to teach and provide services for people, not only black and brown people, but also white people who use the library. People who are not white need to find themselves mirrored in books and other materials, and white library visitors should understand the importance of being exposed to dynamic and multiple experiences of other people.
DE: How should the library begin to address all these issues?
SG: 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.
Solutions aren’t quick or easy. They require the time and commitment to adapt to the documented needs of our community. It’s really hard work, but in a town as resourced and forward-moving as Evanston, why not be fully forward, fully responsible, and fully fair around access to literacy?
It can be daunting. But an equity statement will encourage the library board and staff to think beyond their own experience, normalize accountability, and act with clear intention. That’s one way to start. I believe that meaningful change is embedded and embodied in practice not a slogan.