If the library's doing equity right, let an audit bring that to light

For a number of years now, many Evanston community members and leaders have been focusing on increasing racial equity in our public institutions to better address historic barriers to access and inclusion.

With Evanston’s history of racism, redlining, segregation, an exodus of more than 3,000 African Americans from the city in just the past 10 years, gun violence affecting our young black men almost exclusively, and a recent study that found large discrepancies in how our police department treats residents based on their race--achieving racial equity is critical if we are serious about righting past wrongs and becoming the city so many of us want to believe we already are.


The boards and superintendents of both school districts 65 and 202 have recognized this. They led the way several years ago by hiring professional consultants to conduct in-depth equity audits and developing detailed plans to guide their progress.


In 2015, the Evanston Police Department also hired an equity consultant, and continues to hold community meetings and conducts an ongoing--and often difficult--dialogue with residents.


Late last month, the head of Evanston's Public Health Department was named a 2017-2018 Health Equity Awakened Leadership Fellow by Human Impact Partners, and she will explore strategies that advance racial and social justice in public health.


The Evanston Public Library leadership has been asked for some time by many in our community, including the Library's embattled Head of Adult Services Lesley Williams, to embark on the same journey and examine how they address equity--or as many have recently alleged--failed to do so.


But unlike the other institutions, the library board remains “vehemently opposed” to an equity audit, as emails recently released in response to a FOIA request reveal. In a May 7 email, board president Michael Tannen told another board member that he is opposed to an equity audit for "lots of reasons which I can explain to you in person, and that "Margaret [Lurie, also a board member] is opposed too--so much so that she says she will leave the Board if we go down that path. (I may join her).”


Mr. Tannen has posited that library equity is a given--that it "is in the DNA" of the EPL and libraries in general--and that equity audits are more suited to school and healthcare systems with clearly defined benchmarks and desired outcomes. He has said he believes the library's current strategic plan and the EPL's recent adoption of the American Library Association's equity statement are sufficient proof that the library is committed to equity.


There's no question that the library offers a dizzying array of materials and creative programs and services within its walls and out in the community. It engages in solid and productive partnerships with local organizations. It works hard to address the needs of many of our diverse and underserved residents. And yes, both locally and nationally, hiring librarians of color is a challenge, and it is difficult to find a multitude of books by and about people of color for library shelves. The issues are not simple. The hurdles are huge.


The answers are not black and white.


But if we ever hope to achieve racial equity in Evanston, we must each demand of ourselves, our leaders, and all our community organizations and institutions to look deeper, ask ever harder questions, and confront the fears and biases that are also inherent "in our DNA." Just as one's biological makeup is a given and may predispose us towards certain attributes or defects, our choices, behaviors, and habits still have enormous power to influence our outcomes for better or worse.


In their statement last month defending the library against the onslaught of anger about its handling of Lesley Williams and skepticism about its commitment to equity (these issues have become conflated since Williams' April suspension), the board asserted that "Collectively we have lived in Evanston for more than 200 years," and that "We were appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council," as though these qualifications alone should protect their policies and practices from criticism.


But there are too many people--particularly people of color--who have collectively lived in Evanston for far longer than 200 years who have been neither appointed nor approved, but instead have been overlooked, underrepresented, and excluded from much our city's bounty. If the library is convinced that they are on the right path to full inclusion of these individuals, then why not hire an objective equity expert to confirm it? Evanston's historically underserved residents--in fact all of Evanston's residents--deserve a courageous library board that is willing to look inward in order to look outward with sharper vision for Evanston's future.




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