Sunday, November 22, 2015

On My Agenda

“Teachers and librarians are forgetting that their primary responsibility as educators is not to an author or illustrator they like, but to the children in their classrooms. As parents, we trust you to do right by our children and what they learn from you. What you give them is something they will carry with them as they grow up.” Debbie Reese
This fall, the word “agenda” has been bandied about quite a bit on social media related to children’s literature and library service to youth (for a good overview, see this post from Debbie Reese, this post from Ellen Oh, and this post from Charline Jao). I’ll have an upcoming post exploring the absurdity of this label (spoiler alert: everyone has an agenda!) and how it seems to be most often dragged out of the drawer, dusted off, and thrown into conversations during times when social justice issues are receiving public attention as a way to silence those people trying to challenge the status quo.

Before I get to that post (and others looking at neutrality, the power of librarians, etc.), I wanted to use this post to talk about my own agenda. 

On my agenda
Me: I am accountable to myself and the way I represent the core values of librarianship to my students and the world. When I see that organizations, libraries, and librarians aren’t acting on these core values (or are acting against them), it is my responsibility to point this out to my students (and, oftentimes, the larger library community). It is also my responsibility to help students engage critically with the contradictions inherent within these values and other organizational and disciplinary policies, tenets, actions, etc.

C & S (my stepdaughters): I am accountable to both, wanting them not to be as ignorant as I was at their ages (12 and 14, respectively). This means having difficult conversations, questioning assumptions, offering them books and media outside of their experiences, and sharing biographies and histories beyond what they see in their textbooks and classrooms.

J (my niece): As an African-American preschooler near the birthplace of both Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond, J will live a life that I will never be able to completely understand. I hold myself accountable to her by finding and offering mirror books to serve as talismans and by having sometimes difficult conversations about race, inequity, and injustice in a family that would often seek to avoid those conversations.

J (my nephew): Now a toddler, my White nephew also gets talisman books, in the form of windows and mirrors, so that he can realize the beauty of his interracial family and his potential to be a different sort of White Southern male.

The youth of South Carolina (particularly Orangeburg County): I hold myself accountable to the children and teens of my home state and county in hopes that they can see the truths amidst all of the silence, secrets, racial code words, and Whitewashed curriculum and libraries. May they benefit from teachers and librarians who can help them understand the historical and ongoing impact of a state built on the forced labor of enslaved people, the theft of tribal lands (through the Indian Removal Act and other legislation), the horrors of Reconstruction (violence, land loss, and the Black Codes that would become Jim Crow), and the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement (the Orangeburg Massacre, White Citizens’ Councils, etc.) that led to a state where structural and environmental racism are woven into the very fabric of daily life. (Not to mention how prevalent sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are.) I know how difficult it is to live amidst that stifling silence, where racism is everywhere but nobody (White) wants to acknowledge it, where racial coding (if not outright hate speech) is as common as pimento cheese sandwiches at a picnic. 

My students: I hold myself accountable to my students (past, present, and future) by being honest, even when it is uncomfortable. I use critical theories in my classes to help push the boundaries of the profession and LIS education. Sometimes I succeed (which is what keeps me going some days), and sometimes I fail (I have been called a “race traitor” on my student evaluations and often have vocal resistance in the form of my courses being “too difficult.”). But I never want a student to look back on one of my classes and be angry at me for not being truthful, for leaving out the reality of the problems they will face as librarians. Tempered with this critical approach, I also speak to the hope and belief that they can make changes (daily and long-term) to provide more equitable collections and services to everyone.

The communities libraries serve (in theory, if not in reality): I hold myself accountable to everyone in every community in this country, of every race, color, belief/nonbelief, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, ability, veteran status, spoken/written language, citizenship status, legal history, economic level, and literacy level, recognizing that White, heteronormative, cisgender, Christian males still continue to be seen as the default (AKA status quo) in too many of our collections and services. 

By holding myself accountable to all of these people on my agenda, I recognize my responsibility in questioning the assumptions and decisions of many librarians, educators, researchers, institutions, organizations, publishers, authors and illustrators, corporations, and others who would seek to privilege the status quo through the silencing, policing, stereotyping, tokenizing, and/or marginalizing of anyone who falls out of their version of “America.” In short, I seek (as do so many others, many of them listed in the blogs to the right) to do my part in creating a better future for everyone. That is my agenda and I own it completely.

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