At #AASL21 in Salt Lake City I was honored to get to watch Meg Allison present “Radical Inclusion in Every School Library” in person. When I say we are better together, colleagues and friends like Meg are why I know the future of our profession is in good hands.
In this session, Meg shared what radical inclusion means by welcoming and affirming the voices of all library stakeholders in a way that shares power in her library and beyond. She truly understands that libraries are not neutral or apolitical spaces. She shared strategies and experiences that help all of us learn to disrupt the fallacy of providing equal access by centering historically marginalized voices in our schools. She highlighted that inclusion must be radical because it is the only way we can truly support ALL students and strive for justice.
Presentation Link: bit.ly/RadicalInclusionAASL
The session opened with a social justice acknowledgment tailored to #AASL21 and the current fight to keep access to information available to all students. This statement recognizes the real and current struggles that school librarians across the country are dealing with in regards to censorship. It framed the session in a way that helped each of us see and know that Meg actively affirms the work and people affected by these struggles and challenges.
Roots of an Inclusive Worldview
Reading Meg’s blog post “The Roots of an Inclusive Worldview” on the School Librarian Leadership blog only creates more clarity to understanding how she came to her statement on privilege and her explanation of how rooted she is in equity. Reading and books helped her worldview evolve over her life and continues to impact her practice and purpose as a school librarian. As beautiful as her home state of Vermont is, her journey to where she stands today is just as prepossessing.
Even at a young age Meg took to pursuing efforts of equity through personal activism as was evidenced by a letter from her Vermont Senator in 1982 for an Environmental Protection Agency Award she received. Her personal journey includes art she created as a child and from when she shook the hand of Nelson Mandela while learning abroad in South Africa and serving at a voting station there.
In her presentation Meg shared that radical inclusion means welcoming and affirming the voices of all library stakeholders in a way that shares power. She shared that these examples of radical inclusion are ESSENTIAL:
- curating diverse and inclusive collections
- creating diverse programming and units of study
- inviting authors and speakers of color, LGBTQI+, and differently abled
- addressing microaggressions EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY OCCUR
- putting racist and xenophobic texts into context (and not on display!)
- removing economic barriers for lost or damaged materials (allow students to donate their time and energy to the library, or write, or share in order to make restitution)
Identifying the multifaceted barriers and REMOVING them will ensure that our school libraries are spaces where students do not just feel that they belong but are radically inclusive. When we are curating, developing, and weeding our collections we have to apply the critical lens of ensuring that we are not cancelling books and texts that are problematic but instead allowing for contextualization and disruption. We must advocate for diverse texts not only in our library collections but also in the curriculum. Diverse texts can augment the “traditional texts” taught as part of the canon but that add relevant young adult books that explore non-dominant narratives. She shared that our collections should be culturally relevant but also serve as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” for all students.
She encouraged librarians to ask these questions about our spaces, collections, policies, practices, programs, and curriculum connections:
School librarians can examine this further by asking ourselves:
- In what ways have our implicit biases reinforced inequities and injustices in your school library?
- What has transformed because of your commitment to understand and act to disrupt your implicit biases in your spheres of influence?
Layla Saad wrote, “You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot challenge what you do not understand” in her book Me and White Supremacy, and Meg encouraged us to explore and create a personal awareness of our implicit bias. She shared these three resources for this work:
- Race IAT: Project-Implicit
- Resisting the Unspoken Quota: Radical Inclusion in Library Resources
- Who’s Outside? How to Build an Anti-Racist Bookshelf (UVM’s Tarrant Institute)
As we, often white cisgender women, do this work, we must also amplify Black voices by recommending and displaying Black authors and their books to all students. When we share the work of and post the art of others, but especially that of female scholars of color, we need to make sure we are amplifying their voices and their work. When harm is done, we have to engage in the work of restorative practices and help all students see that harm should not be allowed to continue to be perpetuated in our library spaces. Meg shared that she had and continues to have her own concerns and fears about doing this work. She worries she won’t be able to keep students safe, that she doesn’t have the tools to interrupt bias and hate, and that she won’t be able to enforce that harm will not be tolerated. She knows from Val Brown though that knowledge plus practice will build confidence over time.
The library at Meg’s school is also an inclusive hub where students are encouraged to share their art, their ideas, their knowledge, their learning, and their hope for the future. Through student-led clubs that meet there to book groups and the makerspace and other student-designed activities, students know they can pursue their own social justice work and get support. Meg has seen students who use their voice and agency in meaningful ways to impact their community, local and state policy, and even laws to create the future they want to be part of.
Students present their work and resources related to Civil Rights, club events, art, and even signs to help other students know what book to read next that helped them understand difficult social topics and issues. A social studies collaboration Meg helped with resulted in an Indigenous Peoples’ Library Project. Students also wrote disclaimers to add to library books for Indigenous people. The sheer number of impacts Meg and her students have on the learning in their school community and school library are in her presentation but also felt by those of us who attended this session and were touched by the student work she shared.
As the session concluded, Meg shared that a radically inclusive library is not just trauma-informed; it is trauma-transformed. All students deserve free, open, and unfettered access for their liberation and journey toward self-actualization. When our libraries are flourishing, a school is flourishing. She shared that librarians can ask themselves these questions:
- How can the library be a place for social and emotional wellness for students, and especially for students from non-dominant populations?
- How can the school library become a leader for equity, transformation, and humanization within the school ecosystem?
- How does the library serve as a gatekeeper? What is being kept in? What is being kept out?
- How does white supremacy show up in a library practices and policies?
Oftentimes the physical spaces are the first marker of the environment for students and the impact that environment has on students. The library could and should create more intentional spaces, including zones for quiet study, collaboration, socialization, mindfulness, unplugged activities. It may also be able to provide access to tea, hot chocolate, healthy snacks, and other small comforts. The space should also be critically relevant to social and emotional learning initiatives of the school that address the holistic needs of marginalized students.
The library as a shared space supports a collectivity, a “third space” that shapes the way students interact and participate. When students show up, people who might not really know one another turn the space into an organic community. This can act as a counterpoint to data that shows that teens are more socially isolated, more anxious and depressed, and lonelier.
She again emphasized the critical need for school libraries to not bill students. She encouraged all school librarians to take the next step to interrogate how our systems exacerbate economic inequities by our practice of billing students for lost and/or damaged materials. Billing students is punitive, not restorative. She instead suggested involving students in making retributions and finding solutions is trauma-informed and activates student agency. Sometimes the fear of a library bill can traumatize students who are asked to “perform their poverty” at every turn. This imposes psychological evidence that suggests they stop using the library–not just checking out books, but using the space and expertise of the librarian as well.
Freedom dreaming is a practice I have also engaged in with some my students. Freedom dreaming is from Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and is a call to imagine and envision not what we are fighting against but what we are fighting for. When we dream of that better future, what does it look like? How do we see ourselves there? How are we affected in this future? What possibilities can we imagine into being?
Meg encouraged each of us to dream of what that future is and make it a reality for our profession, for all school librarians and libraries, and most importantly for all of our students!
Allison, Meg B. 2021. “The Roots of an Inclusive Worldview.” School Librarian Leadership. http://www.schoollibrarianleadership.com/2021/09/20/the-roots-of-an-inclusive-worldview/
Bishop, R. S. 1990. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6 (3).
Author: Nancy Jo Lambert
Nancy Jo Lambert is a Google Certified Trainer and high school teacher librarian in Frisco Independent School District at Reedy High School. She is a presenter advocating for libraries by telling the story of the learning happening in her library. She holds positions in the Texas Library Association, Texas Computer Education Association, American Library Association, American Association of School Librarians, and the Texas Association of School Librarians. She has been published in professional journals and won numerous awards and grants and was named TCEA Library Media Specialist of the Year and the American Association of School Librarians Social Media Superstar Curriculum Champion in 2019. She is co-founder of EduPrideAlliance.org and she is known for sharing her professional work on Twitter @NancyJoLambert and her website reedylibrary.com.