It is essential that school librarians continuously update our collections with newer, more relatable, more diverse books; and it’s also essential that we do more than that.
Note: While diversity and inclusion work has many layers and intersections, this post will focus on race and culture.
As part of my work in AASL’s Induction Program, I recently read about the Student Six initiative in North Carolina. Students worked with their educators to create six concepts “they felt would be transformative for both teachers and students if the concepts were applied in learning spaces.”
The six concepts are visibility, proximity, connecting to students’ lives, engaging students’ cultures, addressing race, and connecting to the larger world and students’ future selves. There is a framework for each concept, and there are questions for us to ask ourselves about our learning spaces based on the concepts.
I found this article at just the right time because I’ve been asking myself similar questions without a frame to pull it all together: How welcoming is my school library? Do I know whether students feel visible in the space? Is my signage clear and in various languages? How about my resources? What community connections can I build to help honor different cultures in my programming? Are there opportunities for explicitly addressing race in my library?
Let me back up.
I’m one of the advisors for my school’s Racial Alliance Committee, and, earlier this year, my library was the target of racist and anti-Semitic writing, drawing, and graffiti. After calling the police and navigating the difficult conversations that followed with my principal, local law enforcement, and student leaders, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my library is not–and never has been–a safe space for all students.
My library is packed with students ALL. DAY. LONG. But, it’s primarily a comfy space for our mostly white, affluent students to hang out in (and maybe do a little work). My teaching and programming exists on the edge of that reality. My administration loves this atmosphere, and I’ve tried and failed to change it, so I’ve busied myself in other areas, trying to find my niche and make a difference, helping small and awesome cohorts of students in a variety of ways.
But that’s over now.
Yes, you read that right. It’s predictable and sad and embarrassing, but it’s true. It took an overtly racist act for me (a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied man) to move beyond my progressive and intellectual ideals about race, diversity, inclusion, and equity and actually begin to turn them into something that can be considered proactive practice.
So far, this is taking two forms:
- Reading and Curriculum
- Normalizing Conversations
Eight percent of the students at my school identify as non-white. Statewide in Vermont, that number is only five percent. Those numbers make it easy to pretend like a conversation about race isn’t necessary.
As I said, students in my school don’t feel safe in my library. They don’t feel safe in many of our spaces. They’re hurting. These truths go far beyond the recent incidents of overt racism, but I think it is important to name them. Regardless of the motivation, swastikas were drawn and the n-word was written many times. The community response was mixed. There was outrage, sadness, and solidarity, but, in my opinion, there was far too much apathy, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even disagreement about why such symbols and words could be so deeply vicious and offensive.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks of “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ”
I need to take action, and I need to help shift the systems and structures of my school and district that make it far too easy to stay in that negative space, the status quo, where those in power keep all of the power, and those in marginalized communities remain marginalized.
A group of brave parents attended a recent school board meeting to ask our district leaders to hire a diversity and inclusion specialist, to change our hiring practices to seek out candidates of color who will undoubtedly gain jobs and transform the faces of our collective faculty to better mirror our increasingly racially diverse student body; and a few other educators and I spoke up to say that we would be proud to serve on a community action team that can help the board navigate the successful implementation of these ideas.
At the same meeting, the school board approved a proposal from the Racial Alliance Committee to raise the Black Lives Matter flag on our campus during the first week of April. I believe this is an essential step to open up the conversation about race in our community to those who would rather not participate, who would rather keep that negative peace.
Several other faculty members and I have recently committed to four initiatives that can augment and enhance the impact of raising the flag.
First, we’ve begun a faculty book study around White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo. A colleague and I are facilitating sessions to investigate themes, make personal and school-based connections, and brainstorm ways we can use the teachings to improve our practice as educators.
Second, the library will host a Community Conversation Series during our afternoon Connect Block (kind of a mash-up of advisory and callback) centered on topics of power and privilege. The mission of the series is to provide consistent time and space to normalize conversations among students about social issues and to cultivate equity, diversity, and inclusion within the school community.
Civil discourse needs modeling, practice, and time in order to flourish, and we’re thankful to our administration for agreeing to make space in our schedule.
Third, with a great deal of help and cooperation with our public libraries, students across the district will undertake a summer common reading project centered on racial and social justice in coordination with the Vermont Humanities Council’s choosing of March: Book One by Congressman John Lewis as the 2019 Vermont Reads book. The project will culminate with a cross-age and district-wide event with partners from area social justice organizations in September.
And, finally (for right now), I’ve created an elective class that uses theme- and choice-based reading assignments to teach and cultivate empathy. I’m trying to shift the focus of school-based reading experiences from an environment that values a student’s ability to analyze books for literary and writing conventions to a reading-for-empathy environment, which is entirely dependent on one’s ability to reflect on the way a story makes them feel–and the connections that become possible through shared understanding.
Recent research studies at Stanford University and Emory University show that stories positively affect the way the brain learns and processes information. In short, if someone is simply told or exposed to a piece of information, a small section of the brain activates to process that input. In contrast, when information is acquired through story, the brain’s empathy centers light up, almost mimicking the brain activity of someone who’d actually experienced the same described event or emotion.
You can’t create experience out of nothing. You can’t gain empathy by sitting idly by. Knowledge doesn’t grow without the water and sunlight of new ideas. Books can help my students learn about the amazing array of people who live in this world.
Students in our schools are clamoring for more relevant and relatable school curriculum, and they’re clamoring for their educators to better understand their lived experiences. We can’t afford to wait until they walk through our library doors to find a book on the shelf. We must force the issue because the curriculum and practices and systems and structures will not shift fast enough without our direct action.
I need to be a leader in the work of moving beyond the status quo in search of the positive peace.
Will you join me?
Our students are waiting.
Author: Peter Langella
Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont, a school library instructor at the University of Vermont, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, and a member of AASL’s first Induction Program Cohort. He is currently reading Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy.