For Black people, and people of color, the systemic racism, the oppression, and the acts of aggression that have taken place for the entire timeline of our country is a never-ending stain on our society. As I write this, sitting on my deck, knowing full well the privilege that I have as a white woman in our country, my heart is sick. My heart is sick at knowing another three senseless deaths have occurred in the time just prior and then during the time that I have been isolated in my house because of COVID-19. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd all lost their lives due to racism and senseless violence.
As a collective group of school librarians, we need to come together and ensure that our libraries are places where antiracism prevails. I’ve written (along with Marianne Fitzgerald, Donna Mignardi, and Sandy Walker) about utilizing the social justice standards from Teaching Tolerance in school libraries, and I’m going to write about it again here–because we can and we MUST do better for the young generation who is watching this violence against people of color unfold around them on social media and in the news.
The Teaching Tolerance standards are based around four anchor standards: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. The standards start with kindergarten-appropriate language and span through 12th grade. In my district, we have embedded the Teaching Tolerance standards into our library curriculum and our teaching across the grades. We teach about the beauty of knowing your identity, embracing diversity, understanding what justice looks like and how to seek it for someone you see being hurt, and how to take action. We need to start teaching even our youngest learners about racism in age-appropriate and real ways. The National Association of Educators of Young Children (NAEYC) states in an article that children start to understand race and racism as early as preschool.
See Our Students for Who They Are
We, as school librarians, must model the standards. As role models for our youth, we need to ensure that our very actions are those that are antiracist. We must see our students for who they are, embracing their gifts, their cultures, and differences. We must see ourselves from the unique perspectives of our students who are not like us and use that insight to support their learning. We must fill out shelves with books that represent everyone. We need stories with people of color going about their lives, not just stories of overcoming struggles that are so prevalent in our collections. (Read more: Lauren Lynn’s “Before Diversifying Your Library” blog post.)
We must speak up. That is why in addition to teaching with the social justice standards, I implore you to explore Speak Up at School from Teaching Tolerance. You will learn how to respond when you see or hear everyday prejudice, bias, or racism rearing its ugly head. Our libraries should be a place of safety, understanding, tolerance, and acceptance.
I want to share a list of anti-racism books that I have read as part of my work with school libraries and as part of our district equity team. Our team is led by someone I admire greatly, Mr. Sandy Walker. Any one of these books is a great place to start on a journey to understanding the ingrained racism that has deep roots in our country and how to work to overcome them. While there are many, many more books available, these are ones that have affected me profoundly. I hope they affect you as well.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. This book profoundly affected me and my understanding of the world around me. This book lays out the systematic incarceration of people of color, the bias in our judicial system, and the institutional racism and Mr. Stevenson’s tireless work to overturn wrongful convictions.
How to Be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Simply being a passive observer is not enough. In this book, Kendi details experiences from his own life and demonstrates what antiracism can look like.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo. As a white woman, this book was very eye opening. I could recognize myself in several of the descriptions of how white people often respond to race, and this book helped me to reconcile those feelings. This book really breaks down why it is so counterproductive and how whites can engage in antiracist work.
What If I Say the Wrong Thing: 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People by Verna A. Myers. This was one of our book study books last year and I have to say that I really liked how the book was broken into scenarios.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-Winning Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. This book is accessible to so many because of the clear, straightforward language and writing style that Jason Reynolds placed with his voice remixing Kendi’s book for a younger population. If you are looking for a schoolwide read, a book club read, or a book to add to your social studies curriculum, this is it. This book details the history of racism, the institutions that hold racism in place and is a step forward on the journey to becoming antiracist. I also highly recommend the audio version read by Mr. Reynolds as well.
While we cannot wave a magic wand and make racism disappear overnight, we can take steps to be antiracist and work for equity in our libraries. These days, it seems to me that feeling heartsick, saddened, and overwhelmed is a daily occurrence. We cannot allow that to stop us from the work that needs to be done to end racism in our country. We can take some steps forward:
- Commit to thinking more deeply and reading about the history of racism in the United States and understanding the systematic oppression that has taken place.
- Find a colleague to work with and who is committed to making a change and begin or continue the process of exploring antiracist curriculum or embedding the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards into your current curriculum.
- Think about experiences that have shaped your life and how you can utilize those to promote equity.
- Recognize that everyone is at a different place on this journey. Respect where they are as you continue to work for change.
- Respect. Share. Don’t remain silent.
Finally, to Sandy Walker who tirelessly leads our district effort, I know that at times you might feel disheartened, tired, and ready to give up, but know that you have brought us so far, and because of your leadership, we have taken the giant steps that matter to make our schools and our school libraries better places than they were yesterday. The work is far from over, but together, we can and we will. Thanks Lisa and Donna for being my sounding board and reading my words in their first draft form.
Continue the Conversation
Let’s continue the conversation, what are you doing in your school library to ensure that diversity and equity prevail? How are you providing a safe environment for your school community? How are you speaking up against bias, racism, and intolerance?
Author: Jennifer Sturge
Jennifer Sturge is a Specialist for School Libraries and Digital Learning for Calvert County Public Schools. She has been an educator and librarian for 26 years and is always looking forward. She is a member of ALA and AASL and is President for the Maryland Association of School Librarians for 2020-2021. She is a 2017-2018 Lilead Fellow. Most recently she is the chair elect for the Supervisor’s Section of AASL. She is diligently working on her doctoral studies in leadership at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.