Shaping the Future Together: How Libraries Can Support Communities of Color
Black History Month Free Symposium

On February 23, 2022, the San José State University School of Information’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee hosted a symposium in recognition of Black History Month. The free symposium featured two opening keynote speakers followed by a panel discussion on “The Diverse Needs of the Black Community.”

SJSU iSchool Director Anthony Chow opened the event with an anecdote of his past tenure with UNC Greensboro, where he worked during the May 2020 civil protests and movements from the public murder of George Floyd. Chow stated:

“At the time of his death I was the faculty senate chair at UNC Greensboro, and I worked closely with our Chancellor Franklin Gilliam. On behalf of the faculty, we sent his family flowers along with a note…that we were committed to making a difference, and to deliver on our chancellor’s promise and request of all of us to do something. As someone who has experienced discrimination all my life, and seeing it occur with my three children as well, I am committed to do something and make a difference. That’s why the iSchool has created this EDI symposium series as a tangible attempt to live up to that promise.”

Julius Jefferson opened the co-keynote address in conversation with the symposium’s theme. Jefferson is a past ALA president (2020-21) and section head of the Research and Library Services Section in the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division at Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.

Jené D. Brown, current director of emerging technologies and collections at Los Angeles Public Library and California Library Association president. As part of her introduction, Brown recited “I am a Mirror,” a poem from a book titled “I am Love,” illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Read along here. They discussed their ancestry, the impact of their family legacies on their librarianship, and how that shaped their advocacy. Jefferson poses to Brown: “Who will be the beneficiary of your courage?” Both speakers answered with personal inflection to uplift the people they directly serve.

Brown: her three daughters, her colleagues, and the public. [She] “serves as an advocate and voice for them by having a seat at the table making decisions on collections, programming and services at the library.”

Jefferson: “Talking about our profession, we have an obligation to serve, to share, and to pass down and to be an activist for our community, writ large. We have to be that example in this moment more than ever. It only takes a second to take us back 150 years. We have to be here to those who come…we have to mentor those who will be coming up now.”

The panelists ranged in professional expertise and scholarship, sharing their library advocacy for diverse information needs. Forrest Foster is the associate professor and assistant dean of library services of F.D. Bluford Library in North Carolina A&T State University. Foster highlighted one of many partnerships with Wake Forest University during his time with Winston-Salem State University to develop a “Human Library” in March 2018. “You go in, you check [speakers] out as you check out a book,” Foster describes as the interview exchange format of this project. He continued:

“You might have 20 speakers throughout this venue speaking on school to prison pipeline, redlining, could be anything. You create a dialogue: you get to learn from practitioners, community activists who have something to say to give inspirations. You can empower individuals to go do something.”

Brian Hart is the director of Forsyth County Public Libraries who specializes in public library outreach to African American communities and development of social services programs. FCPL continues to support African American communities and all county residents by “[increasing] the degree of partnerships…pool all the resources and talent together to broaden our reach [throughout the county].” He presented on literacy-centered initiatives to combat the marginalization of BIPOC contributions in the community.

Panelist Wanda Brown served as past ALA president (2019-20) and is current director of library services at Winston-Salem State University. She extended a clear message to SJSU iSchool students and library professionals alike:

“I would encourage you as you go through library school and look for positions, that you take this in and realize it is the passion from which Julius and Jené started. Everybody is speaking with passion. If you have that passion that transcends across colors, across communities, across economic situations then you will bring to the profession what the profession needs.” 

Shannon Jones is director of libraries with the Medical University of South Carolina and currently serves as president-elect of the Medical Library Association with nearly 20 years’ experience in health sciences. Jones began her career as an outreach librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University where she developed a high touch, high engagement outreach philosophy that encouraged staff to leave the library, be a part of the local community, and identify information gaps and opportunities along the way. She advised:

“Be visible. Remember that we need to amplify the voices and the perspectives of communities of color. In a leadership role, what I think about often is – who have I seen constantly getting the opportunity to pour into audiences? I want to bring people of color [and create platform for them].” 

Yolande Wilburn is the director of Santa Cruz Public Libraries and dives into established best practices for serving Black communities. Previously, Wilburn served as county librarian for Nevada County Library, a library manger in Los Angeles and experience working with international populations in Dubai. She reflected:

“Growing up I was a library kid, there was not one library [in the city of Chicago] …I do not recall ever coming into contact with an African American librarian who looked like me in that process. For me this is great celebration of Black History Month that we have come so far.” 

The two-hour symposium came to a close with Chow pulling together the common thread that ran across the symposium’s speakers as all participants offered pathways to support communities of color, and specifically underserved Black communities, through transformative library services.