When I joined the Oak Park Public Library in 2016, I was one of the first library social workers in the United States. My hiring as director of Social Services and Public Safety was also one of the first major changes at the library to come from efforts to “turn outward” — to make intentional choices that ground library work in Oak Park’s shared aspirations. 

Today, our innovative social services and public safety model is designed to serve patrons experiencing homelessness, mental illness and social isolation. The library connects people with resources such as free mental health assessments, educational support for low-income students, supportive housing advocacy, and employment assistance. 

And we continue to turn outward. In February 2020, we began an anti-racism journey — taking a deeper dive into examining race and social equity in the organization and community. When our executive director, David Seleb, emphasized his intention that the library’s equity, diversity and inclusion training be specifically focused on examining race and social equity, my reaction as the only Black member of our leadership team was, “Sign me up!”

Now almost one year later, we are continuing our work with consultant Reesheda Graham Washington and RGW Consulting LLC. Reesheda’s international experience and local awareness make her uniquely positioned to lead our organization. She offers a comprehensive, expert perspective and methodologies to examine race and social equity. She also is highly engaged within the community as a community organizer, an Oak Park Black business owner and a trusted race and social equity adviser.

Last February, Resheeda spent a week interviewing and listening to a cross-section of more than 50 library stakeholders, including the leadership team, board members, managers and community members. To illuminate some of the root causes that impact the library’s culture and climate, specifically racist and antiracist behaviors, she spoke with library stakeholders who represent particular affinity groups based on gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability and interests. This process helped determine where our library was, and how we were positioned to move forward.

Because words like white supremacy, privilege, allyship, white fragility, entitlement and reparations can unravel discourse if they aren’t neutralized and accepted, shared exercises have helped the library gain more common language. It has been crucial to learn how to neutralize what has been considered “racially charged” language to become better equipped to share dialogue on this difficult and challenging topic.

All library staff have had the opportunity to engage with Reesheda and each other in a safe space to discuss what being a victim and/or perpetrator of racism is like. A powerful and emotional exercise gave us an opportunity to get to know each other in a totally different context and challenged us to be vulnerable as we processed how racism affects us personally. 

Additional ways our library is implementing antiracism work include:

Creating an antiracism advisory team of library staff and community members. The team is developing a comprehensive year-long antiracism strategic plan that includes activities, benchmarks and communications for integration into the library’s overall 2021 strategic plan.

Dedicating budget lines for race and social equity initiatives, programs and projects.

Expanding our adult and teen summer reading model to become an Antiracism Resource Challenge beginning Feb. 1 and continuing all year long.

How we measure and evaluate our success and challenges on this journey is paramount. The equity lens protocol tool we are using will help us determine outcomes, review numbers and narratives, measure benefits and burdens, and identify who is accountable. 

The next two years of antiracism work will help build a new foundation for the library that will hopefully last for generations. Equitable, diverse and inclusive environments are beneficial to everyone.

Robert Simmons is director of social services and public safety at the Oak Park Public Library. This column has been adapted from a blog post he authored for the Urban Libraries Council.

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