VAL Spotlight Series: Practices of Equity & Social Justice – Gemmicka Piper

What does it mean to integrate equity and social justice into our practice and assessment in libraries? Efforts to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion have been a priority of most institutions of higher education for many years now. The ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Committee is charged with helping academic librarians participate in work that is aligned with the mission, vision, and values of their institutions, as well as providing evidence of the value they provide to these institutions. While institutions and academic libraries have made progress in terms of diversity and inclusion work, equity is much more difficult to achieve. Persistent underlying structures of racial injustice, economic disparities, and cultural inequities have disadvantaged library users and workers alike.

In the context of the 2020 social unrest, many libraries publicized statements, developed new policies and goals, created specific positions, and offered resources on equity and social justice, but what does this kind of work look like in the daily practices of librarians? As a profession, we need a foundation for doing and leading equity work at our institutions.

Through this spotlight series on practices of equity and social justice, the committee is asking librarians from various corners of librarianship to discuss what it means to integrate equity and social justice into our practice and assessment, as well as how they are working toward that goal.

Name: Gemmicka Piper
Pronouns: She/Her
Job title: Humanities Librarian
Institution/Organization name: IUPUI

How do you define equity and social justice? Equity means providing the needed amount of resources or assistance so that everyone has access to the same opportunities for success. Social Justice is simply taking the legal or educational steps to change the systems which repress the constitutional rights of some to individual liberty, human dignity, and the pursuit of happiness. When taken together, equity and social justice means being aware of how certain traditions and procedures can derail equal outcomes for everyone.

How do you integrate equity and social justice into your practice? If possible, please provide some specific examples of what this looks like in action. To be perfectly frank, I have never once referred to any of the work I do as DEI. If you were to ask me, I have always done work that intersects with racialized experiences and theories. In fact, I always believed DEI to be a purely administrative term as it seems to be more about the implementation of institutional processes and how they are measured. I have never seen it as connected to practical efforts or immediately tangible outcomes. It has only been fairly recently that I have heard the work I do described in terms of DEI. It is really interesting how this term can be used to simultaneously appropriate the labor done by minoritized faculty which more often than not was done in spite of institutional support, and to create a narrative of this same labor as somehow inherently demonstrative of an organizational focus and commitment to DEI and social justice.

Classify it however you want, here is the work I have done: I spent two and a half years reviving and then reactivating the African American Funnel Group, one of the Subject Authority Cooperative groups created by the PCC Commission for the Library of Congress. For two and half years I chaired the group and recruited catalogers and subject experts. This work was closer to how I think about DEI. The function of the group was to submit subject headings and challenge the bias in existing subject terms for African Americans. To get to that point it was a grueling first year of going through the cataloging training for everyone. In doing this work I quickly became very cognizant of the ways in which the system of knowledge and language that our academic libraries deploy to create informational order information very much still privileges nonwhite, Christian, male, and cis gendered individuals. Even with the point of the SACOs being to address these issues, change remained slow and was frankly impeded by the clinging on to ideas of “descriptive objectivity.”

We don’t live in a world of philosophy; we live in the space of realities. Descriptive objectivity is great until it comes to trying to define historical or current atrocities. While we were able to get subject headings through, it was a demoralizing process. Each subject proposal was stripped of any deeper contextual meaning in order to preserve neutrality. Still, I am grateful for the firsthand experience in dealing with this tension in descriptive language because it has made me more mindful as a public facing librarian about how I may describe information for students doing research on any minoritized populations.

More locally, I have leveraged outreach and made connections with units that do work around equity and social justice. For example, on my campus I have connected with the leadership of both the Multicultural Affairs Center and the Underrepresented Professional and Graduate Student Organization. With the simultaneous quarantine and national protest in light of the murder of George Floyd, I have done a lot of reflection and review of my work, my own identity, and the role I can play in enabling social justice. I worked with a colleague to create a Social Justice and Anti-Racism research guide out of the materials available within our collection and following the structuring precepts of antiracist pedagogy. This research guide has already received a rather high number of visits.

What challenges do you face when integrating equity and social justice into your practice? Are these personal, organizational, or institutional? How do you work around these or overcome these when you are faced with them? Over the last two years I have been given opportunities to teach more courses falling under the rubric of Spanish Writing and Culture. had to learn how to assist with identifying Spanish resources in our English language centric databases. I have gotten better at doing this, but it wasn’t until I was confronted with this experience that I realized how huge the gap in my information knowledge base was. It definitely did not help that my predecessor spoke fluent Spanish, and my faculty had expected an individual who was also relatively fluent in Spanish! I ended up working with the individual faculty in the Spanish department on things like designing in-class assignments and reinforcing learning objectives that connect the class goals to informational needs. So this challenge was more personal.

On a wider scale, I have made it a priority to do more active outreach around underrepresented graduate and professional students. I have done this through volunteering at campus library events but also by pursuing every opportunity for face-to-face interaction. I will never forget the experience of randomly running into an African American graduate student in the women’s bathroom of all places, and having her startle and say “Oh, my God. You’re Real!… I just never expected that I would see a black librarian on this campus!” Frankly I was doing a lot of outreach to graduate students on top of taking on various new developmental duties, and this was the one moment when I knew if I had accomplished nothing else, my presence at least had made a difference to someone. I point this out, because so much of my day-to-day is hit or miss, you never know what will stick, and time is always an issue as you are often pulled in multiple directions.

Do you partner with others at your institution or beyond to accomplish equity or social justice outcomes or goals? What do you look for in a partner or collaborator? The work with SACO involves individuals from multiple institutions across the nation. This service opportunity was open to anyone interested in participating. Generally speaking, though, I think a good collaborator is anyone who also has some skill or expertise to bring to the table. The burden of doing the labor needs to be equally yoked, otherwise it’s not a collaboration. The project and interaction become more of a time suck and energy drainer. A major pet peeve of mine is when people disappear without a word or fail to do what they say they will. Respect for each other’s time as well as clear communication are important for successful collaboration. I expect a partner to be active from the idea stage to the final event. When I feel that you are wasting my time, I either end my work on the project or if I can’t, I get very fussy about doing the work of two people.

In December 2019, I was awarded the Scholarly Communications Research Grant from the Research and Scholarly Environment Committee. Not gonna lie, this was scary. This was my first grant as a project lead. Initially, I had to really rely on my colleagues, who are more in tune with scholarly communication issues, to post my calls for participants on various scholarly communication listservs. I also relied on my colleagues for support in building a pool of contacts across disciplines and assisting me with reaching out on my behalf to individual faculty members. My Library Dean and Administrative Dean supported me by assisting me with redrafting the call and introducing me to various faculty in high administrative positions. The support has been amazing from my colleagues, because I was initially very worried that I would not have people interested in participating in my study. To be honest I don’t really have a lot of trust in institutions nor in people, so reaching out was a huge leap of faith.

Do you have thoughts on measuring success in this area? In other words, how might individual practitioners, organizations, and institutions know if they are making progress in moving toward a more equitable and just culture and climate? Honestly, I think people throw terms around without really understanding some of the nuances. To return to the point I raised earlier, the work I do around minoritized populations is just an extension of critical race theory, which directly intersects with what we call social justice. However, I think we are running into the danger of conflating DEI (which comes out of HR type concerns around cultural climate and hiring) and social justice (which to my mind is more about recognizing there is an issue, having a call to action, and then actually delving into solutions).

Solutions depend on issues. If the issue is that you have a high turnover rate in your underrepresented groups, then why not review the data typically collected at the exit interview. If you don’t have an exit interview process, then you should create one and account for questions on how inclusive the environment was. If the issue is one of culture–for example, an office culture where harassment and bullying are occurring–, then what procedures do you have in place for the reporting of incidents and ensuring confidentiality? What management plan do you have to intervene or provide oversight as needed? Is “culture” really being used as a synecdoche for: bad leadership, low morale, general ineffectiveness? Call out the issue by name, no emotionally distant euphemisms. If this is the culture you are dealing with and you are not willing to push for a change, then you need to stop placing the onus and responsibility for change on the ones victimized by your leadership or organizational dysfunction. This is insidious and sneaks into any DEI programming efforts and conversations with administrators as victim blaming and gaslighting, thus fostering a sense of administrative and organizational distrust. I am not a trained DEI expert, but this is what my personal experiences with organizations and institutions have been.

“Elective” questions- Please feel free to select one of the following questions to answer (if interested) or create your own. Please indicate in your answer which question you are responding to. 1. Do you personally or does your organization or institution have goals or outcomes related to equity and social justice? If not, do you have personal goals that guide your work? 2. How does your definition of equity and social justice align with that of your organization/institution? 3. How do you communicate about progress, success, setback, or challenges related to changing culture to your colleagues or to key stakeholders, partners or collaborators? One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my current role is the extremely hierarchical mindset of a few core faculty in my main disciplinary areas. When I first started this position, I encountered a series of negative interactions with specifically older, white, senior level faculty and an incident with an older white staff member. I have heard everything from “You look so young! There is no way that you could have a doctorate already.” This led to them reporting to other faculty that I was working in a doctoral program as opposed to already being fully doctored. The staff member insisted that he looked me up and was unable to “verify” that I had the credentials I claimed. When I first reported some of these instances to my senior colleagues and my direct supervisor at the time, I was essentially told that being disrespected by faculty was part of the gig I signed up for and that I should deal with it. As the incidents progressed, I was unimpressed with the casual dismissiveness of individual faculty’s negative behavior and then the attempt at “anonymous advice” solicitation from the rest of my peers by my Dean.

This was the moment where it was clear, as I was the only newer person who was a subject liaison, who was “anonymously” having the issue. Anonymity was an illusion, and this broke whatever trust I had in my administrative team to deal with issues I faced as a faculty member of color. It took almost seven months and a presentation at ACRL 2019, where other women of color told stories of eerily similar experiences that they had with both faculty in their liaison areas and with their colleagues when they reported these events, that I was able to find a satisfactory response to handling these issues when they arise. Of course, none of this accounts for the rapid increase in my misidentification for other short black women that work in the building by my actual colleagues. The sheer volume of increases in this type of misidentification occurring simultaneously with the addition of another black female librarian to our staff…not saying it’s a microaggression…but it is microagression.

Objectively, I have to give my current Dean props here. She recognized a weakness in her response and sought out guidance to better be able to support and empower me when these issues happen. The fact that my leadership team actively sought out some techniques for dealing with things that they may have been uncomfortable with demonstrated to me at least that I could have some degree of faith that the discussion and policy updates around diversity was not just talk. I think most individuals want to know that they will actually be supported by their administration team when the rubber hits the road. At the same time, I have learned that there are office level cultural issues with workload balance that outwardly have nothing to do with race but that still disproportionately impact me as a pre-tenure African American librarian.