VAL Spotlight Series: Practices of Equity & Social Justice – Mantra Roy

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.

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.

Mantra Roy

Mantra Roy (she/her)
Collection Strategy Librarian
San Jose State University

How do you define equity and social justice?

Equity begins with equal access to opportunities, resources, decision-making capacity/role, and social justice stems from the above because everyone, based on their skills and abilities, can claim deserving roles and responsibilities. 

How do you integrate equity and social justice into your practice?

When I develop a project and I reach a point of seeking collaborators, I review not only the credentials but also the lived experiences and cultural backgrounds of prospective candidates. This is because I want to bring the best expertise into my project. I believe that personal wisdom, often derived from socio-cultural-political aspects of one’s life, coupled with professional skills inform the best credentials of candidates. I think creating an opportunity for people of different backgrounds to apply their skills learned from personal and professional experience is my approach toward equity and social justice.

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?

In a different institution, I was not allowed to build a project involving Black students, faculty, and staff. I was very new and I had to walk away from the project. But at my current institution, I broached a similar project and I had done adequate research on the need for such a project. It was approved immediately and I received a prestigious University grant to build an Oral History project about Asian-Indians in Silicon Valley. The project in progress will capture the complex diversity of the community – from the almost ubiquitous software engineer who has unknowingly contributed to the gentrification of the area to the local taxi drivers, janitors, and grocery store workers without whom no society can function. Several interviews have been collected and transcribed, and a plan to launch the collection is underway. 

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?

In my almost finished ACRL-funded project, “Global South Speaks: A Librarianship Perspective,”  I examine the challenges librarians in India face in their attempt to engage in scholarly communications. On reading “Open and Equitable Scholarly Communications Report: Creating a More Inclusive Future,” I realized that librarians from all over the world run into similar challenges and learn from opportunities, and the sharing of that knowledge enriches the profession. However, we rarely hear from India where, often, a single academic librarian serves hundreds of students a day and is required to publish regularly. In my one-on-one interviews with seven university librarians from different cities across India and with forty-three librarians during a monthly call of a library association in southern India, via Zoom in 2020, I realized that training in American academic writing is a need, as is access to current scholarship which is mostly available behind steep paywalls.

So my next step after completion of my ACRL grant is to collaborate with a librarian in India and submit a journal article or write a conference proposal or a book chapter. I have received a NASIG grant to travel to India and work with a librarian at Presidency University in Kolkata, India. For more context, Prof. Abhijit Banerjee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019, did his undergraduate work at the University mentioned above. My colleague is open to scholarly pursuits and her local/cultural context of working in Indian academia will help me achieve the following: she will learn actively about academic writing for a global audience and I will learn about how a few librarians navigate resources, time, and serve thousands of students while actively pursuing a research agenda.

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?

I think quite a bit of my upcoming collaborative endeavor will be qualitative and that is where institutional bias finds its way, although often unintentionally. In a one-on-one collaboration, as in my example above, I would like to be as vigilant of my own position as possible and create a work atmosphere where I will defer to my collaborator’s response and expertise. “Cultural humility” is key. On one hand, she knows the librarianship scene in India far better than me, and on the other hand, if I am committed to breaking the barrier between Global North and South, I should be ready to unlearn my privilege.

Are there any scholars, practitioners, or thought leaders related to equity and social justice that have made an impact on you personally or inspire you? Can you recommend any important reads (blog posts, articles, books, etc.) for others to explore?

Before I became a librarian I was a faculty member in English departments. So my primary academic training is in Postcolonial Studies and Black Feminist Theory. Some of the most important readings that have informed my work are Gayatri Spivak’s work on Subalterns and their ability to “speak”; Third World Feminism; Postcolonial Feminism; Chela Sandoval’s work on Oppositional Consciousness; Black Feminist Theory, including Angela Davis, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Hazel Carby, Patricia Hill Collins, and others.