VAL Spotlight Series: Practices of Equity & Social Justice – Christina Fuller-Gregory

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.

Christina Fuller-Gregory
Assistant Director of Libraries
South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities

How do you define equity and social justice?

For me equity is ensuring that we’re operating on a level playing field and providing ALL PEOPLE with the resources, services, and opportunities that they need to move beyond ‘surviving’ to thriving. Building upon this idea of equity, social justice is a means by which we can ensure that the true mission of equity- fairness, opportunity, privilege- is being distributed not just to those who inherently receive it, but also to those marginalized groups who deserve it.

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

Equity and social justice show up in my practice in a variety of ways. I exhibit equity in action when I ensure that the programming, services, and collections in my library are reflective of both the community we serve AND the communities that we often underserve. It exists in my passion for facilitating trainings to introduce equity, diversity, and inclusion and social justice to libraries that are just beginning to embark upon EDISJ work. I’m able to practice equity and social justice when I, and my fellow colleagues on the Public Library Association’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Task Force work towards developing a set of lasting best practices that will support ongoing systemic change in the areas of EDISJ for Public Libraries. 

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?

Change is never easy, but I’ve found that it’s almost always necessary. One of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced when integrating equity and social justice work into my practice is pushback and reticence from those who feel that conversations about equity and social justice don’t belong in libraries. This pushback has rarely been organizational or institutional, and has most often been personal. I’ve facilitated trainings where participants have sat unsmiling with arms crossed; and I have received emails of complaint asking ‘why do we have to talk about racial equity, when I’m welcoming to all patrons.’ I’m a big believer in calling people in, and not calling them out. One of the first things that I do when interacting with a person who has expressed reticence about EDISJ work is to listen to and address their feelings. Whether I agree with them or not, we’re all allowed to ‘own’ our feelings, and the simple act of listening signals respect. I always acknowledge that when talking about EDISJ, there is a certain level of fear, embarrassment (for the aggressor or the aggressed), and uncertainty. But perhaps the strongest emotion is discomfort. I always share that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, because that discomfort is often the driver that leads to authentically honest conversation and transformation. 

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?

Yes, I’m a big believer in collaborations! I currently work with three different groups that focus on EDISJ. One is my institution’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, I work with five other faculty members to drive institutional change around EDISJ. I also am Co-chair of the Public Library Association’s EDISJ Task Force, and this work enables me to partner and collaborate with a dynamic group of people who are invested in strengthening and building the capacity of public libraries in the areas of EDISJ. Most recently, the EDISJ Committee partnered with another wonderful PLA Committee, the Leadership Development Committee to present PLA Leadership Lab: Embedding EDI in Library Leaders. It was powerful, in that members of both committees acted as facilitators and moderators for the six-part training opportunity.  While many of us had never met before, the nature of building out the training, and preparing to moderate each session enabled us to get to know each other very well. As librarians, it’s so important to have a strong network. For me, the willingness to collaborate, partner, and share ideas, have been wonderful in terms of strengthening my library community. I’m also very proud of my more informal collaborations and partnerships.  Each month, I meet with a group of BIPOC library workers whose professional roles are focused on EDISJ. In addition to providing a much needed support network, we work to identify ways in which we can collaborate and partner with each other on presentations, webinars, and projects.

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?

One of the most important ways in which you can measure the success of your EDISJ initiatives is to be intentional. Many organizations want a quick fix. They want to be able to say that they are ‘woke’ and they’ve cracked the code on EDISJ. They roll out one staff-wide or system-wide EDISJ training and think that the work is done. It’s not. I would encourage those who are working toward lasting change to take the time to map out and review their current institutional or organizational structure. What do they do well? What do they need to improve? What needs to be addressed first? Who can help move the needle? Use these questions to identify and plan for first steps. After implementing first steps, I encourage people to create a document that details current practices (how are we doing things now?). Use this document to measure how the newly implemented steps have improved or impacted their overall progress. 

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?

I’m a big fan of Dr. Nicole Cooke- Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina. Before EDISJ became a major talking point, Dr. Cooke was talking about it. Her books Information services to diverse populations: Developing culturally competent library professionals, and Leading with love and hospitality: applying a radical pedagogy to LIS are two favorites. As I have moved into the realm of EDISJ consulting, I’ve been inspired by the amazing thought leader Vernā Myers. Her vision and values around EDI are awe-inspiring. She is the author of, What if I Say the Wrong Thing? 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People.  Whenever I meet someone who is just beginning to build their individual capacity around EDI, I suggest this book. One of the most difficult aspects of centering equity, diversity, inclusion is the vulnerability.  If you’re working in earnest to be better and do better, the last thing you want is to make a misstep, or offend or hurt someone.  This book addresses the fears that each of us have in a direct, and forgiving way.