VAL Spotlight Series: Practices of Equity & Social Justice – Dr. Kawanna Bright and Dr. Mónica Colón-Aguirre

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.

Dr. Kawanna Bright and Dr. Mónica Colón-Aguirre

Dr. Kawanna Bright; Dr. Mónica Colón-Aguirre (she/her/hers)
Assistant Professors of Library Science
East Carolina University

How do you define equity and social justice?

Dr. Bright: For me, equity and social justice are about fairness in terms of opportunities. When I talk about equity, I’m talking about whether everyone (in the classroom, in the library, in an organization) has the same access, the same opportunities as everyone else. So putting social justice into practice is about creating or ensuring those equitable opportunities.

Dr. Colón-Aguirre: To me, social justice and equity mean that every member of society has an opportunity and resources to live the life they want to live and that superfluous issues such as race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, among others, are not determining factors into peoples’ futures. This means that people who are at a disadvantage receive the resources they need in order to help define their lives in a meaningful and impactful way.

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.

Dr. Bright: As an instructor, integrating equity and social justice into my teaching and the curriculum is about providing students with an unedited view of libraries and the work that we do – including bringing to light past inadequacies, particularly around equity and social justice. I want students to leave my class and to enter the field with a need to engage in equity and social justice work – not because it’s being externally mandated, but because internally they realize the importance of that work and the role they play in the success of that work. In my research, integrating equity and social justice is about inviting in the previously unheard and overlooked. It’s about making sure everyone who wants to participate in a study and have their voices heard, has the opportunity to do just that. It’s also about preparing others to do the same thing in their research, whether through research consultations or collaborations with other researchers. Pointing out bias and inequity in research is much easier to do than most people think and it often starts with one simple thing: the lack of a positionality statement.

Researchers need to understand that who they are not only impacts how they approach their research, but also their interpretations of data. A lack of acknowledgement of your positionality, how you view the world and interpret things, is tantamount to being unethical in your research practices. So, integrating equity and social justice into my practice includes making sure others are also aware of these issues and trained to address them in their research. I also continue to work on the development of assessment tools that academic libraries can use to assess their diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice efforts. The audit and inventory instruments are works in progress for me, but I hope to continue that work as many libraries have expressed interest.

Dr. Colón-Aguirre: Since I became a library and information science (LIS) educator I have tried to incorporate social justice and equity into my work through the traditional components of a faculty member’s work, namely: research, teaching and service. In my research I explore issues related to Latinx as users of information and user services in academic libraries from the point of view of librarians. I approach these topics from a social justice perspective and explore the role of factors such as language in access and uses of information. In my teaching I try to approach the profession as a whole as a facilitator to the ultimate goal of social justice: that “…all members of a society have equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities” (Prasad, 2014). I present students with issues, readings and examples that move beyond the traditional approach to academia and library science from the perspective of the white majority. I include a different perspective when talking about my story and use of libraries in my native Puerto Rico. In my service I join groups in my organizations that help advance the issues of social justice within the profession. Social justice is the glue holding together all three aspects of my professional career as an LIS educator.

Prasad, B. D. (2014). Social justice. In Coghlan, D. & Brydon-Miller, M. (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of action research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

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?

Dr. Bright: In the classroom, challenges include knowing the best approaches to use. Discussions about equity and social justice are difficult enough on their own. Add in the concerns around my personal identity and the likelihood that this identity will be very different from the students I work with, and you have to do a lot of mental gymnastics when course planning. You have to think about course readings not just in terms of how well they address the topic being discussed, but also what specific language is used. You have to consider guest speakers and interviews and how those you invite into the classroom will be treated by the students. I tend to use a more subversive approach to integrating equity and social justice into the curriculum of the courses I teach. I normalize the topics as being just like any other topic we cover in the course, and I try to avoid having a separate “diversity” module (though sometimes, these are necessary). In my research, the biggest challenge is not having my work relegated to a fad or a phase. Equity, social justice, anti-racism, etc. are a hot commodity in LIS right now.

I just finished what I called a “speaking tour” that took place after the pandemic where I presented or led 10 sessions on equity and social justice topics. In a normal year, I would be lucky to receive more than two accepted opportunities and fewer than 10 rejections of my proposals to discuss these topics and their importance for the field. While I’m happy to have these engagements, I also have to push back against the idea that this work can be done quickly. Research that integrates equity and social justice, especially in LIS, has a long way to go – we are just now scratching the surface. Collaborating with my colleague, Dr. Colón-Aguirre, is just one method for pushing forward with this work – we push each other to not let it go. 

Dr. Colón-Aguirre: One of the main challenges I face when integrating social justice into my practice is that of resistance by others. We like to think that we have come very far in terms of social justice, equity and inclusion in the United States, but the reality is that the issues of exclusion and racism are still very present and engrained into our social systems and institutions, including academic institutions. In many cases throughout my career I’ve worked in organizations that don’t really know what to do with someone like me. Racially, I am white looking although I am mixed race. I am a born citizen of the United States although I am very much Latin American. I speak Spanish as a first language and was born, grew up and lived most of my life in a colony of the United States. I am very visible in my organizations and yet, in many cases I am rendered invisible; and in some cases, due to well-intentioned yet badly executed diversity policies I am excluded from minority organizations and groups. Although these experiences can be disheartening, I have learned to use my pain and my anger and channel these into positive outcomes. I join committees and groups that have a high profile in my organizations, I stay visible and I help advance the cause of social justice in academia.

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?

Dr. Bright: I, of course, partner with Dr. Colón-Aguirre to try to accomplish equity and social justice goals both within the courses we teach (we brainstorm course materials, readings, and assignments with each other and another colleague) and also the research that we do. Even when the topic of our research collaborations is not equity or social justice, we are thinking about the equity and social justice aspects of the research (including who our participants are, where we will share the information, and who will have access to it). I also work as an occasional consultant for academic libraries, focusing on how they can assess their diversity, equity, and inclusions efforts and also how they can work to integrate equity and social justice more directly into their work. Again, it’s about normalization of the work – equity and social justice are not add-ons or temporary endeavors. It’s work that should be done as part of everything we do. The more normalized we can make it, the easier it will be for all libraries and librarians to do this work.

Dr. Colón-Aguirre: In my opinion that is the only way to accomplish equity and social justice goals: working with others. Since Dr. Bright and I started working together, we have been collaborating on many projects. It does feel great to have a co-conspirator as a colleague with similar research and scholarship interests. For me it is essential to have someone with whom I can share ideas, open up about doubts and strategize solutions to problems. In the profession in general, I also have a network of people with whom I collaborate and who help me. The way I see it, these collaborations are the only way in which real change can come to the profession. And the support of these partners is instrumental in keeping me on the job, on task and focused.

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?

Dr. Bright: For me, success can likely be measured in two ways. 1) How often do you find yourself “fixing” things because they remain unequitable or because issues of social justice are clearly still not fully addressed? If this number is going down, because you are integrating equity and social justice into your work and fixing the issues, then you can likely call that a success. 2) Do you find yourself automatically evaluating your work (and the work of others) using a social justice lens AND making efforts to actually change things when you see disparities? If the answer is yes, then you can count that as a measure of success as well. Is it a perfect way to measure success? No, it’s flawed on many levels. But that’s one of the issues with equity and social justice work, especially at the institutional level. In reality, you’ll know you’re successful if employees aren’t leaving your institution because they’ve been treated so unfairly due to their status as historically underrepresented that they simply couldn’t take it anymore. Libraries will be successful in moving towards an equitable culture when they can stop referring to the number of some group or other they have working in their institutions and calling it diversity. I could go on, but that’s for another setting.

Dr. Colón-Aguirre: I agree with Dr. Bright. There are many ways in which organizations can measure their success in this area, but I would warn here that these are not the low hanging fruit in terms of evaluation efforts. For example, with racial diversity in the workplace many institutions are happy to report the number of racially and ethnically diverse candidates in their workforce in terms of who is hired and who is employed there. But these measures are problematic. One issue is to have more people of color (POC) working at the institution than any one of the peer institutions, but the real issue is not in the numbers but on those employee’s experiences.

So, you are hiring, but are you retaining POCs? Are they satisfied with their work conditions? Are they progressing through their careers or are they stuck in dead-end positions with no potential to advance? Are they being paid a fair and competitive salary in comparison to their non-minority colleagues? Do minorities feel free to be themselves in the organization, or do they feel like they must put on the disguise of a perfect employee every morning before going to work? Is the organization supporting their career advancement in the same way that the careers of non-POCs are usually supported? We need to remember that in many cases these support systems are not obvious; when it comes to white employees for example, many of the rules and procedures in place in organizations are supportive systems but that is not necessarily the case for minorities.  These are real issues, which are not as easy to identify but put whites in an advantageous position in the workplace.

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?

Dr. Bright: I definitely follow the work of Dr. Nicole Cooke, who I see as a true inspiration, especially when trying to figure out the work I do in the classroom. In general, there are others I have been inspired by over the years, due to their passion for the topic both inside and outside of the field. As a PhD student, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Frank Tuitt (formerly at the University of Denver, now at the University of Connecticut). Seeing him engage in this work from both a curricular and administrative level was truly thought provoking and eye opening for me – I had spent much of my time so focused on academic libraries, that I lost site of the fact that these libraries existed within higher education. And the issues with equity and social justice in higher education are another monster (that layers right onto libraries).   

Dr. Colón-Aguirre: I must agree on Dr. Nicole Cooke, who has inspired me in so many ways throughout my career through her presentations, publications and also conversations with her. I also deeply admire Dr. Clara Chu’s work and career and have a fan girl moment every time I talk to her at conferences. I also had the chance to meet Dr. Camila Alire early in my career when I was still in library school and thought to myself “I want to be like her when I grow up!” Then there are the people I find myself quoting in my work constantly like Dr. Bharat Mehra and Dr. Denice Adkins, whose publications are essential to what I do and without whom I would not have any material for my literature reviews.