VAL Spotlight Series: Practices of Equity & Social Justice – Ione Damasco

Headshot of Ione Damasco wearing a light blue shirt and black rimmed glasses.

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.

Ione Damasco wearing a blue shirt and glasses with thick black rims.

Ione Damasco (she/her/hers)
Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence, Engagement, and Operations
University Libraries, University of Dayton

How do you define equity and social justice?

I think of these terms as interrelated, but with significant differences. Equity fundamentally means providing different groups the resources they specifically need in order to achieve full participation in our society. That definition calls us to examine critically the historical roots of power imbalances around specific markers of identity such as race or gender (and how those identities intersect) in our society. For example, our conceptions and constructions of race, which date back to the earliest days of what eventually became the United States, has imbued whiteness and white bodies with a dominating amount of power. The history of enslavement, colonialism and the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their homelands are directly connected to the systems we have today where we see racial disparities, such as education,  health care, housing, and employment. Unless we reckon with the harm that these structures, policies, and practices have inflicted upon groups who cannot hold whiteness, then we will be unable to identify what specific resources need to be created and provided for these groups to achieve equity.

Education scholar Lee Anne Bell provides a definition of social justice that resonates deeply with me. She refers to social justice as both a goal and a process. As a goal, she defines it as the “full and equitable participation of people from all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs.” As a process, she states social justice should be “democratic and participatory,” respectful of human diversity and difference, inclusive and affirming of our capacity to collaborate to create change. I think these definitions push us to identify what barriers exist to “full and equitable participation” for different identity groups. What do we envision society to be, if we think of it as “mutually shaped” by different groups of people? Where does solidarity fit in? Are we brave enough to say that equitable participation means  some groups have to share, or even give up, power in order for other groups to make any kind of progress? I’m interested in asking questions around these issues and working collectively to develop and implement strategies to answer these questions, rather than trying to pin down exact definitions for these terms. Asking these questions will help us identify where the barriers really are participation.

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.

I think about my actions at multiple levels–interpersonally, across my workplace (including the larger university), and in the wider library community. I am very conscious of my identity, and how that influences how I interact with the people I manage. I am keenly aware of the privilege I hold as a tenured faculty member and a member of the library administration. I am also aware of the challenges I face as an Asian American woman working at a predominantly white institution that has a long history of little diversity in leadership positions. I have worked hard to build relationships with the people I manage as well as my peers, who all have very different lived experiences. I have come to understand what experiences and knowledge of equity issues they bring with them to the workplace. Helping them recognize where they hold privilege, as well as acknowledging where they have faced challenges in life because of their own various identities has been crucial. My approach stems from the framework of intergroup dialogue. I use active listening techniques and draw upon the concept of multipartiality, to raise up counternarratives to what others have been taught or socialized to believe around race or gender. Using these techniques has helped bring my colleagues along with me as we engage in the process of social justice. Many of them, willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones, have taken the initiative to develop and implement DEI-focused activities and projects at our library.

As a member of our library’s leadership team, I try to raise issues of equity, particularly when decisions have to be made. The pandemic has made these conversations even more challenging, particularly when there are equity issues inherently connected to the fact that as a library, we have a mix of faculty and staff. Like other universities, staff are particularly vulnerable to issues like budget cuts, especially if it’s a place where staff do not have a union. And many staff cannot work remotely, so they are at greater risk of COVID-19 exposure because they have to be onsite more often than not. So as a library administrator, I have to think about how I can advocate staff health and safety, as well as job security, during these challenging times.

Policies are another important area to discuss examine in terms of equity. We are in the process of revising our promotion and tenure policy for faculty, which gives us a chance to think about how our standards for promotion and tenure may create unnecessary barriers for people from different lived experiences. This also connects to hiring. How should we revise our job descriptions to ensure we are creating equitable opportunities? What are we doing to not just retain, but also advance, our employees? Long-standing practices around recruitment and retention have not led to a significantly more diverse faculty and staff. We need to take a long hard look at our organizational culture and hold ourselves accountable for the things that have created barriers to entry into our workplace.

More broadly, I try to share what I have learned about the principles of intergroup dialogue and how dialogue can be an important tool in the process of social justice. Dialogue is certainly not going to fix systemic issues. But we must challenge those who are used to dominating the conversations around diversity to actively listen and respect the stories of BIPOC folks. One cannot be held accountable for harm in which they have been complicit if one does not take the time to listen to those who have been harmed. The stories of BIPOC lived experiences can and will show us where the problems of systemic oppression lie. Those with power then have the responsibility to work collectively, collaboratively, and in solidarity with BIPOC communities to address those problems.

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?

Personally, I recognize that there are areas where I have big gaps in my knowledge around equity. Specifically, I know I need to do more to learn about and apply strategies for creating greater equity around accessibility at my library. I’m thinking not just about physical access, but also around cognitive, emotional, and sensory differences as they relate to accessibility. It’s hard to recognize in yourself when you have a knowledge gap, and it takes some humility to hold yourself accountable for addressing that gap when you learn you have it (or when someone points it out to you). It comes down to creating intentional time and space to learn about these issues, and then working with others to implement actions that ensure accessibility for all.

Institutional barriers are always going to exist. These will probably resonate with many people–the institution moves too slowly to address issues of equity, things get stalled or held up in committees, there is often concern about how external constituents (particularly donors) might view certain actions, there aren’t enough resources in terms of money, people, and time. Conversely, things move too quickly when grand anti-racist statements are made publicly without enough thought being given to how to actually make a place anti-racist (which includes thinking about how you’re going to resource anti-racist work that is sustainable with people, time, and most importantly, money). I haven’t overcome institutional barriers, because I have a limited amount of power. But whenever and wherever I can, I ask hard questions in those spaces where decision-making is happening to get people with power to think about those barriers. As a woman of color, I cannot and should not be expected to remove these barriers on my own, because they also impact me in ways that are sometimes harmful. That is an added layer of emotional labor that is often ignored, and while I have a responsibility as a leader to do what I can to work with others to undo oppressive practices and policies, I can’t take on that labor alone. It will take genuine allies to listen and work in solidarity for lasting change to happen. As someone in a leadership role, one thing I can do is hold others accountable, particularly white leaders in my library or my university, who do hold power. And I can do it in a way that still emphasizes relationship-building, especially if others are willing to work in good faith with me in a reciprocal and respectful way.

Far too often what happens in libraries is that the same small group of high-performing BIPOC workers, who have taken the risk of being public advocates for equity and social justice, end up being tapped every single time there is an institutional push for greater diversity. It’s crucial that these BIPOC voices are raised up and that their perspectives are not just taken seriously, but factor into real decision-making. But the majority of this work should not fall on the same people every single time—what are institutions doing to build capacity among all of their workers to do this work authentically and effectively? I see the same names all the time, not just at my university, but also in the wider library profession, being called upon to serve on committees, task forces, to speak at conferences, etc. But how much is BIPOC labor really valued? Do we compensate our BIPOC folks for the added emotional labor of always “doing the diversity work?” When do we start creating real expectations that our white colleagues can and should be doing the work to dismantle systemic oppression?

I will reiterate this point again, because I think it’s important—this is not the responsibility of just one person of color, but the responsibility of each of us to work together to undo systemic harm.

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?

I think people in my library have done an amazing job over the years to demonstrate how critical the library is to our university’s endeavors. Building upon that work, I have made connections to offices like our Women’s Center, the Multi-ethnic Education and Engagement Center, LGBTQ+ Support Services, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as well as academic programs like the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, or our new Race and Ethnic Studies Program. We work with these groups to see how the library can partner with them to provide resources and programming that support social justice learning outcomes. The library has to be connected to what our students are learning both in and out of the classroom. It’s crucial we collaborate with people who have an open mind, who know how to listen actively, and who are willing to engage in challenging dialogues around these issues of equity. Each unit has its own framework for equity and social justice. We may not approach these issues in the same way, so I think it’s really important to work with people who are willing to consider alternative approaches to this work.

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’m not sure I can answer how to measure success around equity and social justice. We are talking about undoing hundreds of years of harm, and the ways in which white supremacy culture is ubiquitous and insidious. It’s going to take decades to reach real equity. That being said, I think one marker of success for the profession would be to see significant and sustained increases in the numbers of BIPOC library workers who stay in the field for more than just a few years. We keep trying to increase numbers, but we are not keeping people in the field. This points to the fact that we have been maintaining a status quo that does not support the full and equitable participation of BIPOC library workers in our workplaces.

I think qualitative approaches to assessment are crucial to this work. Before we can develop metrics or benchmarks, we need to ask BIPOC library workers about their experiences in library workplaces. Collecting these narratives is crucial to understanding where harm is being done. We also need to do a better job of collecting the experiences of BIPOC library users (and non-users) to see if they feel a real sense of belonging in our library spaces, whether physical or virtual. We need to understand the library experiences of queer people, of trans people, of disabled people, of people who have lived experiences that have been impacted in harmful ways by deeply ingrained systems of oppression that our libraries and universities have upheld for decades. We place so much value on quantitative metrics that we lose sight of the value of storytelling to provide a fuller picture of what is happening for people who work in or use our libraries. Knowing these stories is the first step towards real and sustainable change.

Finally, I think even the term “success” demands critical analysis. How are we defining it, and who is defining it? Are we ensuring the full participation of all of the various communities that intersect with our libraries to help us define what success means?

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?

So many! I really appreciate the work of people who ask critical and reflective questions about who we say we are and who we really are when we think about our profession. Todd Honma and Isabel Espinal wrote some foundational works in the early 2000s that contributed to a paradigm shift in how we think about whiteness and libraries. I recommend Kaetrena Davis Kendrick’s numerous articles on low morale in libraries—eye-opening work about the very real struggles of library workers in different settings. Fobazi Ettarh’s work on vocational awe is asks us to question how we frame librarianship as a noble profession, and the problems that come with that notion. “It’s Not Impostor Syndrome: Resisting Self-Doubt as Normal for Library Workers” by Nicola Andrews is a great examination of how we have misspent time trying to develop coping strategies for the harm that our institutions inflict upon marginalized identities, rather than focusing on undoing the harm itself. A new book that was just published, Knowledge Justice, is the first comprehensive work to use critical race theory as a framework to explore various issues in LIS.

Finally, I would like to highlight a new online publication called up//root which was founded by the people who created the We Here collective. I’m excited about this publication because they explicitly state on their website that “up//root is a publishing collective that exists to center the works, knowledge, and experiences of BIPOC within the context of the library and archive community.” I think we have a lot to learn from BIPOC experiences, and providing a dedicated space where these experiences are the focus is revolutionary.