VAL Spotlight Series: Practices of Equity & Social Justice – Maha Kumaran

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.

Maha Kumaran (she/her/hers)
Associate Librarian, Liaison for the College of Education
University of Saskatchewan

How do you define equity and social justice?

I am a first-generation immigrant who has lived longer in Canada than in my home country. I came here in my early twenties and focused on self-efficacies, fitting in and finding my way into this culture and country. I am a privileged immigrant who found opportunities to educate myself and settle into a library career. When I moved to the University Library, University of Saskatchewan, in 2010, where scholarship and publishing are required, I was keen on exploring the lack of minorities in librarianship. Social justice and equity were not foremost in my mind, but multiculturalism and diversity, the terms then used in Canada, were. These terms were conflated with equity, inclusion, and social justice. Lately, equity, inclusion, and social justice have taken off on their own as most important, and understandably so.

Over time, as a first-generation immigrant, I have tried to move away from understanding these terms at a visceral level and moving towards theorizing them for my practice and field, but I am not entirely there yet. Equity, as a first-generation immigrant on a visitors’ visa, was challenging to find. I had to work harder, pay more (in fees or taxes) and have less support. Loans and mortgages were unavailable and unthinkable. I was caught in a vicious cycle of needing a work permit to start employment or first secure employment to apply for a work permit. I do not know if society will be truly equitable. However, librarianship in Canada is trying and taking steps. Equity and social justice involve acknowledging disparities, being inclusive, supportive and providing support and mentorship to help every individual reach their fullest potential. Equity and social justice should redress epistemic injustice in the information world.

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.

Based on my previous response about support, I worked on creating a supportive network and, through that, mentorship for minority librarians. I did not know the future implications of this when I initiated it. I founded the Visible Minority Librarians of Canada (ViMLoC) Network to find others like me and talk about our unique needs, concerns, challenges, and successful pathways in our careers. This network has now grown with the support of so many librarians willing to participate and lead many actions and projects, such as the successful mentorship program. ViMLoC is the first of its kind and very unique in Canada. Librarians from all library sectors can join and participate in many initiatives through this network, mentor each other and collaborate on research projects.

My research focuses on racial minorities or diversity in librarianship. I have published, presented, reviewed, led, or collaborated on many scholarly works in this area. In academia, the best way to disseminate one’s thoughts on integrating equity and social justice into practice.  I dedicate twenty percent of my time as the Visiting Program Officer for Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). Over the last fourteen months, my team has worked on many initiatives, including assessing the current state of EDI in CARL libraries and creating a working definition of EDI. There are other exciting projects underway, and I hope to see them to fruition while I am the VPO.

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?

They are a combination of challenges. I have friends and colleagues who do not want to be classified as BIPOC; they want to blend. To some of them, identifying themselves or being identified as BIPOC itself means affirmative action, and they do not want that. Others long to belong but feel that they stand out for many reasons. Because equity and social justice terms stem from BIPOC and other minorities, it is not always possible to have my immigrant voice heard in librarianship. It is challenging to sustain minority voices in all aspects of what we do and practice as librarians. Another challenge is having to explain to my White colleagues and library leadership why a change needs to happen from equity and social justice perspectives. The dominant ways of doing have been here so long that we cannot blame people for not understanding. It is sometimes exhausting to be the only or a small minority of voices seeking change, but every day, every project, and every conversation is one step ahead in the right direction. I hope that the interest in EDI in librarianship will stay and be embedded into everything we do so we don’t have to reinvent this cycle in a decade or two.

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?

No one person can change the world. My work is collaborative, either with individual partners or associations and even faculty. As mentioned above, I have collaborated with other like-minded librarians on diversity research initiatives and publications. I am working with CARL to promote EDI in academic libraries. I co-led the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) Diversity and Equity Committee. In other minority librarians, I look for commitment and enthusiasm for whatever we are working on. There is a lot of history, and we can continue to lament, but to move forward, let us focus on what needs to get done. I hope my partners acknowledge my strengths and correct my weaknesses while supporting my EDI endeavours.

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?

EDI conversations are emerging in Canadian librarians and are getting louder than they have ever been. So any work done in this area is better than nothing at all. We cannot measure what we currently may not have or do not know if we have it. Therefore, it would not hurt for libraries to conduct an EDI assessment of all aspects of their work, including hiring, retention, advancement, leadership, services, and teaching or instruction. If it is cost-effective, such an audit can be conducted by provincial or national associations. Is there EDI in any of these areas? What is working and what is not working? What needs to be done or changed? How do we go about changing? Once there are answers to the above questions, it is essential to measure the impact of these changes and adapt accordingly.

Budget cuts are a reality in academic institutions, particularly libraries. It would be great for libraries to find ways to sustain the equitable climate and culture despite budget impacts. One way to circumvent budget constraints is to include equitable practices while working on the strategic plan and set aside money right then. Another is to find partners within or outside of the institution who have been working on equity and social justice in their practices (e.g. teaching) and ask them for advice on how to do our work in the library. A word of caution on EDI businesses suddenly popping up to help in this area; this is not a business; this is our career, our profession.

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?

There are so many, and it is hard to name all. Naming a few would exclude others. All my ViMLoC colleagues are people I look up to and learn from. My CARL team that works is very engaged. Both ViMLoC and CARL colleagues are volunteering to do great work in this area. I have learned so much from CAPAL work about governance, connections, advocacy and, of course, equity and diversity. My recent Library and Career Development Program cohorts have taught me a lot about EDI from the US perspective and are very inspiring people. I read the scholarly works and blogs of all the librarians from the groups above and beyond.