Again this month, equity was the prevailing topic during the public comment session at the Library Board of Trustees meeting. While residents who spoke at Library Board meetings in June and July clamored for the Board of Trustees to hire a consultant to do an equity audit, some of those who spoke at the Aug. 16 meeting criticized the Board and the Library administration for going too fast by having settled on a consultant with whom to begin negotiations.
“Before finding an equity consultant,” said Carolyn Laughlin, “you should clarify the Library’s mission and purpose, define ‘equity,’ and gather and analyze data to see where the Library is in terms of that mission.”
A few speakers alluded to a 1999 study of the Library and asked whether any progress had been made in implementing recommendations from it. None of the speakers, however, referred to any specific recommendations in that study.
Alyce Barry asked, “Were the recommendations of the 1999 Himmel and Wilson study ever implemented? What were the results?” She also asked whether the branch libraries, which she said are used primarily by white and upper-class patrons, usurp resources from the Main Library, which she said is the primary library for lower-income and minority patrons.
Several people suggested community-engagement efforts should reach more deeply into the community.
Bobby Burns and Lonnie Wilson, co-presidents of the recently founded Evanston Collective, said the Library should have engaged the community in conversation before deciding on an equity consultant.
“There is class stratification in the black community,” Mr. Wilson said. “We do a bad job of talking to the ‘non-elites.’ The elites and the middle-class African American community know how to communicate.” Citing the book “Friends Disappear” by Evanston native Mary Barr, he said Evanston’s segregation was “designed. … There’s a problem, and a black face in front of the library won’t change anything.” He added, though, “The place where things can be changed is Evanston.”
Mr. Burns said. “I don’t feel there is the feeling that the services the Library is delivering are serving marginalized communities.” He also said he does not feel that the role of the Library in the Evanston community is sufficiently defined on its website (epl.org). He said he was concerned about having an equity audit “when we haven’t clearly defined what ‘equity’ is and what the role of the Evanston Public Library in Evanston is.” He recommended taking a step back, defining “equity” and the role of the Library in the community, and including the community “in every step of the way.”
During her report to the Board, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons said one of her goals is to have 25% of the Library’s programs occur outside of the building. Referring to the 1999 study, she said to those in attendance at the meeting, “I hope you notice that [the report found] the Library did not discriminate.”
Ms. Lyons also said, “We have taken an aggressive approach to outreach. We have a team out in the community, listening, bringing services. We have a full-time community engagement librarian [Jill Skwerski], a full-time Latino engagement librarian [Miguel Ruiz], a full-time children’s librarian, and a teen librarian [Renee Neumeier] who splits time between schools and the Library.
“A few examples of what we are doing through partnerships include having Affordable Care Act navigators help people enroll in Medicare and Medicaid, offering free tax preparation – with more than 800 returns prepared and $1 million returned to taxpayers – and hiring a full-time social worker [Justine Janis]. She spends about half her time with homeless people and half her time with those working two and three part-time jobs to make ends meet. We partner with the Moran Center and Y.O.U. To help bridge the digital divide, we offer free classes and we offer Wi-Fi ‘hot-spots’ for patrons to borrow. Each day, quietly and with dignity, we serve the community and do our jobs.”
Ms. Lyons said she is proud that the new branch library at the new Robert Crown Center will be close to schools and to the Latino and the African American communities. “It will be the first branch to be built as a library,” she said.
The Consulting Firm
Last month, Ms. Lyons said she had met with seven prospective consultants, both individuals and firms. At this meeting, she asked the Board to authorize her to enter into negotiations with DJA Consulting of Buffalo Grove.
DeEtta Jones, founder of DJA Consulting, served for 10 years as Director of Diversity and then Director of the Office of Leadership and Management Services at the Association of Research Libraries, an international not-for-profit representing the largest research institutions in North America. Prior to this, she was Director of Multicultural Education at Colorado State University and Director of Human Rights Advocacy and Education for the City of Fort Collins, Colo.
Members of the team at DJA consulting have professional backgrounds in marketing, technology, human resources, diversity and inclusion, organizational development, and instructional design. According to the firm’s website, “Our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion services primarily focus on helping you develop cultural competence and use it to enhance your organization’s culture and performance. … Cultural competence is a skill set; the confidence and competence to effectively move in and out of diverse relationships and experiences.”
Board President Ben Schapiro said the equity audit is a way to make the Library better serve “those parts of Evanston who feel they are not heard and are underserved. … We see the consultant as a way to help us with changes.”
Trustee Shawn Iles said, “Ms. Jones and her team have a record of looking at systems and organizations. They are recognized in the Library community. She brings best practices to the Library.”
Ms. Lyons said “Ms. Jones says – and I hope you agree – that any work the Library does is part of the work of the larger community.”
“Does she have a team?” asked Trustee Tori Foreman.
“She has a team,” said Ms. Lyons. “Some are librarians, some are consultants, and some are academics.” She added that any discussion of equity, diversity, and inclusion “goes beyond race and is inclusive of all members of the community.”
“Is she going to help us answer the questions that were presented to us tonight [on defining equity and on the role of the library in the community]” asked Trustee Sandra Smith.
“We met, and that was one of the questions,” Mr. Schapiro said.
“You’ve already left us out,” Mr. Wilson said.
“No,” Mr. Schapiro responded. “This is a way to bring the community into the process.”
Trustee Adam Goodman said, “Walking in to the interview, I wondered, ‘Is this a good fit? Do they have library skills? Can they help us hear from voices we haven’t traditionally heard from?’ What I walked away with was an increasing sense of confidence.”
“I want to make sure we have a clear justification – I need a clear justification of why we’re doing this and how much money it will cost,” said Ms. Foreman. She also said she would like a timeline for the audit.
“The outcome isn’t going to be just a report that we can check off,” Mr. Schapiro said. “What we’re going to look at is a way to see how we adapt this institution – not just how we do things, but our own insights.”
Only five of the trustees attended the meeting: Mr. Shapiro, Ms. Foreman, Mr. Goodman, Mr. Iles, and Ms. Smith. Nonetheless, there was a quorum, and the Board unanimously authorized Ms. Lyons to negotiate with the DeEtta Jones and Associates LLC (DJA Consulting) for an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Assessment, Strategy Guidance and Education Plan.
Ms. Lyons is to bring a proposal – including cost – to the Sept. 20 Board meeting, and the plan is to have Ms. Jones available by Skype.