A New Ethic of Accountability

Effective DEI strategies cannot work in isolation

January 2, 2024

Academic Insights by Nimisha Bhat and Pamela Espinosa de los Monteros

Many libraries struggle to become inclusive and representative organizations, despite good intentions. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices can take on a performative role, with checklist approaches that do not necessarily address gaps or lead to meaningful change. There is also a lack of clarity around designing effective DEI practices.

So what can we do? First, take inventory of your organization’s DEI interventions. This can include antibias training sessions, antiracism book clubs, climate surveys, land acknowledgements, diversity residency cohorts, and revised collection policies.

Second, ask tough questions. Why has progress so far been measured in inches instead of miles? Can any of these approaches meaningfully address the revolving door of librarians who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) as they burn out, disengage, or simply leave?

Third, if you are a leader at your library, open a call for anyone to suggest a DEI-related initiative or program with someone other than you leading it. Codesigned and coexecuted DEI interventions that center people over policy are how we move forward.

Effective DEI strategies cannot work in isolation. For example, many libraries may be interested in recruiting BIPOC librarians. But first, there needs to be a plan to nurture the interests and well-being of incoming colleagues to prevent the perception that they are merely faces in a marketing campaign.

To be successful, processes and actions must be informed by a responsibility to our collective community and the formation of resonant relationships where individuals can interact in ways that evoke hope, compassion, presence, and even playfulness.

This idea draws from the Indigenous style of leadership exemplified by the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, as shared by institutional organizer Raquel D. Gutiérrez. From this worldview, leadership is about embracing distinct perspectives that get us closer to seeing things through a whole system view. Organizational development researchers like Leanne Cutcher and Karen Dale note that Indigenous organizational principles of consensual decision making, collective ownership, and mutual obligation via reciprocated contribution to one’s community allow us to move away from a top-down power structure and toward knowledge sharing and relationality. In turn, this helps us understand the multiplicity of relationships we have with one another and with the natural world.

Sustainable DEI interventions can only come once relationships among individuals are nurtured and developed.

By following and honoring Indigenous knowledge, libraries as organizations can move toward DEI work that sustains everyone’s well-being and inclusion. This approach could generate the dialogue, massive collaboration, and collective response the world needs to address major threats such as climate change, unethical use of artificial intelligence and other technologies, and global conflict.

Many organizational DEI interventions default to the tools of bureaucratic business capital. So-called success is often measured using standards focused on quantification and output. Instead, we must move away from audit culture and invest in our collective community to reimagine the possibilities of a new ethic of accountability attuned to support human flourishing.

Sustainable DEI interventions can only come once the relationships between and among individuals are nurtured and developed. Spaces of genuine openness and belonging—of psychological and physical safety—will allow us to engage in critical conversations and leverage the collective differences and contributions that each person brings to the table. And it can be done all while holding people accountable to advance interdependence.

We need to redefine how we assess for measurable outcomes, knowing that this work will never be done. But for it to have longevity and be sustainable, we must prioritize removing barriers for others.


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