Get Organized

Library workers offer tips for sustaining community activism

January 29, 2023

From left: Librarians Lesley Garrett, Candice Wing-yee Mack, and Elizabeth Martinez discuss organizing and activism at the American Library Association's 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans on January 29.
From left: Librarians Lesley Garrett, Candice (Wing-yee) Mack, and Elizabeth Martinez discuss organizing and activism at the American Library Association's 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans on January 29. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

For K. C. Boyd, it was the closure of libraries in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). For Lesley Garrett, it was a fairness ordinance for LGBTQ employees in their hometown of Paducah, Kentucky. For Candice (Wing-yee) Mack, it was a cleanup project at New Orleans Public Library’s Nora Navra branch after Hurricane Katrina. And for trailblazing librarian Elizabeth Martinez, it was because she was alone.

At “Library Workers: Organize and Activate,” a January 29 session at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans, panelists described the campaigns—and injustices—that compelled them to first get involved with activism within the profession. The program, moderated by ALA President Lessa Kanani‘opua Pelayo-Lozada and ALA President-Elect Emily Drabinski, touched upon panelists’ biggest wins, self-care tips, and advice for sustaining the work.

Garrett, library associate at Seattle Public Library and reference assistant at Seattle Central College, acknowledged that, compared to the others onstage, they are relatively new to community organizing. But working with a coalition to pass the fairness ordinance in Paducah had a big impact. “It was a really intense win and I cried so much after it,” they said. “It might seem small in the scheme of things, but those small wins can really push you into this work.”

Though, it’s important to realize you may not win your fight. Boyd, whose Chi School Librarians group was not able to reverse CPS’ decision to eliminate certified school librarians, pocketed that experience for the future. Now a school librarian with District of Columbia Public Schools, she and her cohorts were able to secure $3.2 million from the city so that every kid in the district could have access to a full-time K–8 librarian.

“Sometimes when you lose, you actually win on many levels,” Boyd said. She added, channeling pop artist Cardi B: “You may knock me down nine times, but I get up 10, and that’s important when you do this work.”

Panelists acknowledged that social movements and community activism comprise many jobs—not just the job of being the visible spokesperson or pounding the pavement. “I absolutely hate the bullhorn. That’s not my lane,” Garrett said. “From a disability justice angle, not everyone can show up on the frontlines,” they reminded attendees.

Mack, young adult services manager at Los Angeles Public Library, participated in a Save the Library campaign when her system was threatened with cuts during the 2009 recession. “I was exploring this new-fangled thing called social media,” she said. While she did participate in protests, she also mobilized others to show up at city hall, create posters for demonstrations, and attend a storytime on the mayor’s lawn.

Boyd pointed out that newer library workers who may be under a hiring probation or those who feel vulnerable in their positions can let longer-tenured or past employees take the mic and amplify the message. “The retirees know where the bones are buried and the foolery that takes place,” she joked.

But all activists must care for themselves in a way that sustains their work. “I think about progress, not perfection,” Mack said. “Any movement forward helps.”

Martinez, the first Chicana executive director of ALA and creator of the Spectrum Scholarship program, looks to a more spiritual place: “I call on my ancestors. I talk to them.” She started her library career in the 1960s, at a time when “you brought the table or chair yourself,” she said, evoking the late politician Shirley Chisholm. “I put my armor on.”

Still, Garrett reminded the audience, “We can’t self-care our way out of massive structural problems that are killing people.” It’s important to realize that individuals alone cannot solve systemic problems, which is why they recommend unionizing. “I now work in a unionized workplace and it does make a difference,” they said.

Overall, Martinez is proud that libraries have made strides to become more reflective of their communities. “I feel like I’m witness to the fact that we’re a better library profession today than we were before,” she said. “I didn’t have a cadre, like you folks. It wasn’t easy. My feet hurt all the time.”


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