Local 2822: Hennepin County Clerical and Related

Is Talking about Diversity and Inclusion Enough?

Ben Heath, North Regional Library

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the 7th Annual Overcoming Racism Conference at Metro State in St Paul. My attendance was paid for by the County. I met other county employees there, and was happy that other departments made the conference available. Full disclosure: I am a white man.

Since starting working for the County in 2014, there have been a number of significant national events that have forced the conversation about racial disparities and racism into the lives of many who considered such conversations a relic of the past. It is uncomfortable to watch the Library and the County offer well-meaning but shallow, and maybe even harmful, ways of addressing racism and white supremacy. Not only do we suffer as citizens in an unjust society, we suffer as workers in an unjust system. I know from working with the public every day that the services we provide have the power to correct those injustices, if we want them to. Just as easily, that power can oppress and disenfranchise.

There have been many prominently featured efforts by Library Administration to address self-identified issues of “Diversity and Inclusion”. As a part of Operations, the Library is one of the least diverse County Departments, with employees of color making up less than 18% of the workforce. Hiring teen interns (of color, bonus) is celebrated as if temporary and often unpaid employment is useful to anyone. Meanwhile, our Union has revealed some of the deep disparities in County hiring and firing practices. At the same time, the County Administrators have recently been exploiting social and economic disparity as buzzwords with little concrete action.

Some examples I have seen in the Library include the failure after a year to hire a diversity and inclusion manger and the hiring of a corporate diversity consultant with unknown results (Focus groups were held. I walked out of one when it became clear that all of our vast and varied feelings about inclusion, or exclusion, in the workplace were being reduced to post-it notes. It was an insult to all who took seriously the invitation to expose the honest and uncomfortable truths of our experiences). So far, very little actual action has occurred, other than re-naming the diversity and inclusion manager position title.

The same big talk and little action affects who and how we serve. Big statements have been made. The Library Director was in the news talking about Black Lives Matter (the response was reading lists and new, more “welcoming” branding). More recently, the Director signed on to the Urban Libraries Council's Racial and Social Equity statement. At the same time, there are disparities in information and computer access that especially effect poor neighborhoods. There are many examples of decisions that conflict with the stated mission and vision of the Library. For example, the Library’s decision to withhold free tax booklets to the public hits people who lack personal computer access the hardest.

One of the workshops I attended at the conference was specifically about what can happen when well-intentioned inclusivity efforts go wrong. If people are unwilling to confront these issues directly, if leaders get caught in a cycle of endless deferment and delegation without making decisions, the situation is made worse. If the workforce is not representative of the communities we serve, those communities cannot possibly be well served. Both workers and the public are harmed. It is clear from the lack of any meaningful mention of racism that the current County efforts seek to keep the status quo comfortable. These problems cannot be solved just by talking about diversity and inclusion. We need action!

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