Freedom isn't truly free.
However, silence costs a lot more.
In winter 2020, I wrote this letter and submitted it to an employee-led newsletter that expressed staff concerns to the organizational leadership of the company that I worked for. Although I respected the organization and its leadership, I needed more. The year 2020 saw many people, including myself, protest the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. Many in America learned that their voices, much like Black lives, matter. As one of the few people of color in my job position, I felt that I had a responsibility to speak up, and not shut up, during pivotal moments where the fire of change could be stoked responsibility, yet passionately.
So, I did, and without the convenience of anonymity. I am proud of this letter as it showed that I was, and still am, a leader with a voice that speaks of hope, accountability, empowerment, and social change.
Freedom isn't truly free.
However, silence costs a lot more...and that's a lump sum that I will never again be willing to pay.
I am writing you this letter in response to the All-Staff Town Hall: Matters of Race. I was disappointed to hear that CML employees aren’t permitted to wear clothing in support of Black Lives Matter because of the discomfort it could cause some and BLM’s perceived political affiliation. As an African-American who lives in a state of perpetual pain in this nation, it saddens me to learn that a visual representation of my life draws the ire of some, especially when considering the historical atrocities that this nation. However, I would like to explain why I was most disappointed with CML’s neutrality stance shared during the Matters of Race town hall.
I have worked at CML for nearly ten years, which is almost a quarter of my life. Although I enjoy my job and am proud of the impact that I have made in the community, I can honestly state that I wonder if my Black life matters to this organization most days that I come to work. I know that my ability to do my job matters to the organization. I know that book circulation numbers matter, as does customer service. However, does my Black life matter to this organization? Does this organization understand that many people of color employed at CML don’t have the opportunity to be “neutral” when it comes to race in this country? As it relates to race, discrimination, diversity, and inclusion, neutrality is a privilege given to those mostly unaffected by the systemic bigotry permeated throughout our nation’s history.
An organization that is comfortable having a neutral stance regarding both its internal and public support of Black lives is dangerous for me as an African-American employee. I state that respectfully because I am aware that this organization has made positive gains in dealing with diversity and inclusion matters, which is commendable. However, the very fact that I would say that it is laudable that CML organized an all-staff town hall discussing issues of race shows just how far behind we are as a country and an organization as it relates to race. It seems to be that the acknowledgment of BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) is viewed as being progressive when it really should be par for the course. Let me state this very clearly about race matters: A STANCE OF NEUTRALITY HINDERS AND DOES NOT HELP BIPOC. This neutrality stance fortifies the continued dominance of the various systems of oppression that harm different minority groups, including people of color. This country is not neutral in its stance concerning race. The evidence is quite clear whom this country systemically favors as a ruling class. Being neutral does not challenge the systems of oppression that have historically perpetuate white supremacy in America. These systems include but aren’t limited to criminal justice, housing, health care, and education, encompassing the library “system” from which this organization is a part. These are the same systems that believe showing support for people of color is taboo and counterculture and threatening to the majority who have benefited from the system itself. In the year 2020, all systems should be challenged, examined, and reformed. Many of these systems have foundations constructed during a time in which neither Black nor all lives mattered. This organization is not exempt from the demand of reformative change through critical examination.
In the year 2020, being neutral about race in this country is almost as criminal as being silent. During the All-Staff Town Hall: Matters of Race, a member of the Urban Libraries Council was quoted stating, “If you want the library to issue an opinion on literacy, we have that opinion, but we are not venturing into this space as a library.” This statement is tone-deaf because it whitewashes this nation’s history, denying people of color access to library resources just because of their skin color through the 1960s. By encouraging libraries to remain silent on BLM and other issues surrounding race relations in this country, the system of oppression expands. This Urban Libraries Council member’s statement, though I’m sure well-intentioned, is dangerous, problematic, and yet one that has been repeated throughout this nation’s history as the libraries remain neutral instead of pushing toward progression.
In an 1873 dedication speech, Board President John Andrews stated, “Our city council backed by the unanimous vote of the citizens has established and liberally endowed a free library and reading room free to the whole population of the city.” In 1907, Main Library was built with and adopted the phrase ‘Open to All”. While both of these are outstanding achievements in CML’s history, they are also a stark contrast to the social climate. In both 1873 and 1907, Columbus was a city divided along race and class lines. Although I am sure that the library was open to all, it wasn’t inclusive to all due to the social climate. Over 100 years later, BIPOC are still fighting the same oppression system that exists even within our beloved CML. In the year 2020, it’s not enough to be “open for all” when you have the opportunity to be outspoken for all. There is room for neutrality in leadership. However, leadership is also progressive, willing to take a stand, absorb some contact from adversaries, and be a difference-maker instead of making decisions based on the greater good instead of the continued comfort of those historically extended such privilege.