ON LIBRARIES: A Safe and Welcoming Face

Last week I blogged about A Safe, Welcoming Space, but a recent event coupled with some personal experiences has made me think about the face we present to the world. I see people in the supermarket, restaurants, and other places, and more often than not their faces seem closed as though they don’t want to let anyone in.  Sometimes it’s because they are focused on their smartphone, other times it’s just that they are in their private world.

We need to be more mindful of the face we show the world.  If we want kids to feel comfortable in approaching us, we have to be present to them, not lost in our thoughts. It’s hard sometimes when there is so much to do, but I have been finding that having a welcoming demeanor and showing kindness will open you up to a richer world.

It has been scientifically proven that humans need contact with other humans – face-to-face.  As much as social media can keep us connected (personally I use Facebook and Twitter a lot to stay in touch with friends and family I can’t see often), for too many of us it has become our main or the most relied on source for social interaction. When we smile at others and speak with them, there’s a double-sided bonus. It makes us feel good and allows us to be kind.  And when we smile and are kind, everyone around us benefits from the connection.

I had a dramatic example of this while at the recent AASL Conference.  I was standing by the ALA Store preparing to go to the general session to hear the opening speaker when I saw a man walking past me with dreadlocks, a headband, and a long white smock that went past his knees. I said to him, “I love your hair.  I love seeing different hairstyles and colors as I am not able to do much with mine.”

He immediately stopped and began a conversation with me. We began walking and talking and as we did I asked him if he had a purpose in life.  He said his was to bring kindness into the world. In return, I told him mine was to reflect back to others the greatness I see in them, and when appropriate help them manifest it.

Watching the time, I said I need to start heading out to hear the speaker for the morning, which is when he told me he was Dr. Adolph Brown, the speaker. The dreads and the outfit he wore to go with them were part of a persona he dons to test the reactions of people he meets. Because of our interaction, he mentioned me in the talk he gave and afterward said to me that I saw him.

In his talk with us, Dr. Brown said, “Stop believing everything you think.  Any time you have to deal with another human being, challenge your brain. What you think about others says more about you than them.” We do make judgments about people based on their looks and other surface indicators – and then we act as though they are correct. Instead, try Dr. Brown’s purpose and work at “bringing kindness to the world.”  It’s a world that needs it greatly.  Your students and teachers will certainly benefit from it – and so will you.

In her Harvard Medical School post, The Heart and Science of Kindness, Melissa Brodrick gives seven ways to give and receive kindness.

Kindness starts with being kind to yourself – You’ve heard this many times.  But you can’t be kind when you are being hard on yourself.  And certainly, it is difficult to do if you are working so hard, you don’t take care of yourself.

We feel happier when we act in service to others – The old adage, “It is better to give than receive” is at play. Being kind to someone gives you an inner glow that helps you through the day.

Choose kindness – Most of us would respond with “Why wouldn’t you”, but the truth is kindness needs to be an active choice, and when you are having a stressful day or in the middle of yet another crisis, the choice isn’t just a good idea, it’s an act of courage.

Give to give, not to receive – If you give with an expectation of getting something, it’s a trade not an act of giving. Let the giving and the possibility that creates be your reason.

We become kinder with practice – Like choosing kindness, being kind is a practice. The more we remember to act with kindness the easier and more automatic it becomes. The result is a library where people expect and act with kindness.

Kindness begets kindness – When an act of kindness makes someone’s day a little lighter, they feel better about themselves.  In turn, they are more likely to be kind to someone else – or to themselves.  This is how we change the world.

Kindness is lasting – Melissa Brodrick recalls someone telling her forty years ago that she has a pretty face.  That simple act of kindness stayed with her all these years.  We often think someone is wearing a nice blouse or whatever. If I think that, I say it. Invariably, I get a smile in return and sometimes a conversation starts.  I love making someone’s day.

An online post I read (can’t remember where now) suggested a good question to ask students is “How were you kind today?”  Now I ask you, “How were you kind today?”

ON LIBRARIES: A Safe Welcoming Space

In the aftermath of another school shooting, I felt this was an important topic to revisit because it is clearly an ongoing struggle. For learning to happen, students need to feel safe. Equally important, they need to feel welcome. It is our charge as librarians to create a space where both exist. Doing this is vital to your program’s success.

The way you have arranged your facility, the furniture, the displays, and how you greet students show them the library welcomes them.  To truly make all students feel safe and give them a sense of belonging requires a more concentrated effort. It starts with a collection that reflects a diversity of culture, ethnicity, and race of your students as well as the various lifestyles they lead. Even if your school is culturally homogenous, there is a need to show students what the larger world looks like. In addition, it’s important to be aware of differences that may not show so that these can also be addressed.

For example, how are socio-economic differences and physical disabilities being acknowledged in your collection? We need to pay attention to how these students access information, making it as barrier-free as possible. In creating a safe environment, you need to continually learn about those who are “other” in some ways and work to make them feel recognized, valued and welcome as well.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Against a backdrop of differences and in a time when differences continue to face suspicion and prejudice, librarians need to develop a collection policy that consciously pays attention to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).  While the three terms seem similar, they encompass important differences. Understanding them helps you be more attuned to your students’ needs.

Equity is often confused with equality. Equality is giving everyone the same thing, i.e. all students get a Chromebook. Equity is ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity. If a computer is needed for homework, do all students have access to one at home? Can they access the internet? If not, then you don’t have equity.

An illustration appearing on many websites explains the distinction. Three boys of different heights are trying to watch a baseball game from outside a solid fence. Equality shows them now standing on boxes of the same height. The tallest boy has an excellent view. The next one can just see over the fence. The shortest one still cannot see the game. Equity gives the boys boxes of different heights, so they all have a good view.  A third panel shows the boys viewing the game from behind a fence with an open weave. This takes access to a higher level by completely removing the barrier for all.

Diversity is usually thought of as referring to the various ethnicities, religions, and cultures, but it includes far more. Gender, gender identification, socio-economic status is part of diversity. So are physical and emotional challenges. Diversity is so all-encompassing it can be hard to wrap your arms around all the differences. Adding to the challenge is that so many of these differences aren’t observable, certainly not on the surface. Despite that, libraries must strive to meet the needs of all these students. Lower check out areas for students in wheelchairs. No fines so as not to penalize those having financial challenges or spending time in two households. Books which represent different challenges, choices, and traumas.

Inclusion means that all are a part of the whole.  It seeks to keep students in age-appropriate classes. Students are not judged to be inferior for any reason. Ever.

Another recent image going around social media captured the distinction among the three terms in this way: “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table!”

Although EDI is the phrase used most of the time to describe what we are trying to achieve, a better visualization of what this means is the phrase Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors as coined in an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop. Mirrors are the stories that show students they are not invisible in the library collection. Bishop notes if children only see themselves, they develop an exaggerated sense of self-importance. These same books offer other students windows – the ability to see and better understand their peers and the challenges that they might face.

By now we are all aware of the importance of having books so that African Americans, Latinx, and Islamic students and others can see themselves in our collections. Many of you have acquired titles about LGBTQ+ kids and families while others face challenges to this step. But diversity goes beyond these areas.

The library’s collection needs books that include kids who have physical disabilities as well as mental and emotional problems. You also need stories about students who are homeless, have a parent or close relative who is incarcerated, or a parent who is in the military and is in an active war zone. Even Sesame Street, which has always worked to be diverse, currently has Muppets who have autism and are in foster care.

How do you do it all – particularly when your budget is small? There is no simple solution. Do your best to tune into the diversity that exists in your school population and make that your initial focus. Look for materials to meet them. And then check for grants. There may be an organization that offers grants to your school district.

It’s not easy and it takes time, but we all agree our students are worth the effort.  With windows and doors, we make our libraries safe, welcoming spaces for all.