Hopeful Visions, Practical Actions

Steve: Sarah, Lori and David, welcome to Circulating Ideas. Before we get into the book, can you tell listeners what initially attracted you to the library profession?

David: I kind of fell into the profession. As an undergrad, I did a semester abroad, and it’s radio, so you can’t see my air quotes, on the Navajo Nation, and fell in love with it there and decided to stay there. And really the only job in a 500-mile radius that I was qualified for was the audiovisual technician at Navajo Community College Library, which is where I’d been doing my semester abroad. I started working in the library there and that actually wasn’t something that I was particularly excited about doing, but once I started it, I really loved it. Then moved to Seattle a little while later and ended up going into library school up there, and the rest is history.

Lori: Hi, this is Lori. I started working at the University of New Mexico Libraries when I was a student, and I worked in the Center for Southwest Research, which is our special collections library. I’d always found libraries to be comfortable places. I was raised in a family of readers and it felt good to work there. They had a couple of Native faculty librarians who when I actually came back to work at UNM as a librarian, were both still working there. I remember seeing them walking around doing their business looking fancy and professional, and I thought that that was something maybe I could do. I liked the work and I liked the people, and so that’s why I became a librarian.

Sarah: This is Sarah and also like Lori, I came from a family of readers. My mom is an elementary school teacher. I actually had my first job when I was 14 in our tribal library, but when I went to college, I didn’t think about that as a career. I don’t really know why, but I just didn’t really think about it. But I worked as a student employee in the museum library, a special library on campus, and I had a really great supervisor and she said, “Well, you should think about gonna library school.” This was my freshman year as an undergrad. And I said, “What’s library school?” I had no idea. She really encouraged me and I had subsequent supervisors who also encouraged me. My next supervisor, she was a Native woman and she was also part of what became the Knowledge River Program at the University of Arizona to recruit underrepresented librarians to the field, and she encouraged me to apply for that and I applied for it and started on this career, which I didn’t know I could do. So that’s how I got started.

Steve: Yeah, and this is a transition to the book pretty well, I think, that for Lori and Sarah, you all saw people who were like you in the library, and that’s part of what helps with getting the culture right for that kind of thing. Like if you come in and it’s all people who look different than you, act different than you, are not anything like you, that’s not gonna make you feel welcome. The book that you guys edited together is called Hopeful Visions, Practical Actions: Cultural Humility in Library Work, and to get us all on the same page, can you define cultural humility first for listeners?

David: That’s a good question, because we have a definition that is long and complicated, and I’m not sure that we want to go into that kind of definition in this context. But I’ll say we think of cultural humility as an approach to being in the world that hopefully can help reduce harm, make change, and make improvements in library services, and this could be in the broader world as well, but within the library context, to really try to improve services. The problem that we see cultural humility as a response to if we want to problematize things, is having a profession that is very different demographics than the population at large, the populations that we serve, and also for the people who work in the library who don’t match that sometimes, just a lot of assumptions, a lot of structural issues, a lot of things are intentionally or unintentionally designed to reinforce and recreate the structures that serve the populations that are overrepresented, in particularly library administration, and libraries in general, and how do we correct for that?

Lori: I can add a little bit to our definition in that if we think about cultural humility, broadly, I think one of the conclusions that we came to was that it’s an approach to making change while reducing harm. And I think that it’s interesting because we came to that conclusion when we were writing an earlier piece, and we were at the time working on our book and one of our book chapter authors, they also came to that similar conclusion. They termed cultural humility “a theory of change.” And that was a chapter written by nicholae cline and Jorge López- McKnight. I think that there are a lot of things that come into cultural humility that help facilitate it as a theory of change, but I think we like to see it in that active sense of us making change with each other and not harming each other while pursuing that change.

Steve: As you said, it’s really complicated for people who want the full definition, that’s what the book is about; read the entire book! That’s how you get the full definition of cultural humility, but I like the fact that it comes up over and over again that it’s about self-reflection. You come to it yourself and then it sits better with you, I think.

Sarah: Yeah. Or it has that impact of like, ” I’m reflecting on this situation. I kind of talked to this person, something happened. Maybe I said something or maybe I kind of read something differently.” And yeah, reading and things are good too, but it’s also in that interaction and reflection is where you realize, ” Hmm, I need to think about that.”

David: I think you can think about it even if it is put on you. This is one of the chapters, Jarrod Irwin’s chapter where he came to cultural humility because he was tasked with including cultural humility in a grant writing workshop that he was developing. So that’s really maybe a prime example of it just sort of being put on you and you have to deal with it, and I think what makes that chapter really interesting is that he didn’t sprinkle cultural humility over the existing workshop, which I think does happen a lot when things are put on you, like, “Oh, okay, here’s a box I have to check,” but actually approached it from a “How will knowing about cultural humility help people make stronger grant applications?” Then in his chapter, he answers that question and I think it’s a very powerful chapter in that it develops not only into better grant applications, but into better grant projects, so it was just really nice and seeing it that way as not something where he necessarily felt a burning need to approach this grant writing workshop with cultural humility, but being tasked with that, by coming in with the right attitude, and I think cultural humility a lot of it is about your attitude as well, so coming in with that attitude and being able to do something really meaningful. That was one of the nice things for us in reading the chapters that have become part of the book. It’s been really exciting to encounter these sorts of things.

Steve: I think that checklist mindset can be what triggers, in the introduction, you all talk about some of the mental practices that you can do, and one of them is, “Don’t be defensive,” but if you’re just told to just do this, “Just hire more people of color, that’s what we’re doing now!” I think if you understand, take a step back and look at the purpose, like we’re not just hiring more people of color or people from marginalized communities because we want to see them around. The purpose is not just to have them there. It’s because them being there makes the services that we offer, we serve the community better that way. So it’s not just, again, checking off a box of, “Yep, okay, now I have 20% of black people and I have one percent…” There’s a purpose behind doing this and understanding that purpose is really important.

 And then the other two key mental practices to keep in mind other than “Don’t be defensive” and “Recognize other people’s perspectives” and that “Self-reflection” that we mentioned earlier. To me, the thing that came to mind is that it’s a mindset. It’s not just checking boxes, but you’ve got to change the way you’re thinking really.

Lori: I think we ideally think of cultural humility as a mindset and primarily as a way of being in the world, which I think David referred to. It’s a practice as much as anything else. It’s not something that you reflect on and then go, “Hmm, that was a good reflection!” You know, you really want to act and take action in the world. I think cultural humility is a way of facilitating action with others so that when we accomplish big things, we’re usually accomplishing them with others. So that self-reflection piece is really key, and then taking it to the next step where you’re putting it into practice.

David: Lori, I think in one of the presentations we did on cultural humility, you had ” Reflect… but not too long.” That’s not the main purpose here is to think about yourself.

Lori: Yeah, I definitely think that we think of cultural humility in organizational or institutional context, and that is a question that comes up, is it moving us past webinars or trainings and into real change that institutions can make.

Sarah: Part of it is like, it’s gonna take time. It’s not unfortunately, like the checklist and say, “Okay, great, we’re done!” Like, that’s easy, right? But it’s also not gonna make actual long-lasting change. Also that’s something we always think about too, and in these chapters as well is, we’re all gonna make mistakes. We do make mistakes doing this. We’re humans, right? We’re trying to do better, but we kinda mess up too, and that’s part of the process and it’s okay to do that and it’s expected and it shouldn’t be surprising because we are all gonna do that. It’s hard. It’s kinda like the “don’t be defensive,” right? That’s really difficult to do. We recognize that that’s hard.

I think we haven’t talked much about this specifically, but something I’ve been thinking about in relation to cultural humility, is sort of mindfulness practices, just noticing in your body or “What are the thoughts I’m having?”, but not getting too deep in them, but just noticing, “Oh, I had this reaction.” I think there’s a lot of similarities in that kinda practice.

David: Yeah, time and attention. Several times, the concept of the check boxes has come up, and I think we really want cultural humility to be on the other end of the continuum from check boxes. This is the opposite approach where it is recognizing that this isn’t easy. This takes time and attention, and it is not something that you schedule for Tuesday afternoon. It is something that has to be a practice, a way of being. I think that, as Sarah said, the mindfulness techniques are really relevant to what we’re trying to do too.

Steve: I like the word “expectation” that Sarah had in there too. So like, if you work here, that’s an expectation of you. It’s like you also can’t yell at people. That’s an expectation. Thinking of these things is part of the job. I think a lot of times when a lot institutions do this, it’s like, “Okay, let’s put together the diversity team!” And then it’s “Where’s all the people of color? Put them on the diversity team!” It’s like, well, number one, don’t make them solve the problem. They’re not causing the problem. I mean, talk to them. Get input from the people who are being affected, obviously, but you can’t just put the burden on them even more of, “Okay, we caused this problem, now tell us how to solve it please!” That happens so many times.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s that extra labor, right? Now I have to educate people. Now I have to do this work in addition to my other work. And it doesn’t mean we don’t want to make things better, but it’s also like, yeah, that experience is very common.

David: And I just have to point out, even just now in sort of talking about this, Steve, you say, you know, “We created a problem. You solve it.” Right? Which assumes a, I’m guessing, white library administration, which isn’t a bad assumption, right? That is a known thing. But again, that sort of language around what is normal for the library versus what it could be. It just kinda interesting. I think that highlights the sort of structures that we have in the library. We’ve got certain norms and certain expectations in our profession, and that’s part of what we need to reflect on and move on from.

Lori: I was going to bring up another chapter by Rhiannon Sorrell, and I’m sure they were both thinking of this as well when you were talking about institutional culture because she wrote about using cultural humility at Diné College. It is over 90% Navajo, and so it’s a pretty apparently homogeneous population, and yet she finds cultural humility very useful because even within that population, there’s a great deal of diversity. And also what I found really inspiring about that chapter was the way the institution was very clear, very transparent about their values, laid out values that people regularly use in doing their work with one another, and they’re based in Diné culture. And I think that that chapter really gives us a unique lens on what an organization might be able to do with laying out those kinds of values. I’m not sure how that would translate honestly to a Western institution. I think David and Sarah and I have talked about that, but I do think that it’s inspiring and thought provoking to read about her perspective on using cultural humility in that context, and it does tell us a little bit about what we can think about when trying to shift our institutional cultures away from hierarchy and all of the things that we’re used to dealing with and trying to think about cultural humility and how we use it in our organizations.

Steve: Yeah, I think that’s a really important aspect. You all talk about in the book and in a couple of the chapters that just because, oh, well that’s a bunch of Native people, so they’re all the same. No, female Native people have different experiences than male, have different than trans, have different than people who like science fiction… People are people. So there are lots of overlap between people cuz you have shared experiences, but just because you’re one thing doesn’t mean you’re the same as everybody else. Venn diagrams, that’s a great way to show things.

David: Which comes back to the checkbox thing, right, that our identities aren’t contained by check boxes, maybe Venn diagrams is the answer. I love it.

Sarah: We missed that. Darn.

Steve: Venn diagrams are always the answer. . .

Sarah: Yeah. Well, and so Rhiannon in her chapters, Lori and I recently presented with her and Loriene Roy about their chapters, as well, at the Association for Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums conference in October of last year. She talked about, yeah, the diversity within that population. She’s Diné as well, but then also like, this is why it also works within a seemingly homogenous population because like you said, Steve, Rhiannon has a different experience, but she’s gone to school, she left her community, she came back to her community, and then how was she perceived? And it was a different experience that she shares, you know, than maybe people who stayed there. And it’s funny too cuz people were just like assuming like, “When are you gonna leave?” like, she’s not really invested in staying there. And she’s like, “No, I wanna be here. This is important to me.” And that they don’t have a specific word for humility in the Diné language, Navajo language, but these guiding principles that the college has express humility. So that was really interesting too, that that’s still part of the culture, even though it’s not specifically that phrasing, but those elements of it are embedded in it. And how do they work to support them in their work in this non-Western environment of a college, but also like bringing that into their work. So, yeah, it’s a really great chapter and she’s really great to share her story.

Steve: Well, we’ve already gotten pretty deep into the book, but how did you all get together to edit this book? What got you interested in the topic in the first place and then got you to the point of a book?

David: So, how we got into cultural humility was actually from outside librarianship. I was working with the board of a local organization that sort of was recognizing that it was majority white and majority wealthy membership, even though its mission was statewide, and its mission was to serve all of New Mexico. So the question was there’s clearly something going on here that’s making our organization skew this way, and I think the president of the board or somebody on the board said, “well, I guess we should do a diversity workshop.” And the one person of color who’s on the board said, “Oh, no, please don’t make me sit through another diversity workshop.”

That kind of resonated for me also, but I think in a different way, right? I’m a white man, and I have felt like, “Ugh, not another diversity workshop,” but hearing it from her in the context of an organization trying to solve a problem, it was kind of interesting, and I think many of the people on the board were kind of taken back by her reaction and said, “Well, what should we do instead?”, and she said, “Well, maybe we can do something with cultural humility.” And that was the first time I heard the word, and my role on the board actually was to do professional development events for them, and so my job became finding out about cultural humility.

That was right when I was starting at UNM and so I wasn’t part of that organization’s cultural humility program but in doing the research and reading and finding somebody who could facilitate for them, it just seemed to me that cultural humility also could really make a lot of sense for libraries. I brought that to Sarah and to Lori who also agreed, and we began looking to see what the libraries were doing and couldn’t find much. This was in, I think, 2015, and so we started working on it ourselves. We published an article, we presented on it in a couple of places, and then we began hearing about it more and discovered other people who had already been working with it too.

 We were interested in how else are people conceiving of cultural humility? How else are people using cultural humility in library work? That was really the impetus for the book, and for us it was very successful. I mean, we got a really wide range of perspectives and people doing different sorts of projects and some people who never used the word cultural humility, but were embodying it in the work that they were doing. That was a great learning experience for us and hopefully for the readers too.

Sarah: Yeah, just to build on what David said, the chapters are really, again, since so much of it is an internal process of a cultural humility practice, it’s your reflection, but also just thinking about norms and the power structures and things that are part of an interaction, but that’s what’s great about the chapters is writing down their thoughts and their own self-reflection process helps all of us to see how they’re practicing it, how they’re enacting it, what their thoughts were, how they got to those then resulting actions, right?

 We are really excited to share these with readers because there’s some great work being done and yeah, maybe the contributors didn’t think about it as cultural humility necessarily, but that’s what they’ve been doing, and so yeah, we’re really excited to share this.

And we really thank our contributors because it is difficult and it’s very vulnerable to write stories like that, and also again, to like share mistakes that you’ve made or things that you’ve experienced, even if it’s a successful experience, but it can be a vulnerable place to write those things.

So yeah, we are really thankful to our authors for contributing and writing in these honest ways. We thank them for their generosity in sharing these stories with us and the readers cause it can be difficult. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Steve: So how did you decide how you wanted to put the book together, like how you wanted to structure the book?

Lori: We thought about trying to make it a more formally organized book. I know some folks take that approach when it comes to soliciting different authors for a book. But what we really wanted was to recruit a diversity of voices from all across librarianship and hear those stories, and so we didn’t want to put any real limiters on it other than it be about cultural humility. We tried to distribute the call as widely as we could, and many of the authors we actually approached directly because we knew of work that they were doing. A lot of the folks that ended up writing chapters were people who we had seen present or had read their work. We just wanted to make sure that we could hear from a lot of different people about cultural humility. So I think we moved away then from having a book that was structured, like “Defining Cultural Humility,” “Cultural Humility and Academic Libraries,” “Cultural Humility and Public Libraries,” you know, that kind of structure, which would be useful, but I think that we really love the flow of the book through all of these different topics. And we love thinking about the themes and grouping the chapters together after the fact, based on what we saw rise up and the commonalities in the chapters.

Sarah: Yes. That’s what we wanted to do. And we were happy to get a range of contributors in different libraries cuz we also recognize that we are an academic library, so this is something that we have the luxury, the ability to spend time on and everybody does not have that, even if they are doing this work and they wanna contribute.

So that’s why, like Lori said, some folks we saw present at conferences and even that of course is another, you know, element to being able to do a presentation, go to a conference, now even if they’re virtually still sometimes have the conference fee and things. But that’s why we were recognizing that we were hoping people would be able to contribute what they could about their work, so that’s why we did wanna make it broad so we could get that range of experiences.

Lori: I think what the chapters do really well is document the practice, the choices they’ve made to enact this in different ways in their profession. I think the themes, they’re not gonna be like exactly aligned perfectly, but when we look at the chapters, we see that there are a range of ways that people are making cultural humility happen in their professional lives. All of that is a personal endeavor for them. It’s unique to what they want and what they value and the work that they do, and so I think that what is wonderful about the book is that, it is those different contexts, but it’s the choice of all of them to make something happen.

Steve: One of the things that we haven’t really talked about much that gets hit a couple times is power differentials.

Lori: I think that with cultural humility, it can be easy to focus on the interpersonal relations part of it, but a founding principle from the originators of the theory is about power and working on mitigating power differentials, recognizing them, reflecting on them, but also again, making change and trying to impact those structural inequities.

I think that the first part of that is being able to recognize, and that does take a lot of self-reflection, because if you’re in a position where you have some privilege and some power, it can be difficult to actually notice that and difficult in a real way. We’re not minimizing that difficulty for folks, but it’s also important that we recognize that and then we move to change it. And cultural humility has some interesting thoughts about dynamics between people and power differentials.

We wrote about that in the special report, and you can see that throughout the chapters when people talk about, things like this wonderful chapter by Michael Mungin about his development of a queer, trans, people of color canon for films. One of the things that he talks about is how much support he got from his library, his institution, how he got support from colleagues and supervisors. They gave him time to work on this. He did his own work, he got himself a grant. This was something that he was the person doing all of this work, but at any step in that process, he could have been hindered and it was really important that the institution support him. Those are people in more powerful positions, and they were willing to lend him that support. And then he created this wonderful resource. His chapter is just wonderful because he reflects on just his whole experience with libraries and the way he thinks about cultural humility in his work other than this. But I think that those power differentials are real in organizations, that we each have to reckon with the power that we hold, and we have to be willing to challenge the power that others might be using in ways that we find objectionable or that we think are inequitable.

David: Right. I also wanna mention Carrie Valdes’s chapter. I think she, to paraphrase has “just because something’s not a problem for you doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.” I think that really gets at the problem of the power differential because not all power differentials are inherently bad, right? One side of the circulation desk has more power over the transaction than the other side of the circulation desk. That’s just the way it is… Well, it’s funny, whenever I say “it’s just the way it is,” I think, huh? There’s a structure that needs examining… but that seems like it’s an appropriate power differential, but that power differential, if you’re in the position of more power may make it impossible or much more difficult for you to see how policies are having unintentional negative consequences.

So you’re seeing from your perspective, what the policy is intending to do and what it does do, and you can say, “Oh, no, no, that’s not our intention,” but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, and that’s where I think the tie-in also with critical race theory comes in, is recognizing these structures that are built have certain expectations, values and norms built into them, and if we don’t analyze those, we won’t understand the impact that they’re having on people who are coming from a different set of a different normal.

Steve: Every time I have people have to talk about a book like this that’s got, you know, however many 12 chapters and it’s like, there’s no way you can even list them much less get into them, but every chapter deserves its own episode of the podcast. The real solution, of course, listeners, is to go buy the book and read the chapters.

David: As one of our chapters says, “The sweet potato doesn’t tell how sweet it is.”

Sarah: And there’s so many good adages in there that are helpful for thinking about cultural humility and just your own actions. So we are really happy to have Dr. Roy and Leisa contribute that, and we are happy to have it first, cuz it kind of sets the tone, I think, for the rest. Not that you can’t read out of order, but that’s really great. Also, don’t skip that one, but don’t skip any other ones.

Steve: Yeah, read all of them. You can skip around, but there’s a reason they put them in that order, but eventually get around to all of them.

Sarah: Yes, please.

Steve: Again, the book is Hopeful Visions, Practical Actions: Cultural Humility in Library Work. Sarah and Lori and David, thank you so much for coming on to talk about the book.

Sarah: Thanks so much for having us, Steve.

Lori: Yes, thanks, Steve.