Recently, a multitude of public and private organizations have made diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a critical focus of their current institutional policies and objectives. While this is a welcome change, too often those on the forefront of diversity work who have been bringing awareness to inequities, disparities and injustices are eclipsed by shiny new initiatives that supplant rather than nurture them and the contributions they have made to the organization. Indeed, they have shouldered the burden of racist and misogynist policies and when speaking out have been met with dismissal, disregard and often downright hostility.
The intensity of our collective societal and institutional DEI work, especially in the last year, was the result of the catalytic witnessing of the state-sanctioned killing of George Floyd Jr. by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin along with the recognition of the unjust killing of Breanna Taylor by detective Myles Cosgrove, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department. Along with those tragedies was the rising and sustained visibility of health disparities along racial and economic lines playing out in the midst of the COVID pandemic. We have experienced a moment that finally served as a wake-up call to many that while we can name the pattern of these racist practices as systemic, they do occur at the hands of individuals and necessitate real accountability and change.
In the case of the Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) there must be real change in leadership that is brought to bear by public pressure because it is painfully obvious that those in a position to do something won’t. Perhaps they find some political benefit in propping up the promise of job opportunities in the guise of seductive legacy-induced brick and mortar despite the fact that there is no evidence of increased jobs just a shifting of personnel across a severely under-staffed organization. Or perhaps their own limited vision is accustomed to settling for mediocrity rather than revolutionizing a public organization that is stifled under a limited vision of multiracial intellectual life and is instead entrenched in a culture of white saviorism. The language of journey and partnership guided by the existing power structure is nothing but performative wokeness and we aren’t fooled by it.
Real DEI work doesn’t just give lip-service acknowledgement to the courageous voices that speak out. Real DEI work doesn’t sideline perspectives of Black and brown people as anecdotal, “not universal.” Real DEI work does not disregard the protective institutional entity, the union AFSCME 3395, that serves as the most important vehicle with the capacity to respond to the individual and collective anguish of Black and brown people. After all, most of the Black and brown people working at IndyPL are represented by the union. Real DEI work doesn’t just say, “Well, I’ve tried, we all read a book by Kendi, I hired a consultant, I created a committee to study it, I’m on a journey,” without taking a long, hard look in the mirror and coming to understand that it is your journey that is not universal. Real DEI work centers the expertise and knowledge of Black and brown people and their lived experiences and acts on what they have learned. For the good of the public, especially right now, there is new leadership needed at IndyPL.
Dr. Terri Jett is an honorary member of AFCME Local 3395 and former IndyPL board trustee.
Michael Torres is president of AFSCME Local 3395 Library Workers Union.