The Roots of an Inclusive Worldview
From a very young age, and because I loved books, I was able to tap into a deep well of inner compassion through the stories and perspectives of some incredible characters. Whether it was Wilbur fighting for his life, because of the indignities of being the runt of the litter, or Cassie Logan confronting the hate and social injustices of the South during Jim Crow.
As I grew as a reader and grew older in life, the set of oppressions under which some of my favorite characters strove for their full humanity, in no small way, shaped my worldview. Not only did life seem heartbreakingly unfair; the systemic injustices that impacted one’s place in the world were something that I instinctively recoiled against, giving roots to a lifelong commitment to equity, justice, and inclusion.
As a sociology major in college, as I came to understand the concepts of power and privilege, systemic oppression, and intersectionality, it gave me an academic foundation from which to position myself in the world. It also provided a framework for my work, years later, as a teacher-librarian. It’s why I strive toward Radical Inclusion in my school library today, and write about it with my thinking partner, Peter Langella.
Undeniably, its roots are within the pages of classic children’s literature. As a young white girl growing up in rural Vermont – surrounded by blue-collar neighbors working hard to make ends meet – books were absolutely my window into a larger and more diverse world. They forever altered my heart and capacity for empathy and understanding. It’s no wonder to me why I am still invested in the fight for justice. It feels full circle to continue to do this work in the container of a library, where the stories and characters from my youth reside and where the voices of new generations of authors continue to expand, mirror, reflect, and shake free identities that have long been marginalized, oppressed, and deemed less than.
Exclusion is Ultimately Unethical
In my work as a teacher-librarian, with Radical Inclusion as a core identity, I strive to be mindful of any number of ways that my role wields power, and then move toward sharing that power, specifically with my number-one stakeholders – young people. In thinking of the role that many school librarians assume as the gate-keepers of our large, collective spaces, I try to disrupt the comfort of my own cisgendered, hetero-normative, able-bodied, college-educated, middle-class identities by interrogating the books that are curated, the programming that is supported, in the topics that are addressed, how the library is organized, and in the many ways our systems and mindsets seek to exclude by default, rather than include.
Because, oh, how easily we exclude! Any librarian can attest that it is much easier to avoid controversy by making choices about what books not to add to one’s collection, what voices not to include in our programming. Every community is unique, of course, and I live in one that arcs toward progressive and liberal values, but certainly not exclusively. I understand that adding books to our collection that feature LGBTQIA+ characters, for example, will not cause the kind of waves in a state that was the first to adopt civil union legislation in 2000.
But yet there is a kind of gatekeeping that happens on behalf of our student populations, and in Vermont, this was apparent when the book George by Alex Gino was selected to be on our Golden Dome list, igniting a conversation within our Vermont School Librarian Association membership about whether to include this book in elementary school collections. Even though the main character is in the 4th grade, some librarians opted to side-step controversy and simply excluded it from their collections, thus denying the humanity of students whose living experiences mirrored George’s. They were also denying other students the opportunity to grow in compassion and empathy for a character who feels differently than their gender identity assigned at birth. What a missed opportunity for all students, albeit made by well-intended librarians to privilege their own comfort under a misguided attempt to protect students from a tender, emphatic, and ultimately affirming story.
Let me be clear: soft censorship is still censorship. Choosing not to add a book, author, or topic to our collection in the name of protecting our readers or avoiding backlash from our larger community is exclusionary. It is not an act toward building an anti-racist and inclusive library. It is not an act of courage. It is the path of privilege and comfort, attained by maintaining silence. It is one I have to confront each and every day that I suit up and go into the library and challenge long-entrenched status quos that have privileged my comfort over the dignity and humanity of others.
Peter and I ask in Chapter 3: Inclusion in Core Values in School Librarianship: Responding with Commitment and Courage, and have asked at many workshops where we present this idea of radical inclusion to our school library peers, in what ways do you reinforce inequities and injustices by choosing what you remain silent about? To which I would add: we speak volumes with our actions, and uphold injustice and oppression with our inability – individually and collectively – to take action.
All of which makes me consider how we can collectively hold ourselves accountable. And hold ourselves accountable to our values we must. We can do this through building strong networks and seeking support. So often, teacher-librarians make decisions of import in a vacuum, largely due to the fact that we are the only ones in our buildings. But I would urge each of us, that anytime we choose to exclude a book – or idea – or program – from our libraries, we get second and third opinions. That we bring our decisions to our library advisory boards. That we pose the question on Twitter and other places where teacher-librarians from diverse backgrounds gather. That we push through our discomfort and get closer to being more open to experiences and identities that differ from our own, and accept that while we might not always get it right, we are cowardly for not trying. We are not doing our students with the most privileges any favors, and at worse, we are harming historically marginalized students by moralizing and patronizing their identities.
Holding ourselves accountable will help each and every one of us move closer to a place of Compassion-Action. Peter and I explore this framework within our chapter, positing that it levels-up empathy, by igniting action. We believe that it’s not enough to have a change of heart: that if true equity and justice is to be realized, those of us with positional power and intersectional privilege must combine empathy with action and move toward compassionate action. That in the words of Dr. Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal elder and activist, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because your liberation is wrapped up in mine, then let us work together.”
We can ignite this power within our spheres of influence – within our libraries – by sharing power, sharing space, building containers for compassionate action, and being transparent to our stakeholders about our decision-making processes.
To which I say, in order to achieve Radical Inclusion, be it in your school library, your district, and in your statewide or national memberships, we must share power with those who have been historically excluded and marginalized, starting with our students. Anything less than this ensures that systems of oppression will remain firmly entrenched, not just in our hearts, but in our collections, policies, practices, and pedagogies. The school library must be an active site of liberation in the co-creation of conditions for freedom, liberty, and justice for all.
Peter and I invite school librarians to join in our ongoing reflection and discussion about Radical Inclusion on Twitter. We ask:
“In what ways do school librarians reinforce inequities and injustices by choosing what we remain silent about?” (Allison and Langella 2021, 51).
You can follow the discussion using the hashtags #SLCoreValues and #Libraries4Action. Additionally, join us at AASL in Salt Lake City for our workshop on Radical Inclusion. We look forward to leaning in and learning with you!
Butler, Sarah Lorge. 2018. “Parents Are Divided Over a Book in a Popular Student Reading Program in Oregon.” New York Times, May 8. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/books/george-alex-gino-controversy-oregon.html. Accessed September 18, 2021.
Allison, Meg Boisseau, and Peter Patrick Langella. 2021. “Diversity.” In Core Values in School Librarianship: Responding with Commitment and Courage, ed. Judi Moreillon, 37-54. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Watson, Lilla. 2004. “Recognition of Indigenous Terms of Reference,” Keynote Address at “A Contribution to Change: Cooperation Out of Conflict Conference: Celebrating Difference, Embracing Equality,” Hobart, Tasmania (September 21-24). Available at https://uniting.church/lilla-watson-let-us-work-together/. Accessed September 19, 2021. Note: Lilla Watson prefers that the words be credited “Aboriginal activists group Queensland, 1970s.”
Image Credit: “Amplify Black Voices.” Vermont State Capitol, Montpelier Vt. June 2020. Courtesy of Meg B. Allison.