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Ask, Listen, Empower

Illustration of dozens of diverse faces (Illustration: Franzi Draws)
Illustration: Franzi Draws

Until we live in a truly egalitarian society, we need to actively work toward making society more equitable.

Put another way, it is not enough to simply be not racist; we must work to be antiracist. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, uses the analogy of a moving walkway. The history and structures of racism are the walkway. It is not enough to simply stop walking, because you’re still moving in a racist direction, just more slowly. It is also not enough to turn around; then you are still moving in a racist direction, just backward! In order to be antiracist, you must actively walk in the opposite direction.

Understanding power and privilege

In her 1989 seminal work, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” activist Peggy McIntosh outlines 50 conditions that illustrate the daily effects of white privilege, including “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race” and “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.”

This is an excerpt from Ask, Listen, Empower: Grounding Your Library Work in Community Engagement, edited by Mary Davis Fournier and Sarah Ostman (ALA Editions, 2021).
This is an excerpt from Ask, Listen, Empower: Grounding Your Library Work in Community Engagement, edited by Mary Davis Fournier and Sarah Ostman (ALA Editions, 2021).

The concept was applied to libraries by retired University of California, Berkeley, librarian John Berry, who adapted some of McIntosh’s statements in his 2004 paper “White Privilege in Library Land.” For example, “When conducting collection development, I can easily find materials featuring people of my race” and “I can criticize my library or my profession and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as an outsider.”

As you plan engagement programs, look at McIntosh’s and Berry’s work and identify your privilege. Although their papers focus on white privilege, the questions and statements can be easily modified for other kinds of privilege as well (such as age, ability, sexual orientation, and gender). By identifying your privilege, you will start to recognize the blinders that limit our understanding of the world. These blinders may put up barriers to some community members. For example, working only in English will exclude those who do not speak it. Multnomah County (Ore.) Library (MCL) has instituted a project, We Speak Your Language, to overcome this barrier by providing services in six languages: Chinese, English, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

In the 1991 journal article “Mapping the Margins,” Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, which challenges us to understand the ways race, gender, age, economic status, and other identity markers make up different levels of oppression. In a 2017 interview celebrating 20 years of racial justice work at the African American Policy Forum think tank she founded, Crenshaw discussed the ways oppression can overlap: “It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LGBTQ+ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all these things.”

Understanding privilege and intersectionality will help you promote openness and learning, hear voices in a deeper way, and help participants be more open to learning from people who may be different from them. Madison (Wis.) Public Library used an equity framework to design Tell Us, a community conversation process. The library partnered with agencies that brought together racially diverse community members to discuss challenges they faced. Importantly, these conversations were not held at the library—they took place in homes, schools, and community spaces—and community partners drove the topics.

Core principles of community engagement

Ethics and inclusion should be at the center of all your community engagement programs. Putting these ideas into practice can be challenging because of organizational inertia and a lack of appetite for risk. By carefully considering the potential impacts of your actions and plans, you will be on your way to providing truly ethical and inclusive engagement programs.

The nonprofit National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation convened a group of public participation leaders to outline the seven core principles of public engagement:

  • Careful planning and preparation: Through adequate and inclusive planning, ensure that the design, organization, and convening process serve both a clearly defined purpose and the needs of participants.
  • Inclusion and demographic diversity: Equitably incorporate diverse people, voices, ideas, and information to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.
  • Collaboration and shared purpose: Support and encourage participants, government and community institutions, and others to work together for the common good.
  • Openness and learning: Help all involved listen to one another, explore new ideas, learn and apply information to generate new options, and rigorously evaluate public engagement activities.
  • Transparency and trust: Be clear and open about the process, and provide a public record of the organizers, sponsors, outcomes, and the range of views and ideas expressed.
  • Impact and action: Ensure each participatory effort has real potential to make a difference and that participants are aware of it.
  • Sustained engagement and participatory culture: Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing, quality public engagement.

To these principles we add the lens of equity and inclusion, encouraging you to both deepen your engagement and increase the equitability of your community engagement work. We think it is important to center inclusion at each point, weighing which actions open opportunities for all people in your community, and to ask questions that start to peel back layers of privilege.

An intentional practice

To create a culture of authentic and equitable community engagement, you’ll have to actively work for inclusion and anti-oppression. The Government Alliance on Race and Equity breaks this strategy into three broad action categories:


  • What steps could you take to increase a shared understanding of bias, racism, and racial equity?
  • How does white cultural dominance impact people of color in your institution? What kind of culture shift is needed?
  • How could you develop a clear vision for racial equity?


  • Who are the groups in your community working toward racial equity?
  • How could you support community groups working to reduce disparities?
  • How could you develop deep relationships with communities that have not been included in decision making?


  • What topics or decisions call for a racial equity assessment?
  • What action steps and measures will you take to achieve results?

Keep in mind that equity is not the same as equality. Treating everyone the same does not make a level playing field. The Center for Story-Based Strategy has designed an exercise to imagine a more equitable and inclusive future. You may be familiar with the two images that illustrate the difference between equity and equality: Three individuals of various heights are trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. Only one is tall enough to see over the fence. In the equality image, each person is given the same size box to stand on; however, the shortest person still cannot see over the fence. In the equity image, the tallest person doesn’t get a box, the middle person gets one box, and the shortest person gets two. Now all three can see the game. A third image, labeled liberation, has no fence at all.

Sometimes, when working toward greater inclusion, the library does not have to be the main partner. Beauregard Parish (La.) Library focused on inclusion by recognizing invisible or intangible barriers to participation. For example, staffers observed that senior adults in the community were not coming to technology classes at the library. Rather than dismissing the lack of attendance as lack of interest, the library partnered with the Beauregard Council on Aging to create All Hands on Tech, a program series that meets at the Council on Aging’s space, which seniors already visit regularly.

Honoring dates important to members of your community is also a way to frame engagement. June 28, 2019, marked the 50th anniversary of the police raid of the Stonewall Inn; the rebellion following the raid marked a turning point in LGBTQ+ liberation and is honored and celebrated through Pride parades around the world. Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio) Public Library hosted a series of events and exhibits to honor the milestones of Cincinnati Pride and Stonewall 50, including community conversations and a series of videos and podcasts. Through projects and programs like these, the library shows that it is a welcoming and safe space for the LGBTQ+ community and keeps an ongoing focus on inclusion and demographic diversity.

Relationship-building is key

“You need to build the relationship before you need the relationship.” This is a mantra that Larry Payne, director of strategic partnerships, civic engagement, and critical conversations at Houston Public Library, often reminds us to focus on. Building strong relationships that are reciprocal and mutually beneficial will help you not only better understand your community but also develop deeper insights into how to equitably and authentically engage with even its most marginalized members.

The focus on relationships helps move your engagement strategies from an informing stance to a more collaborative stance. For example, two librarians from MCL, Amy Honisett and Kate Schwab, connected library staffers with patrons experiencing homelessness for coffee and conversation. These informal gatherings, held in 2018, led to changes in how these two groups relate to each other. The experiment garnered interest from management and librarians in other branches who also wanted to shift the way they relate to this group of patrons.

Moreover, the shift to working with the community will help create a more sustainable and participatory library culture. At Topeka and Shawnee County (Kans.) Public Library, the team responsible for the library’s new learn-and-play bus adapted the standard decision-making procedures to include conversations with children’s caregivers about their concerns.

Earlier efforts to get community input had focused on conversations with educational experts and other professionals that did not necessarily reveal what mattered most to the people who would use the bus. Including children and their caregivers in the discussions significantly changed how the bus is used. The goals now include children’s social and emotional readiness for kindergarten in addition to academic success. The bus also provided the space for a caregivers’ learning community to develop. Additionally, staff training now includes active listening and how to become a learning facilitator who can guide learning in a group dynamic rather than a teacher who relies on a curriculum.

An ongoing process

Building a culture of ethical and inclusive community engagement takes time and patience. Start by listening to your stakeholders—students, faculty, staff, community members, and others. Have discussions about their perceptions of the library as a community partner and find out how they would like to engage with you. Begin building partnerships with individuals and organizations who share your values and goals. Host a program sponsored by one of your partners, and provide volunteers to assist. Think about joining forces with organizations whose programs align with your work. This approach will help staff and faculty feel more comfortable and engaged, and it will enable you to use your current resources to make the program even better.

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