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Addressing Racial Injustice at the Library

Jessica Anne Bratt

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Jessica Anne Bratt is a branch manager at Grand Rapids, Michigan, Public Library. She and three other librarians recently launched an initiative called Libraries4BlackLives, pledging support for the Black Lives Matter movement and hosting discussions on the role libraries can and should play to address systemic racial injustice. She launched the twitter hashtag #libraries4blacklives and is also on the 2019 Coretta Scott King Book Award Jury Committee. She is very active with kids at her local branch and is making a name for herself in national issues. Foreword’s executive editor, Howard Lovy, asked Jessica about her local activities and her national activism.

In general, libraries are underfunded and librarians are overworked. Why on earth did you want to become a librarian?

Dorothy Evans was inspirational to my career trajectory. She was the librarian at the South Shore Library in the Chicago Public Library system. I’ve wanted to be a librarian since I was a child. My mom would take me to the library all the time, and I would always ask for the same book. I asked my mom how I could sit behind the desk and do what the librarian does, and my mom told me to go ask Dorothy Evans. She told me that I needed a master’s degree—and I didn’t even know what that was at the time, but I knew I would get one and do exactly what she did! She was an early mentor and was involved in ALA deeply. She used to give me books signed by authors, and one day she took me and her granddaughter to an ALA luncheon, and I got to meet Jacqueline Woodson. I knew then that this is exactly what I wanted to do for life.

That library was in an area of the Chicago that was extremely underfunded. She [Evans] used her connections and opportunities to introduce me to the world of libraries. I was raised in an environment where a whole community worked hard to create something from nothing. I have seen my parents pour their life’s work into a community that has been segregated from everything but a library. I grew up wanting to deepen my exploration in how meaningful the library was to communities. When I became a librarian and moved to Michigan, I knew that the schools there were taking a big hit concerning the lack of school libraries/librarians, and I wanted to pass along the feeling, as best I could, that the public library should support the public schools and provide an extension of services if possible.

Library Journal named you a 2016 Mover & Shaker. Tell us what you did to earn that honor, and what it means to you.

It was a complete surprise and a great honor. I wanted to help deepen the community relationship between the public school and the public library. I really wanted students to come in and be able to use the library and know it is a warm and welcoming place. You mentioned that public libraries are underfunded, and school libraries are operating on a budget of nothing, or libraries are not even included in new building designs. I wanted to provide support for public schools in the area to help with awareness of how that the library has resources and students should be able to easily access those resources.

DigiBridge was started to help provide additional support and extension of library services to the public school system. Grand Rapids Public Schools serves nearly seventeen thousand students with over two thousand employees (half being teachers). One of our first outcomes of DigiBridge was making sure we removed barriers to access. We introduced a digital library card, which doubled as their student/employee ID that could be used to access our database and online resources. From there we were able to connect with students, teachers, and administrators doing research database training, which further opened doors to us (in school-library partnership) that had previously (for years) been shut to us.

In the summer of 2013, I started out with seventeen kids, black-and-white Nooks, and battery-powered robots, with a small budget of $400.

In the summer of 2015, we landed a $20,000 grant from our Library Foundation. We were able to upgrade to LEGO Mindstorm EV3 robots and Amazon Fire 6s. Our camp kept the same attendees and has held retention until kids go to high school.

Our demographics are very diverse, with kids from many socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Our first year of camp, we had 39 percent Hispanic, 28 percent African Americans, and 50 percent male and female. That ratio holds strong in that we have an equal number of males and females, and we have seen an increase in other ethnicities.

You helped found the #Libraries4BlackLives initiative. What role can a community library play in creating conditions for equality?

Our country put policies and laws in place that helped create systemic racism. The public library is a trusted institution and can help to create and model responsible, responsive governmental change. As a professional, institutional responsibility starts with me. I was at a breaking point with seeing black pain spread across the news, watching my community suffer, and thinking, What will the lives of my future children look like? What could I do to help make the world a better place for future generations? Libraries have a long history of social action. If the library is about building community and inclusion then they have to address racial injustice.

Libraries have a role in ending racism. Whether it is as simple as addressing your own personal bias as a frontline staff member, or seeking to hire and retain diverse talent. I do not want libraries on the tail end of history. The Black Lives Matter movement is an intervention in a world where black lives are at risk (of police violence, health disparities, poor education, employment opportunities, and more). Why wouldn’t we join this national effort to end racism!

Our new Librarian of Congress is an African-American woman. How significant is her appointment to you personally and to libraries in general?

I watched Livestream when Carla Hayden was sworn in. Ahhhhh! It was very exciting to witness that moment, because I had goosebumps when she talked about the history of this nation and that it was not that long ago, women were not afforded great opportunities in libraries and African Americans in general were not allowed to use libraries.

I am personally happy because it shows communities of color the empowering message that there is a wide range of opportunities that you strive for, whether you want to be a president or a librarian.

What nonlibrarian things do you like to do?

I love to bake. My favorite holiday to bake for is definitely Thanksgiving. I love vintage fashions, which, according to my favorite fashion blogger, Kyra Crandol, is anything from the 1920s to the present day. I play classical piano. And I am a huge nerd. I like to game on my PS3 (Eternal Sonata is what I am playing now) and on a mobile app game I’m playing now called Fantasy War Tactics. I love reading comic books and graphic novels. I am a huge fanfiction reader and definitely have made lifelong friends based on our love of popular fandoms.

What can a local library do to convince the local community, and elected officials, that it’s still a necessary part of the community?

There has been a recent trend in moving toward outcomes-based measurements and making sure our data is meaningful, especially when it goes before elected officials. Making sure that they see the impact we are having in reaching our goals. In doing so, it has been amazing to see how many libraries are removing access barriers. The library is an amazing resource and information hub, and making sure people can have access to that helps strengthen the community. Providing ways for the community to still have access to whatever information they desire helps show them how invaluable the library is. In addition, a strong community presence by partnerships or word of mouth helps show elected officials the importance of the library.

When the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling happened, an affinity group within the Chamber of Commerce reached out to the library and asked if the library would be willing to host a race discussion. They knew our library had hosted discussions before and thought of us first. How awesome is that!

When a local library takes an experience outside the library, whether it is signing up library cards at a school orientation, having a book club at a brewery, or partnering with the local Parks and Recreation, you are showing that the library is more than just books, DVDs, and music. Furthermore, in this digital age, word-of-mouth does not have to necessarily be an in-person conversation—it can be a picture taken at a library event posted on Instagram, a reader’s advisory answered on Twitter, or a local news segment.

What’s your favorite library job or activity?

Doing my toddler and preschool story times. I love performing for my prereading classes. I was a hyper child growing up and always thought story times at the library were the best! I distinctly remember moving and listening to stories. My undergraduate degree was in music education, so it is fun to be able to use that background by playing my ukulele while singing.

What are you reading now?

Currently, I am reading Nailbiter Vol. 1 and Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, by Andrew Maraniss.


Howard Lovy
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy

Howard Lovy

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