Libraries are often considered one of the foremost democratic institutions in America. However, the American library system as a whole has struggled with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. In this post, we speak with Christy Mulligan on how the GARE framework has helped to establish new norms and catalyze necessary conversations around racial equity among leaders of Hennepin County Library, who are responsible for libraries in Minneapolis and its suburbs.
Q: What do you do for the Hennepin County Library System?
Christy: My role within the library includes working with leaders at all levels of our organization to set strategic goals and action steps to advance diversity, equity and inclusion – and hold us accountable to making measurable change each year in our organization. As part of my role, I also coordinate and support a number of teams that are working to advance our race equity and inclusion goals.
Q: In what ways are libraries in particular well-situated to help advance racial equity?
Christy: Within Hennepin County, we have 41 libraries across a huge geographic area, serving 1.2 million residents, and our budget is over $80 million per year. We also have significant funding that we receive from individual donors and grants. We have a huge opportunity to leverage our resources to advance racial equity through contracts, purchasing, how we prioritize and deliver our services, and how we live out our mission.
We are well-situated – but more importantly we have a responsibility to our residents to do this work. Public libraries were designed to be free, open community spaces that have a core mission to provide access to information, ideas and resources that our residents want and need for education, learning and for civic life. Unfortunately, libraries have historically been and continue to be white-dominated institutions. Like other government institutions, we can find lots of examples of how institutional bias and racism are baked into our system – it shows up in our programs and services, our policies and procedures, and how we provide access to services.
Policies such as having fines, or making folks pay for a library card for example, limit access. The way we organize our resources and how we catalogue our materials, centers white culture and is not inclusive. There are institutional changes we need to make in order to truly serve everyone, and for everyone to see the public library as serving them.
Q: Can you describe some approaches that the Hennepin County Library system is taking to help advance equity?
Christy: While we have long had staff across our organization who have been focused on racial equity and social justice work, GARE provided a lot of support for us to begin formal equity work. For example, during our first year, we had a cohort of staff that did some pretty deep learning in order to build capacity and bring racial equity training to our staff. We also prioritized development and training with our senior leaders. Having multiple opportunities throughout the year for our senior leadership team to come together for learning helped build momentum and normalize conversations about race.
Our cohort allowed us to go much deeper than just a four-hour training. We participated in monthly half- or full-day training together for a year. This really helped us build a solid foundation for the work, to support staff and to also begin to think about ways to operationalize, and identify opportunities for institutional change.
GARE’s model has helped us normalize conversations about race equity and build shared commitment. This year all 800+ staff are completing our four-hour introductory racial equity training, at the same time that we’re prioritizing work around hiring, retention and culture. Another strategy for us right now is to look at equity and our budgeting and resource allocation.
We’ve also been using an annual action plan that is outcomes-focused, but identifies multiple strategies and areas of work that we need to focus on. We use that to hold ourselves accountable. We set goals each year, and staff at all levels are involved in moving work forward. It’s fall, so we’re starting to think about: What progress have we made? What goals will we need to meet next year? Having a diverse range of staff setting those goals and holding us accountable is really critical to the work.
Q: Can you give an example of some of the specific goals that arose from the Action Plan?
Christy: Sure, I’ll share a couple. Our work plan this year includes specific goals around increasing diversity of staff at all levels. We’re using strategies to address bias in the hiring process, and use targeted strategies for recruitment and hiring, partnering with colleges in our region. We’ve piloted new trainee and internship opportunities, and we’re in the very early stages of developing a mentorship program for staff of color.
We’re also addressing our inequitable system of fundraising for libraries, which involves local ‘friends’ groups that fundraise, with most funds going to their community libraries. The impact of this system has benefited predominantly white communities while negatively impacting communities of color in our county. We’re really excited to have the support of the Friends of Hennepin County Library this year move away from this system and to an allocation system that centers racial equity in our decision making. One of our GARE cohort members is moving into a project manager role to lead this work, which is really exciting.
Q: Do you have any advice for other jurisdictions who are hoping to accomplish similar goals, especially when it comes to diversifying the staff at the leadership level, or trying to integrate the GARE framework?
Christy: For us, it was very helpful to invest a lot of time in the first year getting input from staff already leading this work and build commitment in our senior leadership team. For senior leaders, our book discussions, training, sharing the GARE framework and tools, all jumpstarted our work. GARE provided a framework and a solid foundation to expand training and tool-sharing across the organization.
We have more than 800 staff. There are so many folks who are so hungry for these conversations and have been waiting for a long time for us to be serious about this work. I also think there’s a lot of people for whom this work is really new. Just being able to meet a lot of staff where they are, and to be able to adapt approaches, has been really important. It takes time, but I always think about the GARE training about getting to the “tipping point.” We are continuing to invite more staff into this work and try to help them see themselves in it, no matter where they are.