Alyssa Jocson Porter: POC Librarians: Claiming Conferences Spaces
Alyssa Jocson Porter is a newly-tenured reference & instruction librarian at Seattle Central College, where she is the liaison to the STEM and Creative Arts programs and coordinates collection development. She recently co-authored a chapter, “I, Too: Unmasking Emotional Labor of Women of Color Community College Librarians,” in Pushing the Margins: Women of Color Librarians in LIS (Library Juice Press, 2018). Twitter: @itsuhLEEsuh
On a rumbling Amtrak train from Seattle to Vancouver, WA, I gazed out at the passing landscape--sometimes industrial, sometimes verdant--and tried to calm my heartbeat. I sat across from my colleagues, Sharon Spence-Wilcox and Kimberly Tate-Malone, on our way to the 2019 Oregon Library Association/Washington Library Association joint conference to present on the topic of our recently-published chapter: Women of Color (WOC) librarians and emotional labor. I wasn’t nervous about the presentation itself. I was nervous about the white librarians whom might come to our presentation--and who we were going to ask to leave.
Our content centered the experiences of WOC community and technical college librarians, and we wanted the room full of only those librarians and library staff who identify as People of Color (POC) or indigenous/native. When we were planning, we drew from other professional development experiences that we recently had, such as the We Here workshop at Joint Conference of Librarians of Color 2018 and the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges’ Faculty of Color Mentorship program. Neither of these examples were 100% POC spaces; we found these spaces that centered POC folks and their experiences to be empowering. We designed our own session to review our findings but also include time for mindfulness, reflection, and small group discussion. The goal was to create space for POC librarians and library staff to create community, to validate their experiences, and to share their stories.
I felt excited about the session content that my colleagues and I put together. However, I was worried about the potential pushback of being complained about, being yelled at--white librarian tears. Also on my mind was a friend, another WOC librarian, who earlier that week had written about Whiteness and was targeted by threatening trolls as her post gained attention. I worried about protecting myself and my colleagues.
In the hours leading up to the presentation, as we walked to the convention center, we felt hyper-aware of being in the minority. And as we tested the connection to the projector, we battled the worst case scenarios. We had already widened our target audience from WOC to POC in general. What would we do if we only had a few POC attend our session? We would proceed. What would we do if we had only one POC? We would proceed. Would we consider opening up the space to white librarians, or what if there were only white librarians? The answer would be “no.”
We had made preparations to claim our space. We posted a statement on signage at our room’s entrances and on the first slide of our slideshow that centered POC experiences and asked those who identify as white to select another session. In the minutes leading up to our session, I watched white folks who came to the room silently read our posted statement and promptly leave. (Later, we would hear from a friend that one person seem to take offense but turned around anyway.) We also made periodic verbal announcements to the whole room--rather than making assumptions and targeting individuals.
We posted a statement on signage at our room’s entrances and on the first slide of our slideshow which centered POC experiences and asked those who identify as white to select another session.
Our conference room filled with about 24 POC attendees. Sharon opened our session with a mindfulness meditation; as I witnessed sighs being released and shoulders relaxing, I felt relief too. Everything felt right. Participants were engaged as we presented our research and survey findings about WOC community college librarians, and it was hard to wrangle everyone back together after lively small group discussions.
As attendees approached us afterward, it became clear that there is a desire for POC-only spaces within library conferences. We received words of gratitude and of encouragement too. One attendee said that our session description online had prompted her to register for the conference. Another said our session was the best she attended in years. Even with all the anxiety I felt beforehand about white people’s reactions (we actually received a lot of praise from white librarians who had heard about our session), I realized that creating community with POC like this ultimately motivates me to continue this work within the library world.
Since this session last spring, Kimberly, Sharon, and I are set to present another version of it at an upcoming conference. I personally feel more empowered in creating and confident in advocating for POC-only space at future conferences. I cheer on other POC doing this work too, and I support other POC who are interested in trying.
Here’s my advice for those planning POC-only conference sessions:
Share your session details via social media, list-servs/email, or word-of-mouth, if you’re worried about attendance.
Set expectations and boundaries.
Articulate your intended audience in your session’s description in the conference program, on signage outside/inside the room, and verbally in person.
Reach out to other POC and white allies for help spreading the word and also for words of encouragement. One of our white allies also agreed to help by playing “bouncer” at our room’s entrance.
Or, prepare for joy, as my therapist would say. You can reflect on how you would respond to pushback and what you would say. But move past worst-case scenarios to also imagine what success would look like and be ready to enjoy it!
Library institutions and professional organizations should offer more professional development opportunities for POC librarians and library staff to gather for peer-to-peer mentorship, collaboration, and community-building. But, as POC librarians in a profession that is 86.9% white we can and should create spaces for ourselves. We don’t have to wait and we don’t have to ask for permission to start