Jennifer W. Brown: Are student workers the answer to our diversity "problem"?
Jennifer W. Brown is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Georgia State University Library’s Decatur Campus focusing on services for first-generation and non-traditional college students. She earned her Masters of Library and Information Science from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Bachelor’s in Women’s & Gender Studies from The University of West Florida. Jennifer spends her weekends hiking North Georgia, waking up early to journal, and hanging out in Atlanta with her husband.
The future of librarianship depends on us recognizing and valuing diverse perspectives and people’s lived experiences. As a profession, we are slowly trying to tackle our diversity “problem”, yet we are still coming up short. Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become the hottest new buzzwords and library administrators are scrambling to prove their newfound commitment to diversity.
This is reflected in updated strategic plans, the implementation of diversity residency programs, and a special section on job postings that encourage individuals from underrepresented groups to apply. While these changes in themselves should be seen in a positive light it is difficult for me, and many other librarians of color, to not raise an eyebrow...or two. Weariness has set in as we watch those in leadership roles take ownership of diversity issues when only a few years ago it was, completely ignored or remedied by monthly displays that celebrated “multicultural” holidays. Ultimately these diversity initiatives fall short because they rely solely on recruitment and retention of those individuals who already hold an MLIS or are working toward one. These initiatives fail to address the role that White normativity plays in our libraries, which effectively discourages potential MLIS students who don’t fit the standards of Whiteness to enter the field.
Student workers can be the solution to the profession’s overarching pipeline problem. Last year, I started the Student Advisory Supervisory Squad (SASS), a high impact mentorship approach to hiring and supervising students at Georgia State University Library’s Special Collections and Archives. We worked one-on-one with students to maximize their potential through professional growth, hands-on learning, and tailoring job duties to individual strengths and interests.
SASS also recognized the socioeconomic disparities and systematic barriers that keep potential colleagues from entering the field. There is a false assumption that every student has the generational knowledge needed to understand how to navigate life at academic institutions, including being aware of the job opportunities that they present. To combat these obstacles, we introduced students to archives and library work through social media, digital marketing and on the ground outreach. In addition to intentional recruiting, we modified the application and interview process, removing barriers that may impede students from diverse backgrounds from even applying in the first place.
SASS also recognized the socioeconomic disparities and systematic barriers that keep potential colleagues from entering the field.
Most of my students received little financial help from their parents and paid for their own rent, gas, and utilities. In addition to carrying a full-time course load, they had internships and worked second or even third jobs on weekends and evenings. At the time, the library budget only allowed for a $7.75 per hour wage at 10-20 hours a week for student assistants. Not providing a livable wage is beyond problematic. It guarantees that only the students who are being financially supported by their families can afford to gain experience in the library. One student, who had been with me for a year, told me that she would have to find a new job because she did not make enough money. This was distressing since she had grown to love the archives and was seriously interested in getting her MLIS. Prior to the creation of SASS, a student told me that they were the worker bees of the office.
Another student chimed in to say that they knew they were not seen as part of the team and that being ignored and excluded from department activities was the norm. They were bright, creative, fun, and beyond competent, but these promising rising stars were being denied the guidance that they so desperately wanted. I realized I had to fight for them to have a seat at the table because their insights, skills, and creativity deserved to be recognized and valued. This included a thorough onboarding process, encouraging a non-hierarchical, collaborative working environment, and a push to get students invited to staff meetings and in on decision-making processes.
So I asked myself, can my student workers show up as their true and authentic selves
Another important element of SASS was taking a holistic approach to supervision. Most librarians of color feel that they cannot show up as their authentic selves without consequences. They carry the weight of their unpaid emotional labor and smile through microaggressions, staying silent on issues they know will make their white colleagues uncomfortable. So I asked myself, can my student workers show up as their true and authentic selves? I didn’t want them to feel shame for who they were or made to feel uncomfortable if they talked openly about issues that affected them or their communities. In an attempt to create a level of openness and safety, SASS decided to replace rigidity, dress codes and micromanaging with flexibility, autonomy, and creativity.
In terms of concrete assessment, the program was “successful” in that three students from marginalized backgrounds became interested in archival and library work in the year were in the SASS program and were seriously considering entering MLIS programs once they graduated. An outcome I didn’t expect was the healing effect mentoring the students had on the wounds caused by my own lack of mentorship. Before starting SASS I was an underpaid, overworked, and burnout MLIS-holding paraprofessional who was considering leaving the profession.
Mentoring them gave me a newfound hope that the field that I had such a complicated relationship with could one day change for the better. I still have close relationships with some of the students and have been able to mentor them as they continue on in their MLIS and archives graduate studies.
Ultimately, implementing SASS was not about a quick and easy fix. There was not a conscious selection process that would immediately increase diversity within a predetermined period of time. - But I can wholeheartedly say that SASS changed my life and I hope that you consider taking the leap and implementing it at your library.
WOC+Lib will like to thank Jennifer and Student Advisory Supervisory Squad (SASS) for using our platform to share your Initiative with others. We hope the action she has taken inspires, encourages, and ignites.
LaQuanda T. Onyemeh, Co-Founder
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