dispatches from ola 2016, part 1: choosing to walk a path

I attended OLA* for only one day this year, partly because I'm already missing so much work for bargaining and other union business, and partly because one day is often enough. There's a huge lineup of presentations, poster sessions, book signings, vendors, keynote speakers, tours, receptions, etc. - lots of etc. - but the presentations are the meat of the conference. Four presentations a day for three days is just too much.

As it happened, three of the four talks I attended shared a theme: bringing library services to underserved, marginalized, and socially excluded communities.

My first of the day was Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services with Indigenous Peoples on Purpose. Monique Woroniak, from Winnipeg, a city with a significant indigenous population, first set the social and political context. It was a bit like being at our annual socialist conference: the presenter using the expression the Canadian state, as opposed to Canada, and speaking about settler colonialism as an ongoing structure, rather than an event in the past.

Woroniak showed an old family photograph from a few generations back, when her own forebears - as for many Canadian-born Canadians - were "settling" the prairies. She set the current context as the marked increase in "public expressions of indigenous sovereignty," beginning with Idle No More, but echoing through Canada with a heightened presence of indigenous literature, and in Winnipeg, with social spaces, a magazine, and other events.

I liked her explanation of the difference between diversity and anti-racism initiatives. Diversity programming celebrates multiculturalism - a commendable goal, and better than its opposite - but it leaves power structures unchanged. Anti-racism programming and services seek to create conditions to transform that power imbalance.

That can only happen with (what is now called) a "community development" model. Rather than think of ourselves and our institutions as experts - the holders of special knowledge or at least the keys to that knowledge - telling the community what we have to offer, we work to build relationships, so the community can tell us what they need.

What this looks like in practical terms, as far as I can tell, is not substantially different than a purposeful and meaningful attempt to be more inclusive, combat racism, and educate the public at large about a marginalized community. The difference, it seems, is how one arrives at that goal. And in a field where we are measured by statistics - how many materials circulated, how many people attended a program - this shifts the focus from end result to process.

The most important thing - something we talk about all the time in relation to youth, older adults, or any other population we serve - is not to tell people what we're doing for them, but ask them what they want us to do for and with them. Sounds simple, right? The reality is remarkably elusive. In the context of austerity budgets and skeletal staff, taking time to build relationships and focus on process might as well be a unicorn ride on a rainbow.

One minor note I found interesting was Woroniak`s take on the use of the word "ally". She said (I paraphrase), "You don't call yourself an ally. If a person from the community you are serving calls you an ally, then accept that as a great compliment, but you don't decide that." I'm not sure what to make of that, given that Idle No More shares "I am an ally" badges online.

Next up: Prisons and Libraries: A Relationship Worth Incubating.

* Officially the Ontario Library Association Super Conference, but always referred to as O-L-A, as if we are attending the organization.


M@ said...

I attended OLA as an author some years ago - really seemed like a great conference, for sure.

I do worry about the discussion of the "ally" designation, or whatever it is. I don't want to do the whole white-CIS-male-taking-over thing in a lot of cases; I call myself an ally to express my unquestioning support on the issue, but also my willingness to sit on the sidelines and vocalize my support while not trying to take the lead. It's very important, in my view, to find a way to express this as a support, rather than a lead, role. And in many of these cases I recognize the importance of (a) having members of the power group as vocal supporters, while (b) allowing the members of the minority or unempowered group to dictate the path that change will take.

Guys like me - members of the power group - need to learn to shut up and follow, and the "ally" path seems like a great way to do that. I use it as a non-dominating, non-offensive way to express my support, and there aren't a lot of ways to do that while still keeping my big white straight male mouth shut.

I don't want to overstep the boundaries, but what am I supposed to do to demonstrate that my inevitable and undeniable privilege in society is in support of these issues? I'm not upset about this perspective - I really am interested in knowing how I can best express my alliance with a cause without assuming some status that isn't deserved.

laura k said...

M@, I really hear you about that. I personally think calling oneself an ally is an important place to be.

When it comes to sexism, a man can say he is (and be) a feminist. But when it comes to racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia, what are those of us who are supporters but don't identify as members of those community supposed to do?

Thus we call ourselves allies.

I have called myself an ally in many situations, and have only had positive feedback.

I wonder if the speaker had some negative feedback from the people she serves? I tweeted this post to her, maybe she will shed some light.

And how cool you attended OLA as an author. I must confess I have zero interest in meeting authors at OLA, but the talks and signings seem to be very well attended. I hope you sold some books. :)

Monique Woroniak said...

Hi all:

Monique Woroniak here. Good conversation. First, I want to thank wmtc for this nice recap (and for attending of course!).

I wasn't misquoted/paraphrased re. using the ally term. My comment was basically a reflection of where my head is at at the moment around this. At this time I'm in a milieu (for lack of a better word) where the word is really overused, in my opinion at least. The best thing I ever heard said about the word ally is that it should be a verb and not a noun - that it's about acting (based on direction by whatever oppressed group) as opposed to being a label for a (good) opinion or viewpoint that someone might hold.

Language is hard. I really just think of myself as a supporter or, if I wanted to really describe what I try to do, a "learner of truth" (which I then try to act on responsibly). Learner of truth doesn't really roll of the tongue, though!

I've been called an ally by a number of Indigenous folks and I consider it a real honour and something to live up to. (Embarrassingly, there's audio out there of a radio interview I did where the interviewer introduced me as "a self-declared ally," a mis-speaking on their part and something I never would have said. Oh media... ).

Some Indigenous people I know use the term liberally to refer to a range of supporters, others choose to use it much more sparingly. In that sense, I acknowledge there's not right answer and that I could have been more equivocal in how I talked about it in my session. Blame it on not using notes! :)



laura k said...

Monique, thanks so much for that. I get what you're saying. Language is difficult and important, but also can be over-emphasized to the point where people feel trapped, afraid to speak - a language minefield.

Thanks for stopping by. I confess that this post is a bit lame, because I had to run out to catch the prison libraries talk, the reason I chose to attend on Thursday. But I really did appreciate and get a lot from your presentation. You're a good speaker, too.

M@ said...

Honestly, even with feminism, it feels like I'm self-anointing to a certain position on the issue to call myself a feminist. (I don't know if I've told you about my chequered past with the works of Adrienne Rich but it's made me worry about just assuming a position on feminist literature, as a start.)

And I really love what you've said, Monique, about "ally" being a verb and not a noun. I have never advocated passive anything, as Gandhi (somewhat) said, and I agree that it's more than a label; we have to actually assume an active and vocal stance if we're to call ourselves allies.

Plenty to think about here, which I really appreciate!

And just as an aside - we were only giving books away, not selling. And I spent an hour giving books away to very nice and enthusiastic librarians. Can't think of a better hour to spend than that!

laura k said...

OLA librarians are a nice, enthusiastic bunch. :)

Speaking only for myself here, I appreciate when a feminist man - someone who walks the walk - calls himself a feminist. We all know how that word is misused and purposely twisted. In that context to say "I am a feminist" helps define and normalize the word.

I agree with you about being active/vocal. In this case, that is the feminist man's relationship to and with the women in his life, and towards women in the world, and his commitment to equality. Easy. :)

Re ally/supporter/some other word, I do think it's important that we have a way of expressing our solidarity and support, without assuming leadership or speaking for another community. After the bombings in France and the rampant racism and Islamaphobia that followed, being an ally or supporter could make a very real difference, on a local level. Doing so now in relation to refugees, same thing.