Philly’s coronavirus response

Why Free Library workers are calling for their director to resign

Allegations of discrimination have been piling up for years.

Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Miguel Martinez / for Billy Penn
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Being told they smell bad. Having social justice projects derailed. Getting reported to a supervisor for talking about current events.

As detailed on a new Instagram account, these are some of the things Black workers say have contributed to a discriminatory atmosphere at the Free Library of Philadelphia — without even touching on pay. White library employees make 25% more, on average, than their nonwhite colleagues.

Allegations of racial inequity at the Free Library have recently attracted a national spotlight, but the problem has been simmering for a while. A 2018 diversity survey sparked outcry, and Philadelphia City Council in 2019 held contentious hearings addressing the issue.

The situation burst into view late June, when Black staffers published an open letter calling on the library to address various staffing and protocol inequities linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives. The Black employees said they would not return to in-person work until their demands were met.

Since the letter came out, at least six prominent authors have canceled library events in solidarity with the group, which is organizing as Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia, or CBWFLP.

Last week, the group rejected a meeting with library director and president Siobhan Reardon, who has faced numerous calls to step down.

“[W]e declined, and asked for an action plan on our six demands instead,” Fred Ginyard, an organizer with CBWFLP, told Billy Penn.

Reardon sent a Friday afternoon email to staff describing work on a reopening plan that “ensur[es] the safety and security concerns of our Black and Brown as well as other vulnerable staff.” The library has been closed to the public since mid-March due to pandemic concerns.

One Black staffer told Billy Penn that Reardon’s email gave organizers some hope, but after years of internal allegations and an unfruitful diversity and inclusion committee, they’re still wary.

“We need to examine as an institution why everything has been okay up until now, and what’s changed,” said Jamie Bower, a Black librarian who’s been at the Free Library on and off for more than a decade. “It’s sad that the change has to be Black people fighting for their lives.”

Here’s a look at the recent history, the latest developments, and what newly organized Free Library staff members are hoping to achieve.

When did the library start DEI efforts?

During budget hearings last year, Reardon told City Council that the library instituted implicit bias and equity training and workshops in 2017. The Free Library also created a diversity and inclusion committee that year.

But a library staffer told the Inquirer early last year that the trainings weren’t actually held until fall 2018. The committee, meanwhile, hadn’t met or even elected members as of spring 2019, according to Plan Philly.

(A library spokesperson referred Billy Penn’s request for comment to a board member, but efforts to reach Reardon for this article were ultimately unsuccessful.)

What’s the makeup of Free Library staff?

According to a report released in late 2019, Black employees account for 47% of all Free Library staff — about the same as the city’s population overall — but earn the lowest median salary across all racial groups, the Philadelphia Tribune reported.

Full time Black workers, the report found, earn an average annual salary of about $46k, compared to about $65k for white employees, $56k for Latinx employees and $52k for Asian employees.

Black staff members are also much more often in positions of security guard and low-level library assistant than white staff members, according to an analysis by TyLisa C. Johnson, a former library beat writer at the Inquirer.

Latinx and Asian employees are also vastly underrepresented among library staff, each accounting for 3% of the workforce. Those groups make up 15% and 8% of the overall Philadelphia population, respectively.

Did the library do anything to address these issues?

At the end of 2018, an online survey about workplace bias was sent to Free Library staff. Dozens of employees responded — and within hours Reardon requested the survey be taken down.

Nearly three-fourths of the initial survey respondents were Black, and more than half were women, the Inquirer reported at the time.

“I’d never seen something as blatant as one of the staff member’s attempts to collect stories of discirimnation [being] erased and shut down,” librarian Bowers told Billy Penn this week.

A few months later, the library workers’ union reposted the survey. More than 100 responses detailed instances of homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. Respondents also noted a cumbersome complaint reporting process that rarely achieved justice for filers.

Was anyone held accountable?

After the above issues came to light during 2019 budget hearings, Councilmember Cindy Bass suggested a leadership change was in order.

“You need to do more, you need to do better, or we need to get someone who is going to do more and do better,” Bass said, during discussion of an incident in which a white senior manager accused of discrimination was excused because Reardon, the Free Library director, found they didn’t intend to offend.

Although City Council must approve its budget, legislators don’t have any direct power over Free Library administration. The library is an independent city agency with its own board of directors.

What sparked the letter from Concerned Black Workers?

Encouraged by the unprecedented wave of activism following the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Black people are organizing and speaking out in droves, across the nation and across industry.

In many cases, the pandemic has been a flashpoint. COVID-19 has had a dramatically disproportionate effect on people of color.

Fear for their safety — both from the coronavirus and from potential backlash from white vigilante groups around Philadelphia — was a major point raised in the open letter from CBWFLP, released on June 25.

“We cannot return to business as usual and must find different and better ways to serve the public while keeping our staff and patrons safe,” the document reads.

What demands does the letter make?

The CBWFLP is requesting that the Free Library board, which is 58% Black, remove director Reardon. Other demands outlined in the letter include:

  • A commitment to protecting the lives of Black staff,
  • Equal work from home opportunities during COVID-19 for Black and white staff, and
  • An investigation into Black staffers’ concerns about returning to work during COVID-19.
  • Support and accommodations for Black staff whose work makes them susceptible to racially motivated violence.

When many library workers returned to their branches on June 29, they say they were met with inadequate PPE, expiring disinfecting products and broken air conditioners. The library workers’ union drafted a letter and petition for a “vote of no confidence” in Reardon and other leadership. The petition’s been signed by more than 1,800 people.

CBWFLP published a follow up letter calling for Reardon’s immediate removal last Thursday. “The Board of Trustees must choose Black lives or be complicit in upholding white supremacy,” the workers wrote.

Who canceled since the letter was published?

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead was the first author to cancel his Free Library event, planned for July 8, in solidarity with Black staff.

He was soon followed by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., British scientist and author Adam Rutherford, Emory professor Carol Anderson, disability activist Alice Wong and Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid.

Free Library’s author events team linked to the CBWFLP letter with each cancelation, and shared the letter separately, expressing their department’s support.

In addition to canceled author events, WURD Radio has postponed its annual summer initiative with the library, according to Reardon’s Friday email.

What comes next?

A town hall event hosted by the library last week attracted nearly 430 staff members, according to Reardon’s email

A second virtual gathering is scheduled for Wednesday morning with the city Department of Public Health and Office of Human Resources, to address coronavirus concerns. Reardon wrote that a third town hall focused on DEI is also in planning.

On Thursday, Philly-based consulting firm DiverseForce emailed employees a workplace climate survey. It contains questions about whether library leadership reflects the diversity of the community it serves and whether library reopening plans are safe and equitable.

In her Friday email, Reardon promised results of the survey would be kept anonymous and confidential. She did not address any potential change of leadership.

“It would be amazing to see a Black person as our director,” said Bowers, the library worker, “in a mostly Black city with mostly Black staff.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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