Free Library director expected to resign within the week over discrimination allegations

Many board members “were unaware of the true climate” at the library, a diversity consultancy found.

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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Siobhan Reardon is expected to step down as president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia ahead of next week’s scheduled board meeting, according to a source familiar with board conversations.

“Internally, board members anticipate that to not be a distraction…Director Reardon will resign imminently,” said the source, who spoke to Billy Penn on condition of anonymity.

The leadership change would follow an intense burst of attention to the long-simmering issue of inequity in library workforce policies and procedures. After Black workers published open letters decrying library administration and calling for Reardon’s resignation, at least six prominent authors canceled events and the library hired diversity consultants in an attempt to address the concerns.

The union representing Free Library workers also petitioned to have Reardon removed, after they said they were met with inadequate health safety measures when returning to work after the coronavirus shutdown.

The Inquirer reported Wednesday that Mayor Jim Kenney and a group of library trustees, the majority of whom are Black, were urging Reardon to resign. Kenney has also reportedly been considering trying to supersede library leadership by appointing a city manager. (The Free Library is not directly under city control; it is an independent agency.)

Reardon did not respond to a request for comment.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Kalela Williams, the Free Library’s director of neighborhood enrichment programming, said she feels the mayor is trying to do what’s best for the library.

“My personal thought is that the mayor is listening,” Williams said.

Williams said she is part of the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia, who’ve been organizing to change what they call a culture of racism, discrimination and insensitivity.

That culture, Williams said, was put on full display when, over the weekend, Board Chair Pam Dembe responded directly to outreach from a group of non-Black workers — without having ever responded to the Concerned Black Workers.

“It speaks for the problem that the Library has been facing, in that Black staff members have been talking about the lack of equity for years…and no one wants to hear us, no one wants to pay attention,” said Williams, who has worked in the library system for eight years.

The Concerned Black Workers published a letter in late June calling on the Free Library to address various staffing and protocol inequities linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives. Instead of receiving a response from the board chair as requested, the group was offered a chance to meet with two Black board members. The workers then issued another letter calling on the board to remove Reardon.

Last Friday, non-Black Free Library workers wrote to the board in solidarity — and Board Chair Dembe responded within 48 hours with support for Reardon.

Dembe’s decision to support Reardon publicly came in opposition to preliminary recommendations issued by the crisis consultancy it had hired, called DiverseForce. The Philly-based firm has worked with corporations and nonprofits including Wells Fargo, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Comcast and United Way.

“That recommendation was not abided by,” DiverseForce wrote in an email to Free Library staff.

In an email obtained by Billy Penn, Free Library board members told Dembe her decision to issue a statement in support of Reardon was “regrettable.”

“We…thought the organization actually believed the health, safety and well-being of the Black employees mattered,” the email read. “It is regrettable that you decided to speak on behalf of both Boards without any input knowing the magnitude of the issues before us.”

Dembe also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In its intermediate recommendations and findings, DiverseForce found “that many board members were unaware of the true climate at the FLP,” according to the firm’s email to staff.

The consultancy also recommended leadership address Black workers’ concerns about returning to work during COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black people. Reardon did email staff in mid July, promising that the library’s reopening would protect and address “concerns of our Black and Brown as well as other vulnerable staff.”

No equitable reopening plan has been released.

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