Free Library board mostly silent as workers demand involvement in selecting new leader

In a meeting Tuesday, only one board member committed to anti-racism efforts. Others have resigned in solidarity with their former director.

Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Miguel Martinez / for Billy Penn
layla

Black workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia are still at odds with leadership nearly a week after longtime director and president Siobhan Reardon resigned over allegations of bias and racial insensitivity, a Tuesday public meeting showed.

Held by the trustees of the library’s board of directors and conducted via Zoom, the meeting functioned largely as a listening session. Board members sat muted as members of the Concerned Black Workers group expressed their thoughts on how to end what they say is a culture of discrimination within the institution.

One of the primary subjects of discussion was how a new permanent library leader would be selected — and whose opinions would be counted during that process.

“Our expectations are to be more involved with it, [more] transparency into what they’re doing,” second-generation library employee Sean Early told Billy Penn in advance of the meeting.

Early, an organizer with Concerned Black Workers who’s been at the library since 2005, said the group wants the appointment process to be public, and that on-the-ground staffers “would like a representation and say on who comes in and controls us.”

He added that first, Concerned Black Workers wanted board members to acknowledge that the library struggles with an internal culture of racism and discrimination.

As the appointment process currently stands, the head of the Free Library is chosen by trustees of its board in conjunction with the the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the institution. In addition to being director of the library, Reardon was also president of its foundation, and immediately following her resignation, several foundation board members also stepped down. According to the Inquirer, they were: Stephanie Naidoff, Sheldon Bonovitz and Susan Smith. None responded to a request for comment.

Library Board Chair Pamela Dembe said it was too early to know exactly what the director search would entail, and that the board was first focused on finding an interim leader, and after that would conduct a nationwide search.

“We have just formed a committee of trustees to recommend  an interim director, which the trustee board will then vote on,” Dembe said in an email, adding she doesn’t believe the board has selected an interim leader before. The position is being temporarily filled by Leslie Walker, whose official title is chief of staff.

Workers who spoke at the Tuesday meeting, including Andrea Lemoins, Alexis Ahiagbe and Kalela Williams, were not shy about expressing their desire to have a say in the process.

“We look forward to working with the board as we move forward to create an anti-racist library system,” Lemoins begain. She added the Concerned Black Workers want to work with the board to select both the interim and permanent director.

“Staff is united,” Lemoins said. “We are here, we are community… When you do not listen to city workers, you do not listen to the community in the city of Philadelphia.”

Equity issues at the library broke into the public light in 2019, after employees submitted a formal complaint about racist comments made by a supervisor. When former director Reardon said at the time that no action would be taken, one complainant, Alexis Ahiagbe, posted a survey about workplace discrimination. It was taken down and later reposted, with much internal controversy in between.

Ahiagbe recounted that experience Tuesday, and said about any board member defending Reardon: “Either you don’t believe that what has happened to people of color in the library happened — or you don’t care.”

Ahiagbe called for the board to take a stance of zero tolerance of racism, and recommended members interact more with frontline staff and the public by volunteering at neighborhood branches. She also called for staff representation on the board, and urged board members and executive staff to fund repairs to neighborhood branches, some of which lack air conditioning in summer and heat in the winter.

“What kind of statement are you making when you can renovate the bookstacks… but we have libraries that are falling into disrepair?” she said. “To me it shows mismanagement of the funding.”

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.

At least six prominent authors canceled library events in solidarity with the group.

Philip Jaurigue, a member of the library foundation’s board of directors, was the only board member to write out a commitment to anti-racism at the library using the Zoom chat. Dembe, instead, took notes.

It’s unclear whether any of these points will be addressed at an upcoming board meeting, which are usually private.

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