Dr. Guy A. Sims is the Free Library's first diversity officer

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You may have heard the name Guy A. Sims before. A Philly native, Dr. Sims is co-creator of the critically acclaimed Brotherman comics, which have found a place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sims is the Free Library of Philadelphia’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer — the first in the library’s history.

“The work of inclusion and diversity is difficult but not daunting,” Sims said in an announcement released this week, adding that the work requires “all of the members of a community.” He’ll start the job on Dec. 14.

His appointment comes after Black library staff organized to fight what they described as racism, anti-Blackness and discrimination at the cultural institution. The effort ultimately led former Free Library President and Director Siobhan Reardon to resign.

The Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library group was involved in the diversity officer selection process, organizers told Billy Penn, with two members joining a committee made up of library and foundation board members and staff.

Sims was one of the three candidates Concerned Black Workers recommended to interim director Leslie Walker, out of six potentials.

“This appointment was long overdue,” said organizer Michele Teague, a library network administrator. “It’s time to move in a positive direction and this appointment could very well be the first step.”

Since he’s the first in this role, Sims will lead the creation and execution of a new library diversity plan. He’ll also advise the director and executive leadership on equity and inclusion initiatives, according to the official announcement. For now, he reports to interim director Walker, and will report to the new president once selected.

The Mt. Airy native graduated from the now-shuttered Germantown High School and received his bachelor’s in human services from Lincoln University. Sims collected two master’s degrees before earning his doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Northern Iowa.

Sims served as a diversity consultant at Iowa and as the assistant VP for student affairs at Virginia Tech before heading to his most recent role advising on diversity and equity at Bluefield College.

The Concerned Black Workers have high hopes for him.

“It is our hope that Dr. Sims can help guide the library into enlightenment in order to tear down the legacy of systemic racism affecting both staff and the public,” Teague said.

Months later, Black workers say demands still unmet

The Free Library has been dealing publicly with what staff described as an intolerant, discriminatory workplace culture since 2018, when an online staff survey about racism and discrimination was abruptly taken down.

The survey was reposted by the union, and garnered dozens of responses detailing instances of homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.

City Council addressed the allegations about the Free Library during budget hearings in 2019, but there was little movement on the issue until this past spring, when the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd reignited widespread pushes for racial justice.

The Concerned Black Workers published an open letter in June listing staffers’ demands, which included:

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

The group created an Instagram account where anonymous Free Library workers of color shared experiences of discrimination. The account was last updated in September.

As a result of their actions, half a dozen authors canceled previously scheduled events at the library in solidarity. A month after the first letter from Concerned Black Workers was published, former library head Reardon resigned.

Black and white staff still don’t have an equal opportunity to work from home, Teague said, because most Black workers have positions that require them to appear in person. However, Teague added, “we have been told that all requests for transfers to allow workers to work closer to their homes (to avoid taking public transportation) have been honored.”

While the Concerned Black Workers acknowledge the appointment of Sims as a step in the right direction, members say one of their largest demands remains unmet: They still do not have a seat at the table in selecting the next Free Library director, according to organizer Andrea Lemoins.

A library spokesperson told Billy Penn that there are employees on the director search committee, and that the representatives were selected by the two staff unions, DC 33 and DC 47.

Lemoins said the Concerned Black Workers are not satisfied. “This is unacceptable and continues to silence the needs of Black workers  and community members in our public library system.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...