Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia

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The Free Library of Philadelphia has a new board chair. Trustees on Thursday voted to replace Pamela Dembe as leader after six years, electing in her place Folasade A. Olanipekun-Lewis, most recently the board treasurer and co-chair of the board’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

Dembe was not up for re-election, said Library spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti, because her board chair term limit of three, two-year terms had expired.

Olanipekun-Lewis’ election comes less than a year after the resignation of former director Siobhan Reardon, who stepped down over allegations of racism, discrimination and insensitivity.

Library staff, including members of the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia, then called on Dembe to resign, citing her staunch support for Reardon. They also decried comments Dembe made suggesting it was difficult to find people of color wealthy enough to serve on the board.

Dembe, a former Court of Common Pleas president judge, did not at first respond to letters the Concerned Black Workers sent to the board about discrimination and COVID-19 working conditions. She replied directly only after non-Black library staff wrote a letter in support.

Long-simmering racial tension at the library boiled over during summer 2020 when Black staff members organized and took their cause public.

Rumbles started in 2017, when promised workshops on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) didn’t take place until more than a year later. A DEI committee hadn’t met or elected members some two years later, according to PlanPhilly.

In 2018, library leadership circulated an online survey about workplace bias, but after mostly Black and women workers responded with instances of bias, it was taken down. The situation led to City Council hearings on diversity and equity within the library. Soon thereafter, Councilmember Cindy Bass publicly called on then-director Reardon to step down.

Inspired by last year’s nationwide social justice movement spurred by racist and police killings, the Concerned Black Workers created an anonymous Instagram account where workers of color and otherwise marginalized staff could share stories of discrimination they’d endured while working at the library.

The group released an open letter demanding the library remove Reardon as director and provide equal work-from-home opportunity for Black and white staff, among other things. Half a dozen authors canceled planned events in solidarity.

Soon after, a petition from the library workers’ union called for a “vote of no confidence” in Reardon and other library leaders over their handling of workplace COVID safety.

Leslie Walker has served as interim director since Reardon resigned at the end of July. A permanent replacement has yet to be selected. The library hired its first-ever diversity officer, Dr. Guy A. Sims, last December.

Library workers are still pushing for change. The Concerned Black Workers say they are not represented in the committee responsible for choosing the next director. In response, a spokesperson for the library has said DC47 and DC33, the unions that represent library workers, were responsible for nominating staff representatives.

Though it’s considered a branch of city government, the Free Library Board of Trustees governs all aspects of the institution, as outlined in the City Charter.

Newly elected chair Olanipekun-Lewis, who will officially assume the title in June, works as a regional director for government and airport affairs at American Airlines, and has served on the Free Library board since 2016.

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...