Confronting Intersectional Inequality at the Library

For my final essay for this class, I thought it’s be appropriate to discuss intersectionality, so I looked at “Confronting Intersecting Inequalities” by Sonia Hanson, Peter Kivisto and Elizabeth Hartung. Unlike many of the other pieces I’ve commented on, this one is filled with statistics revealing how marginalized people living at various intersections — poor people of color, primarily — must cope with great inequalities. The authors explain how lower socioeconomic status, when combined with other marginalized identities, is correlated with numerous issues, such as higher rates of mental health conditions.

To stay with this particular issue for a moment, many libraries have taken steps to address this by hiring social workers. I Love Libraries has done a fair amount of reporting on social workers in libraries, including this piece about Kate Coleman, a social worker in the Hennepin Central Library in Minneapolis. Coleman hits the nail on the head when she describes libraries as a place “where people come looking for answers.” Librarians love to talk about the wild variety of questions we receive, but we receive these questions because we are — as librarians also love to brag — the original google; the place with all the answers. It’s natural for people to come to us for help, so employing social workers who can give referrals, use their training to de-escalate tense situations and assist individuals in crisis also feels very natural. Many librarians seek to build these skills for themselves, but having a dedicated expert in the building who holds that “social worker” title can make a huge difference.

As places that actually see a really socioeconomically diverse population of people, we can also do work through displays and other passive programming to show solidarity and support with lower income people who are experiencing inequality and to educate higher income people on inequality. Many libraries already create such passive programming through Black Lives Matter and Pride displays, but there are several other options. For example, Hanson, Kivisto and Hartung discuss the correlation between low socioeconomic status and environmental risk. This article was written in 2007, long before Flint, Michigan’s polluted water became known to the world, but Flint is an example of a community that is still suffering but is now less visible in the media. An example of passive programming surrounding Flint would be a book display about water, how pollution and water connect to racial and class inequalities, and could even include social media elements — like a space dedicated to Little Miss Flint, a young girl from Flint, MI who continues to speak and raise awareness via twitter about her community’s desperate need for clean water.

Little Miss Flint tweets these images of herself holding signs, reminding the world that Flint has gone without clean water for over three years. These images could be used in a powerful library display about inequality and water. View this image in context here.

Another reason I really like the idea of passive programming and displays that work to address various kinds of intersectional inequality is because it reinforces the library as a welcoming place that wants to meet and support people wherever they are at. Hanson, Kivisto and Hartung note that, in addition to experiencing higher rates of mental illness, marginalized people with lower socioeconomic status also experience feelings of alienation.

It’s easy to feel alone when living at an intersection, especially if you are isolated from others who exist at that intersection. For example, students of color who come from low income backgrounds often struggle in college because they are also coping with a kind of culture shock; they come from a world very different from that of their white, upper class peers. However, initiatives like the Posse scholarship that position these students as part of a cohort of people with similar experiences help these students make it through.

(I’m speaking from secondhand experience; my undergraduate school has home to several Posse cohorts and the strength and power of the model was very prominent on our campus.) As librarians, if we are invested in finding literature that provides mirrors to our patrons, we must do so in a way that addresses the intersections where they live — black and poor, queer and Jewish, Latinx and trans, whatever they may be. The more complicated, intersectional and vibrant our displays and passive programs are, the more we will successfully serve our patrons, and make them feel welcomed and seen.

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