Emails Confirm Contempt for Community Concerns For Evanston’s Only Black Librarian

 

Supporters of Lesley Williams gathered as she faced possible termination over a critical Facebook post she wrote questioning the library’s commitment to racial equity. This is the second time in two months large numbers of Evanston and area residents demonstrate to defend Lesley against a pattern of persecution over her steadfastness in challenging library leadership on racially equitable distribution of resources including library branch locations; building a collection that fully represents all Evanston communities; and staff management.  

The day before the rally, emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed suspicions that Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons; Library Board President Michael Tannen; and other board members including Vice President Margaret Lurie had long been waiting for a pretext to push Lesley out.

In one email dated March 10, before the last disciplinary hearing Lesley faced, Lurie wrote to Danczak-Lyons that “LW is clearly the thorn in our sides, but at this point, unless she really oversteps her role, we are stuck, Agreed?” Danczak-Lyons replied, “Agreed.”

At Friday’s rally, supporters of Williams held roses and carried signs reading “Lesley Williams: Thorn for Racial Equity Evanston Library Needs” and “We Stand With Lesley!”

Other FOIA’d emails underlined contempt for increasing calls for a racial equity audit of the Evanston Library. In an email dated May 7, 2017, Library Board Chair Michael Tannen wrote “I am vehemently opposed to an equity audit.... Margaret [Lurie] is opposed, too--so much so that she says she will leave the Board if we go down that path. (I may join her.)” The full FOIA'd emails are available here

“The Library’s attempt to silence Lesley suggests that, in addition to resisting sharing library resources more equitably with all parts of the Evanston community, the Library Director is afraid of words.  I would have thought the Library, of all institutions, would protect freedom of expression and recognize it as an inalienable right," said Joshua Karsh, Williams' attorney. “The EPL Board President’s statement that equity and diversity are ‘embedded’ in the library’s ‘DNA’ is both impeached by the facts and incredibly tone deaf.”

A number of Evanston-based community leaders and organizations have long been calling for an outside party to conduct such an audit to evaluate whether Evanston Library’s distribution of resources and location of branches, composition of leadership, decision-making process, collection and other characteristics align with values of racial equity.

Friday’s disciplinary hearing concerned a Facebook post Williams posted on May 24, 2017 after returning from her suspension. On her return to work, Williams noticed new signs on the library bulletin boards, proudly stating, “Free and Equal Access for All.” Angered after weeks of board inaction and stonewalling on community demands for an equity audit and plan, she photographed the signs and posted them on her Facebook page with the caption: “Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion. And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards.”

"When authorities ignore feedback through 'proper' channels, they leave no choice but for folks to use any means they have to raise their voice," said Williams.

In the context of the library’s history of disregarding specific recommendations for changes on racial equity for years, and complete unresponsiveness to concerns raised from the community during the library’s last attempt to terminate her, Williams felt she had no recourse to express her frustration through other means.

The Evanston Public Library has received feedback about addressing issues of racial equity from Williams and from Evanston’s Black community for years. Examples:

  • Tiff Rice, head of the Dajae Coleman Foundation wrote a letter in March 2016 pointing out multiple incidents of the library board and administration ignoring or minimizing African American concerns.
  • The Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL) has noted the lack of African American employees and pushed for more spending on library services in non-white areas 
  • Michele Hays, an Evanston resident, started a "Close the Branches” campaign to draw attention the disproportionate resources going to library locations in white, affluent areas
  • Rev. Michael Nabors, Senior Pastor at Evanston’s Second Baptist Church and President of the Evanston/NorthShore Branch of the NAACP, published an open letter in the wake of Williams's last disciplinary hearing
  • Rev. Nabors and Roger Williams of OPAL published a joint letter on behalf of the NAACP and OPAL on May 1

Lesley Williams, in her capacity as head of adult services and the only black librarian, has attempted numerous times over years through internal channels to address these inequities.

Library leadership has disregarded this feedback as demonstrated in emails above as well as in their response to recent coverage.

Tannen said equity audits are “almost exclusively” used for public schools and rarely used for libraries. In fact, many libraries do use equity impact tools and implement equity plans, to correct exactly the sort of inequities Williams, Rice and others have pointed out.

The nearly 100 participants in today's rally closed the program by leaving a collective voicemail with Evanston Mayor Hagerty's office, calling on him to intervene and stop the persecution of Lesley Williams at Evanston Library, and to appoint new board members who pledge to champion racial equity. Today's events took place in a context of increasing controversy around institutional racism in Evanston, including an ongoing lawsuit targeting the city's public works department for racial discrimination. 

Live Videos

Before her hearing, Lesley spoke to the crowd and then community members expressed their concerns.  Following the hearing, Lesley came out to interrupt all the praise for her and demand for an equity audit to share about the hearing that just took place.

Next Steps

Reach out to Mayor Steve Hagerty (847-866-2979) to ask him to:
1) do something to stop the persecution of Lesley Williams &
2) appoint board members who commit to championing racial equity.

Call for Racial Equity at EPL details: www.bit.ly/eplequity

 
Jes Scheinpflug