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Community Rally in Defense of Evanston Public Library’s Only Black Librarian

  • Evanston Civic Center 2100 Ridge Avenue (Room 4802) Evanston, IL, 60201 United States (map)

If you are called to do so, you can share your opinion on this matter in your own words by calling the Evanston Public Library at  (847) 448-8650.

Update on Fri 4/21 at 11:00am: Lesley is so grateful for all the support. Details about yesterday can be found here.


[Media Contact: Michael Deheeger, mjdeheeg@gmail.com, 847-494-0356]

In wake of revelations of Evanston Police Department targeting of people of color, participants point to pattern of racial discrimination at library and other Evanston institutions

WHAT: Evanston and neighboring community members will rally outside a retaliatory disciplinary hearing for Lesley Williams, sole black librarian at Evanston Public Library and Director of Adult Services. This is the latest in a series of punitive actions targeting Williams for her unwavering commitment to challenge the library leadership on issues of racial justice, equitable distribution of resources, representation for black people and other people of color in the library’s collections, provision of library services in predominantly black neighborhoods, and free speech on controversial issues. These actions are taking place in a context of growing concern about institutional racism in Evanston, including the release of Evanston police officers beating a Black man racially profiled for car theft while driving his own car (also here) and a recent study revealing that Evanston police officers “consistently had the highest black to white search ratio of any other department” across 132 departments.”

For more background on the pattern of racial discrimination from the Evanston Public Library’s director specifically, see the open letter below or linked here, drafted in March 2016 by Tiffany Rice, President of the Dajae Coleman Foundation.

WHO: Reverend Michael Nabors, Senior Pastor of Evanston’s Second Baptist Church and President of NAACP Evanston Branch; Evanston 2nd Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite; members of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL); members of Evanston NAACP; dozens of Evanston and neighboring community members.

WHEN/WHERE: Thursday, April 20, Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Evanston, room 4802. Crowd will begin gathering at 3:30, (likely) closed hearing to begin at 4:00pm.

MORE BACKGROUND: Lesley Williams is the only black librarian in Evanston Public Library. Evanston’s population is 20% Black. Lesley is a beloved community leader, who was recently honored with Open Communities’ “Spirit of Open Communities Award” and by the Morton Grove Muslim Community Center for her work combating racism and Islamophobia.

Lesley has led innovative and engaging programming at the library, including the “11 Months of African American History” series. This series led to her collaboration with the Goodman Theater on a 50 year anniversary salute to August Wilson, culminating in a staged reading by the Goodman Theater at Evanston Public Library of August Wilson’s “Piano Lessons.” Lesley Co-Founded the Mission Impossible series, which brought enduring popular classics to a community audience to encourage reading of challenging novels including Don Quixote, War and Peace, Middlemarch, Ulysses, and Moby Dick. Lesley co-authored a chapter in “Slow Book Revolution” on how to get people back to deep reading. She has been invited to work with the National Endowment for the Humanities as a consultant and program evaluator, has presented programs at Internet Librarian and for the American Library Association, and as a consultant for the Himmel and Wilson library consulting firm. She has been invited to present and lead workshops and discussions for Walker School, Evanston Township High School, the League of Women Voters of Evanston, Beth Emet Synagogue, Open Communities, the Muslim Community Center of Morton Grove, and as part of the Evanston delegation to the Women’s March on Washington.

Her inspiring leadership within the library and throughout the community, combined with the library leadership’s history of retaliation against her for promoting controversial programming detailed in the open letter below, make it clear to Evanston and neighboring community members that the official charges including “insubordination” and “gross incompetence” are pretexts to punish her.


OPEN LETTER DETAILING PATTERN OF DISCRIMINATORY LEADERSHIP AT EVANSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY

The Evanston Public Library Deserves New Leadership

Guest Commentary By Tiffany Rice, President of the Dajae Coleman Foundation

(The column I share below was rejected by both the Evanston Roundtable and the Facebook page, Dear Evanston, because the editors of both outlets said that they wanted me to be less specific, to talk about Evanston Public Library as an institution, and to not name Ms. Danczak-Lyons in this piece. But I rejected that edit because I believed it would unfairly blame the entire staff of Evanston Public Library, many of whom work hard to deliver programming, for the deep problems I see with LEADERSHIP at our beloved local library. The director of the library represents EPL and what she does (or doesn't do) must be taken as library policy. Therefore, I focus this piece on her (and to a certain extent, the library board). Thank you for reading.).

In the past two years, Karen Danczak-Lyons, director of the Evanston Public Library has engaged in what I believe is a pattern of behavior that makes me question her commitment to Evanston’s African-American community and providing access to information desired by our city’s people of color. In light of the Evanston Police video that surfaced recently in which a Black PhD student was chased, stopped, then beaten by officers for driving his own car, I believe it is of utmost importance that we take a hard, critical look at the leadership of our community’s institutions and call foul when we see it.

In August, 2014, esteemed Palestinian activist and writer, Ali Abunimah, was unilaterally disinvited from a scheduled appearance at the Evanston Public Library. This action was done in a rude, unprofessional manner – via the library’s Twitter feed – and occurred just weeks before Mr. Abunimah’s visit. While Ms. Danczak-Lyons has offered excuses for why this occurred, and Mr. Abunimah was ultimately re-invited to the library after the cancelation generated international outrage over what looked a lot like censorship, responsibility for this embarrassing incident lies at the director’s feet.

If this were an isolated incident, we could write it off as an anomaly. But, the record stands.

• In 2015, Ms. Danczak-Lyons hampered the library’s ability to successfully co-deliver a program on police brutality organized with We Charge Genocide, “a grassroots, inter-generational effort to center the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago.” This was a program that delivered crucial information and community building for Black residents in Evanston. But, Ms. Danczak-Lyons told library staff to remove the library’s name from sponsorship of this program, (even after it had already been promoted in a newsletter), forbade them from speaking at the event, and it was removed from the library public events calendar. While the program took place, it did so without the endorsement of the library. As we saw in the Crosby video, police brutality is a very serious issue to people in Evanston who look like me and delivered important information to attendees. Further, a major new traffic study out of the University of North Carolina shows that Evanston Police Department is one of the worst stop-and-frisk offenders in 8 different states. This program deserved major promotion by the library.

• In summer, 2015, Ms. Danczak-Lyons suspended the library’s only African-American librarian, Lesley Williams, for publicly expressing potential Evanston Public Library interest in a genealogy collection housed at Winnetka Public Library that would have been relevant to local African-American families and researchers. Ms. Williams did not commit the library to accepting the collection, which needed a new library home. What’s more, Ms. Danczak-Lyons had approved Ms. Williams’ effort to investigate the collection.

• Last summer, the library had scheduled a program called “Chaos and Community,” devoted to giving those afflicted by community violence a space to talk. This was a program run by African-American trauma psychologist, Melissa Blount. But, the program was not promoted as far as I could see and staff I spoke with never even heard about it. I am someone particularly attuned to neighborhood violence and trauma and I certainly never heard about it until I saw it mentioned in library board documents months after the fact. Not surprisingly, attendance was poor.

• In the last two years, there has been, in my opinion, a lack of consistent teen library programming relevant to the academic, civic, and emotional lives of Black, Immigrant, and Latinx youth in Evanston.

• There are only two librarians of color on staff. There are zero people of color on administrative staff. The Board of Trustees is also lacking in diversity, (though the face of the Board is changing for the better on this front).

• In the last five years, the library has hired and quickly lost four different “Latino outreach librarians.” The library recently hired another one, but I have to ask, Why don’t Latinx librarians want to stay at the Evanston Public Library?

• As far as I can see, the library has done little to increase access to materials and services for low-income families in neighborhoods along Howard Street and southwest Evanston. Ms. Danczak-Lyons’ insistence on opening a branch at Main and Dodge in a $30 million ice arena/community center building that the city does not have the funds to construct does little to solve this problem.

• According to documents from the August 17, 2016 library board meeting, the library recently partnered with local police on a program that prioritized purchasing picture books for the children’s collection that “feature police officers.” In the October 19, 2016 board packet, "Police Books" are included as a line item in the children’s materials spending list. I assume the representation of police in these books will be positive. I call it the “Blue Lives Matter” reading initiative. Why, in a climate like ours, in which parents of Black children live in justified terror of police brutality ending their children’s lives, is a “Blue Lives Matter” initiative a priority of service for our library?

As an African-American woman, I live in a culture that perpetually marginalizes views like my own, while reinforcing structures of privilege and power. Ali Abunimah’s dis-invitation, last summer’s lack of promotion for programming dedicated to those afflicted by gun violence, the obstruction of police brutality programming, the pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” initiative (again, that’s my term for it), and the unjust suspension of the library’s only African-American librarian affront all people of color who struggle daily to air their viewpoints – and access crucial information – in an ever-racist America.

Our city, so caring and progressive in many of its attitudes, deserves better. Given what I’ve written here, I urge anyone who is concerned about this situation to write Michael Tannen, president of the library board, at mtannenepl@gmail.com, and attend library board meetings to make your point of view known. Demand more concerted efforts to deliver programming, materials, and information crucial to Evanston citizens of color. I propose the following changes be made at Evanston Public Library:

• Replace Karen Danczak-Lyons with a librarian who better understands the connection between social justice and information access. If the United States government can replace a long-standing conservative Librarian of Congress with an African-American progressive librarian like Carla Hayden, then Evanston can, too.

• Hire more outreach librarians of color to work with Black and Latinx children and parents on early literacy activities in all of Evanston schools and daycare centers.

• Deliver more library services along Howard Street or in southwest Evanston where kids at Chute, Dawes, and Oakton schools can easily access them.

• Deliver teen services programming that will engage and change the lives of local minority teens beyond passive STEM programming.

• Purchase more diverse books.

• Hire more librarians of color, especially in supervisory positions.

• Appoint more board members of color. (The board has done a good job of late appointing more racially diverse trustees, but we need more diversity).

As the president of a foundation devoted to raising up the academic, physical, and emotional lives of Black youth across our city, I can no longer abide unequal service from one of our leading institutions funded by our tax dollars. Until these changes are implemented, the Dajae Coleman Foundation has chosen to discontinue its partnership with the Evanston Public Library. We will be focusing on strengthening relationships with our other partners throughout the city to make our upcoming academic achievement, literacy, and college readiness programs as successful as we know they will be.

Sincerely,
Tiffany Rice
President, Dajae Coleman Foundation


I look forward to seeing folks supporting Lesley and all the Evanstonians who would suffer without her librarianship. Feel free to reach out to me for anything.

Warmly,
Jes
(773) 575-9406
scheinpflug@gmail.com

Earlier Event: March 25
Social Justice Summit
Later Event: April 26
4th Annual Voices of Loyola: Exhibit