At the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT, 20 minutes outside of Hartford, librarian Nishette Isaacs organized an election night watch party, preparing for the possibility of the historic event of the first woman winning the presidency. Since the majority of the 250 students at this private girls’ school are boarders, kids were invited to the library for a pajama party to view news coverage. “We didn’t want anyone to feel uneasy or unsafe, whether they were for or against any party,” explains Isaacs. “This is a safe space for them.” The students were sent back to their rooms before the results were finalized Tuesday night, and when they found out that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, would be the next president of the United States, Isaacs knew she needed to offer the library as a gathering space again. While about 20 students staged a sit-in in the school’s main building, Isaacs opened the library to about 70 girls to participate in discussion groups. Some were happy with the outcome of the election; some were not.
“Those that were unhappy about the outcome had general fear about what was said by the candidate about people with disabilities, minorities, immigration status. Mainly, the girls were concerned about the future. What does it look like in four years?” says Isaacs. “The discussion was, ‘How do we move forward?’”
At another Connecticut private girls’ school, librarian Sarah Ludwig is working on an interactive display to help the students share their feelings. “We’re also offering up spaces to different student groups that might need a safe, quiet place to process and talk,” says Ludwig. “And we’re also planning book displays about change and community.”
For some students, the process of moving forward is especially painful. High school, and even some middle school, walkouts by students were reported in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, CA, as well as in Austin, TX. Other students are staying on campus, but also expressing their feelings. The student body of East St. Louis Senior High in St. Louis, IL, is 99 percent African American and one percent Hispanic. K.C. Boyd, librarian at East St. Louis, says the election has been a big topic of conversation among students at the library during lunchtime. Some 18 or 19-year-olds who voted this year for the first time were deeply disappointed. “Never give up on the voting process,” Boyd told them. “Especially in terms of the African American community, where we have fought so hard for the right to vote.” She has been pulling out books about Ida B. Wells and Congressman John Lewis, in addition to the Black Lives Matter book display that she set up earlier this fall.
Summer Oh and Tatiana Davidson, high school seniors, organized a school protest against bigoted comments made by Trump during the presidential campaign. Summer is the daughter of We Need Diverse Books president Ellen Oh, who describes the action in a suburb of Washington DC:
“The first day of the protest, where they quietly sat with tapes on their mouth and signs, the administration did not have issue with. The second day of [Summer’s] protest was speeches by students in their main street area inside the school, and it got so crowded that administration had to move kids out of the way for safe passage. They did not shut it down, but they did tell her that she should have asked for permission to stage the protest first. She apologized and she said she didn’t know the protest would be as large as it was. But then again, she was using a megaphone. She made a speech and read Obama’s speech and welcomed other students to speak publicly. It was lunch time and the area she protested in is the very large and very long lobby area of the school, so she had a huge audience of cheering students. On the third day they plan on giving away cookies and hugs.”
Oh says that school administrators acknowledged that they would also have to allow Trump supporters to speak publicly.
At other schools, the mood was decidedly fearful of the upcoming presidential administration. Angela Martinez, school librarian at Bell Multicultural High School, also in Washington, DC, says that political discussions were common in the library leading up to election day, and there was more discussion at lunch on Wednesday. Some of the anecdotes shared by the teachers and students included:
- From a teacher: “The day after the election was extremely hard. As a teacher, it is difficult to see my students feel so much pain and fear. I had many students ask, “Am I going to get deported?” and “Will my family be OK?”
- From a student: “I don’t understand how the people I work for and tell me I do a good job every day at the restaurant voted for someone who would have no problem sending me and my family back to El Salvador. I feel betrayed.”
- From a student: “I’m so serious! I have never been more afraid of a white person as much as I was this morning in the metro. I feel so different today!”
- From a teacher: “After having several students throughout the day who weren’t even in my class walk up and hug me, asking what is going to happen to their families now that Trump is President, I realized I need to do more for my kids. I will fight for all my students who woke up and came to school today thinking they don’t matter. This has been the most inspirational day of my career. I will fight for you.”
Sarah Park Dahlen, assistant professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, says training future librarians to facilitate controversial discussions is integral to the MLIS curriculum.
“My colleagues and I address controversial issues and the importance of providing multiple points of view so patrons can make informed conclusions. We teach our students not to be judgmental, but we don’t teach them to be neutral—libraries and schools are not neutral spaces, and we need to stand up for racial justice,” Dahlen explains. “Libraries—public and school—should be spaces where young people can come and feel safe and heard, and my job is to prepare the librarians who will work in those spaces.” She emphasizes the importance of professional organizations such as the American Library Association’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and Young Adult Library Services Association, as well as other groups such as We Need Diverse Books and Teaching for Change, continuing to provide resources, training and space for conversations, as “these resources and learning opportunities reach librarians who are no longer in graduate school, who may have had very different conversations when they were in library school 20, 30 years ago.”
Dahlen notes that a spring 2016 survey of ALSC members showed that diversity in children’s literature was the top choice for programming at the ALA conference. Rounding out the top 10 topics were seminars on difficult conversations, recent immigrant communities, diversity in the profession, and gender diversity.
Phil Goerner, instructor at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Colorado at Denver, shared that he and his colleagues at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, CO, where he serves as librarian, are quickly pulling resources to make a display reaffirming that the library is a safe place. “Our library and many others have joined in the #safetypin campaign showing compassion for others….Students wore and shared safety pins symbolizing help and safety.”
Holly Storck-Post, youth services librarian at the Madison Public Library in Madison, WS, says, “A couple of my storytime parents shared that they were devastated. The majority of the kids I’ve seen have been preschoolers, so I haven’t had too much interaction with older kids yet.” She adds that she is “just taking extra time to really talk with and listen to kids, even if they aren’t specifically talking about the election or their fears. With my school age groups, we’ve talked a lot about being kind.” Storck-Post says that this week she has carefully chosen books with themes of diversity and kindness, such as Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness and The Other Side; and restocked the Black Lives Matter and We Need Diverse Books displays. In addition, she has been at work to add multilingual programming. Storck-Post is also a joint chief of the Storytime Underground, a movement to encourage early literacy for everyone by being more inclusive of race and gender.
Other librarians are talking about setting up special book displays and programming for the Day of Kindness, November 13, around the themes of kindness, acceptance, and peace.
Among librarians as well as authors, there remains a belief that books can foster tolerance and better understanding. Author Gayle Forman is offering to match up to $5,000 in donations to We Need Diverse Books. “I deeply appreciate Gayle Forman and our advisory board members who have all donated to the WNDB fundraiser,” says Oh. “It is heartening to have these amazing authors supporting and believing in the importance of diverse books, now more than ever.”
The Brown Bookshelf wrote an open declaration, “A Declaration in Support of Children,” expressing their commitment to “standing with and for children in the face of attempts to disenfranchise, dehumanize and to dismiss violence against marginalized people.” The declaration, which will be posted on their blog early next week, has been signed by 75 children’s book creators, including Don Tate and Jacqueline Woodson.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter @HapaMamaGrace.
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