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‘Avoid terms like white supremacy’: Free Library workers furious over diversity training

Library staff members have been fighting for racial justice for years. This training, they say, was just the latest misstep.

Sunita Baliga, a librarian, gives a speech as workers from the Free Library of Philadelphia protest outside the home of library Board of Trustees President Pamela Dembe's home in August.
Sunita Baliga, a librarian, gives a speech as workers from the Free Library of Philadelphia protest outside the home of library Board of Trustees President Pamela Dembe's home in August.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

In a diversity and inclusion training for Free Library of Philadelphia staff last week, a presenter told the nearly 200 attendees to avoid terms like white supremacy and systemic racism because they were overused, distracted from solutions, and focused on just one race. White privilege — which she called “one of the other myths out there” — was another to avoid.

This kind of language, Brandi Baldwin, a Black diversity consultant, told the staff, didn’t account for the fact that people of color, too, could cause harm.

“Are all the inequities you experience at the hands of white people?” she asked Thursday over Zoom.

For the workers who have been fighting for racial justice at the Free Library for years now, her message didn’t sit right.

“I don’t understand how you can address the issue if you can’t even name it,” said library community organizer Fred Ginyard, who noted that the only reason the library was even hosting such a training was because of its workers’ efforts to fight white supremacy and systemic racism.

Employees at the Free Library have been organizing for years against what they describe as a culture of discrimination and harassment against Black workers. Last year, during the summer of racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, their organizing came to a head, as prominent authors backed out of Free Library speaking engagements in solidarity. Director Siobhan Reardon ultimately resigned, board chair Pamela Dembe will soon be replaced, and the library committed to diversity and inclusion efforts.

» READ MORE: Free Library appoints new leader after racism accusations against current board chair

Baldwin, who has a doctorate from Temple University in educational leadership and policy studies and has taught undergraduate courses in business communication at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was brought to the library by a diversity and inclusion organization called DiverseForce.

But workers said she did not seem to understand her audience.

“Black folk, we are seriously suffering from PTSD from that [expletive] training, even thinking about it now, I just wanna cry,” said Andrea Lemoins, a Free Library community organizer and a cofounder of the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library, which has led recent racial justice organizing efforts. “To say that white privilege doesn’t exist? That is a whole level of anti-Blackness and internalized racism for her that I just cannot fathom.”

The presentation wasn’t all bad, said librarian Perry Genovesi.

He appreciated Baldwin pointing out how corporations tend to participate in activism that doesn’t make a real difference, such as Crayola creating “multicultural crayons.” He also agreed with her critique about “open door policies,” which she said don’t take into account that not everyone feels they can just raise a concern to management.

But he said some of her ideas were “divorced from reality” and seemed to want to placate white people who feel uncomfortable with concepts like white privilege.

“It’s important not to alienate our fellow white workers, it’s true,” he wrote on an internal staff forum. “But as a white worker, I’ve come to grips with my benefits in white supremacist society. Thinking our fellow white workers are incapable of change, to come over to the side of antiracism, is deprecating.”

In an email to Free Library staff, Sulaiman Rahman, the CEO of DiverseForce, stood by the session and said workers who were speaking out about the presentation were detracting from the goals of diversity and equity.

“There are some staff members who have created social media posts, contacted media, and sent messages that seemed to be an attempt to publicly shame or discredit Dr. Brandi and/or DiverseForce in response to their concerns and disagreement with some of the content in the presentation,” he wrote. “This is a reaction that Dr. Brandi touched on in her session and we hope that the staff members who are engaging in these behaviors consider how it can be counterproductive to the overall goal of being inclusive and embracing diversity of thought and perspectives at the Free Library of Philadelphia.”

In an interview with The Inquirer, Rahman said the trainings were a culmination of a yearlong contract with the Library, during which DiverseForce wrote a report with recommendations to improve equity at the Library and helped hire its first chief diversity and inclusion officer. He also emphasized Baldwin’s status as an independent contractor, saying “we don’t tell [contractors] everything to believe.”

His company, which says its clients include Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and Wells Fargo, plans to “sunset” its consulting services in order to focus on diversifying nonprofit boards.

“I believe diversity starts in the boardroom,” said Rahman, who is a board member of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns The Inquirer. DiverseForce has also been hired to help with diversifying The Inquirer’s staff, where three out of four in the newsroom are white.

Baldwin said the presentation was not the right one for the library workers.

“They were looking for something totally different,” she said. “They were looking for clearing the air.”

The library, she said, should have asked workers what they wanted in order to make sure the session was successful.

In an email to staff Monday, the library’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer, Guy Sims, acknowledged workers’ criticism of the presentation. “In reviewing evaluative comments, it was indicated that the facilitator offered perspectives that did not reflect the direction we should be headed as an organization,” he wrote. “Those perspectives belong to the facilitator and serve as one of many ways to look at and address DEI issues.”

Sims, in a statement to The Inquirer, said that after the first training, the library asked that DiverseForce make changes for the next two sessions to ”enable a safe space for staff to engage and start difficult conversations.”

“We will continue to make adjustments as we navigate the Free Library’s path forward in addressing inequity within the organization, and include many more voices in further conversations, workshops, and trainings that address systemic racism and white supremacy on a deeper level,” he said.

But for workers like Ginyard and Lemoins, this is just the latest misstep for the library — one that doesn’t give them any faith in leadership’s ability to address workplace inequities.

“Y’all miss the mark at every moment in every opportunity,” Ginyard said about the library.