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Philly Free Library board chair thanks Black workers for ‘bravery’ in speaking out against ousted director

The head of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s board said trustees are paying attention to “tremendous input” from Black employees on racial discrimination in the workplace.

Free Library of Philadelphia Board of Trustees chair Pamela Dembe.
Free Library of Philadelphia Board of Trustees chair Pamela Dembe.Read moreSHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer

The head of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s board said Tuesday that trustees are paying attention to the “tremendous input” from Black employees on racial discrimination in the workplace, but did not address calls for her own resignation a week after the ouster of the library’s longtime director.

“It’s never easy to do,” board chair Pamela Dembe said of the Black employees who have spoken out in recent weeks, thanking them for their “bravery.”

Dembe’s comments came during the board’s first meeting since Siobhan Reardon, the system’s longtime president and director, resigned last week under pressure from Black employees who accused her of racial insensitivity, and from Mayor Jim Kenney.

During the hour-long Zoom meeting, board members listened to both constructive criticism and blistering broadsides delivered by members of the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia, as well as other library employees and community members.

Although library employees have raised concerns about racial discrimination for years, their complaints gained resonance following protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On June 25, Black workers sent an open letter to management, saying they face discrimination on a regular basis, are paid less than white colleagues, and were being asked to return to work without a plan to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

Reardon, who had headed the 54-branch library system for 12 years, was slow to respond to the letter, as was the city-controlled board of trustees, which manages day-to-day library operations. So was the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, an independent nonprofit that raises money for the library. At least five members of the foundation’s board have resigned in a show of support for Reardon.

“Extra thanks to the members of Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library who have done such a tremendous amount of work to bring staff concerns and needs to a point where they have to be addressed,” Dembe said Tuesday.

Black workers have called on Dembe to resign, too. She said last week that she was “not contemplating resigning,” and criticized cancel culture, in which people get called out for boycotts, firing, or public shaming by their critics.

Andrea Lemoins, a member of the Concerned Black Workers, said the group wanted to be at the table to help select interim and permanent directors to replace Reardon.

Alexis Ahiagbe, another Concerned Black Workers member, recounted that, after a coworker made a racist comment to her, Reardon decided no action would be taken against the coworker, and she later removed from an employee message board a workplace bias survey Ahiagbe had posted.

Ahiagbe blasted Dembe and the board members who spoke in support of Reardon last week. “When you make statements like that, basically you’re saying one of two things,” she said. “That either you don’t believe that all the things that have come out that happened to people of color in the library happened, or you don’t care — and that’s a problem.”

“We cannot have the same things happening that happened in the past,” Ahiagbe added. “I want us to start fresh. I want us to start transparent. I want us to start with respecting Black workers at the Free Library.”

Kalela Williams, director of neighborhood library enrichment programming, said library leadership has had a history of “ignoring, deflecting, [and] being defensive” about employee complaints.

“When we defend leadership that does not prioritize racial equity under its very roof, that is wrong,” she said. “I’m going to ask everybody to reflect why you’re here, why you’re sitting in that seat, and if it’s not to serve the community, then I don’t know if you belong here.”

Donald Guy Generals, a member of the board and president of Community College of Philadelphia, is chairing a committee tasked with finding an interim director who will likely be in charge for six months to a year, Dembe said.

“We need to get the interim director in, and then we can begin a thoughtful search for someone who will lead us, hopefully, across a period of time,” Dembe said.