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The Free Library of Philadelphia faces a moment of racial reckoning after the ouster of its longtime director

The library's leaders are grappling with workers’ demands, complaints about “cancel culture,” and a new reality created by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Queen Memorial Branch is one of 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is in the midst of a reckoning sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Queen Memorial Branch is one of 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is in the midst of a reckoning sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

This week’s ouster of Siobhan Reardon as director of the Free Library of Philadelphia has sent the tidal waves of 2020 crashing down on the 129-year-old institution, as its leaders struggle to navigate workers’ demands, complaints about “cancel culture,” and the new reality created by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The end of Reardon’s 12-year tenure, which followed complaints about workplace racial discrimination and was encouraged by Mayor Jim Kenney, exposed a divide in the institution between its diverse, largely working-class employees and the wealthy, primarily white, donors who support the library system.

That divide was on full display in the reactions to the resignation of Reardon, who was popular with many of the library’s longtime benefactors. At least five members of the board of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, a separate nonprofit that raises money for the library, have resigned in response.

Meanwhile, the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia — which launched this moment of reckoning with a June 25 open letter alleging racial discrimination, pay disparities, and a lack of coronavirus safety measures for employees — are upping their demands for change. On Thursday, they called for Pamela Dembe, an ally of Reardon’s and the former president judge of Common Pleas Court, to step down as chair of the library’s board of trustees.

Dembe said Friday 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.

Standing in the middle of that divide are a primarily Black group of trustees who are receptive to the employees’ concerns and were pushing for the board to consider Reardon’s future shortly before she resigned. Although it does not comprise a majority of the trustees, this group could play a pivotal role in how the library moves forward.

“Both the Free Library and the board are in a period of transition, but we look forward to what the future holds,” said Folasade A. Olanipekun-Lewis, one of nine trustees who had pushed for a meeting about Reardon prior to her stepping down. “We’ll use this time to take a hard look at ourselves and continue addressing the important concerns raised by our Concerned Black Workers.”

On Thursday, the Concerned Black Workers wasted no time, turning their sights on Dembe just hours after Reardon stepped down.

“Pamela Dembe has chosen to work against the concerns of the Free Library community and has lost the trust of Black staff before with her anti-Black statements and actions, as a judge, within the wider community,” the group said in a statement.

They pointed to testimony Dembe gave during an April 2019 City Council hearing as an example of racial insensitivity. In response to a question from Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson about the lack of diversity on the foundation board, members of which are expected to make financial contributions, Dembe implied there weren’t enough wealthy Black people who would serve.

“The foundation board is less diverse, and to some extent its efforts to expand are a bit hampered by the fact that people who join that board are expected to make a very significant financial commitment,” Dembe said at the time.

“I know rich Black people,” Johnson said. “I know Asians, too, and Puerto Ricans.”

“Give me their names,” Dembe said. “I’m not saying they’re not there, but because there are fewer of them, there are more demands on them.”

Andrea Lemoins, a library community organizer in the Southwest cluster, said Black employees are still talking about Dembe’s response, made sitting next to Reardon, and the fact that she repeatedly referred to African-American employees as “the Blacks.”

“That was the moment that I realized that the leadership of this library was so racist and entrenched in white supremacy that they would think that Black people cannot afford to be on the board of directors of the foundation,” Lemoins said. “We can’t believe this is our leadership and they still have their jobs.”

Dembe said she had not seen the Concerned Black Workers’ comments about her leadership but did not plan to leave her post.

“I don’t think that ‘cancel culture’ is doing a lot of good in very many instances,” Dembe said. “That being said, having some opposition is often a good thing. It makes you think, makes you move outside your comfort zone.”

The recent turmoil, she said, could allow the library system to improve.

“Clearly racism is a very significant issue we’ve got to deal with,” she said. “Change is always an opportunity, and I’ve been through some major upheavals in the past and always, despite a fair amount of pain, a lot of good things come out of it.”

Kenney declined to comment on the calls for Dembe’s resignation.

The five foundation board members who have stepped down following the ouster of Reardon, which Kenney helped orchestrate, are Stephanie Naidoff, Sheldon Bonovitz, Susan Smith, Larry Weiss, and Andrea Ehrlich, according to Dembe. Others may resign, she said.

As for their resignations, Kenney said through a spokesperson that “it is unfortunate to lose supporters at this point because of constrained governmental resources.”

“But all supporters,” the mayor said, “must be bought into a future library that stands for racial equity.”