How and Why Libraries Should Strive to Create Safe, Culturally Responsive Spaces

Diversity, General Interest, Professional Development, Social Justice

The 8th principle of the ALA’s Code of Ethics states that,

“We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of coworkers.”

One developing area of professional interest for school librarians is racial trauma and how the school librarian can become a leader within the school to implement a racial trauma-informed framework through the school library.

Librarians traditionally strive to build collections presenting all points of view. The recent emphasis on diverse collections has also challenged librarians to consider how the collection represents races, genders, cultures, ethnicities, etc. For example, do students of color only encounter fictional representations of themselves in traumatic situations? 

Saleem, Anderson, and Williams explore how racial trauma affects children and adolescents in the article “Addressing the “Myth” of Racial Trauma: Developmental and Ecological Considerations for Youth of Color.”  A motivating factor for the paper is a lack of “research on children and adolescents’ racial trauma across developmental periods” (1) while almost 90% of African American populations “experience racial discrimination as early as 8 years old” (2). Youth can sustain “lasting physical, physiological, emotional, psychological, or social effects that impact daily functioning and well-being” (2) even if they haven’t directly experienced trauma but rather consume it through media, for example. 

But at the core of understanding the effects of racial trauma is first acknowledging its existence: “an individual’s perception of whether an incident was traumatic is a critical element of treatment” (3). A lack of awareness, bias, or just being uncomfortable with the topic can cause further harm. In fact, the authors cite research showing that “anxiety, depression, and negative future outlook may be linked to experiences of covert discrimination, and subtle mistreatment in the form of microaggressions” (4). Librarians can strive to incorporate this research into programming opportunities, professional development planning, and selection policies.

Indeed, “the family and community systems that a child is within can influence how youth interpret and manage racial trauma” (9), which ostensibly includes public and school libraries.

The article “Anti-Black Racism in Schools: A Racial-Trauma Informed Framework for School Librarians” by Janice Newsum and Brianna Delker published in Young Adult Library Services Fall 2020 explains how the school library can support students directly or indirectly affected by racial trauma, which is itself very complex. Consumption of recent current events via media outlets (police brutality), acting out situations from the past (a teacher asks students to pack in tightly to experience what it felt like to be on a slave ship), or encountering repeated fictional representations of themselves from one limited perspective (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird) can negatively impact students of color. 

Newsum and Delker point out that according to AASL, part of a school librarian’s work is to create a “safe, culturally responsive, multicultural space” (13):

  • “Intentionally increase antibias literature that draw upon multiple perspectives” 
  • “Prioritize safety and trustworthiness: safety from the emotional- and identity-based injuries of racism”
  • Throughout the school, the school librarian can lead in creating safe spaces to build trustworthiness
  • Redistribute power by maximizing student choice and listening to student voices
    • suggest/select authors for visits, book selections, displays, programming, leadership committees
  • Prioritize student empowerment
  • Model the flexibility required to recognize the prevalence of trauma and to respond to teen trauma (14)

While these are excellent evidence-based suggestions for school libraries, one might begin such work by evaluating the school’s current practices. According to Newsum and Delker as well as “When Schools Cause Trauma” by Carrie Gaffney published by Learning for Justice, “childhood trauma resulting specifically from racism, homophobia, or other systemic injustices” was not included in the original framework for the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) tool, failing to recognize that society itself causes trauma.

In terms of schools, this realization means that “students who are experiencing trauma can be retraumatized in school through poorly chosen readings, activities, and assignments,” leaving an opportunity for the school librarian to become a leader. Advocating for student voice in the curriculum gives students an opportunity to “navigate issues they are facing in their communities” by exploring “their own lived experiences through a lens of curiosity and critical inquiry.”

Trent et al include practical literacy suggestions in the paper “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health” published in Pediatrics. The authors establish that “educational achievement is an important predictor of long-term health and economic outcomes for children,” motivating those working with children to help them develop “a positive racial identity” which “mediates experiences of discrimination and generates optimal youth development outcomes (4). Although these suggestions are geared toward child health professionals, librarians can easily see a connection to the profession:

  • Infuse cultural diversity into AAP-recommended early literacy-promotion programs to ensure that there is a representation of authors, images, and stories that reflect the cultural diversity of children (6)
  • Advocate for curricula that are multicultural, multilingual, and reflective of the communities in which children attend school (7)

Although diversity and representation have long been core tenets of the library profession, recent research in racial trauma and lasting physical, psychological, and social effects reinforces the unique role of the librarian in serving youth communities. This recent research shows that the right to freedom from harmful educational practices is another leadership opportunity for librarians working with youth to acknowledge personal experiences, closely examine the impact of current practices, and give a voice to those affected.

Saleem, F. T., Anderson, R. E., & Williams, M. (2020). “Addressing the “Myth” of Racial Trauma: Developmental and Ecological Considerations for Youth of Color.” Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review, 23(1), 1–14. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier.

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