By Bob Seidenberg
In July of 2020, a new group was established at the Evanston Public Library to aid in the purchase of materials for the Black community. The group, the Collection Advisory Committee, was formed with Collection Development Manager Elizabeth Bird, Library officials said in their announcement a few months later.
“At this time suggestions from the group have led to a partnership with Afriware Books, an independent Black-owned bookstore, that will provide the Library with purchases in 2021,” the announcement said. “The group is also looking into the future formation of a Black Literary Festival, as well as new ways to make the collections of EPL accessible and equitable, even in the midst of a pandemic.”
The members of the all-Black group –Deshana Newman, Elizabeth Averyhart, Traci Powell, Anya Tanyavutti, Candice Shakur and Chaga Walton – would go on to add a number of other activities.
At the Feb. 16 Library Board meeting, though, Shakur notified Library trustees that almost all the members of the original Committee have resigned and the group’s work stalled. It is not clear who of the six remains on the committee.
She said the action came after the group was denied compensation for its work, although a stipend was offered as an incentive to other residents for participating in a series of Community Listening & Sharing engagements the Library hosted in September-December 2021.
“This gesture raised questions for the Collections Advisory Committee,” Shakur said, reading from a joint letter that carried the names of five other members, “central of which was: ‘Why was the one-time labor of Evanston residents for the purposes of Library improvement through experience-sharing being valued dramatically more than a dedicated committee of all-Black Evanstonians who were providing our cultural expertise and social capital to help EPL connect to the Black community for over a year?’”
Committee’s outreach activities
Members of the Collection Advisory Committee were to work to increase the Library’s outreach to the Black community, said Shakur.
She told Library trustees that a partial list of the group’s activities over the past 14 months included publishing a monthly newsletter that highlighted news about local Black authors, publishers, and artists; and discussing news pertaining to Black literature and local bookstores; and “engaging content to address topics within the Evanston black community.”
The group provided guidance for topics for displays on the main public Library’s second floor; partnered with the Black-owned Semicolon Bookstore in Chicago, and offered titles as part of the Library’s summer giveaways, she said.
An in-person tour of EPL’s collection the group homes in on the collection of Black history titles, she said.
More recently, she said, the group was looking at ways to provide a more inclusive environment for the Library’s Adult Black History collection, particularly on books In that category that deal with Evanston’s history.
“While this is merely a partial, and not comprehensive, list,” she told trustees, “it does reflect the body of work that we, as the Collections Advisory Committee, have engaged in, and the labor (temporal, physical, and emotional) it provided EPL, during a pandemic no less.
One-time group received stipend; long-term group did not
“Labor is a key word here,” she stressed. “The United States has a deep and persistent history of profiting off of the labor, work, and persistence of Black and Brown people without compensation. Wishing to avoid a similar dynamic with EPL, the Collections Advisory Committee raised the question of compensation very early on. This was rebuffed by the Library as simply not possible. So we, not wishing to disrupt the necessary work that it [the committee] was being asked to do, and wishing to trust the word of the Library, continued to convene and produce content, raise issues, and generate ideas, and foster relationships that benefited/benefit EPL.”
Then, in September-December 2031, Shakur said, “the Library began holding a series of Community Listening & Sharing engagements with the goal of community listening and collective dreaming about the future of the Library.”
Accompanying the announcement of the Listening & Sharing series, EPL offered “to value the time and wisdom of community members by providing a small stipend,” Shakur said.
The move raised questions for her group, Shakur said.
“In the light of this knowledge,” she told trustees, “the Collections Advisory Committee met with the EPL EDI [Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] Committee, and together we drafted a letter to formally ask the Library for a fair compensatory gesture of gratitude for the valuable labor provided to EPL, which would total an estimated $3,800 for the work rendered since November 2020, and roughly $2,600 annually after that.”
“In response, the CEO of EPL, [Library Director] Karen Lyons,” she related, “responded via letter. In short, she delineated and defined the differences between the Collections Advisory Committee and other entities, citing the former as a ‘volunteer group’ and the latter as consulting situations.
“We found her choice of words curious. In our letter, the Collections Advisory Committee made great pains to distinguish the work as moving far beyond volunteerism – we have met consistently during the height of a global pandemic and a national racial reckoning,” Shakur said.
“The emotional burden of working for the Library as an all-Black group is of particular significance and goes far beyond the mere hours of work. The Library, in turn, has benefitted hugely from the group’s cultural expertise, expertise that it likely could not have been able to generate on its own.
“We, the Collections Advisory Committee do not view ourselves as volunteers, nor has it ever signed or filled out any paperwork distinguishing or labeling ourselves as such,” said Shakur.
“Further, we, as Black Evanstonians, initially engaged in this work out a desire to see a better and more socially-just EPL. But neither do we wish our labor to be freely profited from as Black Evanstonians, and we engaged in such conversations early on to ensure that wasn’t the case.
“At the time, the Library told us it wasn’t financially feasible, and we chose to believe EPL. And then, when faced with a situation where residents were being compensated fairly for their contributions to listening sessions, the Collections Advisory Committee chose to engage with EPL again in order to better understand and frame the conversation. And we were met, again, with a troubling and dismissive response that seemed like a consistent devaluing and undermining of the work that the Collections Advisory Committee does.
“We are disappointed that what once felt like a positive generative working relationship with Betsy Bird and the EDI committee … has been tarnished by an instance that an exploitative and tokening arrangement be sustained,” the members said in their letter.
“As a result, almost all of the committee members have resigned, and the work henceforth is stalled. We write today in hopes that the historical record reflects our experiences and that EPL considers restoration with the original Collections Advisory Committee, and that EPL does not replicate this type of harm in any attempts to reconstitute this.”
A larger policy question: Should ‘volunteers’ be compensated?
Asked about the group’s comments, Danczak Lyons said in a phone interview Feb. 24, “I am sincerely sorry that they feel that I didn’t hear them. I did hear them and I tried to explain that this was a bigger discussion.”
Danczak Lyons said in her message to the group she tried to stress the Library’s work with a number of volunteer groups.
EPL volunteers, working in departments throughout the Library system, logged 3,910 hours in 2021 to enhance Library services, according to a report on the agenda at the same Feb. 16 meeting.
In the case of the Collection Advisory Committee, Danczak Lyons said, the Library’s request from the start was for volunteers.
“We certainly never want anyone to think we’re taking advantage of,” she said. She pointed to the city, which is powered by the work of citizen volunteers on more than 30 boards, committees, and commissions.
“This is not strictly a policy issue that affects only the Evanston Public Library,” Danczak Lyons stressed. “It needs a larger context. It needs larger discussion.”
Library trustees, who receive no compensation for their service, grappled with the issue.
In discussion at the meeting, Library trustees, who receive no compensation for their service, grappled with the issue.
Trustee Terry Soto spoke of finding more ways to acknowledge the contributions of volunteers, “because I think they’re so critical toward our equity efforts in particular. She said she was surprised by the position of another group, the Library’s Racial Equity Task Force, which includes representatives from the Black community, unanimously advocating no pay for volunteering.
Library Board President Tracy Fulce noted the Library’s complex history and the special request placed on the Committee.
“If people have direct experience with an institution being harmful, then asking people because of their identity to go back into those spaces and say, ‘I recognize that this institution broke their heart, but please come back,’ without a clear sense of what will happen when they return is also concerning.”
She said, like Soto, she needed more time to be sure what the Library’s approach to the situation should be, “but I think it shouldn’t be a wholesale ‘We don’t compensate,’ because obviously, we do compensate volunteers – we compensated people to attend a listening session that is voluntary. And how do we determine that that has more value?”
Margaret Lurie, another trustee, offered a counter view.
“I served on the [District] 202 Board for 20 years,” she pointed out. “And now I’ve been on the Library Board for nine years and never has it occurred to me that I should be compensated. And I think none of the people here would even consider being compensated.” She expressed concern the Board could be opening up a Pandora’s Box were it to start compensating people.
Esther Wallen, a trustee in her first term, said compensation “doesn’t have to mean just being paid. It looks different for different people and that we should just open ourselves up to the conversation.
“I’m not saying that we would go that route. I do understand the idea of opening up a Pandora’s Box – I definitely did not get into this role to be compensated. But I think that there’s something to be said in recognizing the value of somebody’s time and effort. And so we need to look at that and reach an agreement as to what that would look like for the individuals who are volunteering their time with the Library.”
Joyce Miller-Bean, one of the Black members of the Library’s Racial Equity Task Force, also addressed the issue at the meeting. The task force is designed to represent the voices of people of color in the community as the Library strives toward becoming a more equitable organization.
Prior to coming on to the Racial Equity Task Force, Miller-Bean said, “my expectation was this was purely volunteer work.”
She told trustees that, were some form of compensation approved for her group’s work, she would insist it be returned to EPL.
“Volunteering to improve the community in which you and your family live is truly gratifying,” she said. “When I read about folks volunteering for months, or even years… [to help] neighbors in depression, or donating hours each week to drive seniors to their doctors and similar volunteer actions, it always warms my heart and genuinely inspires me.”
“The time I volunteer at the RETF allows me to be a part of this wonderful tradition, while simultaneously making my community more racially balanced and therefore a better place.
“Now, that’s a better dividend for my investment,” she said.