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Transcript of Four Questions with Sharon M. Burney

Clir News No. 154

Aug-Oct 2023​

Four Questions with Sharon M. Burney Transcript

In a significant step toward addressing the chronic lack of diversity in the library profession, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has received a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). 

In this transcript of the audio Q&A, Sharon M. Burney delves into the inspiration behind her creation of the Safe Spaces program and outlines her vision and objectives for this transformative initiative.

What inspired you to initiate the Safe Spaces program, and how do you envision it addressing the challenges faced by Black librarians in predominantly white library professions?

Safe Spaces was an idea that I had that was based on my over 30 years of working in cultural heritage focused work. I noticed that black professionals in this space were consistently experiencing psychological trauma that manifested into physical illnesses, premature death, professional burnout, and depression. These physiological responses to trauma occurred from the undergraduate level through late career professionals at very alarming rates. This is a far too often unacknowledged and unheard trauma occurring to black professionals whose work is solidified in the oppression they experience on a daily basis. When black professionals work in predominantly white spaces, these experiences are amplified and solitary. Black professionals lack the safe spaces to discuss these traumas without fear of retaliation and gaslighting, and in such, they also suffered in silence. Safe Spaces was created to afford black professionals in the glams, the opportunity to transform their silo trauma experiences into a communal network of healing, support, advocacy, professional retention, and community building.

Could you elaborate on the specific goals and outcomes you hope to achieve with this program, particularly in terms of healing, empowerment, and community-building for Black librarians?

The brilliant scholar, bell hooks, who passed in 2021, wrote extensively on Black revolution, love and healing. In her 1999 classic “All About Love,” she stated, “rarely, if ever are any of us healed in isolation. The healing is an act of communion.” So my hope is to create a path of healing strategically and intentionally for Black librarian professionals to move from siloed experiences of pain and trauma to communal experience of healing and mentoring, networking. They’ll utilize the skill sets they learn in the form of digital storytelling, healing and stress management exercises, effective communication, mentoring, and solution-based trauma-informed equity practices. The participants will also receive many grants that they can used individually or in groups to implement these new skill sets for the local communities. We’re also hopeful for the insights gained from this experience that they will be shared on conference panels, publications, podcasts, and the likes.

In your grant proposal, you mention the importance of documenting insights shared by participants and creating a public report. How do you anticipate that these insights will contribute to promoting organizational change in the field of librarianship?

One of the issues that occurred when writing the Safe Spaces Grant proposal was finding recent research on Black professionals. There’s been a noticeable void in an act of simply collecting data on them. To quote the late bell hooks again in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, she said that “true resistance begins with people confronting pain and wanting to do something to change it.” So we’re gonna do just that. We’re gonna move beyond journaling to digital storytelling for this experience. See, there’s this power in Black people telling their stories in their own words. I believe this transformative experience of communal healing and networking will inspire participants to share these often difficult, painful, and siloed experiences more freely and move them to engage in healing and resistance through truth telling. Our hopes are to also gather information on Black librarians to create an almanac of Black library professionals. So documentation of their existence is no longer non-existent, will also create a geo-mapping of some of these experiences so the entire profession can see how unfortunately, commonplace and widespread these racial inequity issues truly are, and encourage them to move beyond performative equity to intentional equity and inclusion.

Can you share more details about the location and significance of the workshop planned for the summer of 2024, where Black librarians will engage in healing practices like "Sankofa"? How will this setting contribute to the program's objectives?

Sankofa is a principle derived from the Akan people of Ghana. The word Sankofa literally means to retrieve in the Akan Twi language, but the meaning of Sankofa is a bit more expansive from an Akan proverb, which means it is not taboo to go back and fetch, which you forgot. The location chosen for the safe spaces workshop is Charleston, South Carolina, and that’s due to its connection to the sacred land of the Gullah Geechee corridor. See, it’s estimated that over half of black people in the US today have ancestors that were disembarked through Sullivan Island during the transatlantic slave trade. This is a unique place where the descendants of West Africans who were enslaved in the Sea Islands have retained their culture for over 150 years. This is also a culture of community that is currently under threat of non-existence due to climate change and violent gentrification. So we’ve chosen this culturally rich environment, laden with historical narratives of trauma, revolution, pain, and healing. We’ve chosen this location for the similarities of experience and the connection to Sankofa and the necessity to reflect on the past, to construct a triumphant trauma informed future.

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