Black library employees earn the least as Philly officials move slowly to implement diversity, inclusion policies

By: - November 24, 2019 8:35 am

From left to right, Philadelphia Free Library President and Director Siobhan Reardon speaks beside Library Board Chairwoman Pamela Pryor Dembe and Chris Arlene, a library board member on Wednesday during a City Council committee hearing (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D’Onofrio).

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The Free Library of Philadelphia’s leadership is not moving fast enough to diversify its ranks, address bias and shrink a wide racial pay gap, City Councilmembers say.

Councilmembers grilled top library officials during a committee hearing this week following the release of a progress report on library administrators’ efforts to address discrimination and bias within the 54-branch system.

The report revealed that full-time Black employees earn the least out of all racial groups, staff demographics do not reflect the city’s, and officials have yet to appoint a full-time diversity and inclusion officer over the past two years, among other findings. The report stemmed from heated City Council budget hearings in April when these issues spilled into public view.

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a Democrat, said the library system does not reflect patrons, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, and it was “incredibly frustrating” that that African Americans continue to be paid significantly less.

“A lot of our libraries are in underserved neighborhoods,” she said, “and when the young people come in, what they see is a system that, maybe, does not reflect them or anyone they know or might not be culturally sensitive to the needs of their particular community.”

At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat, said library officials must deal with “racism,” “bias,” and “anti-racist strategies that undo decades of institutional neglect, ignorance or intent.”

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The City Council Committee on Legislative Oversight called Library President and Director Siobhan Reardon; Library Board Chairwoman Pamela Pryor Dembe; and Chris Arlene, a library board member, for the hearing on Wednesday.

Both Blacks and whites are overrepresented among library staff, 47% and 44% respectively, compared to citywide demographics, while Latino and Asian library employees are underrepresented at 3% each. The city is 44% Black, 34% white, 15% Latino and 8% Asian, according to U.S. Census data.

The library system has 869 employees, of whom 415 are Black, 376 are white, 28 are Asian, and 25 are Latinx, among others, according to the report.

People of color make up 58% of the library’s board of trustees — up from 35% in 2008 — but account for only 25% of the library’s leadership team.

The library system traditionally has been dominated by white women, Reardon said. The predominance of African-American employees remain in subordinate and low-wage jobs.

Library officials were reviewing whether to remove some education requirements for management level positions as other library systems across the U.S. have, which could open up those positions to more staff.

Full-time Black employees earn a median salary of $45,821, compared to $65,366 for whites, $55,907 for Latinx, and $51,856 for Asians, according to the report. The median salary for all employees is $53,354.

Employees in the same roles earn the same salaries, Arlene said.

“Most of our librarians are white women,” he said. “There’s a requirement around the MSW [Master’s of Social Work] that’s an industry issue and something that the library is trying to work on.”

Library officials tweaked their strategic plan this year to add the goal of promoting diversity and inclusion and created two committees to identify specific objectives to achieve that goal. Yet Reardon faced criticism earlier this year over a diversity and inclusion committee that the library’s board authorized in 2017 but which had no members and never met until months ago.

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The library will soon seek a full-time diversity and inclusion officer. Library officials appointed Donyale Henderson the first-ever diversity and inclusion officer in 2017, but on a part-time basis as she split responsibilities as human resources administrator.

The library has more than doubled its use of minority, women, and/or disabled business enterprises for contracting in recent years.

These minority business owners have won 43% of library contracts through the first six months of the fiscal year and 48% of library contracts last year, up from 20% in 2014.

Reardon will recommend the library’s Board of Trustees eliminate all library fines at the board of trustee’s upcoming Dec. 11 meeting.

Reardon also drew scrutiny from council members after she confirmed that a library staffer who made racially insensitive comments, which came up earlier this year, was neither suspended nor dismissed, but disciplined without going into detail due to privacy concerns.

“It was my own conversations and my own actions that I worked with this employee,” she said.

Councilmembers also questioned Reardon about a video where she was heard making the statement to employees, “I want us to be careful about weaponizing the word bias.”

As the library began to address diversity and inclusion, Reardon maintained she was concerned staffers would label every comment or issue as biased.

“I want us to be careful, I want us to be thoughtful around how it is we examine issues of bias without just saying because somebody doesn’t like an action or a bit of work that they’re going to call me biased,” Reardon said.

Reardon’s explanation did not appear to convince councilmembers on the committee.

“I’m not following you on that at all,” Bass said. “It’s not really encouraging people to speak freely about what their perception of the situation is about race, diversity and inclusion.”

Gym warned that Reardon’s language could have the opposite effect by instilling a belief in staff that reporting bias is difficult, which would result in long-term problems. She recommended library officials to actively work with the city’s Human Relations Commission.

Library officials were expected to hire a consultant by January to develop diversity training for leadership and staff, Reardon said.

“While we are making progress in these early stages,” she said in prepared statements, “I know that we could benefit from outside expertise and support in eradicating bias and shifting the organization toward equity.”

Library officials were expected to go before the committee again in six months and a full report on the organization’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion was scheduled to be completed by February.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

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