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Speak Up/Speak Out: Conversations on Race in Columbus

Columbus Metropolitan Library Speak Up

Pictured: Panelists from Speak Up/Speak Out discussion on February 24, 2021.

Authored by Donna Zuiderweg, Chief Community Engagement Officer, Columbus Metropolitan Library

When the high-profile racist violence and anti-racism protests of 2020 ignited real conversation and change within libraries across the country, the leadership team at Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) was among those trying to figure out what to do. It wasn’t as though we were unaware of the need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in our leadership, our workforce experience and in our work. For years, we had taken steps – sometimes with real lasting impact and sometimes in fits and starts – to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) fundamentals into our culture and our work. In fact, a renewed and more formalized Diversity & Inclusion Committee was established in 2019 with members from across our workforce devoted to surfacing and addressing issues and to fostering a more inclusive environment for staff and customers.

In June 2020, the killing of George Floyd and the resulting national dialog accelerated the work of the D&I Committee and created a focus within our larger DE&I efforts on racial equity. We needed to find a way to commit to a strong and sustained effort to combat racial inequity in our organization and our community, focus on the Black experience specifically and make race conversations a priority. Given the all-white composition of our Executive Leadership Team, it was incumbent upon us to invite more people into the conversation and seek input and advice from leaders and employees within CML who represent racial minorities.

We started by organizing a small Racial Equity Task Force (RETF) with the expressed responsibility to identify areas of action and opportunity and organize and prioritize the work. The task force included the five members of the Executive Leadership Team and five diverse members of our management team. Early on, we wrestled with the right composition, including how the number of executive team members. All? None? Somewhere in between? What became clear as we discussed the composition with employees and colleagues is that active leadership participation is important and necessary. Not only as a visible demonstration that the work is a priority or even because the leadership team members have an incredible amount to learn ourselves (both very true) but also because real change requires action, resources and accountability, which can be hard to come by without executive buy-in and sponsorship.

Importantly, the RETF was not a replacement for our D&I Committee. The task force had a more narrow scope, focused exclusively on racial inequity issues. We still needed the D&I Committee’s work to continue to encompass greater aspects of inclusion for our employees, including LGTBQ education. We felt that work needed to continue in parallel and in concert with the RETF. To foster that cooperation, both groups were facilitated by the director of security, diversity & inclusion (an expanded role), under the sponsorship of our chief administrative officer.

The RETF began meeting in late June 2020 with the specific tasks of identifying areas in the organization that needed to be viewed with a racial equity lens and determining areas of priority. By September, the priorities were identified and announced:

  • Provide capacity for more internal employee discussion to build greater understanding and empathy (including resource groups and facilitated discussion on various topics like understanding systemic racism).
  • Audit the employee experience for sources of insight and opportunity (i.e. recruitment, hiring, onboarding, performance assessment, engagement, exit interviews).
  • Create and implement a mandatory, multi-faced racial equity and D&I training curriculum for employees at all levels.
  • Assess the recruitment strategy to enhance candidacy from underrepresented groups at all levels.
  • Communicate the current efforts as well as the revamped strategy.
  • Communicate racial equity initiatives and updates to all employees regularly.

In the first month of 2021, we’ve implemented a change to the structure of our RETF. As the short-term tasks of identifying the areas of opportunity in our organization and set priorities to address racial inequity were completed and our priorities were incorporated into our organizational work plan, we transitioned the RETF to a longer-term committee with a sustained commitment to overseeing the work. The new staff group is the Racial Equity Steering Committee (RESC). We’ve formalized a charter and added more members to broaden the opportunity to hear more perspectives. We sought applicants from across the organization to join this new group and have recently begun meeting in March.

At the same time we were organizing our internal efforts, we did not discount CML’s opportunity to foster dialog in our community. Our community engagement team partnered with nine central Ohio library systems to encourage families, friends and co-workers to read STAMPED: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. Our One Book – One Community initiative was designed to cultivate conversations around race and social justice based upon the shared reading experience of the greater Columbus community. The program kicked off in November 2020 and concluded with a virtual author talk by Jason Reynolds in January 2021. As part of CML’s commitment to the 11-week program, we offered virtual events, internal staff programming and a large book purchase to support customer and community engagement.

CML Speak Up Speak Out

Because the response from the community was so positive – especially the response to the virtual book discussions which featured panels of community leaders – we have now also transitioned that to a sustained year-long program. Speak Up Speak Out: Let’s Talk About Race is a monthly virtual series featuring central Ohio community leaders who discuss their thoughts and takeaways from a chosen book, article, movie or music selection each month from the library’s collection. While the chosen title or article serves as the foundation of the discussion, conversations examine why diversity matters in our community. Library customers and the community are encouraged to read the chosen title or article and participate in the discussions. Each of the 11 conversations are hosted and moderated by a CML staff member.

Like our library peers from across the country, we are taking things day by day; trying to make the best decisions to move the conversation forward both within our workforce and in the community.

At Donna Z

Donna Zuiderweg

Chief Community Engagement Officer

Donna is the chief community engagement officer for Columbus Metropolitan Library, a 23-location library system serving the people of Franklin County, Ohio. A member of the Executive Leadership Team, Donna leads the Development, Marketing, Collection Services and Strategic Initiative & Advocacy teams. She is responsible for planning and executing a comprehensive and collaborative strategy for engaging the community in the important work of the library. Donna is currently a member of ULC's Anti-Racism action team, one of six member-led teams spearheading ULC's Going Forward from the Pandemic Initiative.

Leadership Brief Thumbnail

ULC’s new Leadership Brief, Anti-Racist Executive Leadership for Public Libraries, focuses on the power of self-aware and committed public library executives in ensuring racial justice. It calls on all library executives to own the challenge and impact of enduring racism, acknowledge their own biases and use their leadership to dismantle structural racism, starting in their own library systems.

ULC thanks Gale, a Cengage company, for their sponsor support of this Leadership Brief. Learn more at

Gale Cengage

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