The Three Rivers Public Library (TRPL) and the George Washington Carver Community Center (GWCCC) recently co-hosted a discussion about diversity as a part of a series of conversations through a grant funded by the American Library Association. The event, initially scheduled to be in-person at the Carver Center, moved to Zoom out of concern for rising levels of COVID-19 cases in the county.
Despite not being in a physical circle, about a dozen participants went around to introduce themselves and share why diversity is important to them. Some shared the different “hats” they wear, and how the topic plays out in their lives.
Brandy Peterson, a member of the Carver Center and a downtown Three Rivers business owner, said, “As a female of African descent, I represent diversity and I have been an example of diversity in many businesses that I worked for in the past as an optician, and I have brought the value of diversity to many of the companies that I have worked for, and I’ll pave the way for others of African descent to come in behind me.”
Three Rivers Board of Education member Ben Karle said, “I’m the parent of a couple of young kids right now; we’ve had a lot of difficult conversations over the past two years about a lot of topics that are not what I talked about when I was eight and six. So, I want to be able to explain the world to them with more open-mindedness.”
The discussion opened with a short video from Von Peterson, who formerly served as president of the Carver Center, about the importance of diversity and inclusion. Von talked about the creativity that diversity can bring about, as well as the benefits of embracing inclusivity in workplaces, schools, and communities.
Library staff then seeded the conversation with questions for participants to explore: “Have you thought about diversity making creativity better?”, “Inclusion is an important part of diversity — let’s discuss!”, and “Diversity adds so much to our culture and community. Why do you think it’s important?”
Library Director Bobbi Schoon gave the example of craft programs at the library where participants are given the same materials but all leave with diverse and different results: “I look at it and I get so inspired by the creativity.” Jean Thompson, a service specialist at the library, talked about the unique skills that each of her family members brings to complete a project together, which couldn’t have been completed by one of them working alone.
Brandy mentioned the importance of getting to know each other in order to break down stereotypes: “Inclusivity is very important because, especially if you want to appeal to other people, you need to understand what other people like, what they think, what their thoughts and opinions are. You can’t really expect to pull in people that are diverse if you don’t have any understanding of who those people are.”
Sarah Van Oss, a member of the library board, shared an experience of her mostly white church merging with a Korean church.
“I think sometimes, if we have a heart to want to include, our enthusiasm can run ahead of our wisdom.”Sarah Van Oss
As the churches merged, her church leaders recognized the need for “a lot of intentionality about listening to each other and not overwhelming our Korean brothers and sisters as they joined us. We needed to get to know them, we needed to get to know their culture, and to do that well took a lot of time […] Sometimes I think we just jump in with our enthusiasm and come in with big ideas, but sometimes [inclusivity] just means keeping our mouth shut and paying attention and sitting next to, alongside, and listening well.”
The discussion included an awareness of the majority or “dominant culture,” and how it operates in these types of conversations. Children’s Librarian Peter Butts brought up the importance of opening up group expectations, goals, and norms that aren’t based on “the status quo” of the dominant culture, but rather created together by the group.
Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma encouraged “those of us in the dominant cultures and in positions of power” not to “make the mistake of assuming that we are the people doing the including, [because] that is not inclusion; that’s still an abuse of power.” He added, “It’s a good idea to recognize your own situatedness and knock yourself off of that. It’s not that ‘I am doing the including;’ it’s that ‘I’m asking to be included.’”
Brandy pointed out that many people in the dominant culture are uncomfortable in situations where they don’t see other people that look like them, even if they are invited and welcomed into the space. They have to make the decision to engage:
“[Say to yourself] ‘I’m still going to go and communicate and see what it’s like to be the minority for once.’ [People who are minorities] don’t get to make that decision. That’s our life — to go into places where we don’t see our faces.”Brandy Peterson
Van Oss wondered how well the Three Rivers community supports diverse cultures. Thompson responded, “Well, we’re not, frankly,” citing assimilation of people’s diverse cultures and histories into the dominant culture rather than truly identifying and understanding each other’s cultures. Schoon added that the library is working to add books to the library collection that reflect the diversity of the community.
The group wrestled with the question of how to bring more people into conversations like these. “How do we grow the circle of people willing to talk about diversity and inclusion?” Schoon asked.
Karle said “top-down messaging” from community leaders and institutions, and looking at how programs and services are accessed can “go a long way” to greater inclusion. Vander Giessen-Reitsma pointed out that structural racism still exists in a city the size of Three Rivers, referencing income and median home value differences between neighborhoods, and wondered how to have conversations that include the whole city, not just parts of it.
Brandy encouraged participants to collaborate across differences and share spaces with each other, giving an example of becoming a supporting member of GWCCC and collaborating with it, and other Black-led organizations and churches for programs and events.
Thompson added, “I think it really just comes down to whether you will walk out into the world and share yourself or whether you’ll walk out into the world fearing everything and everyone. Once we stop fearing each other and we open up our hearts and our minds to people, that’s where inclusion and diversity [can flourish].”
Schoon said, “I think it just comes down to those invites [to the conversation], and there’s going to be people who don’t want to hear it, who don’t want to believe that there needs to be a change, but we’ve just got to keep talking and inviting in new people, so that we can keep adding more that do see it. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, or we wouldn’t be here where we are right now.”
The library will host several more community conversations for adults, kids, and teens through October. Most discussions will focus on books: White Fragility for adults, Save Me a Seat for kids and families (both in collaboration with *culture is not optional at the Huss Project), and Dear Martin for teens. An open discussion on the topic of inclusion will take place at the library on October 7. See the library’s website at www.threeriverslibrary.org or call 269-273-8666 for more information and to register to attend.
Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.