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Statement announcing anti-racism initiative from Dean of Libraries John Ulmschneider

June 4, 2020

June 4 2020 statement announcing anti-racism initiative from Dean of Libraries and University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider

To members of the VCU Libraries communities

On the evening of June 2 I had the great privilege of visiting with demonstrators at the Robert E. Lee monument on Monument Avenue. The size of the gathering, its enormous diversity, and its great passion for justice moved me deeply. Like most Americans, I have watched with anguish what has been happening in our community and in our country. Every city has its George Floyd, its Ahmaud Arbery, its Breonna Taylor, its Marcus-David Peters. Their tragedies of injustice are among the few that we learn of. Many many others go unreported, without witness, never recorded by cameras, never known to any except their victims and their perpetrators. Black and brown Americans have always known that there is no safe place for people of color anywhere in our country. It is long past time that every American acknowledges the injustices and fear that our co-workers, our neighbors, and our community members face every single day.

The protestors that Tuesday evening stood on the pedestal of what for many is a profound symbol of the systemic racism that permeates our society. It is a powerful force that reaches into every aspect of our lives, including our lives as colleagues in VCU Libraries: how we recruit staff and provide support to all, how we build our collections, the opportunities for advancement within our workplace, the way we design spaces and services for our students and staff, how we invest our funds and energy, what we highlight and choose to celebrate, and in countless other ways. For change to happen, including change within VCU Libraries, we must work to create an anti-racist society and workplace, recognizing and rooting out the powerful systemic racism that confronts black and brown Americans at every turn.

Yesterday, Management Council and Administrative Council agreed to launch a new initiative within VCU Libraries to lead us in reckoning with this powerful force. We recognize that VCU Libraries needs a broad-based coalition of our staff to come together around this challenge. Rather than write a charge and establish a task force, you will receive shortly a call for interest to participate in a new group that will address this challenge. This new group will define its own charge and will pursue that charge with the full endorsement of VCU Libraries leadership. It is our hope that this new initiative will deeply examine every aspect of our work to highlight how we fail to advance racial justice and equity, as well as instances in which we perpetuate it, and design substantive, meaningful reforms that we must undertake together to address those failures. 

It has been said that anger is a gift to us for confronting injustice. On Tuesday evening I saw anger, deep and righteous anger, loud and visible anger, at the systemic injustice of racism throughout our society. At that moment, though, all I could think was how difficult the fight for justice has been. The Lee statue itself stood above the reach of the protestors; they could reach its pedestal, but could not touch the statue itself. I thought that long after the protestors had left, the monument would still stand, an enduring symbol to many of the enormous power of racism in our communities.

But what a difference righteous protest can make! On June 4, just two days later, came encouraging news to many: Governor Northam ordered the removal of the statue. Change can happen; racism can be confronted. One of the signs I saw at the protest on Tuesday pointed the way forward: “Don’t Be Sorry. Be Better.” I encourage all of us to engage in the anti-racist work that will lead us to a better workplace, a better library, and a better society. You can start by visiting “Talking About Race” at the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and you can learn more about anti-racism at the website Anti-Racism Resources for All Ages. Our own Donna Coghill, chair of the VCU Libraries Inclusion and Diversity Committee, has created an excellent LibGuide of useful anti-racism learning resources. University libraries have a special role to play in informing those who lead the way forward. Let’s make our library system the best possible resource for all people.

Thank you and please, as always, stay safe and take good care of one another.

With warmest regards to all,

John

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