Responding to Communities in Crisis

Charlottesville and the University of Virginia have been in the news a lot recently. In Summer 2017, a series of white supremacist rallies took place in Charlottesville, culminating in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally which erupted in violence between counter-protestors and the white supremacists. In 2014, UVA was the focal point of a conversation about sexual assault on campuses after an article in Rolling Stone detailed, and later retracted, a story titled “A Rape on Campus.” A few years before, UVA’s president was forced out by the board and later reinstated, resulting in national conversations about the future of higher education centered around the scandal at UVA. While it wasn’t specific to our institution, some also viewed the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath as a community crisis, since it was traumatizing for many people and resulted in local conflicts.

In light of this recent string of traumas, and our lack of clarity about what to do when they occur, my colleagues and I wanted to start a conversation with other academic librarians about how we can respond when our communities are in crisis. A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Library Collective Conference, where we facilitated a roundtable discussion centered on crisis response in libraries informed by our own experiences as librarians at UVA.  I’ve been in Charlottesville for 14 months, so I was only personally present for the events of August 2017. I am very grateful to the colleagues I worked with on this session, Maggie Nunley, Paula Archey, Erin Pappas, and Jeremy Boggs, who were able to speak about their experiences at UVA during each of these events.

While Charlottesville has been the locus of a lot of national attention, campuses all over the country are dealing with crises in their local communities and the impacts of national events. We wanted to make this session an opportunity for people to talk about whatever type of incident they feel most impacted by or worried about, so we organized participants by type of institution and asked each group to choose a type of scenario they wanted to discuss.  We asked participants to consider a series of discussion questions related to their incident, taking into account institutional, personal, and collegial levels of response. After discussing and writing down their ideas, each group arranged their thoughts in an incident response matrix. An example of the matrix, which we filled out using August 12th as an example, is pictured below.

This outlines our imagined ideal response. The actions we actually took are highlighted.

We created this matrix after reflecting on our own response to the rallies in August 2017. Of all the events we discussed, this was the one we felt the most prepared for. The Library, in collaboration with the University, was planning to host a day of reflection and conversation on the day of the rallies, with speakers, discussions, film screenings, and a community potluck. Around noon, the governor called a state of emergency and the events had to be canceled, although the Library was kept open. While we had prepared an institutional pedagogical response, it became clear that we were not prepared on other levels. For example, we weren’t clear on our gun policy and there was confusion about whether or not weapons were allowed inside building on campus. Since then, we’ve clarified our policy, and signs have been posted outside buildings to clarify that guns are not allowed in our libraries. While it’s obviously impossible to prepare for every possibility, in hindsight, it may have been helpful to consider these different levels of response prior to that weekend’s events in order to fill some of the gaps.

We also asked participants to consider the constraints that might prevent them from achieving the ideal scenario outlined in their response matrix.  It will probably be no surprise to hear that participants had a lot of constraints to share, ranging from the constraints most libraries face all the time, like lack of resources, to more complicated problems of emotional labor, legal issues, power imbalances, and fear. Conversations like this one can be hard to have, because constraints vary so widely by institution and individual person, but it was interesting to hear the roadblocks that different people experience in trying to align their personal values with their professional responses. As each group reported out about their chosen scenarios, responses, and constraints, we asked them to also share actionable takeaways their group had generated.  The conversation constellated around a few key needs, which I hope library administrators may take into consideration as they think through these same issues:

  • To feel empowered to respond by administration without fear of retribution or judgement.
  • Proactive policies and procedures for crisis response.
  • Frequent trainings for library staff.
  • Space to reflect on and share experiences.

While there are no right answers to a lot of the questions we discussed, this session made it clear that many of us feel unprepared in the face of crisis and that there’s a lot of interest in starting these types of conversations. I appreciate everyone who shared their insights with us and hope it will be part of an ongoing conversation about how we can support our communities and colleagues while practicing self care during times of crisis.

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