Four Questions with Sharon M. Burney

Four Questions with Sharon M. Burney

In a significant step toward addressing the chronic lack of diversity in the library profession, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has received a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). 

Close up color photo of hands of Gullah craftsperson weaving basket

This grant is intended to fund a groundbreaking program aimed at supporting and empowering Black librarians through dialogue, mentorship, and cultural immersion. The program, known as “Safe Spaces for Cultural Heritage,” was conceived of by CLIR program officer Sharon M. Burney, and will provide a platform for Black librarians to share their experiences, heal from workplace trauma, and develop strategies for promoting equity within their communities. 

The library profession has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. In 2021, only 7.1% of librarians in the United States were Black, while a staggering 87% were white. This disparity has had profound consequences, resulting in the perpetuation of trauma that negatively impacts the experiences of Black professionals within the field. From tokenism in hiring practices to racial microaggressions and isolation, Black librarians have faced a range of challenges. 

These challenges have been further exacerbated by political attacks on critical race theory and African American studies. Black librarians have often been pressured to remove works by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) authors, adding to their sense of isolation and frustration. 

Recognizing the urgent need for change, CLIR is introducing the “Safe Spaces for Cultural Heritage” program to create a supportive network for Black librarians. This program will provide a safe environment for Black librarians to come together, share their experiences, and heal without the fear of retaliation. 

The “Safe Spaces for Cultural Heritage” program has a multifaceted approach. It will kick off with a two-and-a-half-day convening in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2024. This event will be a safe haven for Black librarians to find a sense of community, heal from workplace hostility, and collaborate on creating more equitable communities. 

Expert facilitators with extensive experience in Black studies, librarianship, and healing from racial trauma will guide participants through meaningful conversations, provide relevant skills training, and foster trust among participants. Participants will also receive digital storytelling training and propose microgrant projects designed to advance equity within their local communities. 

Following the convening, the group will engage in online meetups and conferences to support one another’s projects and professional growth. Additionally, the team plans to share insights through a publication, podcast, and presentations to inspire greater equity in the professional library field. 

The program is designed to move Black librarians from isolated experiences of workplace trauma, fatigue, and attrition to a path of healing, empowerment, networking, and retention. A three-day workshop in August 2024, with 20 participants, five facilitators, and a digital journalist, will form the core of this initiative. The workshop will be held in Charleston, a city with deep historical significance in African American history. 

Charleston was chosen as the workshop location due to its historical significance as a major seaport city in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Participants will have the opportunity to heal by connecting with the city’s rich history and their ancestors’ experiences. The final day of the workshop will focus on articulating solutions for building more equitable communities at home. 

By addressing the unacknowledged traumas faced by Black library workers, this program takes a significant step toward creating a more inclusive and healthier library workforce. The long-term goal is to empower this workforce to better serve the diverse communities they represent. 

In this audio Q&A, Sharon M. Burney delves into the inspiration behind her creation of the Safe Spaces program and outlines her vision and objectives for this transformative initiative. Read full Q&A transcript

What inspired you to initiate the Safe Spaces program, and how do you envision it addressing the challenges faced by Black librarians in predominantly white library professions?
Could you elaborate on the specific goals and outcomes you hope to achieve with this program, particularly in terms of healing, empowerment, and community-building for Black librarians?
In your grant proposal, you mention the importance of documenting insights shared by participants and creating a public report. How do you anticipate that these insights will contribute to promoting organizational change in the field of librarianship?
Can you share more details about the location and significance of the workshop planned for the summer of 2024, where Black librarians will engage in healing practices like "Sankofa"? How will this setting contribute to the program's objectives?

Sharon M. Burney is the host of the award-winning third season of Material Memory,  “The HBCU Library Alliance Tour.” Burney takes listeners on a tour of the treasures housed in their libraries’ collections and gives us a glimpse into the vital role these institutions play in their communities. Material Memory can be found online and on your favorite podcast streaming platform.

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