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A Tragic Suicide Sparks Urgent Demand for Safe Spaces in Academic and Library Spaces

Jan-March 2024

Black and white photo of a depressed woman sitting on floor alone in dark room with knees supporting arms and hands that cover her face.

A Tragic Suicide Sparks Urgent Demand for Safe Spaces in Academic and Library Spaces

by Sharon Burney, CLIR program officer

Following the tragic death of Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey, a revered former administrator at Missouri’s Lincoln University, urgent calls for safe spaces in academia have intensified.  Her death by suicide on January 8 underscores the pervasive challenges faced by Black professionals working in various roles within academic institutions, including those in library professions.   

In a meticulously crafted email, Candia-Bailey detailed the persistent bullying and racism she endured from the university’s white president, John Moseley, who is presently under investigation.  She voiced worry about getting low assessment scores, which were indicative of poor performance, and questioned why she was still employed if her performance and leadership were deemed inadequate. 

Candia-Bailey highlighted her commitment to working tirelessly, even outside regular hours, and detailed her efforts to maintain constant communication. She said that her issues went unanswered or unaddressed despite her requests for assistance, explicit expectations, and an improvement plan. Candia-Bailey claimed that because of her anxiety and depression, the work atmosphere worsened after she filed her FMLA and ADA paperwork. Her email expressed her desire for justice, compassion, and a healthier workplace environment overall.  Sadly, despite her passionate pleas for change, she will not get to witness the improvements she longed for.

The story of Candia-Bailey is representative of Black academics’ and cultural heritage professionals’ challenges across the country. The resignation of Claudine Gay from Harvard serves as even more evidence of the necessity for safe places designed to expressly address the obstacles Black people encounter in higher education. 

This relentless commitment to combating racism not only defines their careers, it  also makes it challenging to detach from the emotional and physical strain which ultimately contributes to their susceptibility to chronic health issues.  Natasha Crooks, writing for Ms. Magazine, asserts that “Academia is not inherently designed for the success of Black, Indigenous and people of color faculty.  These institutions were initially created for and catered to white people, placing BIPOC in a position where they must succeed within systems not designed for their success.

A 2022 study published by researchers at the University of Washington found that high-stress work environments are linked to negative mental and physical outcomes in Black women academics.  On the heels of the publication, LaShawn Washington, now an assistant professor of Qualitative Research at the University of Oklahoma, that higher education, from its inception, was designed for elite white men.

“So because it was built that way, it still supports that same structure.  When you’re entering into a space that’s already not really made for you, you have a certain set of challenges that impede on you physically, spiritually and emotionally,” Washington said.

Candia-Bailey’s emphasis on her commitment to working tirelessly, even outside regular hours, reflects a broader issue faced by many Black professional women who may feel the need to go above and beyond to demonstrate exceptional dedication and performance to counter any biases and stereotypes.  There is a pervasive perception among Black women that they are often evaluated differently and held to higher standards in professional settings.  This added pressure to exceed expectations can contribute to burnout and mental health challenges.

Though Candia-Bailey was not a librarian, it is important to recognize that there is a racial disparity in the library profession, which makes Black librarians and archivists’ challenges much more severe. The experiences of Black people in these professions are greatly impacted by the persistence of trauma through tokenism, racial microaggressions, and isolation, as just 7.1% of Black librarians in the United States hold these positions. Black librarians are being forced to leave a profession they love and communities they are committed to helping due to instances of both blatant and indirect racism. 

Recognizing the need for change, CLIR has undertaken the “Safe Spaces for Cultural Heritage” initiative, under my direction. The goal of this project is to create a network where Black librarians can get together, exchange stories, and help one another without worrying about retaliation. My aim is to promote healing, empowerment, and retention, the program aims to act as a catalyst for the development of equitable programs in local communities. 

The program is also centered on addressing job-related trauma and establishing a safe space for healing in response to recent studies revealing the detrimental effects of such stress on BIPOC library employees. To move Black librarians from isolated experiences of trauma and attrition toward communal networking, empowerment, and retention, it is intended to create a more diverse, healthy, and empowered library workforce.  Scheduled for this summer, the program will bring together twenty Black librarians, five facilitators, and a digital journalist to record the proceedings. The workshop, which is held in a site of cultural and historical significance, attempts to promote healing through the practice of “Sankofa,” or looking back at the past for meaning in the present.

As we mourn the loss of Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey and acknowledge the challenges faced by Black academics and GLAM professionals more broadly, CLIR’s Safe Spaces program promises to be a beacon of hope for a more inclusive future.

Dare I say that it is possible that Candia-Bailey’s circumstances might have turned out differently and that she would still be alive today if there had been a haven on her campus where she could go for support. A designated safe space might have given her a forum to talk about the difficulties she was facing, created an atmosphere that was supportive of her well-being and potentially prevented the tragic outcome she experienced. This underscores a quiet crisis of life and death that goes beyond the social justice initiatives professionals are pursuing for their organizations.  This is more than a discussion on racism, or the social justice work these professionals do on behalf of their institutions, this is about a silent crisis of life and death.

Sharon M.Burney, Program Officer with the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), supporting the Recordings at Risk and Digitizing Hidden Special Collections grant programs.

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