Starting the Conversation with the LIT Tech Diversity Reading Club

Image of many colored pencils

Post written by: Meghan Musolff and Bill Dueber

The University of Michigan Library has launched a strategic plan to support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts within our organization as part of a larger university-wide initiative encouraging all units of the University of Michigan to create similar DEI roadmaps.

A crucial part of any DEI effort is taking steps to encourage conversations about difficult topics, and we began exploring ways to help start such meaningful conversations within Library IT. We wanted to start very small -- something we actually had the resources to coordinate -- and very simple, in order to encourage participation.  

In May 2016, we brought these ideas together in the form of the Library IT Tech Diversity Reading Club. Our Reading Club initially had three goals:

  • Provide a safe and welcoming opportunity to talk about diversity and inclusion issues as they affect staff in Library IT
  • Gather ideas for how Library IT might address our diversity and inclusion challenges
  • Identify DEI champions and allies among LIT colleagues

Format for the Reading Club

The format couldn’t be more simple: we schedule a room for an hour around lunchtime once a month, send out a link to a relevant article or essay for people to read, and then we meet and talk about it. There are no formal presentations, no forced participation, and (at least initially) an explicit statement that we are seeking understanding, not offering possible solutions.

The results have been both amazing and encouraging. While we don’t take formal attendance, meetings of the Reading Club usually draw 25-30 attendees -- sometimes much more. The conversations have been lively, respectful, and reported to be useful in helping people think about these often hard-to-talk-about issues.

Topics over the last year have included articles related to the lack of women in IT, running more inclusive meetings, the importance of being an ally, disability advocacy, tone policing, universal design, unconscious bias, and codes of conduct.

One potential problem we were very aware of is that however passionately we feel about the value of these talks, we don’t have any special expertise to help guide the group. Luckily, we had access to someone who does. Jeff Witt, the Library’s Diversity & Inclusion Specialist, has been an invaluable resource both for general advice and as a leader of an excellent conversation about incorporating DEI work into Library IT staff’s personal goals.

Lessons Learned and Future Plans

As the Reading Club celebrates our first anniversary, there are a number of lessons we’ve learned about facilitating DEI conversations:

  • Be intentional about who you invite to the conversation. At first, we thought about inviting the entire Library organization to participate in the Reading Club. However, on the suggestion of Jeff Witt, we intentionally limited the audience to only LIT staff. And it was awesome. Limiting the audience to our colleagues allowed us to tailor the conversation to address challenges specific to LIT. It also allowed us to quickly build a safe space where colleagues felt comfortable sharing their opinions and thoughts about difficult topics.
  • Set up ground rules, and enforce them. A group that successfully engages these topics is going to have moments of tension and discomfort. A set of rules for fruitful conversation is important, but those rules need to be attended to.  A calm voice in the room that can interrupt the proceedings -- whether to remind the group that everyone needs a chance to talk or call out actions that are derailing the discussion -- is key.  Not only does it help reset the conversation, but it can model ways to go about such interruptions non-confrontationally, and in a safe environment.
  • Decide to not question the methodology/veracity of the stories we read about. Every academic environment encourages (or demands!) us to turn a critical eye toward methodology -- and it’s hard to turn off. Our approach has been to say, “Look, we’re not going to worry about whether every personal experience in this reading is true and verifiable. We’re going to assume that the general issue under discussion is experienced by whole segments of the population and talk about that.”
  • Don’t start out trying to come up with action items. At least initially, the goal is not to come to a common solution. The purpose of the conversation is to get better at having these types of conversations, and it’s a big task in its own right.
  • Have food. People like food.

At this point, the Reading Club has become almost self-sustaining. We were initially concerned that it might be difficult to come up with readings appropriate in both topic and length (nothing too long, of course), but soon our colleagues began suggesting topics and sometimes specific articles and that problem vanished. Rooms still need to be scheduled and emails sent, but the real work is done by each of the participants who invariably have read and thought deeply about the article under discussion.

As we move forward, we’re going to try to make the leap from pure discussion to generating action items. The Reading Club is not a committee -- we have no charge and no budget. What we do have is the ongoing engagement of the attendees and, most palpably, a sense that we can and should each take personal responsibility to improve our LIT culture and encourage diversity in whatever ways we can.

Update: We've received a number of requests for a list of the articles discussed by the Reading Club. We've gathered previous articles into a Google doc for easy sharing. Enjoy!

2 Comments

Monica McCormick
on Sept. 20, 9:01pm

Thanks for this--both practical and inspiring. Are you willing to share your reading list?

Meghan JK Musolff
on Sept. 21, 5:13pm

Hi Monica, Thanks for your interest in our reading list. We've updated our blog post to include a link to a shared Google doc that lists our previous articles and discussions. We hope you find it useful! Best wishes, Meghan & Bill

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