Taking a place in a brave space

The 2022 Minnesota Institute attracted early career BIPOC librarians from across North America for its special leadership training program.

By Allison Campbell-Jensen

Minnesota Institute participants conversing at the opening reception.
Minnesota Institute participants getting to know each other at the opening reception.

For Dora Mensah, the 2022 Minnesota Institute provided time and places where she could easily speak her mind in conversation with other BIPOC librarians. Taking her beyond that feeling of a “safe space,” however, the Institute instructors also shared with her the poem “An Invitation to a Brave Space.”

Dora Mensah
Dora Mensah

That invitation, just one part of the two-and-a-half-day workshop, resonated with Mensah, boosted her confidence, and bolstered her courage. “Being in a brave space takes away the stress of being ‘safe,’” says Mensah, because self-censorship and undue caution can lead to paralysis and less-than-full participation.

From that poem, she learned that “if I’m able to face challenges with bravery, then I’ll be good to go.”

Like the other 28 participants of the 2022 Minnesota Institute, Mensah is an early career librarian — barely a year into her new path. The Institute curriculum focuses on the development of these emerging library leaders from traditionally underrepresented groups.

“The Minnesota Institute provides BIPOC librarians the space and time to enhance their leadership skills and to benefit from the experiences of the expert instructors,” says Lisa German, Dean of the U of M Libraries. “We are so glad that we were able to host our 2022 cohort in person here on campus.”

Face to face

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and Ione Damasco
Minnesota Institute faculty members Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and Ione Damasco

Gathering in person makes a difference, says Ione Damasco, one of the two lead Minnesota Institute instructors. In contrast to the virtual meeting in 2020, this in-person format allowed “more of a dialogue, [rather] than sort of a serialized, on zoom, unity,” they said. On Zoom, “one person talks and the next next person talks and the next person talks — and it’s not really a back and forth conversation.”

Damasco adds: “Being in person really allowed them to be their whole selves in that space and really focus on what was happening in the classroom.”

One of the participants’ key tasks is developing personal mission statements. These are seminal activities, says Damasco, “because, in our hurry-up society, we rarely have the opportunity for deep reflection about our personal and professional values, about what motivates us, and about how that translates into the kinds of work we pursue, and the kinds of things that we do.”

They add that opportunities to trade insights and clarifications with their peers, to respond to ideas and build on them, helped each of the participants grow both individually stronger and interpersonally closer.

Leadership, today and tomorrow

Minnesota Institute participants getting to know each other at the opening reception.
Taking a group selfie at the Minnesota Institute opening reception.

Damasco’s partner in leading instruction, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, says the Minnesota Institute has had a huge impact on her career since she attended in 2008. Now a researcher, leader, consultant, and coach, Kendrick notes: “the numbers show that the numbers of racialized people in the LIS profession are moving backwards despite the focus on recruitment and retention in the last 20 years. The Minnesota Institute remains a powerful opportunity for us to cultivate leadership” among BIPOC librarians.

“The Minnesota Institute allowed me to really remind myself that being in a leadership position is also an act of service.”

—Ariana Varela, Minnesota Institute participant

While leading the cohort, she also emphasizes that the role of the Institute supports “verity and veracity and primacy of the lived experience of BIPOC people working in libraries and archives.” Particularly as “racialized people, working in predominantly white institutions,” BIPOC librarians’ opportunity to reflect on their lived experiences will help them understand themselves better, as well as digging into the dynamics where they work. Valuing lived experiences, Kendrick is a qualitative researcher who seeks to increase the “humanity and humaneness in our work in libraries.”

A different lens on leadership particularly appealed to participant Ariana Varela, from the University of Southern California. The information literacy instruction librarian cited a reading assignment, “Redeeming leadership,” that was “especially meaningful because it pushed the idea of leadership away from an individualistic, authoritarian approach to a more community-minded and collective approach.”

She appreciated the focus on facilitating the goals of one’s team or department or library as key elements of leadership. One might call it leadership from within, rather than having a role in the spotlight. Mensah agrees: “Identifying my leadership skill has definitely been a journey in and of itself, because I’m just so used to just being of service.” Her prior career was in social work.

“The Minnesota Institute allowed me to really remind myself that being in a leadership position is also an act of service.”

Their own best selves

Participating in Day 2 activities at the Minnesota Institute.
Participating in Day 2 activities at the Minnesota Institute.

This shift, from feeling like a “budding baby librarian” to being bold enough to take initiative, Mensah says, is a great result from the Minnesota Institute’s classes, workshops, reflections, and social gatherings. Varela, in addition, was impressed by a final activity, creating a vision board.

“It is a visual representation of how we want to approach our own view as leaders in Libraries,” Varela says. “I think it was a really great alternative because a lot of times and academic spaces it’s really [using] text — you know that you have to format it in the right way and to sound a certain way.” She enjoyed “picturing what would make us happy in our future careers as librarians.”

Damsco confirms that the tools to help Minnesota Institute participants with discernment are critically important. In other contexts, like daily work, they say, we have “this constant sense like we have to be on the go all the time.

“What ends up happening is work happens to us instead of us [being able to own] more intentionality about the kind of work we pursue.”

Interviewed a few weeks after the July workshop ended, Mensah adds that she already has been offered opportunities to serve. In contrast to the past, when she believed she needed to deeply consider all the ins and outs, she has readily said, “Yes!”

She has been unleashed, as a leader in libraries and life.

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