allyship, community, and tools for change: social justice summit keynote (part 2 of 3).

This is the second part of a keynote I gave at Cal State San Marcos’s student Social Justice Summit. It’s long, so I’ve split it into three installments – start with part 1 or you’ll be 100% lost.

You can see the full slide deck here, and this transcript begins at slide 23.

allyship, community, and tools for change: social justice summit keynote transcript (part 2 of 3). 

image of kellogg library

Char: “So, I work in Kellogg Library as an administrator. Social change and social justice are not actually in my job description. So I have to put them in there, I have to make these things part of my day-to-day work and justify my rationale for doing so to the benefit of the institution. My job, in its simplest form, is to make sure people are paid and that our building doesn’t fall over [laughter]. There’s some other stuff in there too, like, being on committees. So I could just do that and we’d have people with paychecks, a library that’s standing, and way less awesome things happening on my watch. I would still get paid the same amount of money, but I’d have no self-respect because I wasn’t using my position to make things better in the world and in my community.

Graphic describing that all trans people have experienced harassment in backrooms, but no cis people have been harmed by trans people in bathrooms.
Illustration by Micah Bazant.

One of the things that I’ve managed to do as an activist administrator is to try and improve the visibility of resources for trans and gender non-conforming people on this campus. Here’s another person I want to call out in my community orbit who does incredibly important art and design work as an activist – Micah Bazant, who created this graphic and is one of the founders of the Trans Life and Liberation Art Series.

When I got to our Library a couple of years ago I noticed that we have three awesome single stall de facto all-gender restrooms on the third floor that just said “restroom” on them. Then I noticed that the door leading back to the restrooms was always closed and locked. And I asked “why is this like this?” “Oh, anyone can use those but they just can’t find them so no worries.” To me, that’s completely unacceptable. So instantly, it’s my job to figure out how to fix that. To get that hallway door unlocked and propped open, get those restrooms labeled as gender inclusive, and raise awareness in the community that they exist.


image of gender inclusive restroom sign, also includes disabled access icon and arrowSo I begin to figure out the different levers I had to pull to make that happen. What activism on the ground in an administrative job often looks like is being able to deal with the minutiae that it takes to make that happen. There’s so many different rules and regulations and groups and people you have to convince and costs you have to pay but if you just keep at it it happens… eventually. Not always, granted, but you can make it happen. So seeing that as a need our organization was not being a good enough ally to trans and GNC people – I saw that because I’m one of them, I didn’t have to be one of them to see it, but I saw it, and I fixed it, and that is a good thing. And every day I try to see something like that and fix it and keep moving toward that goal.

Partly because of this effort I was asked to Chair a campus-wide Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Task Force this last winter. This was an intensive process – we were given about four months to do this herculean task of reviewing the university’s resources and how we can make them better for trans people. Instead of doing your normal, typical “we could improve the bathrooms a bit” or “make that name change thing a little easier” we went for it and tried to encourage the university to comprehensively address all of these issues. I know as a realist that it’s not all going to happen. When these things are implemented, not all the recommendations in our report will be done, but enough of them will be done to have actually achieved change. And while it’s hard as a trans person to be asked to do that work, to be asked to highlight the flaws and the ways you’re oppressed and how your institution could fix that oppression – in this case, I wanted to be the one doing that. Because another administrator who didn’t have the same experience might not know as well where to look for issues and solutions. In that case I felt responsible for being that ally, and recognizing that my position of privilege in the university allowed me to effectively advocate for people like me.

watercolor by micah bazant featuring marsha
Illustration by Micah Bazant

And so that’s one of those moments where I accepted the fact that looking through all these statistics about how much more trans women of color die than everyone else, literally crying as I’m writing this report, that I can take on because I think it will do something. It hurt me, it made me lose sleep, it made me feel pretty awful for a couple of months. But that’s alright with me this time, I made that choice because of my power and positionality in the university. I knew that delegated to someone else, perhaps I and the committee couldn’t have covered the same ground, or that some direct perspective could have been lost. When you’re confronted with the challenge of doing social justice work in the world, of doing this activism which you are obviously willing to do, you have to make calculations about what you can take on and the pain that you’re willing to endure to be responsible for making that change. And it’s not always going to be something you want to take on. And that’s okay. 

I’m going to shift gears a little bit and talk about my past. Up til now has been my current story, but I want to go back some years and think about those early cracks, those early hurts that happened in my life and how I’m trying to turn and twist them around. And how I’ve survived that and learned from it and learned to take it forward.

image of char's smiling mom with a beehive wearing a tiara. it's an amazing picture.

I’ve lived all over the country for what feels like a million different jobs, but I mentioned that I come from Texas (and very much so). Long line of Anglos in Texas: teachers, preachers, and capitalists, basically. I also come from an incredibly rigid gender binary. So that’s my momma – she’s amazing – but that image is the embodiment of the culture I was raised in. Debutante city.

My first conscious memory as a child was realizing that I wasn’t a boy – it’s so vivid in my mind. From that point on, I was about four years old, I never fit this binary mold. I knew that I was different, I knew I was trans. By the time I was twelve I also came out as queer in this small bible belt town, and I endured a ferocious amount of persecution and violence. I was just that kid, I was that one kid that got attacked in that way. I never turned away from my identity, I never backed down from it, and I have the scars to prove it. Those years were so incredibly difficult for me. I managed to get out by the time I was seventeen. I had a couple of teachers that helped me graduate early from high school – kind of like, “you’re going to die, and we’re going to help you so you don’t have to.” This was an incredible privilege. I don’t know why these people did this for me, but they saw me struggling and touched me and said we’re going to work with you on this. Otherwise… [shrugs].

One of the things that I was able to realize throughout all of that torture is that the people who were perpetrating this violence against me were themselves struggling, were themselves victims of poverty and oppression. There is no oppressor without their own story, no antagonist without their own pain. So even at this young age I realized that “I’m a target, but these people are also targeted.” It’s a cycle that goes down, a cycle of oppression.

image of me looking confused while wearing academic graduation regalia and holding my diploma and a bunch of flowersSo, wanting to escape those oppressions I went to Portland, Oregon. Another aspect of my class privilege is that I got to go to a fancy private school called Reed College. And the reason I wanted to go there was to get as far away as I could from that environment that had hurt me and into an environment full of queer people and trans people that I thought was going to support me. And it absolutely didn’t happen that way. What was so fascinating about this – and this goes back to Frances Lee’s article about fearing one’s fellow social justice activists – is that not every community that experiences oppression is going to be a community in solidarity. And the cycle of oppressions cuts both ways. I went into this queer scene with these people who were mean, and competitive, and judgmental, and shallow, and here I am this person who escaped, literally escaped with my life, and I’m like “how have you not been hurt? How can we not be holding each other up instead of pulling each other down? And that was, maybe more than anything, this may have been the hugest learning moment I’ve had as an activist and as a queer and trans person. That just because people are like me doesn’t mean they’re going to hold me up, doesn’t mean they’re my allies. I had this instant education that allyship isn’t just sameness, allyship is behavior; allyship is grace, and giving space, and holding space, and taking care of each other. We have to. Even as we learn, even as we make mistakes.

So, I graduate from college and I do not like the community I’m in in Portland. It hasn’t done anything for me except for make me feel like there must be a better way to be in solidarity with other humans. And this was a moment in my life that made me realize that you have to search for your support. You don’t just find it magically in your people and the people around you. You actualize that support network and you actualize that support community. You can pinpoint these important experiences – being hurt, being beaten up, whatever – and say, “I’m moving away from that” and then trace each ripple of that movement throughout your life.

Believe it or not, I went back to Texas but this time I went to a city with a little bit better reputation than the one I came from: Austin. And there I decided to go to library school. I’m a worker, I’m a person who loves to work and I wanted a craft, a profession. And libraries are wonderful places, in my mind and in my heart. They’re open to people. I’m going to talk about how this is problematic in a minute, but the upshot is that it’s good work and that’s why I wanted to do it. So I’m in Austin and as I’m learning how to do library work, and I find an actual supportive queer community and trans community full of people with open hearts. And I don’t know why this happened in this city instead of that other city, but it was true. And it opened my eyes to what it means to be in solidarity and to work in allyship and in grace with one another.

Here’s yet another person I wanted to shout out to – Roan Boucher. Dear friend of mine, and an amazing activist with fingers in so many different pies such as the AORTA Collective. This individual taught me to analyze and challenge my own class and race privilege. This individual comes from significant inherited wealth and over the course of our friendship I watched them give away their money to social justice organizations. This was a spectacular act – this person was and is motivated by the desire to make reparations for the funds that were accumulated by their family via privileged access to a capitalist economy. I am in awe of this action. 

two images designed by roan boucher, one with the heading

And this person is also a visual artist and helped me gain insight into the language of social justice and into the language of solidarity and be able to develop the vocabulary to express what I saw happening to my community and the communities around me in a way that allowed it to be an active community rather than just this infighting, backbiting style-oriented mess that I found in Portland. That’s an example of Roan’s beautiful art – look it up. 

Libraries, as I mentioned earlier, are places for everyone, right? They’re open, they’re public, and the resources are free. This is so great, and it’s the reason I wanted to work in libraries. We actually have a Bill of Rights – librarians are this giant mass of people with principles and bills of rights and so forth, not sure if you knew that. There’s tens of thousands of us in this country, it’s kindof amazing. Our Bill of Rights says that we’re all about access and advocacy and openness and, basically, intellectual liberation. These are excellent ideals yet our libraries are still part of this oppressive society we live in. They are part of the colonialist legacy of this country, and we have to make sure as librarians that our institutions are truly open.
slide showing the library bill of rights with the words access advocacy openness freedom and inquiry with arrows pointing at the bill of rights

Here’s where this allyship comes into my day-to-day work. This is not about queer people. This is not about trans people. It’s about bigger and harder questions:image of book with chain bound around it and the words assimation colonialism censorship segregation and complicity with arrows pointing at the book

  • Am I proud of my organization because it is a just organization?
  • Is the work I do just, in and of itself?
  • Is the work I do helping to address inequality, or is it perpetuating it and just calling itself awesome?

Because that is a big risk. If you have codes of ethics you use to say “we’re so awesome,” are you really? Are you testing that every day and making sure that work is actually occurring?

So one of the things I did in Austin that I think is an amazing project was volunteering with the Inside Books Project, a books to prisoners initiative. This is something I’d encourage those of you who are interested in incarceration and the different reasons why we have an enormous incarcerated population in this country (again, back to white supremacy) to look into. The thing is, because of privatization, budget cuts, and unfavorable court rulings, it’s getting less likely for prisons to be able to maintain libraries with staff and collections, even law libraries. This is a thing, and as a result incarcerated folks are increasingly penned up and trapped with limited access to knowledge building or legal self-advocacy tools – this is inhuman treatment. You can research this – prison libraries are in decline and book banning is a common practice [1]. People are challenging this, but not enough in my opinion. 

photo of the interior of the rhizome collective's inside books lending library

All across the country there are these projects where incarcerated folks are able to write letters to organizations and request specific books. At Inside Books when I was involved we had this little lending library in a shared space called the Rhizome Collective, and we’d receive thousands and thousands of letters from prisoners across Texas. They’d say “I want a dictionary, I want history about x country, I want some westerns, I want a romance novel.” We’d pull the material from the library, write them a letter back saying “here’s your stuff, enjoy it, write again, this is free.” We had resource guides to put together all this information and make these book deliveries work.

One of the messed-up things is that as we’re sending these books and they’d often get sent right back to us. They were censored, they were rejected by prisons and sent back to us so we were double-charged for the postage. It got to feel like from some prisons that this was a systematic action. These books were being systematically returned to us for made-up reasons. 

stack of letters from incarcerated people in texas requesting books from the inside books projectWhat this work showed me, and what this has taught me over my life as a librarian, is that there is such as thing as information privilege. And information privilege is a massive challenge for people who work in information institutions like higher education and like libraries. Information costs money, and if you’re not in school and if you don’t have the money to pay for things like articles, you’re not going to be able to get them. There’s this paywall, this ceiling, that you can’t pass through. The example of prison libraries is an extreme, but we all experience this information privilege to different degrees based on who we are and where we are. 

That’s just a reality. And what it’s meant for my life and work in libraries is that information privilege is the thing that I try to fight against in my work. I’m going to give you an example of one of the early ways that this allyship towards people without information privilege played out. I’m then going to talk about how I’m doing that at my library with all of my colleagues, because this is a shared value. This shifts from “I” to “we” in a few minutes. 

photo of small cabin in the woods surrounded by trees and a lawn

One of the first jobs I had as a librarian was in Athens, OH in the middle of Appalachia. Very rural, white, mining and logging area that had all the mines and logs disappear, lots of intergenerational poverty. I lived in this cabin in the woods by myself, it was so scary. [Laughter]. The first night I made curtains out of sheets to put over these big windows that looked out into the dark woods. I came to love this place, but what I did learn in this experience is that isolation is part of information privilege. And isolation is something that makes activism so hard. There were no queer people or  out there in the woods with me – at least not that I could find [laughter]. My closest neighbor was this woman named Linda that I bought my eggs from, I had her on speed dial because she was the cops for me. There were no cops out there, but Linda would help me out if I needed it. 

Through this experience of moving away from queer community I learned that I was a bit of a queer supremacist, if that makes sense. I was judgmental of straight people, I was judgmental of cis people, and I realized through proximity to people who were not like that that I had some unfortunate ideas that I needed to challenge. So this isolation was actually a big opportunity for me and helped inform my own sense of allyship and where I was using my arrogance, I had turned my oppression into arrogance and I needed to challenge that. 

imgae of person making sauerkraut in front of a wall covered in polaroid pictures

The reason I raised the idea of isolation and activism is that I wanted to introduce an amazing individual I met when I was in Austin, through Roan actually. This person lived on this radical fairie land trust, had AIDS, and was trying to benefit his health and prolong his life through diet. And so what he did was research different kinds of fermentation techniques and lead workshops around the country in making sauerkraut and kimchee – he wanted to eat fermented foods to help his gut bacteria and help him live a healthier life. He was also a rural person, and it’s a hard thing to be in isolation and sick. So he knew I was a librarian and worked in libraries, he started to ask me for articles – he’d say “there’s this journal called bacteriology of fermentation and there’s an article I need that would cost me like $60 and I can’t get it, can you send it?” And I’d say yes of course, find the article, download or scan it and send it via email, and if I hadn’t done that and if other librarians hadn’t done that for him he’d be in total isolation. Even with the internet he wouldn’t have been able to learn about this thing he needed to learn to heal himself, because he needed in-depth research information from behind the paywall.

photo pf sandor katz' book the art of fermentation

Bit by bit we’re giving him the knowledge he needs through these one-on-one allyship connections. And the thing you probably don’t know is that it’s literally illegal for me to scan and send those articles to this individual who isn’t part of my school. Because of that paywall, that thing that separates those with information privilege and those without. How messed up is that? [Inaudible audience comments in agreement that this is indeed messed up]. So enough people broke the law for Sandor Katz that he was able to become the foremost expert on fermented foods, and he published this incredible book called The Art of Fermentation – New York Times bestseller list [laughter] – very awesome, he’s out there in the woods making his kimchee and in his acknowledgments he goes off and narcs all of us. [Laughter]. All of the librarians who sent him materials, he’s like “thank you Char, thank you whoever.” – he of course didn’t know that this was a narc move. It’s just perfect, it’s beautiful. This person in isolation needed information, we acted in solidarity, he outed us but that’s totally cool [laughter] because it highlights the problem here. How many other people are living in isolation and unable to get access to information they need. And is this harming their health? 

image of book with arrows pointed toward credits

Here’s where you see allyship in a profession start raising its head. I see these problems as a librarian and it’s my job to fix them. No matter who’s experiencing the problem, no matter if their difference is like my difference, this is now my job to fix. I’ve been using this idea of information privilege to teach students at previous institutions, which was fun and awesome and I’m super bummed I don’t get to do that anymore, but hey that’s okay – using theorists like bell hooks and Paolo Freire to make these ideas real to these learners and help show then that it is their responsibility as a part of these institutions of higher education to take this knowledge they have and share it. And to challenge to structures that make it inaccessible.

images of bell hooks and paolo freire

When I worked at the Claremont Colleges outside of LA for about five years before I came here, those are fancy private schools and there’s a lot of rich kids there. The way I came at this with them is that you have access to so much wealth, your tuition pays for so much information, and you have to take it and give it to other people who need it – it’s your responsibility. So we’d spend entire semesters writing Wikipedia articles, figuring out ways to make the citations free and linking to them, so that people could download that stuff and it wouldn’t just be trapped in a library that you have to be so fancy to get access to. Again, in institutions where there is a lot of privilege, this work of allyship has to translate to people being empowered to do that allyship work themselves. So I’m not just sitting there sending articles to all the Sandys, I want to make a collective of people who understand that this is something they can do in their lives.” 

This is part 2 of a three-installment transcript of a closing keynote I gave at the 2017 CSU San Marcos Social Justice Summit Stay tuned for part 3, and if you’re feeling confused you should probably go back and read part 1

[1] Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), mandated that prisons provide incarcerated people with access to legal professionals or law library collections – this preserved the right of “meaningful access to the courts.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996), rolled this requirement back. A discussion of impacts of these cases and other trends in US prison libraries is available in Lehmann, V. (2011). Challenges and accomplishments in U.S. prison libraries. Library Trends, 59(3), p. 490–508.

Postscript:

I have a new website at charbooth.com for updated presentation, publication, cv etc. content but will keep info-mational active for blog type things.

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