This is last part of a keynote I gave in October at CSU San Marcos’s student Social Justice Summit. It’s long so I’ve split it into three installments – best to start with parts 1 and 2 if you haven’t yet.
allyship, community, and tools for change: social justice summit keynote transcript (part 3 of 3). See the full slide deck here, and this part of the transcription begins at slide 69.
Char: “Now I want to talk about a few things that are meaningful in the way that I work with my colleagues at CSUSM in terms of this idea of seeing the flaws in the system. Seeing the cracks inside of the people in our community, and doing the work that we can in our jobs to help address those problems and make social change out of those hurts and those flaws.
I already said that my job is to keep the building from catching fire and make sure that everyone gets a paycheck. But the more important part of it is for me to constantly interrogate myself about what values are most essential to our communities at CSUSM – among you – and ask what can allyship do to inform and inspire our Library and the way that it works and the programs that it creates. I see Josh Foronda (Student at Large Representative for Diversity & Inclusion, Associated Students Inc.) nodding over there, we’ve been though this conversation together on an accessible tech project. That’s good.
A couple of years ago we had this photography exhibit up in the Library lobby called the (in)visible project, I don’t know if y’all remember this, it was portraits of homeless people in San Diego, big beautiful black-and-white photographs by Bear Guerra, humanizing homeless subjects [nods around the room]. We had a panel associated with the exhibit and Prof. Jill Weigt was on it, and she had been doing these activities about food and general resource insecurity among her CSUSM students. She had an extra credit exercise where she asked students to answer the question, “What are the three barriers to your academic success?”
Over and over and over again what she ended up hearing was “due to my employment situation I can’t always make it to class,” “I’m in poverty,” “I have food insecurity,” I don’t have anywhere to live,” I’m on parole, I just got it out of prison.” This person summed it up best of all – “my culture, my economic background, and my race.” A library’s job is to help people gain access and empowerment and be successful in spite of these things. What we do at our library, and I hope I have something to do with this, is constantly look for the ways we can help people deal with those barriers and find themselves represented in our building.
Something that my administrative privilege allowed me to make happen on campus speaks directly to this. When I started out at our Library there was only one way to give students employees a raise: if they’d worked 500 hours, and this was a campus-wide rule. I was like, “no, absolutely not” because the minimum wage in California was fixing to start going up , so people who were making $10.50 an hour who had worked for us for a while but not quite that long were all of a sudden going to be making the same amount of money as those who were just hired. That’s not fair, that’s not equitable. So I went to HR and said “do you know there’s this problem with student employee wages where you can only give people raises if they’ve worked a million hours?” and then explained the challenge with the equity raises.
They said “ah yes, that’s a thing” and went off and discussed it and actually changed the rules – raises and starting salaries [for student employees] can now be based on equity, job complexity, prior experience, and other factors beyond accumulation of hours. Which was a big change, and which I was so thankful for. What it took was me hammering away at them – politely, mind you – for months to keep the issue on the radar and make the case that we needed the rules change to be able to do what was right.
Each year when the new wage kicks in we give all Library students not affected directly by the wage increase an equity bump to keep things fair and balanced. We wanted to analyze this annually to make sure it was correct. And so the only way we were going to have a progressive, equitable wage strategy as the minimum wage increased was if we got campus to change the rules. It’s probably my proudest achievement in this job – why was it that way? I knew it could change, I stuck with it, and they changed it. So, anyway, you can ask for a raise in your campus jobs now… you can ask. Word to the wise. [Participants and facilitators hollering and pointing at Floyd Lai, Cross-Cultural Center Director, followed by laughter].
Another thing we do is around textbook affordability. A few semesters ago my colleague Carmen Mitchell got inspiration from the #textbookbroke project and set up an activity where we put up bulletin boards in the front of the library and asked students what they could afford if they didn’t have to buy textbooks. We got hundreds of notes and the ones that were legit were really telling – “I could get a life”, “I could buy some food,” “I could get a parking pass,” “I could fix my teeth.”
Textbooks cost thousands and thousands of dollars – you know this. What’s the Library going to do about it? We’re going to do something about it. This is a huge challenge to success at CSUSM, and our institution has the ability to flip that on its head and say “here are your textbooks for free.” That’s what we’re trying to do, and it’s about economic justice. Check if your textbook is on reserve at the checkout desk in Kellogg – each semester we’re systematically renting textbooks for the 50 highest-enrollment classes as well as the most expensive textbooks assigned, and you can check them out for free, two hours at a time. There’s a great chance we’ll have your books for at least one class if not more. When we focus on the economic insecurity of our learning population, like with the the Cougars Affordable Learning Materials (CALM) program, we also work with professors to make your readings free. We’re working on another where people can donate their old textbooks to the Library and we’ll have a textbook swap. In the future there will be a chance to go up to a row of donated textbooks in the Library and pull the ones you need for free.
A couple other things that I’m super stoked we’re doing when we focus on economic insecurity: we don’t charge late fees anymore. I think late fees are messed up… so, why are we going to penalize you for checking out a book? It’s counterintuitive and doesn’t support the economic justice mission of our university. If you’re having challenges getting through school because of funds, it’s like salt in a wound to charge you a late fee for having a book checked out. Now the only thing we charge for is reserve books, which are high demand, and lost items, which we have to do because it’s our bottom line. Also, working with Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) – totally funded by students by the way – to make sure we’re open 24 hours Sunday through Thursday. [Sustained snaps and applause.] This is a project I’ve led and I’m super proud of it. It’s going so well, so many people are using this space. [Audible agreement from participants and facilitators.] We’re also working with ASI to get free food from the Cougar Pantry to put out overnight, and we have a hot kettle and microwave – this is the stuff that brings me joy. To be able to say, “come on in, it’s a safe place to study, access to the Academic Success Center, seven study rooms, a huge computer lab, it’s amazing.”
Just removing barriers. Do you see where I’m coming from? [Audible agreement from participants and facilitators.] Allyship in work is removing barriers. Stupid barriers that don’t need to exist that people just didn’t even realize were there because they didn’t see it with the right perspective or the perspective that came from having been challenged in that way.
Here’s a perfect example. When I got to the Library in 2015 people couldn’t take the elevator down to the first floor of the library building from the upper floors. You know, the first floor where there were three campus classrooms and like five learning and tutoring centers. This is now a fading and distant memory, but at my job interview I was like “this is challenge number one for me when I get hired, this is not going to happen anymore, this is awful and we’re going to fix this.” Originally I think the decision was made to restrict elevator access to the first floor out of concern for lost materials, but the argument I and my colleagues tried to make is that a few lost items is the cost of doing business and less important than ease of access. People need to be able to get from the 5th floor to their classrooms and centers on the 1st floor without going outside and walking around to the outside elevator or stairs. What about people who use mobility assistance? How are we treating them? We’re displacing them. So that’s fixed now and people can go straight down to 1 without any drama of being kicked out of the building on the way. That was a big one, and a big win, for me.
So this principle of simply recognizing barriers, removing barriers. Recognizing problems, fixing problems. Problems are not always going to be fixable, but if you don’t try nothing’s going to happen. This is solidarity, this is allyship in work. Same goes with the physical accessibility of our building – it’s not good enough yet, and I’m working on it, and it’s going to get better. I’m working on it in conjunction with something like eight departments across the University. You have to be able to create these big networks of different stakeholders – Facilities, Planning Design & Construction, Human Resources, Disabled Student Services, Title 9. It’s a big undertaking. But again, if you don’t figure out how to find those cracks and paint gold on those cracks and say “this is a problem and we need to fix it,” then it’s not going to happen.
So that’s allyship. It’s about seeing those barriers and taking the time and the energy to make it your job – your actual job – to fix those things. I already mentioned the Context Library series – we have a mission and a dedication in our library to make sure that justice movements are represented and that students of color see themselves in our lobby when they walk in. We organize panels that are amazingly political. Most libraries would be afraid to do things like this. We sponsor the Common Read every year, and without fail the Common Read is voted to be an amazing book. This year Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, last year Sal Si Puedes by Peter Matthiessen. They’re always incredible. Doing this work to lead the community in this conversation around common justice-oriented ideas and narratives. We don’t have to do this work but we do because it’s right and it’s important.
Some other things are underway that you can’t see yet but hopefully you’ll see someday. I’m trying to get some murals painted in the Library, some big beautiful permanent murals to honor the incredible spirit of Chicano Park and the art that’s come out of this county [snaps and applause]. We’re working with a couple of very talented artists on this proposal. Getting public art done is always challenging, but we’re working on it and I hope will be successful. We have to convince people that the risk of this amazingness is worth it. Another friend, and please look her work up – Jessica Sabogal, she’s visionary muralist who has different campaigns, one’s called “Women are Perfect” and another “White Supremacy is Killing Me” – she makes these massive outdoor murals, beautiful representations of women of color in struggle. And that’s what I want in our library and I’m working to make it happen. We’re looking at different spaces in our building, we’re identifying artists who are inspiring, and we’re working through the system to try and get this done.
This is my attempt to say that you can’t always see the work in progress, or the effect, or the outcome. And some things crash and burn, you know, but they’re still worth trying even though they’re frustrating. [Comment from Ariel Stevenson, CSUSM Diversity Coordinator: “And we keep trying anyway.”] And that’s right, we keep trying anyway. Because that’s the hard work, and that’s the love we bring to the hard work from our places of pain and other people’s places of pain. Recognizing them, seeing their barriers, seeing the cracks and the pain that makes them beautiful, and doing what we can to rectify that and to represent the people who are marginalized and oppressed.
Okay. I’m going to leave y’all with a couple of lil’ thoughts, lil’ insights that I feel like I wanted to encapsulate about what being a working ally looks like. And I want to bring us back to this politics of imperfection and responsibility. You see imperfection and it’s your responsibility to do something about it. We’re all imperfect, and it’s our responsibility to work on our own imperfections and educate ourselves and become better allies.
And I think in one’s life you have to focus on what you can affect. Focus on what you can change. If you go too far up and too far out the weight of it becomes crushing. You cannot fix everything, but you can see things in your environment that can get better. You can overhear an interaction, or someone says something offensive, and you can step in and help that person learn how not to do that again. With grace. With grace. Because that’s when things work.
Sing each others’ praises. You’re amazing, let each other know. Identify those amazing members of your communities that are doing good work and doing beautiful work and signal boost them. Help their names get out there, help people know about who they are because that helps them be more successful and have greater impact. Name dropping is the funnest thing in the world – do it.
Here’s one that’s hard. It’s the hardest one of all. Try to humanize your antagonists. Like I said, when I was young and being subject to a lot of violence I tried to understand why it was happening. This is not something you have to or should do if it’s not safe, but you can try to do it if it’s safe for you to do so. There’s a podcast I wanted to mention called Conversations with People Who Hate Me, it’s by this person Dylan Marron, who is a media activist and has other series like Unboxing where he physically unpacks things like white supremacy culture. This podcast is so fascinating, he finds people who have doxxed him online, or given him abuse in social media – I don’t even want to go into what they say – but he’ll identify the people and have long consensual recorded conversations with them about why they said the things they did and do they really hate them and what’s their background. I swear, if there’s anything you listen to this year let it be this. It humanizes these people who have hurt him, it shows you that each and every one of them has pain of their own that’s creating this aggression toward other groups. Invariably these conversations are peaceful and generative. They come to a place of greater understanding.
Finally y’all, believe in resilience. We all have it – we’re all suffused with it. And if you’re in this room, you have more than most people. [Facilitator applause.] Resilience is what lets you continue to be an ally even when it’s hard, even when stuff doesn’t work out. To work in community and believe in the resilience of that community even when it’s under assault, because let’s face it: our communities are under assault and we have to be resilient with one another. And lean on each other and celebrate each other. And try to see what’s behind that antagonism that’s coming at us.
That was my presentation. [Appaluse.]
Question from Diversity Coordinator Ariel Stevenson: So who wants to be a librarian?
Answer from Char: That was my secret mission, to convert all of you. We recruit!
Comment from Floyd Lai: We have a few minutes, I think one of the benefits of inviting faculty from campus to come is for you all to get to know some of the folks that are working and doing amazing work. I appreciate the connection, because now when you walk into the library you might have a very different perspective on what’s happening there. We have about 5-7 minutes if you want to ask questions of Char.
Question: What was that image of the shirt and the heart?
Answer: Ah yes, that’s an image I use in presentations to represent that I wear my heart on my sleeve and work hard. I really do love the work that I do and you have to put your heart into your work or you become a zombie. The day in and day out of administrative work can be challenging, but if you keep focused on that love and that good outcome then it motivates you to continue doing the important stuff and the good stuff, like 24 hour access and helping to solve food insecurity on campus.
Question: You said that there are gender neutral bathrooms now in the Library? Where are they?
Answer: If you’re in the elevator lobby by the Context exhibit space on the 3rd floor, you’ll see a sign that says “gender inclusive restrooms” pointed at a hallway and in that hallway there are three of them. We’re also working with different offices on campus to construct two new gender inclusive restrooms on the 2nd floor as well, because the one thing that the 24/5 space doesn’t have yet is a gender inclusive restroom and that’s not acceptable to me. That’ll happen hopefully by the beginning of next year.
Question: I have a comment about the exhibits, they’re amazing and I loved the one about banned books. Whoever is doing that is awesome.
Answer: Thank you, I’ll pass that along.
Same student: Also, the staplers in the copy rooms are always empty. [Laughter.]
Answer: You’re breaking my heart with that, you know? [Laughter.] It’s literally my job to fix that and I will, I promise. [Note – I’ve since increased student assistant stapler filling from every other day to daily].
Question: You probably already answered this but, every morning when you wake up what is your drive to continue? I know that you want to make sure that there is a change, but some days it’s just like “what the hell, I’m exhausted and I’ve ben fighting these people for months now and they’re still not doing it.” What’s that spark that keeps you going and looking for that light in a dark room.
Answer: That’s such a great question. I give it space. If I have a hard situation or I get a bummer answer to something I’ve been working on, I’m going to let that situation sit there for a couple of days until my spirit heals, and in the interim I’m going to take care of myself, something I can get done, like fill the staplers or something. [Laughter]. You’ve got to give yourself breaks as you’re hammering on this stuff. Take care: rest, rejuvenate, go back to the fight. Rest, rejuvenate, go back to the fight. And I just know that this is all the right thing to do – I would be ashamed of myself if I just let these problems sit there and persist. It is my responsibility and it’s very clear to me. I can’t fix everything, no one can fix everything, that’s grandiosity and it doesn’t work. But if you see a problem, work on the problem. There’s a lot of problems – see it, work on it, figure out how to work on it.
Question: How do you – you mentioned some things about your whiteness – how did you navigate in between those spaces of activism, and knowing when to step up when to step back and when to give space. How did you navigate between those different processes and maybe even pushback from others?
Answer: It’s such a hard question and such a good question. I am quiet and I listen and I learn. I don’t know if this is an intuitive thing or a learned thing, but I know when to keep my mouth shut and I know when to be really loud. I know that I will make mistakes in communities that I am not of. I know that others who are not of my communities will also make mistakes. I have solidarity in that experience of messing up badly. I am willing to have that incredibly discomfiting experience of being taught and being told that I need to learn. For me, in my workplace is where I step up loud and hard and get this stuff done because that is the space that I inhabit on my day-to-day, and I’m in a group of colleagues who are focused on a similar mission. And because I have class and race and positional privilege in that it’s my time to step up and advocate for others. When I’m in other activist spaces, spaces that are predominately POC working on issues that affect POC, I’m much more quiet and I hang back and I don’t jump out and try to say “I’m queer I’m trans, look at me” – there’s no need for me to throw out my oppression credibility every time I’m in an activist space. I did that here because I was asked to, because I needed to. So I try and I think other white folks should try and navigate with grace and humility and care and an utter sharp awareness of what you have, who you are, what you’re comprised ,of and how it affects other people, even without you intending it to. It’s like a sensitivity, a dial. Like a literal environmental sensitivity. I think that social justice activism helps you develop a sensitivity to these dynamics, knowing when to be quiet, go home, read up, and not constantly be asking the people are impacted to tell you what’s up.
Okay, it’s time. Y’all are so awesome, thank you so much.”
This was part 3 of a three-installment series. If you’re just realizing this, go back and read parts 1 and 2.
 California’s minimum wage is increasing incrementally each January to a living wage threshold of $15 in 2023. Which is a very good thing, and I’ll write about student assistant employment practices/wage justice in a future post.
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.