Growing up as a young black girl in Tucson, Tenecia Phillips often didn’t see others who looked like her, whether it was at her local library or other public spaces.
Today, as a managing librarian for the Pima County Library’s Sahuarita branch, little has changed. Of the library system’s hundreds of employees, only about 20 are black. Of that 20, only two are librarians, Phillips said.
In addition to concerns about low representation of black library employees, Phillips recognized a lack of representation in terms of library visitors.
“That can be very lonely whether that’s in the community or in your workplace,” Phillips said. “It can feel like an island when you don’t see other individuals who look like you or who you can have that community connection with.”
Phillips wasn’t the only one who noticed. In September 2017, she and six other library staff members teamed up to form the Kindred group, dedicated to reaching, supporting and celebrating the black community within the Pima County Library system and across the Tucson area.
In the year and half that’s followed, the Kindred team has worked to strengthen the library’s collection to include more black authors and books featuring black or biracial characters for children, teens and adults.
Ensuring that the genres of those materials are equally diverse is just as important, added Kindred Team member and Library Associate Angela Harper.
“We don’t want to look at just urban fiction — those aren’t the only kind of writings we want to focus on all of the time,” Harper said. “We have diverse tastes like other cultures. There are some who love classical music, so why don’t we have music by black classical musicians. There are some who are into bluegrass. There are artists who are black also.”
Kindred has partnered with the Dunbar Cultural Center, which Phillips described as “an integral part in the history of the black community in Tucson,” to bring library programming to their target audience.
At those community events, Phillips and other members of the Kindred Team take the time to chat with attendees about what drew them in, whether they’ve visited their neighborhood library branches and, if not, what could be done to make them comfortable enough to use the library’s resources.
“Having those conversations and being open to the feedback we’re receiving — when folks see that change, they want to use the library, they want to come in, they want to embrace us just like we want to embrace them,” Phillips said.
Last year, the Kindred Team went into TUSD schools, partnering with the district’s African American Student Services Department, to read to students and donate books so children could build their own libraries at home.
This year, it kicked off it’s One Book, One Community program, funded by a federal grant allowing them to select one book title, which was purchased in quantities large enough to distribute at eight Pima County library branches.
Community members picked up a copy of the book, “Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler, along with study guides, and community conversations are now underway both in person and virtually.
Internally, the Kindred Team has begun having conversations with the county’s human resources department about marketing the library as an employer to black students and library programs outside of Tucson, and where to send job announcements.
“It’s a slow process, but it’s a process that has started and we know that change takes time,” Phillips said. “But we’ve gotten really positive feedback from our administration and great support, so that is encouraging to us — it signals that we’re on the right path.”