A Letter to Oakland

Release Date

Mon, 06/01/2020

The OPL Racial Equity Team was formed as part of a citywide effort to support the City of Oakland to transform practices in government to promote inclusion and full participation by a broad representation of residents and to end racial inequity in the community and in the workplace. The team consists of library staff across all classification levels.

Dear Oakland,   

At this historic moment, a time of deep crisis in our community, the Library’s Racial Equity Team recognizes the deep pain many are feeling. This pain is greatest in black, brown and indigenous communities. COVID-19 has disproportionate impacts on these communities, with higher rates of contracting the disease, higher rates of death, and deeper economic pain.

Black and brown communities are being pushed to their absolute limits. The recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities are linked because they're both caused by systematic and institutional racism. One of the steps toward dismantling these systems of white supremacy is for those with power to understand and acknowledge what is happening and why.

Oakland is a very racially diverse city, strongly segregated by neighborhood. As black and brown people are economically pushed out of the city, inequities deepen. Oakland’s history of redlining, not allowing black and brown people to purchase homes in many neighborhoods, along with the racially biased GI bill after World War II, continue to deeply impact us today.  A few current examples of disparate racial realities from Oakland’s 2018 Equity Indicators Report:

  • African Americans are at least three times more likely than Whites to be living at or below the federal poverty level 
  • Latino and African American students are at least five times more likely than White students to score “Standard Not Met” on 3rd grade reading proficiency tests 
  • African American youth are at least 110 times more likely to be arrested on felony charges than White juveniles 

Libraries have historically deemed themselves ‘neutral’ which effectively works to maintain the status quo of white privilege. We must reflect on the ways that Oakland Public Library perpetuates institutional racism. In so many ways our library, an institution with power, is a reflection of our community.  What is the racial demographic of our staff if you look at each classification? What does it cost an individual to advance professionally and how does that impact who gets promoted? How does our programming perpetuate white supremacy or a limited view of the needs of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Oakland?   

Oakland has a rich legacy of racial justice. As library workers, we hold a shared vision for our community to be strong and informed -- and we have the power to shape this together. To realize our vision, we must hold ourselves accountable in our commitment to and work towards racial equity, inclusion, and justice. 

The Racial Equity Team strives to infuse a racial equity framework into all of our decision making as a library. The team is currently working with other public library racial equity teams across Northern California, as part of the Cultivating Racial Equity Initiative, to identify strategic interventions and develop a systemwide racial equity plan to increase equity within our institution and improve racial outcomes in our city. We look forward to sharing that plan in the near future. At the same time, we are promoting education and discussion among staff. We recently held a book group discussion of Zach Norris’ book We Keep Us Safe, which was full-to-capacity at our Temescal Branch. Some of our plans, such as hosting Dante King to lead us in a conversation about implicit bias and cultural humility have been put on hold because of COVID-19.  We look forward to the opportunity to gather again to continue these important conversations.

Earlier this year we asked all staff to take at least the first of the four part Advancing Racial Equity Academy through the City of Oakland's Human Resources Department. As more of us take this academy, it gives us a common language and understanding. It gives us all tools to transform this institution we all work for into one that builds equity in Oakland. We seek to strategically dismantle white supremacy and build racial equity within the Oakland Public Library.

As a government agency, we are asking ourselves... How can we support those suffering the most? How can we seize this moment? Together, in struggle, we will find our way forward. 

We need to learn, become more aware of our biases, and consider how inequity is materialized in our everyday lives. We must not only start conversations about race and racial equity but keep thinking about how our actions can actively disrupt white supremacy, in our profession and beyond.  

Let us be gentle with each other. We are all traumatized by recent events, some of us holding deep grief. Let us support each other, allow space for expressing the pain and create opportunity for healing. 

Oakland Public Library Racial Equity Team