'Change is afoot': Indianapolis library starts culture change after allegations of racism

·6 min read

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the nature of the town halls, which were only open to staff.

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The Indianapolis Public Library begins a new year with a lot in flux.

The employee protests last year over alleged systemic racism and discrimination sparked the departure of former CEO Jackie Nytes, but it also instituted a domino effect of changes within the public agency. An interim leader hosted town halls to gather staff input and the library board commissioned a climate and culture survey of its roughly 570 employees.

And since the pushback, the agency in November filled its diversity, equity and inclusion officer role that had been vacant since last June.

It's a lot of change spurred primarily from one board meeting in May that ended up sparking an outcry — indicative, perhaps, of the ongoing pent-up frustration that some library workers have long had over discrimination and unequal treatment.

Still, not all employees are happy — particularly over a $100,000 contract awarded to law firm Ice Miller to conduct the climate assessment.

"We're all saying this is kind of like a favor to a local law firm and everything, with some deep political ties," said Michael Torres, head of the library workers union that has called for change.

Meanwhile, the library faces vacancies in its higher ranks: the former human resources director left in 2021 following a leave of absence that kicked in last August. The chief financial officer stepped down last November.

But library officials hope that the changes will not only address ongoing concerns, but also move the library to a better place overall.

Keesha Hughes, Indianapolis Public Library's new chief diversity officer, stands among books Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, inside the library's Wayne Branch on South Girls School Road in Indianapolis.
Keesha Hughes, Indianapolis Public Library's new chief diversity officer, stands among books Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, inside the library's Wayne Branch on South Girls School Road in Indianapolis.

"I have certainly given a lot of thought to the gravity of everything that has occurred over the past year, and there is a lot that's going to go into this role," Keesha Hughes, the newest diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said of her position. "But I also recognize that changing systemic issues can't be the responsibility of solely one person. It's going to take everybody doing this work."

Most expensive proposal

Uproar began last May, when board president Judge Jose Salinas muted a former library employee and Black woman who later told the IndyStar that she wanted to speak about how her years of microaggressions and other experiences at the library would affect underserved communities.

The incident prompted outrage and spurred other workers to come forward with previous experiences of discrimination, some who argued that Black employees have been devalued at the library for decades.

Shiloh Correll, 3, holds a sign Friday, July 9, 2021, during a protest by Indianapolis Public Library employees in Indianapolis.
Shiloh Correll, 3, holds a sign Friday, July 9, 2021, during a protest by Indianapolis Public Library employees in Indianapolis.

Some employees demanded the resignation of Nytes and Salinas. While Nytes stepped down in August, Salinas remained president of the board — a position which he was reelected to last November.

Now, the library board hopes a climate assessment survey will help guide its selection for a new CEO.

The survey had a roughly 80% response rate, with 448 responses out of 568 people, according to library figures as of early January.

"I feel great about it," said board member Hope Tribble, chair of the diversity, policy and human resources committee that has been overseeing the assessment process. "I think it's actually a good sign about this process ... the idea that people feel comfortable enough to be engaged and to provide feedback, I think that's a great thing."

Hope Tribble.
Hope Tribble.

Yet some current and former employees, along with two board members, have expressed opposition to hiring the Ice Miller, a law firm that frequently does business with the city and has politically connected members, rather than firms run by people of color.

Board member Khaula Murtadha, who led initial work on a climate assessment, earlier offered to lead a study completed by library employees. The board, however, noted a conflict of interest with the involvement of a board member.

Ice Miller was the most expensive out of all five options garnered in the request for proposals process. Other bids ranged from $12,936 to $27,000.

"I fail to see anything that demonstrates a track record of experienced practices with climate improvement processes," Murtadha said at the board's December meeting. "I see diversity, equity, inclusion discussions...that is not all of what a climate improvement process entails."

Supporting board members, however, noted that Ice Miller seemed best suited for the process. The library also said that the Ice Miller project is led by Myra Selby, noting she is a partner in the firm who is Black.

"People talk about a complete package, and this was a complete package," Tribble told the IndyStar, noting the matrix used to compare each vendor. "It gave us not only a sense of looking at the climate, but reviewing HR policies and providing some additional guidance about the CEO search."

The firm also offered some complimentary services that will help the library move forward with the CEO search, she said.

Workers, however, argue that the library does not need a study to reveal the climate — they already know the issues with racism and discrimination, Torres said.

"One of the biggest issues I don't think is really addressed is accountability," he said. "Like I say, we know what's happening. We know who's responsible for some of these things. What happens to them? Nothing happens to them."

'Change is afoot'

Another challenge for the library: diversifying its staff.

The library's workforce is roughly 70% white, according to data presented to the Indianapolis City-County Council during the annual budget process last year. Like other city departments, white employees also make up the majority of management at 72%. Black employees make up 23% of management while Hispanic or Latino employees make up 3%.

The library's 2021-23 strategic plan also calls for spending 50% of its annual recruitment budget on diverse recruitment efforts. That amounts to $20,000 for 2022. In 2021, the library spent 65% of that budget toward diverse recruitment, according to the library.

Another goal: to spend 27% of its annual vendor expenditures on city-certified firms owned by people of color, people with disabilities or women. The library says it also beat that goal in 2021, spending roughly $14 million out of the required $3.8 million.

Various children's books sit ready to check out Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, inside Indianapolis Public Library's Wayne Branch in Indianapolis.
Various children's books sit ready to check out Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, inside Indianapolis Public Library's Wayne Branch in Indianapolis.

The library also hopes to spend 30% of its annual collection budget in African-American materials, 10% for Latinx materials and 5% for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer materials.

Those targets are meant to be reached by 2023, according to a library spokesperson. As of November, the budget stands at 16.9% spent on African-American materials, 3% on Latinx materials and 4.4% on LGBTQ materials.

Meanwhile, Tribble sees the vacancies in the human resources and CFO positions as an opportunity. It's safe to say that "change is afoot," she says.

"The most constructive perspective is to think about how to make sure that as we fill these positions, we look for people whose values and perspectives align with the strategic plan," she said.

The new diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Hughes, says she has been focused on building relationships with employees and understanding their needs.

Hughes wants employees to know that she is 100% accessible and that she will keep their confidence.

"My door is always open for anyone who wants to chat, or I'm always available by phone as well," she said. "And part of what I intend to do is to be visible in the branches as much as possible."

Call IndyStar reporter Amelia Pak-Harvey at 317-444-6175 or email her at apakharvey@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmeliaPakHarvey.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indianapolis Public Library worker concerns start culture change