It’s a weird time to be talking about anything that isn’t the plague or the rise of fascism. I’m going to do it anyway because working on the communication and passage of Core: Leadership, Infrastructure, Futures has been such a massive part of my professional service the past two years. The bonds and relationships I formed in the process are ones I believe will last my career. Coming together to create a new division isn’t something I expect I will ever do again (knock wood). I am a better leader and communicator for the experience. ABOVE ALL, I am so grateful that I got to be a part of the early work to develop and deliver Core.
Yesterday, April 8th, 2020, we got the news that Core passed the necessary three-division vote. I breathed a sigh of relief, posted some victorious tweets, and reminded myself that I wanted to blog about it before my perspective shifted. I promised myself this post in December- a present after a lot of arduous work. This post is my reflection as an individual- my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of everyone or anyone else.
But I believe colleagues will understand and appreciate what I mean when I relate that developing the new division was simultaneously an honor, a privilege, a career-defining project, a labor of love, and a huge pain in the ass.
I never intended to champion a division merger. But I wound up doing a pretty ok job. All this started when I ran and won a seat on the Board of my beloved home division, LITA, in 2017, almost three years ago now. After years of blogging, committees, and other involvement, I wanted to step up to the plate and help my division become sustainable. Despite being a numbers person, my math was off. I arrived way too late to save LITA, but thankfully Jenny Levine, Andromeda Yelton, Bohyun Kim, and lots of other talented folks were already on it. I found this out at my first Board meeting. Approaching the merger, I felt inevitably both deflated and energized- a tension that defined much of my early work on it. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I understood what needed to happen, and I wanted to help.
So despite having an agenda (you know your girl), I immediately pivoted- my bias to action went into hyperdrive- but little did I know what work lay ahead. I wrote about it as we came together at the 2019 Midwinter Meeting to discuss a potential merger of ALCTS–LITA–LLAMA. I had worked on the Activities Working Group, a team charged with identifying both unique and overlapping division activities. That was a time-consuming effort for sure- and some of the conversations were emotional and fraught. Even in considering what activities could be regarded as comparable, the initial impulse of participants was to highlight difference rather than commonality. The joint open board meeting at Midwinter 2019 highlighted how divided division members were. It was a proving ground for the merge as a change management effort, and we all fell short.
At the 2019 Midwinter Meeting, which was indeed (in my assessment) a shit show on any number of counts, it seemed like all the work we’d put in during 2018/2019 in terms of considering how our divisions should come together was wasted. I was ready to throw up my hands- this is a pretty common reaction to ALA volunteer work in my experience. The things you care about drive you craziest.
And then, SCOE’s recommendations became more fully understood. Small divisions were fundamentally in question. We had to put ourselves together our way, or risk being smooshed together or eliminated. And we had to sort out how to do that in short order.
Working with an extremely talented and motivated cross-divisional team was the greatest gift of this experience. After being appointed to the newly charged Steering Committee in late August 2019, I volunteered (can’t stop, won’t stop) to manage the communications from pre-vote to vote as a project. With input from current, past, and future presidents, committee members, and other volunteers, we developed an ambitious but properly scoped communications plan. Ultimately, we would make adjustments as we went, but I am proud of our deliverables. As we began, we acknowledged we were facing significant challenges- we needed to establish an authentic voice and help folks know we were listening and responding, adjusting the proposed division to their feedback. We did everything we could, short of change the name.
Take, for instance, the We Hear You page– developed within 24 hours of the group’s initial charge. The accompanying message helped us to begin to reframe the Core discussion and to push for a more productive dialogue. We opened the process of Core’s formation up as much as was possible- 7 Town Halls, 3 Twitter Chats, 3 Focus Groups, countless feedback forms, volunteer sign-up, an open and public editing project on the Core proposal itself. I am beyond proud of that work. We truly integrated Core’s values into the design and delivery of its proposal and communications. It was challenging and rewarding and has solidified my opinion that an open process is the best means of leading change.
Pursuing transparency and open process came at a cost- we made compromises to please some constituencies that offended others- it was impossible to connect all the groups to one another in our time constraints. There were many points in this effort that my empathy ran out. Ultimately, at each of these points, I recognized what I was experiencing was an imbalance of effort. To volunteer is to give- I gave a lot in terms of time and creativity, and listening. It’s a privilege, of course, to have the time to give. I gave it.
It didn’t help that ALA wasn’t being as transparent with its members as we were. A draining challenge I had not anticipated in the midst of my ALA Council term (ha, I know) was trying to get a straight answer from the organization when Division coffers were used to pay for an unexpected deficit. Trying to build trust around something new is a big enough challenge without having an organization break trust on a major level. Someday, not today, I will write a blog post about how angry I was to find myself being repeatedly gaslit by a membership organization I have paid so much money and given so much time. The stakes rose significantly on our vote after the news went live- it was do or die for LITA. Without the merger, we would have to sunset.
We all had to come to terms with the fact that excellent communications and a trustworthy division leadership wouldn’t be enough to keep everyone in the divisions with us through the merger.
The worst of the effort in terms of personal experience was this- when people criticized and distrusted the process, when they anonymously provided extremely hurtful and unhelpful feedback, fought us on verb tense in emails, nitpicked without contributing, and actively shit-talked efforts on a variety of channels- they weren’t trying. We were working very hard. This happened a lot.
A lot of member distrust had nothing to do with Core as an effort or as a group, and it was exhausting to try to remind people that they were directing their vitriol at a bunch of very tired volunteers. Their anger and their distrust (however existential) hit us, over and over and over again. And in the toughest moments, it made me wonder if working together and trying to include them when they actively fought inclusion was even worth it. I have every hope that it will be.
Somewhere along the line, my own deflated agenda fell away from me. I stopped missing it. I am hopeful that in the next phases of the development of Core, increased volunteer opportunities will allow members to know and fully understand that they are the ones who this work is for, this space is for, this division is for. I am hopeful that others will recognize the best way to get what they want in the new division (so full of potential currently) is to participate and make that happen. I want to work with the folks who can make that leap. I want to support whoever does the work next, and tell them they’re doing great.
I also want to keep making ALA a better place- Core can help. But that’s not work for today, because I am profoundly tired. For now, I’m taking a break to pause and appreciate that something as gutsy, kind, and member-driven as Core came into being. It is a wonder- particularly in these dangerous and dark times where so much is happening TO us that here is this thing we built together for each other. “Here it is,” I thought yesterday, “here it is. I worked so hard on it. Here’s the place where we can all swagger together.” The thought brought me to tears.