I would love for this to be a regular feature on my blog, where I can tell you about the amazing work that librarians are doing for libraries, youth, and communities at large. Think of this as a Movers and Shakers award, but for like, rad people.
I first met Wick at Urban Librarians Unite’s Urban Librarians Conference (say that three times fast) and was immediately and totally in awe. I don’t tend to fangirl over other librarians because I’m too much of an egomaniac, but I was so impressed and inspired by all the work that Wick does. I haven’t mentioned yet it on this blog, but I’ve recently started volunteering for the Ali Forney Center, which provides a variety of services to homeless LGBTQ youth. Providing a welcoming library atmosphere for LGBTQ youth and patrons experiencing homelessness has been very much on my brain lately, so when I saw Wick’s list of accomplishments, I knew we had to be best friends whether he liked it or not. Wick’s a youngin in librarian years, but he’s gotten so much done: he’s received the Creating Change award from the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce for work organizing around LGBTQ issues in rural Missouri and Kansas; he’s the President of Empowering Queer Activists and Leaders (EQUAL), which provides activist and leadership training for queer and allied youth; in 2008 he was named the best activist in Missouri; and is a self-proclaimed riot grrrl. Oh, and this is all in addition to being a librarian. Do you feel inadequate yet? I do.
I found his talk at the UL Conference so freaking inspiring and motivating, I had to interview him so that you all could know how great he is and get some new ideas about the possibilities for better library/patron/community interactions.
By the by, I noticed that Wick uses a number of different pronouns when referring to himself. When asked about his preferred pronoun, he answered: “I like all of the pronouns and none of them. Really, I’m not too picky when it comes to that.” So, I’m using he and him, because I’m not very imaginative and this whole PGP thing is admittedly very new to me. But I’m trying. So I hope that’s OK with readers.
Ingrid Abrams: You’re a librarian and a fierce activist. Which came first? The librarianship or the activism? Did one lead to the other?
Wick Thomas: Activism definitely came first. I was admittedly a poor student in high school and did the bare minimum to get by. Activism came naturally, however. I remember being in elementary school and learning about various justice movements and daydreaming about being on the front lines. I held my first protest at age 16 in Harrisonville, MO against the bogus Missouri marriage amendment which defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman, I got some friends together and we held up signs by a busy street. I’m sure we had very little effect on the outcome, but the experience of organizing a protest with friends in rural Missouri solidified for me my role as an activist. I didn’t really become a reader until I was 19. At 19 I went on the Equality Ride, a two month bus trip that visits institutions that ban or discriminate against LGBTQ students, and during that I read the writings of Thoreau and Gandhi, and shortly thereafter found the book that would make me a book lover, The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This book opened up the world of literature for me. Public access to education and books has always been something that has been important to me and I got a lucky break as a part time page at an academic library. Before this I had never thought about working at a library. Ever since then I have been crawling my way up the library ladder, deciding to go to school for the sole purpose of becoming a librarian. The message against censorship and for free public access to education is a message that I feel is incredibly important, especially with the increased privatization of public spaces and services. I see libraries at the forefront of a movement toward a more free world. It was a natural fit.
IA: You and I both have unusual appearances for librarians (though I’d say you take it a little further, as you have visible facial piercings). How do you feel your appearance affects your interactions with your patrons? Are there advantages or disadvantages? Is your administration supportive of your appearance?
WT: I don’t feel that my piercings, tattoos, or ever-changing hair color have been detrimental to my work. In fact I think they have opened up dialogue with young people more often than not. I’ve been lucky enough to have supervisors who are very cool people and serious about wanting librarians from various backgrounds and experiences. I think Kansas City is a place where there is a lot of tattoo/piercing acceptance which also helps. I hope and strive for my work being good enough that people can see past my appearance if they do have a problem with it.
IA: How can librarians and library staff be make sure they are creating a welcoming and safe environment for all kinds of patrons?
WT: We can always do better in increasing public access and I’m glad that so many librarians I know are constantly having this conversation and trying to make their institutions better. A large part of increasing access is making the library, especially our youth spaces, welcoming to all of those marginalized in our cities. Advocating for preferred names to be used in databases for gender variant or marginalized youth is a big one for me. Often times the preferred names of those who have been oppressed are incredibly important. They act as a symbolic rebirth and acknowledging them can make a ton of difference. Same thing with gender. If you don’t know someone’s gender ask what pronoun they prefer. And shut it down if people use “gay” or “fag” as insults. Don’t feel like you have to go into this by yourself, though. There are likely several national groups nearby, GLSEN, PFLAG, or local support groups that will come and do trainings for you and your staff. There are also many groups that will come and do anti-racism trainings which a lot of people would benefit from. Mostly I think they key is to try and learn as many names as possible and offer quality service to everybody regardless of judgement or prejudice. Some of these conversations can be hard to have but I find that the most uncomfortable conversations are the ones that lead to the most growth when people are coming to them with a willingness to learn from each other.
IA: I stalk you on Facebook and heard you speak at the Urban Librarians conference, so I’ve seen you bandy about this quote by Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” I really associate this quote with you. Can you expand on it a bit?
WT: I think that variations of this have been said by most of the people who we look up to as leaders of justice movements. We all walk with our own filter and our own experiences through the world and it’s important that we try hard to find the issues that don’t impact us individually and recognize the coalitions that need to be made in order to have a real movement toward justice. Racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia (and I would go so far as to say specesism, war, and environmental degredation as well)- They’re all related and if we stand against racism then we also need to stand against sexism. If we are against homophobia, then we need to also stand against classism. When gay marriage happens, because it will happen, the homeless trans youth I work with will still have incredible odds stacked against them. It is one thing to believe in movement toward equality for all people and it is another to assess the ways in which we are individually contributing to an oppressive system. (We’ve got a long way to go. Let’s go together.)
So, now it’s your turn to weigh in. Is there a line drawn between librarianship and community activism? How can librarians be better advocates for their communities? And also, do you know a librarian or library-worker who you think I need to interview for next time? Let me know.
Thanks to Wick for not being scared by my overly-fangirl-ly nature and enthusiasm. I look forward to seeing what Wick does next.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid