The Free Library of Philadelphia is under fire after a speaker brought in for diversity and inclusion training told staff to avoid terms like white supremacy and white privilege because they were overused and focused on just one race.
Diversity consultant Brandi Baldwin, who is black, led the training session for nearly 200 library employees last week via Zoom, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
She referred to phrases including white supremacy, white privilege and systematic racism as ‘myths’ and argued that they shouldn’t be used because they distract from solutions and don’t account for the fact that people of color can cause just as much harm as white people.
‘Are all the inequities you experience at the hands of white people?’ Baldwin asked.
The presentation drew outrage from many attendees who said it directly contradicted the message they’ve been pushing in a years-long fight against racism and discrimination within the Free Library.
Diversity consultant Brandi Baldwin led a diversity and inclusion training session for nearly 200 employees at the Free Library of Philadelphia last week via Zoom (pictured). During her presentation she told staff to avoid terms like white supremacy and white privilege because they were overused and focused on just one race
The presentation drew outrage from many attendees who said it directly contradicted the message they’ve been pushing in a years-long fight against racism and discrimination within the Free Library (above in a file photo)
Among the critics was Andrea Lemoins, a library community organizer who co-founded Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library, a group that has led numerous racial justice protests over the past year.
‘Black folk, we are seriously suffering from PTSD from that [expletive] training, even thinking about it now, I just wanna cry,’ Lemoins told the Inquirer.
‘To say that white privilege doesn’t exist? That is a whole level of anti-blackness and internalized racism for her that I just cannot fathom.’
Fred Ginyard, another library community organizer, told the newspaper: ‘I don’t understand how you can address the issue if you can’t even name it.’
Librarian Perry Genovesi, who is white, called some of Baldwin’s messages ‘divorced from reality’. He said it seemed like she was trying to placate white people who are uncomfortable with concepts like white privilege.
‘It’s important not to alienate our fellow white workers, it’s true,’ Genovesi wrote on an internal staff forum viewed by the Inquirer.
‘But as a white worker, I’ve come to grips with my benefits in white supremacist society. Thinking our fellow white workers are incapable of change, to come over to the side of antiracism, is deprecating.’
Genovesi said he did appreciate a few parts of the presentation, including when Baldwin criticized ‘open door policies’ because they overlook the fact that some people may not feel comfortable raising concerns to management.
He also agreed with her point about corporations participating in performative activism that doesn’t have any true value. Baldwin cited Crayola’s creation of ‘multicultural crayons’ as an example.
Baldwin (left and right) was brought in to lead the seminar by DiverseForce, a diversity and inclusion organization based in Philadelphia whose clients include Comcast, Independence Blue Cross and Wells Fargo
Baldwin was brought in to lead the seminar by DiverseForce, a diversity and inclusion organization based in Philadelphia whose clients include Comcast, Independence Blue Cross and Wells Fargo.
Baldwin works as a contractor for the company. She has a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Temple University and has taught business communications courses at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
She defended herself against the criticism by saying that she gave the kind of presentation the Free Library requested – it just didn’t fit what the workers wanted.
‘They were looking for something totally different,’ she said of the critics. ‘They were looking for clearing the air.’
Baldwin said that the library should have consulted the workers to see what they wanted from the training beforehand.
DiverseForce CEO Sulaiman Rahman addressed the controversy in an email to Free Library staff and accused the critics of detracting from the goal of the training.
‘There are some staff members who have created social media posts, contacted media, and sent messages that seemed to be an attempt to publicly shame or discredit Dr. Brandi and/or DiverseForce in response to their concerns and disagreement with some of the content in the presentation,’ Rahman wrote.
‘This is a reaction that Dr. Brandi touched on in her session and we hope that the staff members who are engaging in these behaviors consider how it can be counterproductive to the overall goal of being inclusive and embracing diversity of thought and perspectives at the Free Library of Philadelphia.’
Rahman told the Inquirer that the diversity and inclusion training marked the conclusion of DiverseForce’s year-long contract with the Free Library.
As part of that contract, DiverseForce wrote a report on how the library could improve equity and helped hire its first chief diversity and inclusion officer, Guy A. Sims, who started the job in December.
The Free Library has faced allegations of racism and discrimination toward black workers for years. The tensions came to a head last spring with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompting activist employees to form Concerned Black Workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Pictured: Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia last May
Sims penned a letter to staff about the presentation on Monday and acknowledged workers’ criticisms.
‘In reviewing evaluative comments, it was indicated that the facilitator offered perspectives that did not reflect the direction we should be headed as an organization,’ Sims wrote.
‘Those perspectives belong to the facilitator and serve as one of many ways to look at and address DEI issues.’
Sims said that the library has asked DiverseForce to re-evaluate its two upcoming training sessions to make sure they ‘enable a safe space for staff to engage and start difficult conversations’.
‘We will continue to make adjustments as we navigate the Free Library’s path forward in addressing inequity within the organization, and include many more voices in further conversations, workshops, and trainings that address systemic racism and white supremacy on a deeper level,’ he said in a statement to the Inquirer.
Ginyard, however, expressed doubt that the next sessions will be any better.
‘Y’all miss the mark at every moment in every opportunity,’ he said of the library leadership.
The Free Library has faced allegations of racism and discrimination toward black workers for years, according to the Inquirer.
The tensions came to a head last spring with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompting activist employees to form Concerned Black Workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
On its Instagram page the group frequently posts workers’ stories about experiencing racism at the library.
The group has also staged many protests, including one last summer which led to many prominent authors backing out of Free Library events in a show of solidarity.
Library Director Siobhan Reardon resigned last July after the group penned an open letter demanding that she step down.