LeFoster Williams: helping the library better serve the Black community

LeFoster reading to children during a storytime
A diverse group of rapt toddlers focus their attention on LeFoster Williams. It’s storytime at North Portland Library during a crisp fall morning. With each turn of the page, one child runs up to him to see close-up which creature’s identity will be revealed beyond its ears. They sing with him. They stretch and exclaim as their excitement builds. For the toddlers, it’s a typical storytime. For the library, it affirms an organizational priority.

As a library assistant at North Portland Library and a member of the Black Cultural Library Advocates (BCLA) staff group at Multnomah County Library, LeFoster is helping the library champion equity and inclusion. The BCLA group, from LeFoster’s perspective, is a positive and safe space for him to collaborate with his colleagues. The team members coordinate work on programming and outreach and share experiences, including microaggressions in the workplace or leveraging contacts and resources from their personal networks. To him, the library’s executive-level support of this group helps amplify their work to make positive changes in how the library serves Multnomah County’s Black community.

And there is much work yet to be done. Oregon has a well-documented past and a systemic foundation of exclusion and racism. Public libraries, too, have a troubling legacy of excluding Black communities and focusing services and resources on white, more affluent communities. For most of its history, Multnomah County Library’s workforce was not diverse or representative of the community it serves. That began to change in 1998, when the library started offering materials and service in Spanish. Since then, the library has added materials and service in Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Somali. That focus has come through placing “Knowledge, Skills and Abilities” (KSA) competency designations on certain positions. In 2007, the library established the Black Cultural Competency KSA, which is now a feature of 24 staff positions at the library, including all members of the BCLA.

A Portland native, LeFoster has seen dramatic changes to Northeast Portland and Multnomah County affecting the Black community. In spite of many Black families’ eastward migration to “the numbers” in East County, he says “North Portland Library is still the Black branch.” He points to that branch’s unique collection, which includes the Black Resources Collection, the Black Pacific Northwest Collection and a robust selection of urban fiction, which he has been devouring as of late.

When he’s connecting with people outside the library, the first reaction LeFoster often observes is surprise. “They hire people like you?” younger people often ask. A Black man with dreads working at the library isn't what they expect. Then, the next question: “Do you get paid or volunteer?” He assures them it’s a real job and says “they hire people like you, too!”

When he’s off work, LeFoster is a champion for the library with friends and family. He says that there’s a lack of awareness about the library as a Black resource. “A lot of people are worried about fees,” he says. “They don’t know that library cards are free. I want to show them that the library is welcoming for all people.”

LeFoster is deeply involved with his community. Outside of work, he is active with this brother, Christopher, in connecting with young people. Together, they make music, which he says is his main passion in life. The brothers also travel to high schools to work with Black student union groups. They discuss issues like personal development, Black pride and figures who changed the world, like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.

“When I was young, I had people who looked out for me. Some young people today don’t have that,” LeFoster says. “I want to give back. I want society to look at Black youth differently. I want youth to know that they have to let people know they are somebody, through the way they carry themselves — through their character and personality.”

Comments

This is so cool. I hope all kids get this. And the fact that he is allowed to look the way he wants is wonderful as well. Thank you!

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