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Be Like RBG – Lessons from a Life

by on September 28, 2020

Like countless others, I admired the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), Supreme Court Justice and human rights icon. In 2017 I painted her portrait as part of a series on human rights leaders. I had a quality art print made from the original and mailed it with a letter of appreciation. To my delight, I received a hand-written thank you note on Supreme Court stationary from RBG- written a day before her 85th birthday. The Justice referred to my description of her demeanor in the portrait as “bold and determined” and signed it “with appreciation for thinking of me, and for your artistry.” That a woman her age working a demanding job while pumping iron on the side would take the time to hand-write a thank-you note to a fan floored me. From changing the world to that small gesture of kindness, she was an inspiration. In the aftermath of her death, I spent time reflecting on what her legacy means to us all, and specifically what it means to me as a librarian.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Portrait by Author

The above anecdote demonstrates that no one is too busy or illustrious to demonstrate small acts of kindness. Those of us who work with the public have that opportunity every day. We can take time to make eye contact and use a gentle, thoughtful tone of voice even when we’re stressed or a customer is grouchy. There are a lot of lonely people in the world, and some come to the library to interact. We can take a deep breath and deliver compassion along with information.

RBG heralded the power of reading: “Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.” Her life reflects a lifetime of scholarship. Less than a year before her death she took time to speak at the Library of Congress Fall for the Book Festival. Whatever form books take – physical or virtual, fiction or nonfiction- books offer in-depth exploration of ideas and complex language that transcends the sound bites and slogans of social media. In the public library world, we have the honor of facilitating the love of reading and access to books every day.

RBG is famous for saying that we can disagree without being disagreeable. Her sincere friendship with fellow Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia is often cited as an example that we don’t need to agree on everything to appreciate one another on a human level. But that statement also speaks to dignity. We can refuse to be pulled down into the mud. She is also known to have said “it sometimes helps to be a little bit deaf.” While she fought for the big wins, she overlooked petty insults and minor annoyances.

Finally, RBG is best known for her ground-breaking work in gender equality. Many library systems recently eliminated the gender designation field on library card applications. While we continue to ensure customers are treated equitably, we also have work to do within the profession. It’s the elephant in the room: the pink collar ghetto. Like many majority-female professions, ours requires a high degree of specialized education and emotional labor, coupled with the stress of shift work, which many of us believe is not equitably compensated for compared with majority-male professions, including those requiring much less education. Youth services is the pinkest of pink when it comes to the ratio between responsibility and compensation within the library realm. We can do more to advocate for ourselves and others in the profession. As RBG advised: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Finally, we must have perseverance and not backslide. Libraries have come a long way from when John Lewis was among thousands denied a library card because of race, but let us not forget what RBG said in her dissent from rollbacks to the Voting Rights Act: Throwing away protections that have been successful because we think they are no longer needed “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Have foresight and see the big picture. Even though she suffered many losses, RBG described her famous dissents as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.” When a step towards justice stumbles, the long-range climb continues.

Be bold. Be determined. Also be kind… like RBG.

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