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Brave Communities – A Conversation with Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada

by on June 2, 2022

Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada is the Adult Services Assistant Manager at the Palos Verdes Library District in Southern California. She is also the current Executive Director of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), a past president of APALA (2016-2017), and President-Elect of the American Library Association (ALA). She will become president after the 2022 ALA Annual Conference. She assumes the position in a time of huge changes and challenges for the library profession. Doug Crane, Director of the Palm Beach County Library System and frequent Public Libraries Online contributor, spoke with Pelayo-Lozada about how her past involvement in ALA, her intentions for the coming year as President, and the opportunities facing libraries right now.

Doug: First of all, congratulations on being elected ALA President. Please share your story about why you picked libraries as a career.

Lessa: From when I was little, I actually wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Throughout my undergrad, I started preparing for the credential program, and while I was going to school, I worked at Borders Books, may they rest in peace. One day, a group of Los Angeles Public Library librarians came in. It was a time when there were still magical slush funds, and they had a ton of money to spend at the end of the fiscal year. They started throwing lots of books on carts to purchase for the library, and I thought it was magic. I talked to them and they told me what it was like to work for LAPL, and how to become a librarian. Even though I spent every day after school in the library, it never occurred to me to be a librarian. After meeting them, I thought I’ll do that when I’m burnt out with teaching and need a second career. The next summer I went to two days of credential programs, where I changed my mind and decided to be a librarian first. It had all the same values. I got to serve the community, I got to work with kids. Librarianship seemed like the right fit for me, and I have never looked back.

Doug: What position are you in right now, and how long have you been there?

Lessa: Since 2018, I’ve served as the Adult Services Assistant Manager for the Palos Verdes Library District. This was actually where I had my first professional level job as a librarian back in 2009. I started as an on-call and Sunday librarian, and became a part-time young readers librarian. It was during the recession, so a lot of libraries were not hiring full-time folks. I worked here and two other libraries, and then left to get full-time employment. In 2016 I came back when the opportunity arose to be young reader’s librarian. Two years later I transitioned into adult services.

Doug: Typically the person who elevates to ALA President is a library director, dean, or another higher level executive. Share how you got started with ALA and what inspired you to consider taking on this important leadership role.

Lessa: When I graduated it was the middle of the recession and I couldn’t get full-time work. I was looking for opportunities to build my resume and my leadership skills. To do so, I started volunteering with the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, APALA, and through that work I got to participate in ALA President Camila Alire’s presidential initiative, the Talk Story program. It was an intergenerational family literacy initiative that was a joint partnership between APALA and the American Indian Librarians Association, using her presidential funds as support. There I saw what real change looked like on the national level, and to bring awareness to APA issues. I had the support of APALA members, supporters, and mentors who encouraged me. They felt I was doing such a great job that I should get more active in ALA. So I applied for the Emerging Leaders program through APALA and became sponsored by them. That was the beginning that opened up an understanding of how ALA worked.

As a large complex organization, it gave me the network and the opportunities to see how I could make a difference. I hit the ground running by joining the Committee on Diversity and was elected to ALA Council  as a Councilor at Large. Feeling like I was making an impact I aspired to do more. The idea of becoming President stuck in my mind because when I was in Emerging Leaders, my group said I was going to be ALA president someday although I’m not sure I agreed then. When I was on the Executive Board and started doing work for the Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness (SCOE) it was a labor of love, and a lot of work. I saw how much I cared about the Association, but it also showed me how much others cared about it too. I saw the difference that ALA made not only in personal lives, but in libraries and other Associations across the country. When I was finishing my executive board term, and SCOE was coming to an end, it was right when the pandemic hit. Calls for nominations for ALA president were being solicited. I wasn’t finished with this work and wanted to continue to completion to see those changes. I don’t wanted to just drop it into someone else’s lap. I want to take responsibility and help the management and cultural changes going on in ALA, and as a society as a whole. That’s how I got here today.

Doug:  In advance of your term in office, what are three issues you think are the most important?

Lessa: I think our biggest issues include ensuring that ALA continues its mission to preserve and strengthen library services through technical assistance, professional development, and direct funding for libraries and library practitioners. What that looks like on a practical level is how we support library workers right now. We’ve gone through a lot of trauma, regardless of the type of library you’ve worked in. As library workers and as people, figuring out what that support and advocacy for library workers looks like is one of the biggest issues. ALA can utilize its 501c6 arm, the ALA-Allied Professional Association, to carry out this mission. As ALA, one of the biggest issues right now is also supporting those who are facing intellectual freedom challenges. We must work against those challenges with a concerted effort. ALA recently launched Unite Against Book Bans, and is rolling out tool kits. We’re seeing support from our Office for Intellectual Freedom helping those on the front lines. Finally, there’s lots of different ways that folks can use their skills, time, and dollars. I think it’s important to remind folks of the value of ALA membership and how it affects libraries across the nation.

Doug: Share what you consider are the most valuable benefits of membership. Why should someone spend their money to become a member of ALA?

Lessa: On a personal level, as a library worker and as a library supporter and lover, it is the right thing to do. Anyone can become an ALA member. For library workers, I think it’s the networks and the experiences that you may not have in your home library. What got me in was skills and leadership building. I was chairing committees as a children’s librarian with library directors and deans on it. This allowed me to come to work with a little bit of a different skill set than my peers. That got me ready for managerial roles and trained me in different ways than the traditional library route. Seeing what’s going on in different types of libraries is important. I learned so much from academic and school librarians that I wouldn’t necessarily have access to without my ALA membership. As a library supporter on a national level, I think the value of ALA membership is that it’s a platform for library issues. On that federal level, institutionalizing the importance of libraries, literacy, digital equity, and access is important. How we get our funding, IMLS, LSTA funding, IAL funding, all of that, comes with the ALA membership.

Doug: You have experienced advocacy at the federal level first-hand through legislative days and the February fly-in events. What can the average ALA member do to help support federal funding for libraries?

Lessa: Right now the “Dear Appropriator” letters are out for LSTA and IAL funding. I encourage everyone to visit #fundlibraries page on the ALA web site to contact their federal representatives and senators. Use that form letter and edit it to make it personal. One great thing is that my Congressperson is really receptive to tweeting support for libraries, and if yours is too, retweet them. Also, make sure to thank your representatives for their support. That’s some of the easiest things that we can do and the ALA Public Policy and Advocacy Office makes it really easy as well. During the last fly-in, we offered a library visit to a Congresswoman who I’ve never actually met in person. She accepted the invitation and we were able to meet her at the Los Angeles Public Library. It gave her more insight into our issues and got her promotion and goodwill too.

Doug: What is your theme for you Presidential year and do you have specific plans in place?

Lessa: My theme this year is our brave communities. This includes our brave communities as library workers and our brave communities of the ones that we serve. We’ve made really difficult decisions and passed through really difficult times over the last two years. I really want to acknowledge the difficulty, but also celebrate the amazing and creative things that have happened. We made lemonade out of lemons, and we were there for the folks that needed us during difficult times. In addition to celebrating those stories, I also really want to focus on library workers and labor rights, specifically through ALA-APA, ALA-Allied Professional Association, our 501c6 arm. In addition, we are also looking at new approaches to grassroots partnerships. Often we come in with ideas on how we want to partner. Instead we can ask them what we could do together. The other area that I want to focus on is EDI and intersectionality and what our different identities look like. ALA is for all library workers and lovers not just librarians. We all come with our different identities. As a mixed race Native Hawaiian, continent-born woman, I come with a very specific lens. Making sure that we’re being inclusive and incorporating and honoring each other’s identities is really important to me as well for this year.

Doug: On the EDI perspective, we’re seeing pushback from some political groups. With libraries embracing diversity this can create potential conflict with some in the community. What experience do you have trying to resolve these tensions?

Lessa: I think that the library is perfectly positioned to provide the information necessary to understand what is meant when we talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion. I think that one of the difficulties with it is we don’t all operate from the same understanding of what those words mean. It can easily be used to divide folks, and create those divisions that are the opposite of what we’re intending. The library is a space that welcomes everyone and all types of viewpoints, while respecting trauma-informed work and equity. I think it involves demonstrating to our politicians and the larger public what this work looks like in action. Creating that space for everyone and creating the conversations to come together as different communities but also as one community working towards the best. Deep down I hope that what we all want is the best for our communities. This means finding those common areas, and being able to work towards that will really elevate what we mean when we say equity, diversity, and inclusion. In my own library as the chair of our B.U.I.L.D. Team, which is basically our EDI Team, we’ve had to work on that education piece. We had a lot of pushback from community members, who said that we were brainwashing our students and not putting forth a neutral point of view. They see our job as to be completely neutral. I think it’s important for folks to recognize that as library workers, we’re people first. We have opinions and while we make sure that we have balanced collections, we also need to be aware of our own biases. It’s really important that we are the model for folks on what that work looks like. That’s how we can be inclusive.

Doug: What do you believe are the biggest opportunities right now for libraries?

Lessa: I think that one of the biggest opportunities is actually not returning to normal because normal wasn’t great for everyone. We saw a lot of the opportunities that we didn’t know could be explored before the pandemic. It means embracing those changes to have greater access for all. Looking at universal access principles, and institutionalizing those principles. I also think= one of the biggest opportunities is that there is a huge talent pool of library workers looking for good work. They are really excited and enthusiastic, and so I think we have an opportunity to really support and cultivate those library workers, and give them a living wage. It’s a difficult time coming out of the pandemic, especially for underfunded libraries but we have to keep the talent and make it good and livable for them. We have to make sure that we’re advocating for the needs of library workers. I think that we have the opportunity to do that, as we are reimagining what it means to be community centered libraries.

Doug: To wrap up is there anything else you’d like to discuss, or share about libraries or ALA? 

Lessa: I’m really excited to see folks in person again in DC for the annual conference. It will be great for those who are able to make it, and for those participating online for the digital experience. We have a really excellent lineup of programs and speakers, and I think it’s going to be a huge love fest. I look forward to seeing everyone again!