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Brave Voices, Brave Choices: A look into Howard County Library System’s racial equity initiative

by Eliana Kleiman, Communications Associate, Public Library Association, ekleiman@ala.org on August 24, 2022

The Public Library Association’s (PLA) July webinar highlighting Howard County Library System’s (HCLS) Brave Voices, Brave Choices (BVBC) initiative was an energizing introduction to one public library system’s approach to advancing racial equity within its community. While Howard County in Maryland is acclaimed for its diversity, its Black residents increasingly have the worst outcomes across most self-sufficiency indicators, such as unemployment, poverty, and evictions. BVBC is a public promise to learn, grow, and act on a collective commitment to move past anti-racism statements, engage residents and local systems, advance equity, and create the reality we want for all people. 

When Black Lives Matter uprisings sparked dialogue across the country in 2020, HCLS’s President and CEO Tonya Aikens wanted to take action beyond issuing statements. The library formed an equity workgroup that implemented racial equity training, bringing library staff and community members together in the same space. With goals such as giving participants a thorough understanding of racism and anti-racism, connecting community, and inspiring action, the initiative grew into a tapestry of community-led projects. Such projects include story sharing, the Equity Resource Center, author and speaker events, vaccine outreach, digital equity resources, classes, and community conversations.  

HCLS also invited 20 community leaders to form the BVBC Racial Equity Alliance. These leaders, who reflect the diverse cultural, racial/ethnic, religious, sexual, and socioeconomic backgrounds of the community, meet monthly to guide and partner in HCLS’s public-facing work. Alliance leaders perform essential work of connecting community members to BVBC resources and making community members’ voices heard. The Racial Equity Alliance embodies one of BVBC’s most valuable outcomes—the fostering and strengthening of relationships in the community.  

The webinar gave us an inside look of the breadth of vibrant and impactful outcomes of the BVBC’s internal and external racial equity work across Howard County. Since launching the initiative, more than 500 people have completed racial equity training, and residents have submitted more than 600 stories of racism and discrimination. Participants include elected and appointed leaders, library staff, community members, and leadership affiliated with the county’s major systems and organizations. Demand continues to exceed capacity with more than 98% percent of participants noting new knowledge for informed action. BVBC serves as a useful example and inspiration for public library systems looking to initiate or strengthen racial equity programs, conversations, and spaces in their communities.  

To learn more about the Brave Voices, Brave Choices initiative, check out the PLA webinar recording, available on-demand in the ALA eLearning site. To see upcoming webinar topics geared toward public libraries, visit PLA’s Live Webinars page.