Follow by Email

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Castle Rock Christian demands anti-gay cake

You think I'm kidding. See this article.

Who knew that the cutting edge of intellectual freedom and religious freedom would be ... cake decorating? It would be funny if it weren't so sad. 

The bottom line: according to the article, a self-described "Christian" from Castle Rock, CO (the town where I live, alas) went to the Azucar Bakery in Denver to order a "Bible-shaped cake with hateful words about gays that he wanted written on the cake." This man also wanted the cake "to have two men holding hands and an X on top of them."

I like, very much, the actions of Marjorie Silva, the owner. She said she'd make the cake, but preferred not to write that particular message. She offered him icing and a pastry bag so he could do it himself.

Instead, the self-professed Christian filed a claim of discrimination with the Civil Rights Division of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. Why? Because he felt he had been discriminated against as a Christian.

What happened? The claim was rejected.

It's hard to know where to start with this one. But one thing seems eminently clear: this is a ginned-up case.

Nobody believes (to cite a few examples I've heard) that someone should be able to require that a Jewish deli provide food that contaminates a Kosher kitchen, or demand that ice cream parlors serve pancakes (thanks, Suzanne, for that one!).

Non-discrimination means that customers can ask for the usual range of services. Black people should be able to walk into a diner in the South and order off the menu. Gay spouses should be able to book a hotel room in Indiana. So not radical. So obvious.

It happens that I've known a few cake decorators in my time. They are often asked to do things that make them uncomfortable as individuals. One example: "I want Snoopy on my daughter's cake!" But Snoopy is a copyrighted character, and it would be flat-out illegal to provide such a cake. "I want a drawing of a naked babe, legs spread, on the cake for my brother's bachelor party!" and the middle-aged Baptist decorator (let's call her Denise) would ... rather not.

It's all so much simpler than you think. Bakeries sell cakes, and they offer a range of services beyond that. They have templates for what they decorate, and they can do those things well and quickly. Yes, Denise might well stretch her business to do an enthusiastic Confirmation message for a member of her church, and balk at an endorsement of Dan and Stan's nuptials. I'm OK with that: free speech doesn't mean you get to tell other people what they have to say. But Denise still has to sell cakes to anyone who wants to buy them, with the usual range of options.

It's also possible that someone feels so strongly about not wanting to give special messages for gay weddings or bachelor parties that they just say so up front. I'm guessing that gay couples and wild party caterers might then choose to go elsewhere. And I think that's OK, too. The "free market" (albeit not always so free, in my opinion) takes care of a lot of things. But not everything. 

What anti-discrimination means is that cake decorators can't just refuse to sell cakes to people they don't approve of. And diners have to serve the usual fare to anyone who comes in the door. And sometimes, that just wouldn't happen if the law didn't require it.

Finally, I've spent many hours of my life reading and thinking about the world's scriptures. So when Ku Klux Klan members demand that black bakers make cakes (for example) with a lynching decoration, or oh-so-clever litigants try to present straight white Christians as desperately besieged, I think: shame and shame.

Really, would it be so hard just to treat people as people? Would it be so much more painful to be kind rather than nastily clever? And do such angry demands present the face of faith likely to win converts to the best of their beliefs?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana and ALA

Yesterday, American Library Association (ALA) President Courtney Young issued a statement about the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA) approved by the Indiana General Assembly, and signed by Governor Mike Pence. Since that action, Indiana has come under a lot of fire.

President Young's comments are right on, in my view. But I find myself wondering just what this law is supposed to do. Why is it needed?

Thus far, these are the cases I've heard of where people feel their religious faith compels them to deny service to someone:
  • a Knights of Columbus group doesn't want to rent its hall for a gay wedding.
  • a pharmacist doesn't want to sell birth control pills to an unmarried woman.
  • a cake decorator doesn't want to make a cake for a gay wedding.
  • a photographer doesn't want to take pictures of a gay wedding.

You can't help but notice that three of the four are about denying commercial services to gay people. Discrimination appears to be the point. I'd be curious to hear other examples.

None of these, please note, requires a minister of a faith opposed to gay weddings to conduct one. The state isn't telling religion what it must do. I'll even grant that the K of C is a religious group, and might well want to refuse to rent its hall for something else that violated a longstanding cause it espoused -- a request to host a pro-choice rally, for instance.

But the other cases seem intended only to deny services freely provided (as commercial services) to others, but deliberately withheld from a targeted class. For instance, pharmacists sell a host of drugs to customers. We shouldn't have to justify our lifestyles, or seek the approval of every store clerk every time we buy something from the open market. It's for sale or it isn't. The state isn't requiring religious people to buy products they don't use, or object to.

And I wonder: are religious beliefs and the right to honor one's conscience restricted to Christians? May Muslim taxi drivers refuse rides to women untended by male relatives? Does the state become the defender of religious condemnation, however that judgment is bolstered by scripture of whatever provenance? To put it another way, do civic institutions owe their allegiance to a host of religious texts, or to the Constitution?

Here's what I think ALA should do, in addition to a statement to our own members. I think we should write an open letter to the governor, and send it to key Indiana newspapers. It happens that ALA has scheduled it's 2021 midwinter conference for Indianapolis. We should point out that our association has many members who are gay, and who now question whether they might be targeted as unfit for hotel or restaurant or health services consumption. That knowledge is likely to affect our attendance - and we depend upon that attendance for our own budgets.

We know that our contribution to a local economy is significant. When I go to an ALA conference - I attended a library conference in Indianapolis last year, as it happens, and enjoyed it very much - I wind up pumping at least $1,000 into hotels, restaurants, and transport. Our conferences pull 8,000 to 40,000 people to a town; an ALA conference has to be worth at least millions of dollars. Canceling is expensive for us - but our association also doesn't wish to be compelled to support values we abhor, particularly when it is our own members who would be actively discriminated against.

From our perspective, Indiana has broken faith with a fundamental American social contract: the idea that all people will be treated equally, if not with equal courtesy and respect (and wouldn't that be nice!), then at least with equal access to the public marketplace. If that is NOT the intent of the Indiana legislature and the Governor, then either repeal the RFRA, adopt explicit anti-discrimination laws to protect all of our members, or kiss our business goodbye.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The practice of leadership

A couple of days ago I attended the retirement party of my friend and colleague Rochelle Logan. Rochelle was one of my associate directors at Douglas County Libraries for 14 years, and wow, she was a good one.

After I left (in January of 2014, after 24 years there!), I entered the world of writing, speaking and consulting. Much of the time, that meant talking about leadership. And it turns out I was not alone. A lot of people make a living talking about leadership.

But I was surprised by some of the people who wanted to hire me.  Often, they had their own talkers - university professors and professional speakers. Why didn't they just use their in-house talent? The reason, it turned out, is that although those people could talk about it, they hadn't actually done it. 

At Rochelle's party, I found myself thinking about the practice of leadership.  Before and during our time together, we built and grew a team (many teams, really). We made plans, saw them through, then built on them. We forged, had conflicts with, and resolved hundreds of relationships with our authorizing environment: citizens, elected officials, vendors, leaders, and followers from everywhere. We secured resources (we exploded our budget from about $688,000 to over $20 million annually), and managed them thoughtfully. By the end of my tenure, DCL moved from one of the lowest ranked libraries in the state to one of the top 1% in the world. (I'm talking about such output measures as circulation per capita, visits per capita, and so on, about which Rochelle was unusually knowledgeable.) We built or renovated seven modern, green, busy, highly functional libraries - and all without a dime of debt.  We launched innovative and game-changing initiatives, like our ebook platform and what we called "community reference." We saw many of our staff move on to their own positions of successful leadership, a matter of particular pride for me.

Not only that, we made major improvements to the lives of those around us. We aided in academic accomplishment, we helped establish businesses, we strengthened a host of civic projects. We connected people around ideas and stories. We made our community stronger and smarter.

As a child of the sixties and seventies, I was inclined to distrust authority, and, yes, anybody over 30. But it turns out that experience makes a difference. We got better over time, with practice and mutual support. And we did big things.

It's kind of like when your parents tell you to practice the piano if you want to get good. Talent is very nice indeed, a gift worth celebrating. But it's practice that leads to achievement.

So I learned two big things from my time as director. First, public institutions are not evil, despite the relentless harping on that destructive theme over the past decade. They can, and in the case of well-run libraries, usually do make real and positive contributions to the lives of individuals, families, businesses, and communities of all kinds. Second, experience matters, especially when disciplined by honest feedback, mindfulness based on values, and the will to improve.

I mention all this because, as a candidate for the presidency of the American Library Association, I've been responding to a lot of written and oral interviews lately that eventually ask, "so why should we vote for you?" It occurred to me yesterday that my answer, in part, is that I not only know how to talk about leadership, I have real practice in it, in making change for the better, not only for libraries, but for the wider world around us. In fact (with a little help my friends), I'm pretty good at it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Gale Cengage interview and blog

On February 6, 2015, I gave an interview on "Libraries as Agents of Change" for Gale Geek. You can find the audio here.

Afterward, I was given the opportunity to blog about it. You'll find that here.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

LaRue ALA presidential statement

[As published in the March/April 2015 issue of American Libraries.]

Librarianship is at a tipping point. We have challenges. But there has never, not in human history, been a time so thrilling to be in our field.  A new generation of librarians - more diverse, more tech-savvy, bringing a new kind of social energy - is joining us and our colleagues at just the right moment. Every day, we are working together to make a difference to our larger communities - school, academic, public, and an emerging global culture.

I have spent my career as librarian, community leader, newspaper columnist, radio and TV show host, writer, teacher, and a leader of statewide, regional, national, and even international efforts in positioning the library for tomorrow. If we are to survive and thrive in that tomorrow, we must shift public perceptions of our roles.  As ALA President, I will not only communicate the services we provide, but also highlight our value in strengthening our communities.  Here are three ways I will focus public attention:

First, we must elevate librarians as community leaders.  We should turn outward, build on the exciting work of "embedded librarianship" and take it up a notch. Imagine librarians who catalog their community (school, university, or civic) leaders, conduct in-depth conversations to identify shared aspirations and concerns, then pick and deliver high impact projects that move whole communities forward.

Second, we must unleash our power in the marketplace. This means we should define digital publishing agreements that enhance our purchasing power, increase access, and honor creators. This is a time of experimentation: we need larger scale, statewide or regional infrastructure, library-run repositories that make common cause with our scholars, students, authors, musicians, and artists. We need to embrace the disruption of digital publishing by stepping into the heart of the revolution. We must move from gatekeeper to gardener, along the lines of the Digital Public Library of America, the Douglas County Libraries model, Califa, the statewide experiments of Massachusetts, Arizona, and Colorado.  With the explosion of independent and self-publishing, we have an unprecedented opportunity to give voice to those who have been ignored or marginalized for so long.

Finally, we must showcase our leadership as 21st century literacy champions. This starts with early childhood literacy. Children with an abundance of books in their homes are healthier as children, and live longer as adults. They stay in school and stay out of jail. They make more money and enjoy a better quality of life. information-literate adults are armed with the skills and knowledge they need to live, learn, work, and govern in communities that can compete and flourish in an information society. Our message must penetrate the culture of our media and public policymakers. It must communicate how we make our society healthier, and increase the freedom, productivity and creativity of our constituents.

A vote for me is a vote toward this new reality of librarians as bold, deeply engaged and informed community leaders--valued partners in the work of discovery and creation.

And do vote! I am honored to be among the candidates for your president. Speak up about the kind of leadership you want ALA to demonstrate. ALA needs your thoughtful participation. Together, we can position the library of tomorrow to make a real difference in the future of our many interrelated communities.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A haiku journey

I've been writing haiku since my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, introduced them to me. I generally follow conventions: three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and a final 5 syllables. Usually there's a seasonal reference, and often I try to make connections between up to three distinct images. But sometimes I break with convention.

Last week, I drove from Castle Rock to Saint Paul and back for a memorial service of one of my best friends, Bill Johnston, who died of cancer at 64. The memorial, the loving labor of his wife, Claudia, and 150 of Bill's many friends (he not only never lost a friend, he never even fell out of touch) happened a few days after what would have been his 65th birthday. 

These poems don't really talk about that. Instead, they were about just being open to the rolling vignettes along national highways. But Bill was also a poet, and a fine one. So this is my tribute to him. It's also worth noting that I left amid dire predictions of Siberian snowstorms, and returned to their aftermath, without ever experiencing anything but cold.

at Kansas truck stop
such intense concentration
on weather channel

white windmills on ridge
snowless late winter wheat field
and scattered cattle

horizon at dusk:
from shadow-stippled clouds drop 
weaving lines of ducks

midwest river land:
empty farmhouses wail with
February wind

cloud crosses jet trail:
a loose sketch of phoenix on 
western horizon

God said here you go:
an infinite canvas and
single drop of ink

snow, steam and sun stretch
into broad canvas of sky:
backlit stand of oak

bare branches over
the Winnebago River's
careless white ribbon

silos and smokestacks:
crossing state border from north
on this winter day

spinning windmill farm - 
the three or four that have stopped
seem thoughtful

I-35 sign
for Manly / Forest City:
home of Robin Hood?

billboard announces:
"we're cooking up something new:"
a Spam Museum

across Nebraska
I drive this late afternoon's
highway into sun

see trees, find water:
tangled cottonwoods border
the North Platte River

beside the highway:
my eye is drawn from dry fields
to orange plastic fence

approaching Denver
the day after big snowstorms:
steam on highway's edge

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Defragging ALA

So I'm running for ALA presidency. And I'm trying to listen, and trying to make sense of what I hear.

One of the big, recurring issues I heard at midwinter was a sense of a fragmented membership. ALA is a large, complex institution serving members with a multitude of highly specialized interests. How then, can they communicate not only to and from ALA leadership, but coordinate their activities with other divisions, committees, and roundtables?

Yet there's also a lot of duplication in ALA. Almost every group I talked to mentioned "advocacy." But to frank, we have different understandings of that word.

Effective advocacy, in my view, is based on three things:

  • marketing strategy (reach and frequency);
  • the findings of neuroscience (emotional appeal);
  • the importance of planning (pulling it all together).

Let's break those apart.

Reach and frequency means getting a message to a target audience (that's the reach), as many times as possible (that's the frequency). How many times do you have to see something before you really see it for the first time? Estimates range from 7 to 13. All of this argues for focus: if you sent to someone 25 messages 4 times each, not one of them gets communicated. They just never rise above noise. But if you send 4 messages 25 times each, people start to recognize them. Arguably, the marketing of ALA's many subdivisions falls more often into the former category than the latter. As information professionals, we just can't help ourselves from slipping in one more program, service, or value statement. And so our advocacy (even in the very limited sense of promotion) tends not to get very far.

Neuroscience tells us that changing attitudes and behavior isn't easy. But it can be done, first, with target messaging and frequency, as above. Second, we have to slip past the filter of people's "frames." So how, for instance, do you persuade a mayor or principal or dean that the library is worthy of support when he or she has already decided other things are more important? Answer: begin with a story, a very specific case of a real person who had a powerful experience. As humans, again we just can't help ourselves: we suspend our value system and prejudice in the thrill of the tale. Change begins with feelings. Then, when the message is clear, and not a second earlier, we trot out just one or two brief statements of fact, just enough to assure the listener that this is real. Finally, we need a "phrase that pays" -- a memorable tag line. Research has already given us some very good, short, clear ones. Two of them are just three words each: Libraries transform lives. Libraries build community.

Finally, ALA has come up with three broad goals that should speak to every ALA group:

  1. Advocacy. There is not a single library in the United States (and beyond!) that doesn't need to strengthen its connection to its authorizing community (that would be the people who write the checks, directly or indirectly). But some manage those relationships better than others. Let's stop having a series of half-hearted and unprofessional initiatives, and really do it right, together.
  2. Information policy. ebooks, 3D printers, copyright in the digital age, net neutrality -- the list of new services stumbling into new policy ramifications goes on and on. Librarians remain one of our society's most credible and passionate voices for the right of intellectual access. This one, too, cuts across all library types.
  3. Professional and leadership development. Again, every single one of us wants to develop the skills of our staff; we want to prepare them to lead, particularly in this moment of generational transfer. But some of us, again, are much better at accomplishing this than others are. There have been big breakthroughs in instructional methodologies, in which engagement rules. We have members and roundtables who should take the lead on this.

The point is: instead of asking what ALA can do for each division, committee, and roundtable, it is time for each of those groups to ask what they can do for ALA. (Yes, JFK said it first and better.) That is, by budging up under these three strategies, we'll do a better job of communicating our value, positioning ourselves for the future, and growing our own expertise. That's more efficient and effective than trying to build a mosaic of initiatives from the bottom up.

Note that these three goals may not be the ones we're still focusing on ten years from now. But I think they're pretty sensible for now.