A Brief Reflection on DLCL: Heroic Leadership

A guest post by Ivan Aguirre

“There are no heroes, only heroic decisions.” In upholding the freedoms to exist in public space some library leaders have been called heroes and lately some villains. In light of that, we must ask ourselves one important question. Who do we become when we move into positions of leadership? What do our decisions as leaders say about us?

In leaders we ask them, why? Why is this the way? Why do libraries suffer the brunt of ignorance? Why are we as library staff, and institutions, at the mercy of a so-called neutrality? Why do we sit by as more privileged yet less qualified counterparts advance past us? Why do our patrons have to go home hungry? Why do our patrons seek shelter with us only to leave shelterless at closing hours? Why does the subjectivity of an odor dictate a person’s access to our services? Why do we think we are so imperative to the communities we serve but always seem to be on someone’s budget cut list? Why do we do what we do? Why? These questions stem from an instinctive reaction to understand the world in front of us. However, too many of us only ever ask why and never move into the what of an issue or land on the opposite end jumping to a what before ever knowing the true why.

As a former cohort member turned coach mentor for the Developing Leaders in California Libraries (DLCL) program I have been privileged to understand leadership in ways that would never have been afforded to me otherwise. I am a Chicano library manager having worked in 3 different libraries on various grants that hold equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) core standards to implement equitable changes to library service. In my managerial and EDI work experience I have seen the worst and best of what lies in holding a position of leadership. From being bodily threatened for my race to falsely accused in attempts to fire me on more than one occasion, through it all though I am still here. Just the same, some have called me a hero but more often than not a villain. Through it all I’ve been asked why. Why put myself in a leadership role if the toll is beyond pay or benefit? It’s because if I can make the difficult decision to stay and endure then maybe I can help find the answers to my own whys. Why is there a toll to begin with? Why am I taking on a higher rate of risk due to my culture and race? In the silence of lacking a satisfactory answer, I must ask why. As a leader it is my chosen duty to then understand the why at its root, before I can ever hope to understand the ripeness of any one of that why’s whats. What can I do to make this better not only for myself but for those around me and those who will succeed me? What can we do as members of evolving institutions? What can my sphere of influence do? What can I do to be an ally? What can I do as a leader? The answer is simple. Ask yourself why? In our current reality, with the best or worst of intentions some of us are at the mercy of someone else’s “What we are going to do is…” The consequence of never asking “why” in building an equitable “What we are going to do is..” as a leader? It is a consequence of ignorance in which its cruelty is felt upon the backs of those in silence who carry the weight of your institution and influence.

What struck me in my time working alongside the DLCL team is the tumultuous yet transformative power of what lies in taking a why and using it to build an equitable what. This year a great deal of time was taken to conduct root cause analysis for each team’s brief papers, in other words asking for the true why or whys of an issue. Every single cohort team came to similar themed conclusions of inequity being at the core of many issues affecting the public. The two teams I was fortunate to work with focused on the inequity of the housing voucher process (Cloud Whorl, Alma Madrigal-Ward, Cherie Buenaflor, Meghan Croll, with mentor coach Robert Karatsu) and inequitable food access (Tamiko Boyd, Susie Quinn, Katrena Woodson, with mentor coach Mandy Nasr). Any member from those teams respectively can attest to the sheer volume of understanding required to tackle either topic let alone provide readers of their brief papers a solution. Yet, like those who came before them they rose to the challenge and stood on the shoulders of giants  to not only deliver amazing work but more importantly grow into leaders in their own respect by applying an equitable lens to the work so many of us encounter on a daily basis. These cohort members made the heroic decision to step into a light to decry inequity. Each of those members day in and day out make the heroic decision to point to flaws in our systems, especially the systems designed to address inequity and choose not to stop at the “why” or jump up to accept just any “what”. DLCL gave them the opportunity to step up as leaders and to go beyond the toll of daily library work that burns so many of us out to share in the burden of betterment as a community of leaders. On a final more personal note I, like Fin another coach mentor from this year’s cohort, am sitting with gratitude. Gratitude for the teams I worked with. Gratitude to Linda Braun, Nicole Rawlinson, Christine Bolivar, LaKesha Kimbrough, Caitlin Martin and Danis Kreimeier for allowing me the space to learn and grow as a mentor coach. For all that I’ve seen and experienced in terms of cruelty, just the same there has been mercy and love. Mercy in DLCL’s mission to give leaders the opportunity to acknowledge their own flaws with tools developed through trial and error. Love in meeting and working with allies like Fin Minjee Lee, Akiliah Manuel Mills, Robert Karatsu, Mandy Nasr, Alysa Cua, Patty Alvarado, Leslie Masland, Elan Delgadillo, and many others through DLCL. I hold hope for a new generation. You ask me why? It’s because I’m not alone.

As 2023’s DLCL cohort comes to a close. To you, current and future leaders, in the face of being called a villain or even hero, know that it was never your duty to be either. I ask of you, when the time comes that you make the same heroic decision that every DLCL cohort has taken on not only for yourself but for those of us who continue to endure. Be equitable, be inclusive, and be love.  

With determination, 

Ivan Aguirre el luchador.