Once again, when it comes to issues of racial equity, justice and reconciliation, Indianapolis has made national news for all the wrong reasons. Last week, the National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAAL) cancelled their upcoming July convention in Indianapolis in response to the refusal of the Board of the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library (IMCPL) to hire Nichelle Hayes, a Black woman and the interim CEO of IMCPL, as their new CEO. In their statement, the NCAAL described Indianapolis as a “inhospitable location” for their conference. In this context, “inhospitable location” is a nice way of stating “racist.”
Since, until last week, this story was a local one, let me give you some background.
In June of 2021, the Indianapolis Recorder – the local Black owned and focused newspaper – printed a story exposing a long litany of incidents of racial inequity, hostility, and discrimination within the Indianapolis library system. In response, the Library Board and then Executive Director, Jackie Nytes, either diminished or outright rejected these complaints. This gaslighting provoked a strong response from community leaders, library staff and patrons. More and more people demanded change. By August of 2021, Ms. Nytes had resigned, and a search began for a new library leader. Community leaders made it clear to the Board that this should be a person capable of helping the library address and resolve systemic racial inequities and create a more inclusive culture.
In April of 2022, Nichelle Hayes, the Director of the Library’s Center For Black Literature and Culture, was selected to serve as the Interim CEO. This was widely acclaimed as a step in the right direction. In the summer of 2022, Nichelle decided to apply for the permanent CEO position. After a several month-long process, Nichelle was selected as one of two finalists for the CEO position. However, in December, the Library Board, by a 4-2 vote, selected Gabriel Morley, a white man, to lead the library system in “resolving its systemic racial inequities and creating a more inclusive culture.” The community response was immediate and negative. Within days, Mr. Morley turned down the job offer.
In response to this development, the Library Board announced Nichelle Hayes would not be offered the job, even though she was the other finalist. Indeed, the Library Board put out a statement saying “Nichelle Hayes did not have the qualifications and experience necessary for the position” and that they would restart the search process. Nichelle Hayes was removed as Interim CEO. Even when the Indianapolis City Council voted in favor of the Library Board hiring Ms. Hayes, the Board refused to budge. In response to this, the National Conference of African American Librarians – understandably – cancelled their conference scheduled for Indianapolis in July.
Let me be clear. I have no inside information about the workings of the search committee, the deliberations of the Library Board, or the interactions between the Board and Nichelle Hayes.
However, I know Nichelle Hayes.
In 2017, when Jackie Nytes, the CEO of IMCPL, hired Nichelle Hayes as the director of the Center For Black Literature and Culture, she invited me to meet Nichelle. Jackie was aware of my work in Indianapolis on racial inequity and reconciliation and thought Nichelle could benefit from my support. Ms. Nytes explained Nichelle would be asked to create the center from scratch, to envision its work and scope, develop its budget, create its collection, work with foundations and donors, and market and promote the Center. She described an executive position of which she thought Nichelle especially fitted. At the end of our conversation, Jackie said something which seems both ironic and prophetic now. She said, “We both know Nichelle is going to face racist resistance and opposition to building and promoting the Center and I hope you’ll help her.”
Over the past six years, I’ve had many opportunities to work with Nichelle on events and workshops. In these interactions, I have come to deeply appreciate and value her vision, creativity and excellence. I don’t know all that happened behind the scenes in this fiasco of a job search and hiring process, but I do know Nichelle Hayes.
The Library Board statement that Nichelle Hayes is not qualified for the CEO position is a lie.
The Library Board obviously thought her qualified enough to serve in this position as an interim. Did they do so because they valued her capabilities? Or did they do this hoping she would fail and thereby diminish their responsibility to hire the first person of color to lead the library system?
The library search committee and the Board obviously thought her qualified enough to be selected as one of their two finalists for the CEO position. Did they do so because they recognized her competence? Or did they do this as a token act to give the impression of a fair and racially equitable hiring process?
I know Nichelle Hayes, These statements about her inadequacies for the job are insulting and, frankly, racist. As the National Conference of African American Librarians stated in their announcement, “The actions of the Indianapolis Public Library Board are a reflection of what happens within our profession, where hardworking, talented and qualified people are used to clean up messes, fix problems, and to just be seen enough that a diversity goal is ticked without any substantive change. When entities believe you are not ‘the person’ they create imaginary barriers designed to stop progress both for the professional, and the profession.”
Nichelle Hayes is not the only person I know in this mess.
I also know Pat Payne, one of the two Board members to vote against Mr. Morley. Pat has repeatedly expressed her support for Nichelle Hayes.
Years ago, when I began my journey to explore issues of racial inequity, discrimination and reparations, I began to seek people in Indianapolis who shared that passion. One of the names I heard repeatedly was Pat Payne, an educator and administrator in the Indianapolis Public School system, who had been working for racial justice for over 60 years in Indianapolis. Eventually, I had the good fortune to met Pat, hear her story, learn from her experience and call her a friend.
I quickly realized that when it comes to issues of racial progress in Indianapolis, whatever side of a racially fraught issue that Pat stands on is where I want to stand.
In 2017, the Indianapolis Recorder exposed the deeply embedded racism within the Indianapolis library system. In 2023, it has become obvious that the racist rot goes all the way to the root of the tree. In their latest statement, the Library Board advocated for a fresh start in seeking leadership for the IMCPL.
In this, I agree with the Library Board.
We need a fresh start.
It is time for the four members of the Indianapolis Library Board who voted for a white man over a black woman to help IMCPL “resolve its systemic racial inequities and create a more inclusive culture” to resign. This will allow their appointing organizations to choose people who can approach the challenge of seeking a new CEO for the library system without the taint of this failure in leadership.
The time for tree trimming is over.
We need to plant a new tree.
(Yesterday, January 17th, The Indianapolis Library Board held a special session which I attended. They did not allow public comment and passed a resolution to hire a Chief Administrative Officer to handle an interim period of no more than 12 months. In their opening statements, I was shocked by the apparent inability of the Board to recognize its own failures in this recent process. Public comment will be allowed next Monday, January 23rd at their 6 :30 p.m. regular Board meeting. I will be there and commenting. I hope you’ll join me.)