If you’re a Library Twitter person, you probably saw a good amount of stuff today about the closing panel at the BLOSSOM conference, which I mentioned in my last post. Alex Brown wrote an excellent piece on their blog that should catch you up to speed if you want more details than what I’ll share here, but the gist of it is that I was on this panel and Alex and I swore a few times. Instead of choosing to interact with us privately or directly, the conference organizer, Bobbi Newman, elected to write a blog post condescending and criticizing our language choice and when called out on it proceeded to block me and at least a handful of other supportive folks.
I wanted to share a few things from my perspective, not because mine is the one that should in any way be centered during this, but because it will be cathartic for me. On Friday afternoon, for two hours almost right before the panel started, I attended a memorial service for one of my students who unexpectedly died on March 14; he and I had grown close this semester. In a year already pockmarked by tragedy and loss, this has broken our little community, and less than an hour before I was scheduled to speak at BLOSSOM, I was on a Zoom call grieving with my colleagues. I could have stepped down from the panel given the timing, but I decided not to because it was a challenge to pull it together in the first place. Bobbi asked me to be on the panel almost two months ago and I loved the sound of it, but I did not want the panel to be majority white voices. I reached out for help to a colleague who initially intended to be on the panel and recruited Alex, but this person ultimately had to step down due to medical needs. I asked Ray Pun, who I know from Library Freedom Project, to join us as well, and he found our fourth panelist, Nicollette Davis. All in all, it took about a month and a half to get the panel pulled together. Ray was instrumental in writing our questions, and as Alex notes, we discussed other logistics like Alex’s preference for not speaking first. Bobbi was minimally involved in this planning, and she did not even add the description we came up with for our panel to the conference website (and before the recording of our talk was taken down at our request, the page it was embedded on only contained the title of the talk and a content warning).
By the time 4:35 rolled around on Friday and we got to the final question on the panel, I was exhausted and ready to blow off some steam. Alex had said two swears and I decided to validate their ability to do that, thinking there’s strength in numbers (and I hold privileges that they do not). Did I say “fuck” and “shit” a couple times each? Yes. Did I do it because I thought I was in a safe space where I could speak honestly? Yes. Did I do it because I was exhausted from grief and nerves? Yes. Was it intentional? Yes, because I felt as the sole white person on the panel that I should try to absorb potential criticism, and because I wanted to release some of my feelings. Were these things we could have talked about with Bobbi like colleagues instead of stumbling across the equivalent of a post-it note from a roommate indirectly telling you to put the dishes away? Yes. Did she give us an opportunity to do that? No.
I didn’t find out about Bobbi’s post until I saw an email from Alex about it. In the post, she writes about a separate instance of fatphobic comments made by another presenter but – intentionally or not – winds up likening that with the swear words used during our panel. She also makes a few comments that dismiss the expertise of me and my fellow panelists, and goes on to deny that she could possibly be engaging in tone policing despite how others might hear her message. After consulting some friends early this morning, I decided to reply to Bobbi’s tweet about the post to try to shed some light on how she was manipulating the truth: “I really appreciated all of your work last week & standing up about the fat talk–I was cheering for you. But re: swearing, I’m disappointed you made this public in your post and didn’t reach out to me and the members of the panel first with your concerns. We are all pretty hurt.” It wasn’t exactly guns-ablazin’, but I still didn’t get a response.
As the day went on, the other presenters and I decided to write a joint statement:
On Friday, March 26, we spoke on a panel at the BLOSSOM symposium titled Reframing Library Work: A Discussion on Centering Staff Agency, Advocacy and Well Being. While we were impressed by and appreciative of many of the other talks offered during the event, we were deeply dismayed to see yesterday’s blog post by conference organizer Bobbi Newman, On moments of courage and the lack thereof.
In the post, Bobbi likens the use of profanity (specifically the “s-word” and “f-word”) during our panel to the use of fatphobic language used during another talk earlier in the week. Instead of speaking to us privately, Bobbi decided to air her concerns about our panel publicly and implies in her post that she spoke to us about her concerns. This did not happen; she had a chance to speak to us privately after the panel and congratulated us, leaving us with no impression that we had done something “wrong.” She also writes, “[the swearing] wasn’t used to make a point, it was used because the presenter felt they could.” Both of the panelists who swore did so intentionally, which is something that could have been discussed during a conversation between colleagues, but we were not given the chance.
While we are appreciative of our many fellow panelists and speakers during the event, Bobbi’s words feel very underhanded and hurtful, undermining the community vibe that BLOSSOM had seemed to so successfully knit together. We understand that this was posted in Bobbi’s own personal blog and although we acknowledge that she has a right to share what she feels on her own page, we disagree with how this situation was handled. As a result, we have asked that the recording of our panel be removed from the conference website. We apologize to folks who were looking forward to catching it later, but we felt this was our only choice given how things were handled.
Not long after this was posted, I found myself blocked by Bobbi. I have to say I was surprised and disappointed by this, too – I’ve worked with her twice in the past, most recently jumping on a panel at the ER&L conference she was moderating at the last minute. I would not expect this kind of behavior from her or anyone else I’ve worked with on multiple occasions. As Alex writes, “To discover Bobbi’s post by chance was hurtful and frustrating to me personally. If we’re going to talk about professionalism in the field, then this is a good example of what not to do.” Blocking me and other folks who backed us up is another shining example of what not to do.
While I was driving home from campus on Friday evening, I remember thinking “wow, that felt so great; I hope we can do this again next year and I can be involved again somehow.” It was so affirming to go to a conference where being frustrated about the administrative failures of our field and unreasonable expectations for each other and ourselves were being aired out in such a frank, solidarity-building way. Now, though, I feel like I was tricked into believing this event to be a safe space where if I did legitimately step on a rake, someone would talk to me about it and try to understand my perspective before passive-aggressively taking me to task on a blog post I may not have even seen if it weren’t for my co-panelists.
Today, I spent most of my waking hours being stressed out and anxious about the ramifications of all of this, having already experienced potentially devastating tone policing in the form of a letter written to my employer last summer. I also had to do my job, and right now that includes consoling grieving students and helping them deal with the last slog of an academic year that has felt like traversing the circles of hell. It was kind of a classic situation of the sort I at least thought we were trying to steer away from at an event like BLOSSOM. I thought we were focusing on the whole self, preventing over-extension, fostering empathy and clear communication, and recovering from the trauma we’ve all experienced since the pandemic began. But thanks to this unnecessary kerfuffle, I did not have a day where my morale, outlook, or well-being were in anything resembling a good place. We have a long fucking way to go if we can’t even make good on these things during the confines of a conference.