library mgmt

review: “Resolving Liberal vs. Conservative Conflict in the Workplace” webinar, 1/14/21

In Season 4 of the early 2000s HBO series Six Feet Under, one of the protagonists, David, is carjacked by an unassuming hitchhiker who winds up exploiting David’s generosity and tortures him before covering him with gas and leaving him beaten and bruised in a Long Beach alley. A few episodes later, David, suffering from PTSD, goes to church and watches a sermon encouraging the congregation to forgive and love their enemies. He imagines the reverend being brutally assaulted by the carjacker, thrown to the ground and a gun pointed to his head, and David leaps up to help before things snap back to reality.

I happened to watch that chain of episodes this week right after I saw the astonishingly bad “Resolving Liberal vs. Conservative Conflict in the Workplace: Lessons from the Rwandan Genocide” webinar sponsored by I’d seen the concept of it getting dragged on Twitter some weeks back, and signed up to watch it because I felt it was important to catch what looked like a trainwreck unfolding on a library education platform that has a good deal of influence. Ryan Dowd’s “Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness” has swept the profession in the past few years, mostly with the best of intentions and in some cases with positive results. But there’s also been a significant amount of criticism of Dowd’s approach, including alarmingly sexist language in some of his recommendations. I hope that library leaders take the time to consider the other ideas and advice he’s peddling on his platform, especially after the jaw-droppingly bad session this week.

Dowd wasn’t the main speaker at the talk, but he did share a good amount of the spotlight with the presenter, Carl Wilkens. Wilkens was a missionary working in Rwanda during the genocide and authored a book about being the only American who stayed in the country during it. I don’t want to belittle Wilkens’s pain and trauma, both made very clear in his introduction to the talk, but he should have spent more time interrogating his positionality and privilege before deciding to sell his particular experience as a learning opportunity for others. He kept encouraging us to take a look at what we could learn from Rwandans about forgiveness, but proceeded to talk only about how he leveraged his secure status as a white male American to establish a relationship with some of the most powerful leaders committing genocide. The only Rwandans we heard anything substantial about were the people doing the killing.

Wilkens went whole hog with this idea of reaching out to and forgiving your enemies, presumably even if those people happen to brutally murder your family members. Throughout the talk, he (and Dowd) not only encouraged finding empathy for abusers and murderers, but also telling victims that the onus is on them to re-establish relationships with those that have hurt them (“the victim does well to examine gratitude and cynicism”). Wilkens talked about considering the relationship between God and a man who had murdered multiple people during the genocide, musing about the importance of considering what the murderer was going through. I asked a question that was answered live on air about how safe it is to advise a room full of public servants to “reach across the aisle” or “sit at the table” with violent people, and Dowd informed us that violence is overblown by the media and we shouldn’t be as worried about it as we are. This would have been a tough hang even if it hadn’t happened a week after January 6 and we didn’t currently have National Guard troops sleeping on the floors of the Capitol, but this kind of dismissal coming when it did was shocking.

There were several times when wearing a MAGA hat and having a BLM pin or “being antifa” were equated with one another. There was a lot of “good people on all sides” talk – the whole “there are no good guys and no bad guys” sort of thing. Wilkens and Dowd, two white men, agreed it’s cynical to say someone is a racist, and apparently that all of us who are distancing ourselves from harmful, hateful people (especially if they’ve directly hurt us) are “cynics.” Dowd said the words “it’s not okay if you yell at people; it’s not okay if you commit genocide” while he was describing why we should separate our judgment of a person’s “goodness or badness” from their behavior. At one point, Wilkens suggested we engage in a service project outside the workplace with colleagues we disagree with. As a friend quipped, “oh great, an MLK service day with your racist co-workers.”

Wilkens had a multi-step methodology he was trying to explain during the webinar, but it was exceedingly difficult to pay attention to it given the constant gaslighting, victim blaming, and white privilege. We got “sent home” with a booklet that advises us to stop being so cynical, journal about our emotions, avoid defining people with the one thing we don’t like about them (even if it’s that they murder people or want to destabilize the government), find the good in everyone, focus on shared goals, and “find the deeper why.” This was targeted at resolving workplace conflict among colleagues and some of it is fine within that limited context–considering the most significant workplace conflicts at libraries are often not the ones between coworkers–but why was it wrapped up in the Rwandan genocide? Why was the graphic for this a jacked up blue donkey and a ripped red elephant threatening fisticuffs?

Some of the audience members were eating it up, if the Q&A was any indication. One person quipped that their friends and colleagues “seem to take pleasure in popping people for racist or insensitive remarks.” A handful of participants kept saying we needed to show this training to everyone in the U.S. government. The organizers turned off the chat on Zoom, but people were still using the Q&A function to express this appreciation.

I felt exhausted and ashamed to be in the field after I watched this. Some folks on Twitter called it “peak male whiteness in the library” and I’ll say it probably was, and I’m only saying probably because there’s enough of this baseline logic, plus rapid reproduction of shitty ideas, in our profession that there may well be something worse out there. If anything comes out of this “training,” I hope it’s what I said before, that libraries look a little harder at what Ryan Dowd is selling before they buy it. Turning the other cheek no matter what seems like a good way to eventually get shot in the face.

navel gazing


I started listening to the Conspirituality podcast today, a show that interrogates the overlap of the spirituality/wellness community and conspiracy theory-driven groups, in particular QAnon. I’ve just gotten through the first episode and part of the second, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has interest in mis/disinformation, critical wellness discourse (e.g., The Dream), conspiracy theories and extremism (from a, y’know, healthy distance), mythology, and/or human psychology. As I was listening to it and walking through the urban wilds of southwest Boston today, I couldn’t help but remember the time I was almost recruited for a cult.

It was in the fall of 2016, when I was going through a bunch of life changes and still healing from some personal challenges in the two years leading up to it. I was volunteering with the Friends of the Somerville Public Library at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, selling used books under a tent and drinking a hot cider on a dreary, wet October day. At some point, two people, a middle-aged woman and a young man closer to my age (28 at the time) approached me. We talked for a long time about books and reading, and at some point once we’d been going on for quite a while, the woman asked me if I wanted to get together with them to talk further. I thought this was just Somervillain friendliness, and didn’t think too much about what their connection to each other was, and I gave her my number.

The three of us got together for a drink at a bar in Union Square maybe a week or two after we met. I can remember a coffee meeting a week after that, another dinner meeting not long after, and a final meeting where I think I ghosted them, but it’s been a few years and I’m not sure on the specifics of what happened when. At some point, it became pretty clear to them (in particular the woman) that I was going through a tough time, and I think a) that’s why I was their mark and b) the older woman/younger man duo was 100% orchestrated with the intention of grabbing the attention of someone like me (a single, lonely young woman who probably had all kinds of vibes of needing to be mothered and loved).

I was experiencing a drawn-out falling out with my roommate that I don’t want to detail explicitly in a public place, but suffice it to say she and I were very close before that and something happened that fundamentally altered my view of our friendship. I was about to change jobs, too (and I think this overlapped with my time at my new job), and I had begun planning to defect to East Boston to live with a couple I’d become close to in the last half a year. It was a very lonely and confusing time of not being sure I’d made the right choices and not knowing which changes I should make (years of precarity didn’t really get me thinking clearly about, like, buying a car or anything). When I started my job, I was immediately overwhelmed, isolated, and in over my head, and the 90+ minute commute I now had vs. my speedy one to the North End was kicking my ass. After those long days, coming home where things were feeling tenuous and awkward was just… not awesome. And of course, a week before I started my new job was November 8, 2016.

Anyway, back to the cult duo. I don’t know what I pegged their relationship to be when I first met them – maybe mother and son? maybe dating? – but it became clear that they were united by something else by the second time we met up. The third time we got together was when the woman pitched the … thing to me. I can’t for the life of me remember what she called it now. The Plan, The Question, The Answer, The Practice, The … something. The fourth and final time we got together, I remember they shared some more details about it with me, including a piece of advice the woman had received from her… cult advisor about being on time, after I mentioned I was chronically late. She said something about how her… cult advisor admonished her for being late because it made her look selfish and like she believed her time was more important than others’ – I’m not pointing this out because it was particularly unique or insightful, I just remember it so clearly. It’s been long enough now that I don’t remember many other specifics about it, but I recall these snippets:
1) “it” was “held” in rotating locations around the Boston area
2) there was some kind of group component as well as some kind of teacher/student or mentor/mentee situation
3) they did seem to have some sort of active recruitment effort
4) they made me swear I wouldn’t mention it to anyone

A couple things happened after this that probably got me out of harm’s way with these people (although my intuition was going AW HELL NO for quite a while before the end), but I think were entirely reflective of my mental state at the time. One is that I did move to East Boston, and that sort of put the nail in the coffin of my friendship with my roommate, though it took a while to actually get to that point. I was exceedingly unhappy there and of course that led to a whole other mess that I don’t have the energy to delve into atm. The other is that I found myself in a relationship with a married father of three, a person who identified me as a mark in much the same way as the cult duo had. I was lonely, overwhelmed, and all kinds of vulnerable. That’s why the fact that this person, who I’ll call Randall Exeten, is still able to find directorships in Massachusetts libraries is especially bothersome to me – he’s a manipulator who preys on the vulnerable, much as a cult tried to in my time of need. Instead of the actual, literal cult, I guess he became a cult-like presence in my life. I didn’t snap out of it until a series of misfortunes and a memory-wiping brain injury finally knocked some fucking sense into me.

I’m writing about this because I think it’s important for folks to realize that we’re all vulnerable to manipulation, even people like me who have been cynical and agnostic-if-not-outright-atheist since adolescence, and there’s a lot of shit we go through that we might not call a cult or a conspiracy mindset, but it’s not so very different after all. This is part of why the whole info lit/fake news/media literacy convo going on right now feels so inadequate to me. We’re all somebody’s marks at some point, and QAnon and the like are, at the very least, trying to cast a wide enough net to appeal to everyone’s vulnerabilities. And sometimes we really want to believe, or we just do believe, and we’re sure as hell not going to check the credibility of our sources.

That said, I was remarking to CS last night that I can’t imagine a reality in which I ever would have subscribed to the QAnon bullshit, but that’s probably because I am 1) not a white supremacist, 2) not a disenfranchised man, and 3) generally have empathy for my fellow human beings. Unfortunately, I have relatives who have bought the whole QAnon farm, and I’ve seen other people I used to follow on social media slowly delve deeper in it; maybe most surprising of all is a certain guy who used to be a central figure in Boston’s electronic music scene. This post is not suggesting empathy for these people, just positing that responding to or trying to push back on this is tied so thoroughly up in beliefs borne of vulnerabilities we may never be able to see or understand, and that’s what’s scary as hell about it; I’m not sure I buy that more/better information can cure it.

tl;dr: Don’t join a cult.