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Contributing Editor Interview

Featured Researcher Spotlight on: Nicollette Brant, Laura Jara, Melissa Maldonado, and Marisa Méndez-Brady

Contributing Editor Paige Sundstrom discusses and explores POC mentorship in research in this Featured Researchers post

We are thrilled to feature four researchers in this post: Nicollette Brant, Laura Jara, and Melissa Maldonado, and Marisa Méndez-Brady.  I (Paige) attended the 2019 Diversity in Academic Libraries (DIAL) conference in May 2019 where Nicollette, Laura, Melissa, and Marisa gave a presentation on their work on peer coaching and mentorship for students of color in LIS and inspired this post! Their DIAL presentation was adapted from a presentation a few of them gave at the POC in LIS Summit in 2018. Marisa worked as Nicollette’s, Laura’s, and Melissa’s supervisor at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library, and together they share their experiences, observations, and critiques on POC mentorship in LIS – a topic that deserves recognition and continued research, so we’re very happy to share their work with you today!

Nicollette Brant: Nicollette Brant is a recent MLIS graduate from UCLA whose past scholarship has focused on identity and power in archives and libraries. She has a wide range of experience in the information profession, including archival management, digital asset management, digital preservation, and UX design. Most recently, she was a Graduate Student Research Assistant at UCLA’s Young Research Library where she supported advanced research and engagement. Currently, Nicollette is on the job market seeking opportunities in academic librarianship at universities and community colleges in the LA/OC area. Although a newbie to the Twitter game, you can find her at @nicollettebrant.

Laura Jara: Laura Jara is a Metadata Specialist at the Walt Disney Company. She received her Master’s of Library and Information Science (MLIS, Class of 2019) from UCLA and has a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of California, San Diego. During her program at UCLA, she developed an interest in metadata, data management, UX design, and cataloging. As a graduate student she became interested in the ways that Hollywood studios address their information needs and how librarians can help address these needs. As a first generation Latina, she strives to create windows and mirrors for future first generation students in the profession. You can follow her on Twitter at @runningwithdata.

Melissa Maldonado: Melissa Maldonado is a second year MLIS student from UCLA  and has a B.A in Literature/Writing from the University of California, San Diego. She currently works at the UCLA Powell Library as a Graduate Student Research Assistant and performs outreach for incoming, current, and potential students, as well as providing research help. Previously, she worked at the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library as a Graduate Student Research Assistant, where she supported students with their research and created a social media brand for the library with her coworker Nicollette Brant. Melissa is interested in public and academic libraries and how they design and execute their services for the communities they work with. You can follow her on Twitter at @melilibro.

Marisa Méndez-Brady: Marisa Méndez-Brady is the Reference & Instruction Librarian at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where she is the liaison and selector for the School of Critical Studies. She received her Master’s of Science in Information Studies (MSIS) at the University of Texas at Austin, has a Graduate Certificate in Instructional Design from the University of Maine, and holds her B.A. in History from Haverford College. As a proud Latina going into her 6th year in the profession, Marisa has become increasingly aware of the impact that whiteness has on LIS theory and practice; her current research project centers critical race theory (CRT) and focuses on labor inequity around ‘diversity work’ in academic libraries. You can find her on Twitter @msmendezbrady.

Can you please describe your experience with mentorship in LIS and how this project/presentation came to be?

Marisa: I’ve done a lot of work broadly in the profession around peer coaching/mentorship as mechanisms for institutional change, but this specific presentation came about because in my previous position at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), I was extremely fortunate to hire, supervise, train, and mentor several MLIS Graduate Student Research Assistants who provide reference at the Charles E. Young Research Library’s Drop-In Research Help Desk, along with my former colleague and co-supervisor Jade Alburo. As fellow women of color, Jade and I both felt it was crucial for us to seek out diverse applicants and then provide opportunities for MLIS students of color to plan and execute their own academic initiatives. We wanted to get these students into the rooms where decisions were being made. I also wanted to use the social capital that I have amassed in the last 5-6 years as an academic librarian to pull as I climb by inviting students to collaborate on professional pursuits. It was with this perspective that Jade and I collaborated with MLIS students Nicollette and Laura on a presentation about mentorship at the inaugural POC in LIS Summit at Loyola Marymount University in July, 2018. The presentation dug into how providing intentional mentorship for students of color not only helped the MLIS students feel like they belonged in the profession but also how Jade and I build a supportive community for ourselves within our own very white library. The following year, Laura, Nicollette, and I adapted this presentation for the 2019 Diversity in Academic Libraries (DIAL) conference and invited Melissa (whom I also supervised at UCLA) to join. This was the only all Latina presentation I have been a part of, making this one extra special. I’ve since moved on to the California Institute of the Arts, but I’m so happy I could be even a small part of Nicollette’s, Laura’s, and Melissa’s professional journeys  and am so humbled to continue to act as a mentor to these amazing young women.

In your presentation, you spoke about finding and sustaining community as a major part of mentorship relationships – can you discuss examples of what that means to you in this context?

Melissa: With Marisa, Laura, and Nicollete at UCLA, I had a strong community to rely on and help me grow professionally and personally. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, entering this huge institution and knowing that I wasn’t alone. They encouraged me to have more confidence in myself and to go the extra mile in the workplace and in school. Being part of a strong and welcoming community helped me to distinguish between a healthy and a toxic environment. Knowing what support, comfort, and safety look and feel like has helped me learn (and practice) how to set boundaries when faced with toxic and unhealthy traits in a workplace. Although I no longer work with Marisa, Laura, and Nicollette, I know I can still draw on the community we built to empower me to speak up for myself because I know I have their support. I was able to set boundaries with a high-level administrator earlier this summer and after Nicollette and Laura graduated, while I knew I had to speak up for myself because they weren’t here, this community gives me strength even when they’re not by my side. Community is a major part in mentorship relationships as Marisa, Nicollette, and Laura were all mentors to me, and they helped me feel welcomed and safe in an environment that was willing to take advantage of me. I know that I will always be a part of that community. Now that I am a second year in my MLIS program I can help to create a new community with the incoming students and be a mentor for them, just as my mentors were for me.

“It’s really a feedback loop– the more you feel validated and supported, the more energy you have to flourish in your job.”

Nicollette: Marisa has helped build an extended community for me that has been very beneficial professionally. For example, when Marisa left UCLA and was no longer my supervisor, she enlisted a few of her colleagues – people she knew would be positive allies – to check in with Melissa and me at the reference desk to make sure we were getting the support we needed. I feel like having that kind of support across campus at different libraries gave me the confidence to continue taking on new projects that helped me acquire not only essential professional skills but helped me to realize that my ideas and efforts were valuable. Knowing that people have your back is encouraging. We had our own team of cheerleaders. We’ve now presented at numerous conferences and have even more connections in the works because of all the support we got through our mentorship community. It’s really a feedback loop– the more you feel validated and supported, the more energy you have to flourish in your job. Having a community of mentors was also good for my mental health. Grad school was initially a very isolating experience for me. I definitely suffered from imposter syndrome, and there were times I felt like I didn’t belong there. But Marisa was always so forthcoming with positive affirmations. She knew I had a tendency to downplay my accomplishments, and she really helped me to believe in myself and my capabilities, which has been instrumental for me. It’s also important to remember that sustaining a community does require a certain expenditure of emotional labor and remaining transparent about your boundaries and how much you can shoulder is imperative. Just like any relationship, mentor/mentee relationships require clear communication to be transformative, rather than causing stress and/or emotional abuse.

Laura: I think early on as a student, I realized that finding and sustaining a community was going to be an important part of my time not only while I was a student but afterward. While as a student, I did form part of a community with other POC students but I would only see many of them every so often if at all for the quarter. Having a sense of community as part of the mentorship relationship created a safe space with people who helped one another grow and flourish within the profession.  It also helped affirm me and my abilities, which pushed me to challenge myself as a professional. Both Marisa and Jade, who was also my supervisor and mentor, pushed me beyond my comfort zone to take on projects that I never thought I would get to do. They always reassured me that I was more than capable of doing something even though I sometimes questioned my own skills and capabilities. They helped instill a sense of confidence in my work and in the profession that I didn’t think I had.

What research or pedagogies have informed your practice with mentor/mentee relationships?

Nicollette: Most of my undergraduate and graduate scholarship has focused on critical theory. I brought aspects of critical theory into my role as an informal mentor to Melissa. Although I came into the program and the GSRA position a year before her, I did not want her to feel like I was her superior. Competition is central to white western ideology, and I do not subscribe to the notion that we have to be competitive with our peers to succeed. So, as soon as Melissa came on board, she had an equal voice at the table. Also, I think a lot about how to navigate and dismantle forces of oppression and normalization within the LIS context, which really can’t be separated from our lives outside of work. Controlling forces are diffuse and entangled in our everyday thoughts and practices as librarians and humans. From my experience with Marisa, Jade, Melissa, and Laura, mentor/mentee relationships do have the potential to be healing. Practicing empathy and transparency with one another helps to build and sustain spaces where critical discussions can take place. A really foundational text that I continue to come back to when thinking about libraries, diversity, and mentorship is April Hathcock’s, “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS.” In my interpretation, she equates mentorship to coalition building: building a network of people within LIS to combat the damage that the “invisible nature of whiteness” does to the field. It’s particularly challenging to fight what you can’t see, and through open and honest dialogue between POCBI (or BIPOC, black/indigenous/people of color) can we identify the behavior that isolates us and form a language of resistance. A central idea that informs my practice is that mentor/mentee relationships are at the core of coalition building. However, again, the emotional labor that goes into coalition building cannot be discounted. Crucially, institutions need to do the work to better aid POCBI to succeed in this profession.

What research needs to be done surrounding this topic? Are there areas of this topic that need to be explored further?

Marisa: I definitely think that more research needs to be done linking critical race theory (CRT) to LIS in order to examine the racialized power dynamics at play and address the underlying systemic reasons why this profession continues to fail in recruiting and retaining BIPOC; we’re still an ~87% white profession, despite scholarship and recruitment programs. When I was in my Information Studies program, I had virtually no understanding of how academe works and it was really only by happenstance that I ended up in academic librarianship. I never considered doing conference presentations, publications, and committee work before mentors stepped in and not only encouraged me, but showed me concretely where to find calls for participation, how to submit proposals, and how to navigate academic communities. So much of the work around mentorship for BIPOC takes the form of help learning the unwritten rules for operating at predominantly white institutions (PWI), such as institutional language and opaque systems governance and advancement. The mentorship I’ve received has absolutely helped retain me in the profession and I’m so happy to pay the guidance forward by mentoring others. But, it is absolutely not enough to rely on the individual mentorship efforts by librarians of color to overcome barriers to recruiting and retaining historically marginalized people in our profession. Research linking CRT to LIS can help identify and name the barriers to including those who fall outside of the white able-bodied cultural norms of librarianship and address these barriers on a structural level throughout our professional ranks.

What is next for you? What projects are you working on now?

Melissa: I’m entering my second and final year of my MLIS program, and I plan on applying to public libraries. Currently, I have been working on professional projects for the UCLA Library, such as an “Intro to the UCLA Library” workshop for the upcoming Graduate Student Orientation and creating workshops and games for incoming UCLA students and participating in conferences here at UCLA, while fostering the relationship between student and library communities. I’m still participating in mentorship, as Marisa’s colleagues from UCLA still look out for me (thank you Marisa, Matthew Vest, and Nisha Mody!!) and now I’m becoming a mentor for the incoming students and letting them know that I am a source of support for them when they come here.

Laura: Well I just started a new job as a Metadata Specialist, and through it I’m learning and working on how to apply the skills I learned in a traditional library setting to a non-traditional one. Despite the differences in the nature of the work, I kept pushing myself to take on new projects and look for ways in which I can apply my skills to my new job.

Nicollette: I’m currently on the job market. I’m pursuing academic librarian and archivist positions in the L.A. area that incorporate outreach and instruction. I want to carve a path as a leader in instructional design and user engagement, specifically in applying critical theory-praxis to librarianship. I want to keep building my community and hopefully contribute positively to the retention of POCBI in LIS through continuing the mentorship legacy that Marisa and Jade have modeled for me.

Featured image by Electric-Eye via Flickr

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writers do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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