Militant Journalism

Indianapolis communities unite to fight against undemocratic library board

The struggle against the corruption of the top leadership of the Indianapolis Public Library Board of Trustees, which heightened after their refusal to appoint the top candidate as CEO, is morphing into a broader movement to create true democratic control over Indianapolis’ public institutions. Broad and diverse sectors of the city’s residents have taken to petitions, protests and board meetings over the last month in a heated battle against the dictatorial rule of Jose Salinas and Hope Tribble and their anti-democratic, racist and divisive rule.

The most recent public library board meeting on Dec. 19 was a hotbed of struggle for the community and library workers fighting to defend their public resource and the board, which lost all of the legitimacy it had left after not hiring Nichelle Hayes, a Black woman from Indianapolis, as the next CEO. The five board members who voted to hire Gabriel Morley, a white man from out-of-state, over Hayes, could barely look at the standing room-only crowd in the Library Services Center meeting room. Well over 100 people packed the room, holding placards that read, “No more excuses: Hire Hayes now!” and “No new search: Appoint Hayes now!” The latter demand emerged just before the meeting after the Board announced that they would conduct an entirely new and costly search instead of appointing Hayes after Morley declined the job.

In a true display of cowardice, Board President Salinas moved the public comment section until after new business, which resulted in the board deciding on a new janitorial contract without the input of Adam Stant of SEIU Local 1.

In another display of disfunction and the dictatorial nature of the board’s leadership, Tribble read a statement on behalf of the Diversity, Policy and Human Resources Committee that denied any responsibility for offering the job to Morley. She was interrupted by Dr. Khaula Murthada who, after clarifying that she was one of three members of the committee, stated she did not receive any notice about this statement. Murthada then asked the other member who stated he also did not receive the statement in advance.

Even before the public comment period, residents were up in arms over the board’s negligence and disdain for the community. Elder Lionel T. Rush, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Greater Indianapolis, confronted the board directly, marching to the front of the room and admonishing them after they announced they would conduct an entirely new CEO search instead of appointing Hayes. “I’ve never felt so alienated in my life. Why don’t y’all let the people talk to y’all before you decide this stuff? This is wrong!” Despite Salinas’ threats to stop the meeting, no one challenged Rush at all.

Importantly, Murthada twice proposed to amend the agenda, a move seconded by board member Dr. Patricia Payne, to include a resolution appointing Hayes as CEO and twice was voted down.

Organic leaders and community members speak from the heart

The public comment period lasted for several hours with speakers taking their allotted five minutes to make their voices and demands heard. Brandon Cosby, CEO of Flanner House, a local nonprofit, related the board’s position to the one he inherited when he took the leadership at Flanner House. Yet, Cosby worked to build a united board and followed clear and transparent procedures. He noted that he had never witnessed a job search process restart because the first choice declined the offer. Derek Ford, an education studies professor at DePauw University and Indianapolis Liberation Center organizer, affirmed Cosby’s observation later on.

Shauntee Burns-Simpson, immediate past president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, told the board they are “reconsidering having our 12th National Conference here in Indianapolis in 2023.” Burns-Simpson flew into Indianapolis specifically to deliver this message at the meeting.

Stephen Lane, a former library worker and current IUPUI archivist, led a small delegation to the front of the room to present a petition with more than 1,800 signatures in support of Hayes to the board. The delegation included community activist Tony Davis, AFSCME 3395 President Michael Torres, Burns-Simpson and Indiana Black Librarians Network President Mahasin Ameen. Lane, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, handed the board a copy of the petition with signatures from current IndyPL library workers and patrons, former employees of Morley, and prominent local, national and international figures.

“This board cannot even explain to the community why they chose who they chose nor will they explain after Morley declined the offer why an offer has not been extended to Nichelle Hayes,” Lane, who organized a petition, told WRTV.

During the public comment period, president of the Marion County Young Democrats RaeVen Rigdell interrupted to admonish some board members like Tribble who had her eyes glued to the phone in her lap the entire time. “It is integral that as you have people speaking to you that you don’t look down at anything but the people speaking. It is insensitive, inconsiderate and absolutely unacceptable,” Rigdell shouted to great applause.

Only one person, Patty Hefner, spoke during the public comment in support of the board’s decision, and she realized she was outnumbered and left the meeting after she delivered her comment. Hefner and her husband Tom are donors to the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation, and Tom Hefner used to be the chair of Duke Realty Group. Patty and Tom Hefner submitted a letter to the board at the October 2021 library board meeting in defense of former CEO Jackie Nytes, who was forced to resign following allegations of racism.

Building people power

It is truly inspiring that so many people from the community stood up to the powerful interests of the board. Their courage, however, didn’t materialize out of thin air. All protest movements and struggles are educational experiences where ordinary people feel our power when we unite and organize. One of the reasons the PSL exists is to bring these various struggles together and ensure we continue to build on previous ones.

Today’s struggle began after the May 2021 board meeting where former children’s library worker Bree Flannelly went to the board in a plea for help to get the board to do something to address systemic white supremacy within IndyPL. The board president Salinas muted her microphone. Only through protest by board members Payne and Murtatha did Flannelly get to finish her statement. Flannelly’s statement opened the library up to an investigation into the systemic issues within IndyPL. It also pushed the library union to lead the charge to address white supremacy within IndyPL by calling on those upholding it to resign. The union came to the Party for Socialism and Liberation for assistance that year, co-organizing protests and press conferences to keep the issue in the news. 

After a summer of struggle and months of Nytes rejecting the possibility of caving to community pressure, our unity forced Nytes to resign. This was a huge victory for the people and a massive defeat for the entrenched political elite.

Yet, that was only an initial battle in a longer struggle. The Board tried to alleviate criticisms by conducting a climate survey, to the tune of $100,000, after Nytes’s resignation, in which 62% of library employees said they did not trust the Board of Trustees to do the right thing for the library. A total of 72% of Black library employees did not trust the board, while 82% of workers, including 74% of Black workers, said they did trust their colleagues and co-workers to do the right thing for the library.

In their search to replace Nytes, the board expressed a commitment to “racial equity” and brought on a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer who abruptly quit in November. That was the same month as the public presentations of the two finalists: Morley and Hayes.

After those presentations on Nov. 30, there was no doubt that Hayes was not only the best choice, but was the only viable choice. Morley, who resigned abruptly from his leading role at the New Orleans Public Library because he didn’t even live in the state, delivered an incoherent, rambling and boiler-plate presentation that went far too long. Morley even fumbled a “softball” question about the availability of a children’s book in Spanish. Hayes, on the other hand, powerfully packed her allotted time with thoughtful questions, clear vision and a feasible strategy. She also proved her ability to answer the five-year-old’s question.

When the Board held a special meeting to make their decision on Dec. 8, however, residents were shocked to watch as they offered the position to Morley in the meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes. As the board left, patrons held their own vote and unanimously chose Hayes.

The apparent defeat of Dec. 8 turned into a victory the very next day, as Morley announced he was declining the offer. Workers were jubilant and activists even commended Morley for listening to the community, unlike the board.

A petition circulating in support of Hayes spread wide as the Indianapolis Liberation Center, PSL and others organized an action outside of the Central Indiana Library front steps in a matter of days. More than 100 people braved the freezing weather to stand up for justice as they chanted and listened to community organizers and even some politicians, including City-County Councilor Leroy Robinson, Sen. Jean Breaux, and Pike Township Trustee Annette Johnson. For many, it was their first emergency protest as they demanded accountability for the board’s decision and for the appointment of Hayes.

The people organized to pack the Dec. 19 board meeting days later, which erupted in open confrontation with an entire community on one side and two board members, Salinas and Tribble, on the other side.

The people are not afraid and they’re not backing down. Nor are they buying the latest excuse from Salinas, the third offered thus far, for why they must conduct an entirely new search.

Feature photo: Community members pack the Dec. 19 Indianapolis Library Board meeting in support of CEO candidate Nichelle Hayes. Photo credit Bryce Gustafson

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