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Home Issue 36 Ongoing discrimination at the library

Ongoing discrimination at the library

By KIERAN FINNANE

Update, 2 September 2020, 8.45am:

An entity associated with the Bahá’í community has been contracted by the Town Council to run a youth program in Larapinta, a suburb on the west side of Alice Springs.

This would appear to be a program that replaces what previously has been discussed as a Youth Hub.

The Alice Springs News asked the council: What experience does the entity have in youth programs?

Is this program ‘the’ Youth Hub, or is the model of the hub going to be a decentralised one?
The following statement in writing was received from the director of Corporate Services, Sabine Taylor:

With COVID regulations considerably impacting on the operations of the proposed Council youth hub, Council proactively re-evaluated the most effective way to run this program going forward.  In this process Council Management consulted with key stakeholders, including youth service providers, as well as listened to youth and the wider community.

The youth program was suggested by elders and community groups, as a proven program with strong community support.  It offers a world-renowned program that has been implemented both internationally and in Central Australian.

With a fundamental purpose on empowering young people to improve, this program has many demonstrated benefits and is a fresh approach to the traditional youth programming run by Council.

Because of this, Council is excited by the proven success and the potential benefits this program can bring to the young people in our community.

 

Earlier Report:

Updated with corrections regarding council’s policy and with number of permanent staff under suspension and investigation. 2 September 2020, 5.33pm.

 

A Youth Hub is one of the Town Council’s key projects for 2020-21 with a $400,000+ budget.  At the end of June CEO Robert Jennings said it could possibly open in the coming month though a firm date had yet to be fixed – it still hasn’t been.

Intended as an alternative venue for youth who had been drawn to the Alice Springs Public Library’s youth program, it was thought until recently that the Hub would go ahead at the Meeting Place behind Adelaide House, which is already a drop-in centre for young people run by a group of dedicated volunteers.

That location now seems uncertain. And it is possible that the Hub may not even be in the CBD despite the fact that it seems to be the “bright lights” of the CBD that draw young people into town.

On Wednesday last Mr Jennings said that “ultimately it would be wonderful to have it in the CBD … But beyond the physical world, it is the genuine empowerment that we are trying to do … The connection between the facilitator and youth, that’s what we are aiming for, so that the youth in the end guide us as to how to guide them.”

Meanwhile, unaccompanied teens 15 years and under (earlier referred to as Under 15s) remain excluded from the library, which has effectively brought about the end of the youth program.

In mid to late July the library’s youth engagement staff, all casuals, had their jobs terminated (council having no work for them to do), and four (earlier reported as three) permanent library staff, including the manager, were suspended pending investigation. Since then, the library manager has resigned and is leaving town.

It has not been possible to confirm that the situation of the three permanent staff is related to, at least in part, the youth program issue.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Jennings declines to comment on “HR private matters” but he confirms that the investigation has not concluded.

Sources say, however, that both staffing developments were made close on the heels of a staff meeting in which library employees expressed their disagreement with the council executive’s decision to exclude the unaccompanied teens.

About this meeting with staff, Mr Jennings said he spoke to the staff a number of times “along the whole Covid journey”. He does not see the terminations and suspensions as related to dissent over the youth program.

I put to him that staff concerns were, at least in part, about the exclusion of unaccompanied young people as being racist in its impact.

“Look, the intent was never racist, it was related to Covid,” he said and council is working through a process to get teens back into the library.

The sources, however, allege that Covid-19 concerns were being used an excuse for the exclusion.

Mr Jennings is adamant that “safety” for library users is his number one concern.

The Covid-19 routines for library patrons – limited numbers, sanitising their hands and maintaining physical distance – now extend to a contact tracing system.

But there is another other issue at the library, says Mr Jennings, which is “physical safety”: “Unfortunately there were a lot of fights in library … staff were getting injured,” he says.

And what he has noticed “as an ancillary thing”– since the exclusion of the unaccompanied young people –  is that “a lot of people are also coming to us to say they’re happy to have their library back as safe. They feel safe in the library again.”

So, the safety of established library users – or their perception of safety, as there is no report, as far as I know, of library users being injured – has been prioritised over a new group of users, who are also, as often noted, the most vulnerable, the least safe members of our community.

Mr Jennings responded: “We can’t control everything but what we can control we will,” while working to “provide a better outcome for empowered youth”.

This is a story that won’t go away.

The library is a public space, which by its nature is normally open to accommodating everyone, especially, in the tradition of public libraries, the most vulnerable.

There may be rules about using a public space, but insisting on abiding by rules is not what has happened here, rather it is the blanket exclusion of a certain group.

In June, I asked the NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Sally Sievers whether she saw this exclusion as a discriminatory measure.

She replied: “In answer to your query, the NT Anti-Discrimination Act 1992 covers both age and also race discrimination in the provision of goods, service and facilities. The arrangement/policy of  restricting young people under 15, and predominately Aboriginal young people from accessing the library, may give rise to a complaint of age and or race discrimination.

“Any public health justifications for discrimination,  or differential treatment, if able to be justified at all, under principles for balancing competing human rights can only be temporary, necessary, reasonable and proportionate. They should as with other COVID-19 restrictions in our community be removed as soon as possible.”

More than two months have passed.

For as long as the ban continues discussion will fester about the systemic racism standing behind it.

To have this debate does not impute conscious or deliberate racist ideology or motivation to anyone. One of the things about systemic racism is that it is often invisible – especially to those who aren’t the ones disadvantaged.

In this case it manifests by effective restriction of access by a specific group to a service or opportunity that is supposedly available to everyone.

The excluded group is not specifically identified by race but the sources I’ve spoken to, who are well-placed to know, say non-Aboriginal teens were not availing themselves of the library’s youth program, nor, by and large, were they coming into the library. Indeed the youth program had developed as a specific response to Aboriginal youth coming into the library in increasing numbers.

Now that the program has been shut down and the ban on access by general teens 15 years and under put in place, it it these Aboriginal youth who are impacted.

I put to Mr Jennings that staff at that critical July meeting had argued to be allowed to continue to welcome unaccompanied teens.

He said the discussion was more about what “we are trying to achieve with this library”, raising again the protocols to deal with Covid-19.

I put to him that the sudden decision to dismiss and suspend staff could be seen as management being intolerant of dissenting views and unable to work collaboratively with staff.

He strongly refuted that: “That’s not been our intent, neither has it been it how we have delivered things… the strong intent has to be to work together.”

Have those working in the youth sector been alienated by council’s approach?

Mr Jennings said he has spoken to “a number in the youth sector who have supported us in the decisions we’ve made”.

“What we’re trying to do, the sector is critical, but more important are the Aboriginal youth themselves and their families.”

He said council is “really keen” to get youth back into the library, that the Department of Health is supportive in principle, that council is working on how to manage contact tracing with the cohort.

He then raised “no school, no service” – “which council said was important to go with the library” – as another barrier, again effectively targeting a particular group, when it is acknowledged that regular school is not necessarily a viable alternative for some of the disengaged youth around town or coming into town from bush communities. (See Blair McFarland’s comments here.)

Could management also be seen as unwilling to confront racism?

Mr Jennings said his job and council’s is to connect with all parts of community. He mentioned working with Tangentyere Council, Lhere Artepe, the Grandmothers group, other Elders:

“This is who we are, many people.

“It feels like there’s a drive to try and pin council down on this. But that [being unwilling to confront racism] is not the sentiment of officers or the management either. There’s no division here, we’re trying to build a better future and to serve our community.”

What is council’s commitment to bringing youth, including troubled youth into the public space of Alice Springs, rather than keeping them somehow contained or separate?

Mr Jennings said he couldn’t speak for council, but his own view is that “we are one people, we’re like a family. You don’t reject family members. We are all in this together. If you have a family member who is struggling, or if I’m struggling one day, I would hope we’d all work together.”

I put to him that this is a very ideal version of Alice Springs, that the community is deeply divided around youth – how to respond to troubled or troubling young people – in particular.

“I get that …but part of [council’s] job of being elected as leaders is to provide a vision of the future for everyone. If we don’t have something to aim for, we don’t know how to take our first steps.”

Maybe council “could do better” but overall “in terms of being fair, caring, I feel we’ve done the right thing … And I hope to demonstrate that in time.”

Meantime, will we see unaccompanied youth back in the library soon? Maybe not. But before next year? “That would be important to me,” said Mr Jennings.

26 COMMENTS

  1. It would seem fairer that the library take the necessary steps to enforce acceptable rules and behaviours and ban those who flout these.
    A blanket ban on under 15s, being stopping youth from going to a place of learning is about as fool hardy as you can imagine, and yes, it is discriminatory to our young people.
    The never ending excuses of COVID is wearing thin.

  2. The challenge the library has is not to be a drop in centre for drunks and vagrants to have a sleep, wash, use the toilet or mingle in AC comfort.
    As an Alice Springs Town Council rate payer I have seen out of control, not attending delinquents causing chaos in the library.
    Is it the library staff’s and volunteer’s jobs to deal with the problems our own police force and government agencies can’t control with my hard earned rate fees?
    Real school students have a library card from their school which can be used to identify genuine students. Stop playing on race all the time, please.

  3. Not sure the youth policy is based in rascism, but sacking of staff for standing up against it is bad news. Im sure details will be available in time.

  4. As someone who uses the library a lot I can vouch for the new rule stopping unattended youths from accessing the library.
    Some of these youths did run amok and cause unrest.
    Staff should not be put in a position of having to try to control the poor, unsocial behaviour of this minority.
    Calling it racist is just a cop out. It’s factual.

  5. The biggest problem was that staff felt it was fine for a public library to be used as a drop in centre.
    They would accomodate kids who had been out in town all night by letting groups of them do nothing but sleep on the floor.
    Some of these kids would then damage the premises and cause disturbances which the staff at the library did not report properly, further accomodating poor behaviour.
    There’s nothing racist in this at all. These kids should be in school or an alternate premises should be provided.

  6. It’s clear the ban on all under the age of 15 is discrimination. Firing staff who question this is weak and potentially unlawful. The fact our council [ED– seems to have done] both and won’t own up to these and hides behind political speak is pathetic.

  7. I’ve been an Alice Springs library member for over a decade.
    I used to tell people we had the best library in the world; though tiny, a bustling community space with all manner of great books and AV and computers and printers and helpful staff doing an incredible job.
    I was so proud when the library rolled up its sleeves and delivered books during COVID-19.
    That this has become a place where some of its most avid users have been excluded, staff have been poorly treated and its being publicly rubbished is heartbreaking. That its being done under new executive management is appalling.
    Like some people, I pay rates, but that’s not what makes a community – it’s people and place, and the council is failing miserably at both here.

  8. Oh my god, well said, well done and I thank you for exposing the harshness in everyday life especially amongst First nations.
    In the Bible somewhere it does speaks about the evil influence coming from the system and as portrayed here through the system within the library’s organisation, again a perfect example of a system.
    This is the same concept as our world leaders abide by except these people are not leaders and do not have the knowledge as to the level of their counterparts, as they’re sadly stuck with their knowledge that has only got them so far in life.
    They needed to move on because they became that bitter fruit on that tree that when eaten poisons the body, mind and ethic.
    This whole time whom were they helping?
    I know! They were only helping themselves.
    There needs to be way more understanding, love, care, empathy and respect in order to make a change.
    Discriminating is a way of suppressing, dampening those who are disadvantaged for their own wealth which is down right cold hearted, gutless, weak and evil.
    We could be doing sooo much for kids, teens etc, it doesn’t have to be this way.

  9. Jason: It’s clear the ban on all under the age of 15 is discrimination?
    Only if it is done during schools holidays. Other time the kids should be at school.
    School education (primary and secondary) is compulsory between the ages of six and sixteen.
    All children of compulsory school age must be enrolled in school and attend every day – that is the law.

  10. @ Evelyne: The library is open until 6pm, and all unaccompanied U15 year olds are excluded from the library after school hours too.

  11. In defence of Evelyne, not that she needs it, I will say that accompanied U15 year olds were never excluded from the library after school hours.
    Think about it, why was there a need to engage a security company in the library during and after school hours? Was it for the “accompanied U15s”?
    There has been a lot said and written about the concerns of many patrons of the library who stopped going there because their library had been, for want of a better couple of words, taken over by library users who ran amok, even under the watchful eye of youth workers who best knew how to work with the unaccompanied U15s.
    One very prominent library user commented in this paper that school was where the U15s should be and like Evelyne this patron was also questioned for being so daring.
    In spite of all we think, there appears to now be a council youth centre proposal to engage with those unaccompanied U15s, should they so wish, and I am certain that council and the library will no longer have any difficulty in providing for accompanied U15s while at the same time being able to provide for the return of past patrons to their “old” library.

  12. Have not used the library for some years due to kids regularly running amok and total lack of control.
    Playing chasy and hidy around the shelves is far removed from a place of learning that my tax money pays for.

  13. There is no discrimination at the library.
    From my experience as a regular visitor, more Indigenous people are using the library for appropriate purposes now than ever before.
    From my conversations with locals, Indigenous people who wanted to use the library for legitimate purposes were just as turned off as the rest of the community by the daily riots and ridiculous shambles that previously characterised the place.
    From what I can see, many Indigenous parents, grandparents and guardians are bringing their children (15 years and under who need to be accompanied – regardless of race or cultural background) to use the materials on site, borrow and use computers in a relaxed and conventional atmosphere that facilitates learning and engagement with both local cultural materials and the broad range of international cultural and scientific materials available at this library.
    No school, no service simply would seem to emphasise that this local government will not be a party to systemic truancy and the resulting life of welfare dependency that this inevitably entails. Shame on Alice Springs News for this ill-informed attempt to create division and to smother the revival of an important cultural and learning space in our community.
    Why is it that this “newspaper” always chooses to print rumour and innuendo rather than to take a balanced view?
    Most people who read real journalism know that this is what is called in the trade “a rag”.

  14. While CEO Jennings is right not to reveal why library staff are under investigation and the manager has resigned he could have ruled out a connection with the ban on unaccompanied U15s.
    By not doing so it seems likely that there is indeed a connection.
    What else could explain the fate of four hard working permanent librarians who, in my experience, loved their work and gave excellent service to the community?
    This is a loss that needs further explanation.
    Could Mr Jennings’s resort to using the term “operational matter” to avoid questions and his attempt to control the Council’s meeting agenda have been portents of authoritarian leadership?
    Eli Melky should be supported by other councillors in resisting this.

  15. @Toby Zoates. On the contrary, the article is an informed attempt, insofar as it as been possible, to bring transparency to council’s decisions in relation to the youth program at the library, staffing issues, and plans for the Youth Hub. It provides full right of reply on the issues raised to council by interviewing CEO Robert Jennings and quoting his replies extensively. If you are as interested in community harmony as you purport to be, you could add your own observations and points of view without trying to shoot the messenger, and rather welcome the opportunity for debate.
    Kieran Finnane, report author.

  16. @ Toby Zoates: As a staunch defender of the Freedom of Speech the Alice Springs News provides space for readers’s comments – 24,161 since July 2011, the newspaper was started in 1994 – including those that are unsubstantiated and offensive, such as those from Mr Zoates.
    As journalists we are required by the Journalistic Code of Ethics to check facts and provide the right of reply, amongst other things, while Mr Zoates can simply shoot off his mouth.
    But the nice thing about Freedom of Speech is that we can tell our 22,000 readers that this is what Mr Zoates is doing.
    ERWIN CHLANDA, Editor

  17. Alice Springs News, your earlier comment “This is a story that won’t go away” in relation to this matter was on the money.
    It’s been one hell of a community debate and one that has proven to be a prophetic statement.
    More importantly, great having this platform to provide community opinion, and as has been the case, even provide for a voice of dissent about your publication. That’s as ethical as I can imagine and allows for those voices who wish to contribute, to do so. Wonderful.
    This great iconic community hub, ‘The Neville Shute Public Library’ has long provided for all the eligible citizens of this town and for the many citizens from across the universe who patronise it and discrimination has never appeared to have been a part of its patron manifesto.
    Let’s continue to contribute to this debate with respect and be mindful that we all have so much to offer and thank you for the transparency to contributing voices.

  18. It appears to me that this blanket ban on unaccompanied people 15 years and younger visiting our library is discriminatory in its implementation. It targets a particular age cohort rather than the behaviour they display on site.
    This ban has the same impact as a youth curfew would have. What about the young people 15 years and younger whose behaviour in the library is perfectly acceptable? Why should they be denied access and punished because of the behaviour of some others?
    Who checks the ID of younger patrons to determine their age? What if they don’t have any ID with them? What’s so magic about the number 15?

  19. @ Phil Walcott. Phil IMHO you are correct with it being discriminatory. BUT what from I know, its’s the Aboriginal kids who are causing the havoc. To ban Aboriginal kids would discriminatory too.
    There is a code of conduct required in all places and in life. The library code of conduct probably hasn’t changed much over time. For the simpletons among us, the conduct required is pretty basic and it’s based on respect.
    I can’t see that it should be a librarians’ job to police the library looking for troublemakers.
    So yet again, we find an alternative for parental responsibilities and or a good kick in the bum and employ a security guard at great cost to the taxpayers!
    When I was a kid, you only had to employ security guards for high monetary value items. (No disrespect intended to the value of the library books.)

  20. Putting the smelly movie theatre into a private room instead of of letting the library turn into a lunchroom would help. Aggressive teenagers running amok turned the library into a no go zone for my family.
    Well done town council for standing up for its citizens. I’m going to the library again!

  21. As was previously said “this is a story that won’t go away” and continues to demonstrate the community interest in this great library.
    The link to Blair McFarland’s earlier comments provides some interesting factual information worth noting.
    For example “the open door policy” shown by the library points to the need for a “youth policy”!
    Then the survey attracting 180 respondents would be informative, if made publicly available, not just the chosen comments. After all it was a public survey.
    Then the consultancy firm report: At what cost to the community and to find out what? That the library had suddenly become overcrowded with youth!
    It would be interesting to know if there are future hidden library costs. If so they should be made available to the community before proceeding.
    No one would deny that youth activities are needed, but not at the expense of those who were either unsafe or made to feel unsafe by an ill fated open door policy at this unique and wonderful hub for the community.
    In concluding, I believe discrimination is being used here inappropriately and as with Covid 19, it is the unsavoury phenomenon that concerns us all.

  22. The library is a sad shadow of the welcoming community hub and safe inclusive space it once was.
    Not only do unaccompanied under 16s continue to be banned from the library, but many other library services have been cut: The Alice Springs Special Collection remains closed to the public, patrons are kicked out of the library from 1pm to 3pm, the hottest part of the day supposedly so that library staff can spring clean (the library has a full time cleaner!).
    All programming from baby rhyme time to computer classes have been suspended.
    The library is clearly chronically understaffed after having four workers suspended including the manager and the programs coordinator, and all the youth engagement staff fired.
    Two of the four “customer service” library roles are consumed by COVID tracing, including one staff member whose job seems to be sitting out the front of the building reading a book and occasionally telling people to sanitise their hands!
    While I am all for taking precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect our community, this seems a poor use of services and wildly out of step with other public spaces in town, and other public libraries in the NT such as Darwin.
    It appears as though the council are using the excuse of COVID and associated risk management to get rid of young people, and outspoken staff who advocate for them, and to cut back the library’s services in textbook austerity fashion.
    This is no time for cost cutting, job cutting and service cutting, the community really needs well resourced public spaces to support us through what is going to be a tricky time for many people, especially those already disadvantaged.
    I really hope the council will step up and see what an essential service the library provides to this town and put politics aside in order to let the library serve the whole community and support the town’s COVID recovery.

  23. Clearly the council has done the wrong thing. I would like to see the update from the Anti Discrimination Council.

  24. It would also be interesting to compare the council’s current agenda against its own Reconciliation Action Plan.

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