The Colorado librarian claims she was fired for protesting the repeal of LGBTQ, Youth of Color Programming
A Colorado librarian filed state and federal discrimination complaints Friday, alleging she was fired from a Weld County library district after objecting to the cancellation of programs she planned for black youth and LGBTQ teens had – including an anti-racism workshop.
Brooky Parks filed complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about her firing by the High Plains Library District in December after trying to shut down “inflammatory or divisive” programs.
Parks said she believes she was fired from her job at the Erie Community Library branch because of her advocacy for black and LGBTQ youth protected under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act and in retaliation for rejecting unlawful ones discriminatory practices.
“If something is really, really wrong, I can’t support that,” Parks told the Denver Post. “If I stayed calm and just got on with my job and let that happen, I feel like I’m part of the problem. My only option is to express myself.”
James Melena, the High Plains Library District’s community relations and marketing manager, said the decision to fire Parks was an internal matter that he could not speak about.
Governed by a seven-member Board of Trustees, the High Plains Library District administers seven branch libraries, including two in Greeley, and is affiliated with six autonomous member libraries.
During a Nov. 15 meeting, the trustees approved program policy language, which states that library programs “should not be designed to convince participants of any particular point of view” and “the district will not present programs that are intentionally inflammatory or divisive.” “.
Melena said that High Plains’ policy was formalized at that meeting, but was no different from the way the library was already operating.
Part of the drive behind formalizing the policy is to be the first library district to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, established by Congress to encourage improved quality of goods and services in US businesses and organizations . When asked if these changes are consistent with the award, Jennifer Huergo, director of public affairs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, noted that “Diversity, equity and inclusion are a focus of the Baldrige Excellence Framework.”
The High Plains policy does not prohibit controversial programs, Melena said, but does urge employees to pay close attention to them and their execution. Melena said a manager would determine if a program is controversial.
“For example, we could host a program on gun control and gun rights and keep it informative, but if the program was intended to persuade participants in one way or another, we would consider that controversial or polarizing,” Melena said.
In Parks’ written discrimination complaint, she wrote, “I was afraid that the new policy would be used to discriminate against minorities in our community, and it turns out I was right to be afraid.”
“So fabulous at what she did”
Parks was a teen librarian at the Erie branch for three years, developing and directing programs that included a teen advisory board, Harry Potter escape rooms, suicide prevention workshops, and a book club called Read Woke, where teens read a book a month with a focus on “Different” marginalized communities read.
“Brooky was so focused and dedicated and so fabulous at what she did,” said Michelle Sparks, librarian at the Erie branch. “She was so good at really sensitively understanding what it takes to get the teens to come in and hang out or, even better, get on that teen advisory board. She was so good at thinking about and executing what kinds of programming would interest teenagers that I think she did more than I’d seen anyone do before.”
Sparks was one of six employees at the Erie branch who corroborated Parks’ claims in interviews with The Post.
Two days after the policy changes were rolled out in November, Parks said she was called to her boss Marjorie Elwood’s office. According to Parks, Elwood said the policy changes forced Parks to rebrand their Read Woke book club because the word “woke” polarized people. Parks said Elwood also instructed her to cancel two upcoming programs — an anti-racism workshop for teens and an LGBTQ teen program called “Resistance Through History, and You!”
A children’s librarian was also ordered to cancel a show because it contained the words “social justice,” Parks said.
Melena said the programs were not canceled because they were never approved. “When this was brought to our attention, we started correcting it,” Melena said. “The rest was an internal HR matter.”
Melena said issues about LGBTQ youth and youth of color are not inherently divisive, but “the way each issue is presented can be”. Melena said the library has supported such programs in the past and will continue to host them if properly planned.
Attorney Iris Halpern of the Denver-based law firm Rathod Mohamedbhai is representing Parks and said the librarian also plans to file a lawsuit alleging discrimination, retaliation and violations of her First Amendment rights.
“It’s nothing more than pure racist ideology and homophobic ideology, and our public institutions shouldn’t sign up,” Halpern said. “It sends the wrong message to minorities, saying their history doesn’t matter and their identities must be erased. Elected officials do not take seriously their role in representing all of their communities and constituents because it is currently politically popular to discriminate against minority groups as a political tool and as a convenient way to win favor at the ballot box. That has a sad history.”
“Canceling Stuff Based on Your Prejudice”
Parks said the library district board has its own troubled history when it comes to supporting diversity and equity.
At the same November meeting where the board changed program policies, Parks and her colleagues came to speak before the trustees about a long-standing disagreement between library staff and board members: High Plains was one of the few library districts in the state not to receive Martin Luther King Jr. a day off, even though you have all other federal holidays off.
“As it currently stands, many people in the community were confused or offended that the library would recognize all other federal holidays … except for the one involving a black man,” said a public commenter during the meeting.
During a July 2020 High Plains board meeting, members discussed the Minneapolis police department making a public statement about racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, as did countless public institutions across the country at the time.
Public comment at the meeting favored the release of a statement in support of the black community, but chief executive Kenneth Poncelow – who is still in that position – opposed it, saying his stance on social issues was The meeting minutes state that the library is not the purpose of the board and that the library is not about social change.
In July 2020, the Public Library Association released a statement calling on public library staff to advocate for structural change and take action to end systemic racism and injustice.
Poncelow — a former Fort Lupton police chief — said the library shouldn’t take a stance, but if it chooses to do so, it must also make a statement of support for law enforcement officials, according to the meeting minutes.
“The board members do not represent the communities we serve,” Parks said in an interview. “The decisions they make are damaging to communities. It’s really frustrating trying to do the work we’re supposed to be doing when people are canceling things because of their own personal biases.”
“Send a message…that you don’t matter”
Parks pushed back on the cancellation of her events.
Parks was scheduled to have her annual performance review in the first week of December, but instead a written reprimand was issued by Elwood and a human resources representative with negative feedback on her work, Parks said. She said she had never received a bad review or written disciplinary action before this situation.
Parks asked to write a rebuttal to her warning but said she was fired a day after filing it in mid-December.
“I was not imposed a performance improvement plan and had no prior indication that my job was in jeopardy,” Parks wrote in her statement. “Instead, the library’s abrupt decision to address all of these ‘performance issues’ shortly after I began pressuring the district on its discrimination policy indicated that my termination was pure retaliation.”
Sparks, who is still employed at the Erie branch, said libraries need to be a safe place for all people.
“Our main concern is that we’re just performing the same old song and dance: ‘Let’s play it safe as long as it’s safe for white people or cisgender people,'” Sparks said. “If we ignore the disenfranchised and ignore or intentionally mute ourselves in the space of LGBTQ people or people of color…we’re sending a message…that you don’t matter…
“The message that was sent when Brooky was fired was that this is no longer a discussion, we’re not talking about it anymore and you will stand by the line.”