When Women Speak: Sujei Lugo

Posted on 29 November 2017 Wednesday

It’s taken me so long to find my voice. I’m so thankful to know and work with so many women who model their courage, their passion, wisdom and intelligence for me every single day. Just a small sample of them have been featured in this series. There are women of color, there are Indigenous women all around us who are speaking out, we just have to learn to listen. They may speak through their art, their vocation or their research. They may be younger than use, differently abled, speak with an accent or collect money near the bus stop for breakfast. My sisters, how are you speaking?

Are we listening?

Kelly Starlings Lyon: How Do Women Use Art As Resistance?
Zetta Elliott: Nice Is Not Enough
Traci Sorell: Why Do You Speak Out?
Justina Ireland: There is A Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert
Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful
Cheryl Willis Hudson: Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement
Laura Jiménez: Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels
Maya Gonzales: True Power Rises
Neesha Meminger: I Want to Talk About Power


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Growing up in a rural town in Puerto Rico, I remember a childhood where several women in my life constantly reminded me “Las nenas no hablan así” (“Girls don’t talk like that”). Whether it was because I wanted to prove a point, defend myself from getting into trouble (of course), stick my nose (and mouth) into adult conversations, or tell my teachers how they were getting Puerto Rican history all wrong (got straight A’s, though), I was slowly internalizing how should I speak up, where should I speak out, and when I should do so. Or if I was even allowed to do so. These early experiences drove me to shutting down, to questioning my voice and to searching for validation or approval before speaking up to know if I what I was thinking was meaningful or valuable. Throughout life (family, school, work, interpersonal relationships, community) we are constantly facing people who wants to shut us down, intentionally or not.

Bringing myself into the context and world of children’s literature, I face different scenarios, different characters. More intersections play a role, but the same old silencing, minimizing, erasuring and questioning is there. We need to constantly keep in mind the different voices and roles within the children’s literature pipeline – creators, editors, publishers, reviewers, librarians, educators, booksellers, advocates, students, caregivers, child as a reader – and how all these roles are interwoven and influence each other. It is by looking at that pipeline that I try to remind myself that I play a role – children’s librarian, educator, doctoral student, reader, advocate, critic, colleague, and sister – and that I have a voice that should speak up and out and that it can be used to amplify other voices.

As a brown library school doctoral student in overwhelmingly white New England, several voices from my identities are internally questioning and afraid to speak up because I need to follow specific academic lingo, expectations, presence, and composure as a mode of survival and validation from peers, all backed up by the whiteness embedded in our higher education system. It wasn’t until I took a doctoral course in the School of Social Work with a black woman professor, that I finally felt seen as a scholar. I could express my ideas and frameworks. I could research my way. I was valued and I was able to speak as a woman of color in academic settings. I was made comfortable with my “accent” and the critical race theories and librarianship topics I wanted to address in my scholarly work and career. I found a voice to connect with other (women) students of color, to collaborate with them, and to mentor future women of color within my field.

The online relationships I’ve built with Native/Women of Color (thanks to Twitter), that eventually transformed themselves in some of the most valuable relationships in my personal and professional life, provided me much-needed spaces to learn about my non-academic and children’s librarian voice. Within our community of mainly children’s literature Native/WOC folx, I found a space to explore, to challenge ourselves, to support each other, to provide survival tools, to collaborate, to vent and cry, to value ourselves, to love and take care of ourselves. We are continually questioning the spaces where we should speak up. Are we to be on the margins, to step into “their” doors, to paved the way for others or to create our own spaces? And, which spaces do we value? Which ones are valued? Should be valued? Shouldn’t be valued?

I work as a children’s librarian in a community where a lot of Latinx brown and black girls and women live, study and/or work. Whether our interactions are through class visits, storytimes, crafternoons, workshops, reference assistance, homework help, library visits, or special programming, I try to provide a safer place for them to feel heard, to be heard, and that they should be comfortable expressing themselves. I speak up and out with them in English, Spanish, Spanglish, in our own words, our own slangs, acknowledging the power of words and silence, the sonic landscape of their childhood, my childhood, and that no matter how young they are, which language they choose, girls like them need to be heard and should speak up. Just because I’m sitting up front or leading a program or a group, doesn’t mean that the power dynamics of who should be speaking, who should be listening, who is more knowledgeable, can’t be shifted. Girls and women also bring their knowledge, experiences, voices to our library programs so we should portray ourselves as facilitators of a space where all voices are valued, a space where we use our privilege to provide a forum to express and amplify marginalized voices, to sometimes just step aside and listen.

I’m still learning (and unlearning) how to find my voice, to stop questioning myself, to seek approval and validation of what I think before I speak up/out, and to work with the internal and external silencing, erasure, invisibility of my voice as a woman of color in children’s librarianship. Like life, this is an ongoing process where I like to keep in mind the community I work for and with current Native/women of color, the current Native/girls of color, the voices that fuel our children’s literature movement in the spaces where we should speak up and out. The oppression we are continue to endure and the ways we challenge it, showing everyone that, yes, las nenas hablan así.

UntitledSujei Lugo, a former elementary school librarian in Puerto Rico, is a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library, Connolly Branch. She holds an MLIS from the University of Puerto Rico and is currently a doctoral candidate in LIS at Simmons College, focusing on anti-racism and children’s librarianship. She is an active member of REFORMA, ALA and ALSC. Sujei is currently serving on the 2018 Newbery Award Committee and as co-chair of the 2018 ALSC Charlemae Rollins President’s Program. A member of the We’re the People Summer Reading Project. Twitter: @sujeilugo

Posted in: Me Being Me