Opinion: The Jones Library Expansion Is Not A Social Justice Project

Photo: Flckr.com. Creative Commons

Art Keene

The Jones library expansion proposal may be many things but one thing that it is not is a social justice project. Almost six months ago, I wrote an op/ed calling out those who argue that spending $36 M (not including debt service and likely to be considerably more as cost estimates continue to grow during the design phase) must be a high priority of the town but are silent about spending money where the need is greatest. This ongoing claim that the library is social justice work because of a small service component contained within the overall project and without any effort to address or acknowledge the considerable injustice and need that lurks within our midst, is cynical and offensive. I suggest that the critique is even more germane today.

And so, we reprint below that editorial in its entirety.

What is social justice work? Most simply defined – social justice work is work that dismantles injustice.  While the Jones library expansion project will offer amenities that will likely diminish the misery of some of Amherst’s most needy residents (e.g. providing free computer access,  a place for the unhoused to get out of the rain, or a safe place to catch a mid-day nap), and while these contributions will be most welcome when the library reopens,  this is hardly justice work.  Social justice work is work that endeavors to dismantle injustice.  This would include work that attempts to address the structural conditions that diminish the lives of too many people in our midst.  It might be anti-racist work, or anti-hunger work, or mentoring work to give at-risk youth a better chance. It might be work to protect voter rights or to prevent wage theft, or to promote a living wage. There is no shortage of injustice that needs to be eliminated

The Jones library does indeed do some work like this.  Providing a home for the town’s literacy programs is one example.  But to label the $36M+ Jones renovation (don’t forget the interest)  a social justice project as many of its advocates do, not only strains credulity but does harm by deflecting attention and resources from those actually struggling to eliminate injustice.   By the standard used by some Town Councilors and Jones Trustees,  almost any kind of help would qualify as social justice work.

But imagine what we might be able to do in terms of promoting justice if the library project were not going to cost $36M or $22M, or whatever the final cost with interest comes to, but 10% less. What if that 10% savings were reallocated to all manner of justice projects – anti-racism work,  anti-poverty efforts, food security efforts like the expansion of public gardens,  expanding youth services? People out there who are engaged in the struggle would have no trouble coming up with ideas of how to spend, to good effect, $3M or $2M or even $1M. But to my knowledge,  no one who is claiming that the library expansion (or proposed zoning bylaw changes) are social justice projects are proposing to direct any funds toward directly taking on injustice.

An open Jones library may offer a welcome salve to some folks in need.  And an expanded Jones may offer even more salve.  But let us recognize that it is only a salve.  It’s kind of like offering an unhoused  person, standing in the rain, a few dollars to buy themselves a meal.  The meal is most welcome but at the end of the day they remain unhoused, insecure, and most likely hungry again. That donation is a good deed, but it is hardly justice work.  Those who are disturbed by what they perceive as extravagant spending on the library in the midst of so much injustice are not anti-justice, even though they have been subjected to that calumny by some supporters of the library expansion.  

Back in the 80’s and 90’s Amherst had a human services budget.  There was a time when this town had a youth and children’s services director.  Those budget items were zeroed out long ago but the needs that were met by that spending did not disappear from the Town when the services disappeared from the budget.  

Many of us who are critical of the Jones expansion as proposed, welcome an improved library.  But we see other needs in the town that are not being met and a more modest Jones project might have freed up some money to address the circumstances of those most in need as well as the structural conditions that create that need.  I would like to hear the same kind of advocacy for spending on justice as I hear for the Jones expansion and I would like to see a commitment from our government to spend money where the need is greatest.   But that’s not what I see nor what I hear.  To justify  extravagant spending  as social justice, gives folks permission to ignore the pressing needs that remain unmet, and to say we’ve  spent wisely, and to say we’ve done the best we can.   And that is intolerable.

Art Keene is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass Amherst.   He was co-founder and co-director of two social justice-based civic leadership programs at UMass – The UMass Alliance For Community Transformation (UACT) and The Community Scholars Program. He is Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy.

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9 thoughts on “Opinion: The Jones Library Expansion Is Not A Social Justice Project

  1. Are you criticizing the library project or the way some of its advocates are marketing it? By the definition of “social justice ” you have adopted, I’m not sure that any of the proposed capital projects would past muster. Does that mean that we should oppose them? We do need advocacy for “social justice” spending. We do need to recover the idea that this a Town responsibility, that we cannot rely entirely upon Federal and State resources. There is a role for local government.

  2. I would never suggest that any town project must be a social justice project. I do insist the the cause of social justice not be trivialized by attaching its name to any project that people want to promote or claiming that anything that helps the needy is entitled to that label. I object strenuously to the claim, made by supporters of the Jones expansion from the outset, that the expansion serves the cause of social justice. It does not. And to make that claim is not only dishonest but actually does harm to those engaged in social justice work and those who benefit from that work. And I don’t see many of the folks who are claiming the mantle of social justice worker speaking much for spending on social justice outside of their claims for the library.

    Does this critique constitute an objection to the library project? I suppose it does. I want to be clear that i am a long-time supporter of the Jones and agree with just about everyone who says that renovations are needed. But the outsized design and extravagant borrowing place considerable constraints on everything else we need to do in town and an even slightly more modest design would have given us a little more opportunity to support those other needs. Those who claim that the Jones expansion borrowing will not be a burden to any other spending in town are at best being unrealistic and at worst being dishonest about the greater fiscal picture. And some of those folks who insist that the Jones borrowing is not a burden on other projects are the same folks who are telling us that there is no money when we want to do things like participatory budgeting, or repair our athletic fields, or build a senior center or or youth center or BIPOC cultural center or properly staff a firehouse, or whatever. The list of needs is quite substantial, and it feels surreal to prioritize an oversized library expansion over all of them.

  3. Art, I honestly want to understand what you see as the alternative. Is your thinking that we can go back to the state with a different design that in your words is not extravagant and hope that they will accept this and still give matching funds? Even though we know the state has parameters on their grants that require programmatic improvements? This seems so risky when the building is a failing building in need of repairs, and those repairs on their own will cost just as much to the town. Particularly when those repairs include HVAC which may have been less of an issue in 2019, but is certainly a top priority now. Can you please elaborate as to what alternative path you are suggesting and how long it will take? We are 4 years past rejecting state funds for the schools and still several years out from a new building. I can’t imagine starting over on the library would be any faster.

  4. I wish the town would stop presenting ill-conceived plans based on misleading or erroneous data as is happening right now with the plan to build a parking garage behind CVS and was evident in a poorly thought-out grade reconfiguration for the failed school consolidation project. Same story with the library. These plans were drawn up by insiders out of public view and presented as a done deal–take it or lose the state money. Why not get public input first? The vast majority in town want an upgraded Jones Library and a new elementary school, but I, at least, do not want more deception.. I can envision the Library Trustees falling short of their $6 million pledge to raise money and coming back to the town for the rest and it seems pretty clear to me that construction and finishing costs are going to come in way over what the town is planning to borrow. And they will of course, get whatever additional money they request because we can’t have a half built library in our midst. Those added costs will be painfully borne by every other budgetary need in town. I would gladly support a project of appropriate size, that avoided destruction of the 1993 addition and the substantial environmental costs of demolition; a more modest project with an honest assessment of cost.

  5. Everyone in town values and supports our libraries and our schools. Why is it so hard to craft plans that are not controversial and divisive from beginning to end. If ten years ago, we began with a truly open and inclusive process, and made it a priority to listen and compromise, the library renovation would have been finished by now. The outcome would be better and more reflective of our collective wish and wisdom. Ditto on the elementary schools. Let’s make it our priority to practice inclusion, deep listening and consensus building.

  6. John, I think Art is objecting to what I call arguments of convenience-latching into to any justification for want your want, so long as it advances whatever you want. In a liberal town, a social justice claim resonates, so use that claim however you want. I look at at the 4 capital projects and I don’t see how we can afford them without raising taxes — taxes that rise every year and are unaffordable to many people. Is that social justice? Have the leaders actually spoken with and given voice and power to the groups they are advocating for? I sit on the Planning Board that justified not requiring more retail space on the 1st floor of a downtown building because many disabled people prefer to live on the first floor. Then when I wanted to require that the 1st floor apartments be built to be accessible (which of course cost more to build) , but no, that didn’t happen because disabled people might not want to be isolated and grouped together. Stigmatized, maybe, but wouldn’t it have been more useful to speak to the Disability Commission and people with disabilities? I also wonder if this generation of boomers can ever learn to live within our means and live with less, much less and repair the damage we have done.

  7. I am amazed that Amherst is a town with so much creative thinking and real word expertise, and yet our town government doesn’t tap into it nearly enough; instead disregarding and characterizing members of the community who are investing their time and energy and perspective and brainpower to help think things through (“cranky nimbys with nothing but time on their hands”).

    Public input and town character are mentioned repeatedly in the master plan, but the supermajority of the town councilors seem to only see the word “densification,” an undefined term.

    Innovation happens when diverse ideas are shared, so no surprise there’s not much of that happening. It also saddens me that (rumor has it) town councilors and planning board members don’t read the Indy… though they probably do, and don’t acknowledge it.

    One would think that the town council, in its initial term, would have tried much harder to create community and communication. There are few things more economically promising than a place that attracts creatives. A creative government, a curious government, an inclusive government, would be a great economic stimulus for our struggling town.

  8. A few years ago, I attended a meeting of the Jones trustees where Alex Lefebvre presented a draft strategy for citizen input into the proposed plan. As a former town planner with considerable experience with community involvement (Shelburne Falls Observed, the HilItown CDC,) I was impressed. She cast a wide net, suggesting many categories of people who might have valuable contributions to make. “Social justice” was not then a rationale of convenience, so no explicit mention of the BIPOC community was made. Tamsin Ely was incensed: “THOSE PEOPLE ARE NOT STAKEHOLDERS,” she almost shouted at Alex. It turns out that her idea was that only one representative of an official group- the League, the Chamber, the BID, the School Committee and so on – should be allowed to comment on the almost set-in-stone plans. I was touched by Bob Pam’s response. Next on the agenda, he opened by looking at Tamsin and saying “Everyone in town is a stakeholder.”

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