When Brooky Parks thought about developing programs for teens at the Erie Community Library, her experiences as a mother were a powerful touch point.
And while she didn’t necessarily program the calendar for Madeline, now 18, and Jack, who will turn 16 very soon, they were very much on her mind in her work as a teen librarian for the branch of the High Plains Library District.
“I know the struggles they face on a daily basis,” Parks said, and the statement makes her cry. “My teens are no exception.”
But she didn’t expect to be fired from her job in December, not long after the library district board changed its programming policy and, she says, used the changes to cancel two of her programs, on racism and LGBTQ+ teens, and disrupt the Read Woke Book Club for teens.
On Friday, lawyers for Parks, 47, filed complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. She claims she was fired from the post she held for more than two years in retaliation for sending letters to the community about the policy changes and cancellations and urging people to take action.
The library denies this, saying that they intended to review the programs, not cancel them. The library declined comment about Parks’ termination, calling it “an internal HR matter,” which is common in personnel matters in any organization or business.
But the library does not deny that a new policy exists. Here are the the changes:
- Program topics should reflect community interests and should not be intended to persuade participants to a particular point of view.
- While controversy is not avoided, the district does not present programs that are intentionally inflammatory or polarizing in the community.
An administrator informed her that the programs had been canceled on Nov. 17, two days after the policy was approved by the board, Parks said. The administrator also told her that they wanted to change the name of her book club.
Parks was calm in an interview while discussing her termination. She didn’t cry when she discussed how the library wrote her up for incidents that weren’t brought up with her until her performance review and then fired her for them a day after she gave a written response.
When she talks about “her teens,” however — not just her own kids, but the ones she served at the library — the tears come right away.
“I had a lot of relationships with them,” she said. “They’re really great kids, and those resources are a huge benefit to them.”
Parks is now either a solitary figure or a martyr, depending on who you talk to, in an emotional battle that really is more of a volatile question about the role of the High Plains Library District and what it should offer.
Information, not advocacy
Matthew Hortt, the library district’s executive director, in a December meeting with the board that governs seven of the 13 branch libraries indicated he believes the new policy reflects the library district’s role.
“The role of a library is to provide information,” Hortt said, “not to be an advocate on one side or another.”
Hortt said in the board meeting that the programs Parks wanted to bring would teach someone to be an advocate for something. Parks doesn’t hide this in a description of a program she planned to bring for Pride Month in June from Boulder County OASOS: “OASOS…will present about LGBTQ+ history and resilience, with an emphasis on youth resilience…Additionally, we will go into ways to take action in your own community and how to be a better ally to the LGBTQ+ in your life.”
However, Parks said, that argument stumbles a bit regarding the Her Flowers program she would have offered in January: “Her Flowers is a virtual workshop open to teens of all gender orientations. Through meaningful conversation and personal reflection, participants will learn about racism, power, privilege, oppression, and justice in the U.S. Participants will leave with increased confidence to discuss social justice issues and incorporate anti-racism in their daily lives.”
This is why the policy is so dangerous, Parks said. It could be used to cancel any program in the district. Others share her concerns, including Dodie Ownes, the co-chair of the Colorado Association of Libraries’ Intellectual Freedom Committee and a librarian with Denver Public Library, where Parks worked as a reference librarian for two and a half years.
“Who decides what is intentionally inflammatory?” Ownes said. “There’s no process there. It’s a really bad policy.”
Ownes’ opinion is her own. The state board is working on a general statement about first amendment rights and will release one soon.
But libraries are also becoming more of a “political football,” Hortt said in a video message to staff, and have been damaged as a result, or drawn unwanted attention or crowds because of what they present. Libraries are supposed to be places of information, not protest, he said.
“We’re not censoring items, materials or programs,” he said to the board in December. “We’re trying to adapt them into that programming policy.”
Two other actions bothered Parks: The library canceled a children’s program at her branch because the description had the words “social justice” in it. She also was told to rename the Read Woke Book Club. She named it that, she said, because many other libraries across the country called it that as well, based on the national ReadWoke program that encourages people to read a book a month about a marginalized person or community, which had a wide range, including LGBTQ+, those with mental health struggles and people of color.
The administration or the board, she said, didn’t have a problem with books she assigned: They just didn’t like the word “woke,” a slang phrase for those sensitive to social justice issues.
High Plains agrees with Parks on this point. Parks’ book club had a history of low attendance, and given that, as well as a couple complaints they received from the public about it, the administration wanted to rename it in case the name was keeping teens (or anyone else for that matter) from joining.
“Renaming was part of that effort to improve participation,” said James Melena, spokesman for the High Plains Library District.
Anti-racist, LGBTQ programs part of community awareness training
Probably the biggest point of contention between what the library is saying and what Parks believes is whether the programs she planned were canceled or paused to be reviewed. It’s a small but important point, as it speaks to the district’s overall mission and culture, and whether Parks overreacted to the library’s review process.
Parks said she was just doing the same kind of talks that had already taken place under her old branch manager. She had a talk about sexual assault awareness for teens last fall and the manager was supportive of it. More than 20 people, including parents and teens, attended the talk.
“The organization asked me how I got all those people out to listen,” she said. “I was just working hard to get the word out.”
Parks did her best, she said, not to hide anything. Her previous branch manager was aware of what she had planned, as Parks had regular one-on-one meetings with her about programming, either to discuss presentations already booked or those she hoped to book. Both the anti-racism workshop and the LBGTQ+ presentation fit under what she called the Community Awareness Training program.
She hoped to include workshops this year on suicide prevention, mental health and teen dating violence, with pizza served during Q&A sessions that would include hard questions to balance out each of the presentations.
But High Plains Library officials said Parks didn’t undergo the formal review process that all programming goes through, Melena said.
“These programs were never approved to begin with because they never went through our established approval process,” he said. “When we were alerted to this, we began the process to correct it.”
But Parks said she did meet with the associate director filling in for Parks’ branch manager after she left for a position in another library district. This meeting took place in late October, before the board approved the policy.
Parks told her temporary supervisor about the Community Awareness Training program that would include those presentations. She also said she hoped to expand it for 2023. Parks admits she didn’t have the final descriptions of the presentations, but she did explain the topics to her.
The administrator didn’t express concerns about those programs until two days after the board approved the policy. That’s when Parks was told to cancel her presentations.
“Brooky was never offered the option to rework the programs,” said Parks’ attorney, Iris Halpern, a partner in the civil rights law firm Rathod Mohamedbhai. “She was only told to cancel them.”
No other programs at other branches were canceled, Melena said, and this is why library officials said this was an isolated incident with one staff member at one branch.
But others disagree with Melena. They say what happened to Parks was the culmination of a culture shift that’s been going on for a few years.
Avoiding unwanted attention
Margarita Shawcross felt that shift, she said, when Drag Queen Story Hour came to the Clearview Library in Windsor in January 2019. The presentation, which was, indeed, drag queens reading stories to kids, was popular but controversial, as are similar programs nationwide.
Soon after, Shawcross, then a librarian for the High Plains Library District branch in Evans, wanted to bring a social justice book program. She based it on a similar program in place at the Denver Public Library.
The program had nothing to do with drag queens, but she said the attention it got alerted the board or the administration to sensitive topics.
“I was told to modify my program,” Shawcross said, “and it ended up being different than what I had proposed.”
This was shocking to her, she said, because librarians across the country were typically given freedom to develop programming that fit their needs and culture of their community. This was the first time in her career she was told to modify a program.
Librarians, she said, do more than stack books: They nearly always have master’s degrees and are expected to provide “social or technical programming,” according to a simple definition in Wikipedia.
Instead, the culture of the library turned toxic, she said. She does not know if that was a result of the library board, viewed as conservative by those both inside and outside the district, she said, or the administration, and she doesn’t want to place blame on anyone. What she felt, she said, was a shift in the mission: The policy change that came two years later was more of an affirmation of what she’d felt two years before it was approved.
“A library is a place where you are an equalizer for all,” she said, “and it didn’t feel that way any longer. My programming was affected. There were people who were asked to do things they didn’t feel comfortable with. It was a joy to come to work every day when it came to my patrons, but when it came to the administration, I was physically sick about it.”
She left in August that year, she said, to take another job as a librarian. Nearly a half-dozen employees who she knows of soon followed. “There have been many of us,” Shawcross said.
Shawcross said she wanted to remain quiet, as she isn’t the type to put herself out front.
“But when I saw the policy and what happened to Brooky Parks, I couldn’t sit here any longer,” she said.
The library district doesn’t like the assertions that they want to shut down free thought, or that they aren’t representative of all people, Melena said, and he lists examples such as an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, a collection diversity audit and diverse programming, including Rainbow Storytime in partnership with PFLAG, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ people, their families and allies.
High Plains District created a strategic plan in 2019 that runs into 2024 and worked on updating its procedures and policies in an effort to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The policy underwent two reviews by a library managers group and a committee of the board before the main library board approved it in November. The board saw it as a way to review programs based on budget dollars and space.
“These decisions are not made based on content,” the district wrote in an official statement. “Over the years, we have received challenges and reconsideration requests and have maintained our collection. We value having a robust collection that presents information from various points of view.”
Programming that is too one-sided, officials believe, doesn’t help “bring people from diverse viewpoints together to discuss, learn and grow together,” the statement read.
“These ideas and issues have driven our programming decisions throughout the years,” the statement read. “As the overall review of policy was conducted, it became apparent that the evolution of our programming did not always align with our goals.”
Kids showed up to support Parks
When public institutions such as libraries refuse to host programs that address uncomfortable subjects, they lose a lot more than programming, said Jennifer Nelson of Erie. Nelson has a blended family of eight kids with her wife, Islen. Representation, Nelson said, is important.
“My own kids have a lot to grapple with, trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world,” Nelson said. “Even just walking into your library and seeing signage around sending positive messages and groups you identify with, you know you matter. You aren’t alone. Even just having it available, seeing it advertised, it sparks conversation and helps people feel less isolated.”
Nelson grew up in a rural town and called the time when the library bus, as that’s all they had, would stop near her house the highlight of the week. Since then her kids practically lived at the library for pajama reading time, story hour and a Harry Potter club. As the kids got older, six of them served on Parks’ teen advisory board, which helped recommend programming. Five of their kids still serve on the board of 13 or so teens.
Nelson said she appreciated the way Parks would address difficult topics in the Read Woke book club, which her children adored. “Miss Brooky,” as the teens called her, would warn them if the book contained scenes that dealt with suicide or other topics.
“There was a lot of transparency about what was talked about,” Nelson said. “She read the books ahead of time and was very clear in her actions.”
The fact that two of her children wanted to speak before the board about Brooky’s termination said a lot about the programs she presented, Nelson said.
“These are the two shy kids in my family,” she said. “But she gave them a voice to the point where even they were willing to stand up and speak about it.”
Social media posts alerted community
Parks was so concerned about the policy changes that she sent a letter out to the community to inform them about it. She posted it in Facebook groups, including a social justice page in Erie, and sent it to library members.
“If you recognize the value and importance of having programs such as the ones being canceled,” Parks wrote, “I implore you to share this information with your fellow community members.” She then listed ways to do that, including emailing directors, the board and preparing statements for her to read at a board meeting, which she did in December.
Parks did this on her own time, and included her personal email address, because she didn’t think it was right to do it on company time.
“I couldn’t just stand by and let them cancel these programs,” she said
A staff member called the Colorado and American Library associations, who have Intellectual Freedom committees, and had Parks talk to them about the policy.
Her real goal was to let the communities know what was going on. That remains her goal. She hasn’t ruled out a lawsuit or pursuing a settlement, but so far, the federal filings are her only legal action against the library district.
The reasons for her termination, on Dec. 16, were for offenses that she had never received any kind of warnings for, written or verbal. She said her record was spotless up until that point, though she didn’t want to share past evaluations, either from High Plains or from Denver Public Libraries, where she started her career as a librarian about five years ago. She joined the Erie library in 2019.
Parks believes the offenses weren’t made up, but they were stacked against her to make a case for letting her go.
Azra Taslimi, one of Park’s attorneys at Rathod Mohamedbhai, said organizations and companies typically stack charges when they retaliate against an employee and know they don’t have a good reason for firing them.
The larger issue, Taslimi said, is whether the community wants their library to engage in what she called “historical patterns of discrimination.”
“Do we really want unelected officials coming in and politicizing public institutions like our libraries?” she said.
The library district doesn’t plan to revisit the policy, Melena said, but that shouldn’t be an issue, given that officials believe this was an isolated incident, despite what Shawcross said.
Parks is currently reading her fourth book on intellectual freedom and trying to work with the state and national library freedom committees to see if anything can be done. She is also looking for another job and updating her resume in between filing for unemployment.
“It’s tough out there in library land,” she said. “It’s highly competitive.”
She is not in danger of losing her house yet or starving. The bigger issue, she said, is she wants to continue to work as a librarian. She found a second career, almost a second life, really, after falling in love with the library as a stay-at-home mom taking her kids to story time, volunteering and eventually getting a master’s degree. She worked for shelters and social work with troubled teens. This fit her life mission.
“I’m starting over,” she said. “I just hope I can land somewhere that values the job I can do and supports the job I’m doing and doesn’t cancel all my programs. This is my passion.”
A version of this story first appeared at The NoCo Optimist