City Council: Activists Push for Austin Public Library Policy Change

While the dais considers Convention Center expansion, scooters

Black Sovereign Nation activists have protested at City Hall and the Central Library. (Courtesy of Njera Keith)

Activists continue to press the Austin Public Library for changes to its code of conduct, following an incident in February that led to the arrest of a 13-year-old girl at the library's Carver Branch in East Austin. After that incident, Black Sovereign Nation – a community group that "focuses on developing autonomy in Black communities," according to its website – helped start a campaign called "No Sanctuary for Black Futures," which seeks to change APL policy.

The group appealed to the Council-appointed Library Commission as well as directly to APL Director Roosevelt Weeks for a change to the policy, with little engagement from APL. After nearly a month, Weeks finally agreed to meet with representatives of BSN, including the group's executive coordinator, Njera Keith. On April 11, Keith (who also witnessed the Carver arrest) sat down with Weeks, APL Communications Manager Rachel Nguyen, and Carver Branch Manager Doreen Boyd to discuss the incident and potential policy changes.

At that meeting, Weeks insisted that APL was not responsible for the teen's arrest because it was the mother of another girl involved in the incident, rather than library staff, who called the police. In an interview with the Chronicle on Monday, Weeks stood by this point. "We have never had a policy violation that has resulted in the arrest of a child," he said.

Keith is urging APL to adopt new policies that could prevent anyone from needing to call the police on a juvenile using the library system; she helped draft a set of policy proposals that have been submitted to the Library Commission. One idea is to create volunteer positions at each branch, known as "Youth-Appointed Youth Advocates." The YAYAs would be trained in "youth advocacy, youth equity, de-escalation, and intersectionality" per the proposal, and would help resolve conflicts between young people at the library.

The proposal also seeks more clarity than currently exists in APL policy on when staff should call police on a child. Weeks told us that he broadly agrees with the ideas proposed by "No Sanctuary," but that his staff was "talking to a variety of community groups" to gather input, as well as engaging with the public at commission meetings, before recommending any policy changes. "We want to make sure the policy is equitable and has an equal impact," Weeks explained, "before we move forward." He said his staff's recommended changes to the code of conduct will be ready for review by the city's legal department in June or July. From there, the new rules would have to be certified by the Office of the City Clerk and then posted for another 32-day round of public feedback before APL could enact any policy changes.

Weeks noted that APL staff currently receive training in de-escalation and conflict resolution; on May 3, all staff received "diversity training" from the city as part of already planned staff development. "I know we're not moving fast enough for some," he told us. "But we're talking about a big library system, so we probably can't complete these changes in a year or even two years. But we are moving forward in the area and taking this seriously."

In the meantime, the "No Sanctuary" campaign continues. Keith reported that, as of press time, the group has collected 667 signatures on its petition calling on APL to change its code of conduct, and delivered 200 letters to Council. He says 50 people have committed to boycotting APL entirely until changes are enacted, and that protests "will continue to escalate until the policy is changed."

This Week at Council

Two big items promise to dominate the action at City Hall today (Thursday, May 23). One is Council Member Kathie Tovo's omnibus resolution covering the southeast quadrant of Downtown: Convention Center expansion, Palm School, Waller Creek, Rainey Street, a tourism-based funding district, and more. Tovo, Mayor Steve Adler, CM Pio Renteria, and others will explain all the moving parts at a pre-meeting press conference; expect several amendments as well. The other is the long-anticipated arrival of final micro-mobility regulations for scooters and their ilk – including both rules of the road for riders and future agreements between the city and operators (Bird, Lime, Uber, etc.). Staff's proposed direction on both of these fronts has drawn criticism from different parts of the dais.

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Austin Public Library, Black Sovereign Nation, Roosevelt Weeks, Njera Keith, APL Boycott, Austin City Council

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