by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow
This feature essay on an Asian/Pacific American library leader focuses on Patty Wong, County Librarian/Archivist of Yolo County in California. Patty is also a lifetime member of APALA and a wonderful advocate of diversity in ALA and the library profession. Patty was recently recognized by the California Library Association with its prestigious Member of the Year Award.
In November and early December 2013, I sent some questions to Patty, focusing on her thoughts on library leadership and diversity. This article provides an edited version of Patty’s responses.
Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Tell us a little bit about yourself, your career to date?
Patty Wong (PW): My name is Patty Wong and I am currently the County Librarian for Yolo County Library since January 2008, serving a rural/urban community of 210,000 in northern Calif., just above Sacramento. Yolo County Library consists of seven branches, one of which is a joint-use with a city high school; a satellite location located in an elementary school library; an adult literacy program; and an Archives and Records Center. During my tenure, we have built two new libraries, renovated a third building, developed a strategic plan, and positioned the library to be the point organization responsible for the County’s tactical direction: Collaboration to Maximize Success. I am also responsible for teaching one of the four core supervision training courses on leadership for Yolo County and have been blessed to serve as a Eureka! Mentor for this key leadership program developed by InfoPeople for the California State Library.
My career as a librarian has spanned a few decades since receiving my MLIS in 1984 from UC Berkeley, where I also received my BS in Women’s Studies. Since that time, I have been honored to have served as a children’s librarian, beginning my employment at Oakland Public Library, where I was responsible for up to ten branch libraries. I also worked as a school librarian at Oakland Unified School District, where I was responsible for the District Library, the professional collection and copy cataloging, and founded a small, but now defunct, International Children’s Library in Oakland, Calif.
From there I worked in management and administration, as children’s librarian and later Supervising Librarian in branch services at the South Branch and Tool Lending Library at Berkeley Public Library. There I developed a passion for working with community as key to library service development, and a deeper understanding of the strong role mentors can play in my personal and professional growth by working with leaders like Regina Minudri and Linda Perkins, Rhonda Rios-Kravitz and Gary Strong, Camila Alire, Luis Herrera and Jose Aponte, Ken Yamashita, EJ Josey and Betty Turock.
My journey took me to return to Oakland Public Library to lead Youth Services as Coordinator. There, another opportunity developed into another community engagement professional benchmark for me through the DeWitt Wallace Readers Digest funded Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development. As the Coordinator of Youth Services at Oakland Public Library, I learned about the role a public library can play in creating change through youth development. I also actively learned about fundraising and friendraising, garnering more than $2.0 million in grants, contributions and donations for youth and afterschool programs in a little less than two years.
My work and abilities and influence developed as I took on another critical position: Deputy Director at the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library. I learned how to coalesce teams, build budgets, and strengthen the library’s position within civic governance. Advocacy became another foundational support for my professional tools. From there I went to Yolo County.
“Knowing when, where and how to take action are not things that come naturally to leaders but are learned and acquired skills. A good leader will balance knowledge and experience with the needs of the community. A great leader will intuitively gauge and critically assess the climate and the situation before a question is asked. And the best leader involves others in solution-building and the success of the operation at hand.”
MICD: What ways do you see yourself as a diverse professional?
PW: I am a fourth generation Californian, Chinese American, youth development advocate, committed to inclusion and developing strengths in others. My reflection has evolved over time as I now have the language to articulate more of my personal and professional philosophy. I see my role as an advocate for social justice and making the world a better place. My leadership strengths have been to strategically position my team and organization to leverage and bridge relationships toward those goals. That includes contributing to the support and growth of a stronger American Library Association that is more inclusive and accepting of change. My commitment to social justice advocacy also includes devoting time and personal contributions to the development of the five ethnic professional associations (American Indian Library Association, Asian/Pacific American Library Association, Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Chinese American Librarians Association, and REFORMA) and local engagement with regional agencies that support communities of color and diversity. I try to encourage and challenge my colleagues to engage within their own communities in a similar manner.
Most recently, a colleague introduced me to the Gallup Strengthsfinder. It emphasizes a focus on our natural talents. Bringing out the best in our colleagues, our family and friends, our communities and recognizing their natural strengths and interests are keys to our thriving as a society. This is a foundation for the majority of my current work.
MICD: Please describe an instance in which diversity played a beneficial role in your library work.
PW: While at Berkeley, I successfully wrote my first grant and managed a five-year $500,000 program that would change the path of my work with community and people of color. Partnerships for Change, a California State Library project, provided the resources to fully develop community work in neighborhoods with changing and diverse populations. In South Berkeley we worked with an increasing number of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese patrons in a predominantly African American community. Through the leadership at the California State Library, I became part of the development of services to a variety of diverse populations, crafting seminal documents in collaboration with other leaders in the state that created awareness, training and expectations of how public libraries could develop community partnerships in service. Those experiences provided me with the advanced thinking and the penchant for developing a teaching style that has guided my professional life and a core foundation in grant writing.
MICD: How did diversity play a role in attaining your next position?
PW: I have always envisioned and modeled my own diversity as an asset in my own development and the commitment that I have in developing others as I have been developed. As a champion and advocate of diversity and inclusion as strengths, my abilities and personal and professional experiences as an individual of color enhanced my skills and abilities. I was able to articulate who I was, and my deep interests as valuable attributes to all of the positions I pursued. More importantly, I sought positions that broadened and enhanced that philosophy – I chose very carefully where and with whom I wanted to work based on my interest to cultivate a stronger world based on diverse activism and community engagement. In essence, I thoughtfully prepared a toolchest of experiences that would parlay my goals. These actions in most cases advanced my perspective long before I pursued another position. The Library world is very small – people talk, they notice, they compare. A critical nugget or idea to share with everyone is to be able to talk about yourself and your work without hesitation. Remember the work we do is in service to make the world a better place. Our talents are key to that effort. Your confidence in the work, your ability to leverage that strength into something that will benefit many, is exactly what that next employer may be looking for. Remember, you seek to always create a stronger organization – the legacy you leave is part of our commitment to community.
MICD: Has it been challenging to move higher up the leadership ladder? How did you make the move from middle to upper management?
PW: Moving up the leadership ladder has always been a challenge based on a dynamic set of situations. I have always assumed key positions, sometimes only through opportunity and assignment. The critical difference is being strategic in taking advantage of opportunities when they arise, volunteering for key lead positions or learning from engagement with a new project or committee work. Because of a number of early lead experiences within the profession and in particular at ALA, within the ethnic professional library communities and through my home library association at the California Library Association, it is often a misperception that I am a seasoned library director when I have only been in this type of position for a little less than six years. However, I have been in middle management and upper management for most of the past 30 years of my professional career, elevating fairly quickly after five years as a frontline children’s librarian. The move from middle to upper lead positions was incremental and based on assuming additional responsibilities, setting goals for increased responsibilities within my organization. For instance, as a branch supervisor, responsible for a branch and an adjunct service, Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library, the lead responsibility for the Partnerships for Change grant provided a key five-year program of significant influence within the system and great community impact. That experience led to more exposure to diversity work though the California State Library, to stronger statewide networks and was the precursor to the establishment of key committees within my home agency. It was easy to transition to an upper management position afterwards, as I was a recognized leader at home and regionally. I also surrounded myself with key individuals who are hard-working and resonate a similar philosophy of service and community engagement. I provided them with the same growth opportunities and leadership experiences afforded to me by my mentors.
MICD: How does diversity influence your leadership style?
PW: Diversity is intrinsic to the way I work, both in my professional and personal life. It is part of my framework and moral compass. I am committed to foster the development and mentoring of diverse professionals interested in advancement and leadership.
MICD: What attributes do you look for in future leaders?
PW: Here’s a list: Achieves results, Action, Adaptable, Agile, Authentic, Breaks rules, Capable, Change agent; Embraces change, Communication Skills/Communicative, Confident, Creative, Decisive, Delivers on promises, Direction, Drive, Dynamic, Engaged, Ethical, Excitement for work, Facilitates, Flexible, Focused, Knows when to follow and when to lead, Genuine, Heart, Humble, Interpersonal Skills, Intrinsically curious and eager to learn and continue learning and contribute to the learning of others, Long-term, New Roads, Optimism, Organizational consciousness, Passion, Personal charisma, Persuasive, Proactive, Provides meaning, Purpose, Respected, Responsible, Seeks, Self-aware, Sets direction, Strengths focused, Striving, Trustworthy/builds trust, Uses conflict, Values, Vision, Visionary
MICD: Are these the same skills, talents, and qualities you recommend diverse professionals develop as they seek new leadership positions?
MICD: What advice would you give to young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds?
MICD: How about advice for mid-career professionals, especially those who are interested in moving into higher management?
PW: A continuing challenge for me is to focus my energies and influence toward my own professional team when I receive more immediate and positive response from my leader volunteerism experience. It is easy to apply leadership skills and experience to those who are ready to receive them, such as students, or incoming library leaders, or even other colleagues in the County who are eager and interested in learning and adopting different practices. I have a limited time with these key contacts. These groups of people elect to receive my leadership suggestions and ideas. These individuals actively listen and are receiving, analyzing and synthesizing the information and techniques shared for actual implementation. They are primed for change.
In the day-to-day, it is a challenge to address the needs of a staff member who may or may not be ready for the shift. So, remembering that everyone has different learning styles, making a conscious effort to apply change management processes, taking the appropriate steps to include early adopters in any shifts, and seeking the counsel of my strongest naysayers is critical to learning what would best appeal to those who remain on the fence. Effective leadership takes time, focused energy, and enlisting the strategic support of colleagues across the spectrum. Working effectively with people – our greatest assets – continues to be among the greatest challenges that leaders face.
Leadership is the personal and professional acumen to influence positive outcomes to advance human positions. Leaders take strategic action, make a difference and develop others to become leaders. Remember that all can lead from any position. All members are valuable and should be valued and encouraged to take a lead role to build the team and larger community. Diversity of skills and divergent points of view is key to creating a stronger and more sustainable outcome. I have found that a deeper, broader inclusion is more satisfying to my personal leadership style.
There are times when the most advantageous situation involves following or coordinating through the leadership of others. Leadership involves courage, flexibility, adeptness, and a willingness to serve for the good of the whole. Knowing when, where and how to take action are not things that come naturally to leaders but are learned and acquired skills. A good leader will balance knowledge and experience with the needs of the community. A great leader will intuitively gauge and critically assess the climate and the situation before a question is asked. And the best leader involves others in solution-building and the success of the operation at hand.
Remember that great leaders makes the best managers. Follow your heart and your conscience. Develop those who are on your team and in your community, as you have been developed. Remember those who have come before you and pass on your insight and lessons learned to help others.
Editing assistance provided by Jaena Rae Cabrera.