In summer 2020, the death of George Floyd sparked outrage across the nation, resulting in mass protests over police brutality and racial oppression.
This anger also fueled more than 2,300 Lehigh community members to write a letter to former Lehigh president John Simon and the board of trustees calling for an end to institutional racism at Lehigh.
In response to the letter, Lehigh University committed to being an actively antiracist institution.
It was after this commitment that the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Office asked for proposals from faculty and staff relating to their initiative. Philip Hewitt, senior engineering librarian and collections strategist for Library and Technology Services (LTS), rose to the challenge.
Hewitt proposed for the space behind The Grind in the Fairchild-Martindale Library to be converted into an anti-racism educational center.
Nearly three years later on Feb. 15, LTS cut the ribbon on the LTS CIRCLE — Community & Inclusion Resource Center: A Library for Everyone.
“We want to make it a place where students who might otherwise feel marginalized feel that they are in a place where they feel safe and accepted at a university that cares about their sense of belonging,” said Greg Reihman, vice provost for LTS. “We also want it to be a place that’s welcoming for everyone.”
The space was created to be multifunctional for both diversity, equity and inclusion-related events and everyday studying.
Hewitt said the CIRCLE has new couches, moveable tables, a projector and bookshelves filled with resources by people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and people from other historically marginalized communities.
“One of the cool things we did with the books was we set up a trip to go to (Philadelphia), and we bought from Black-owned bookstores,” Hewitt said. “Other than that, we really tried to be intentional with where we were buying from.”
Hewitt said his proposal involved researching what makes people feel welcomed in an academic setting. He was driven by the idea that the library is not just a place to study, but also a place to engage with materials and talk to people about your interests.
He said he felt Lehigh lacked inclusive spaces and wanted to create one that allowed for more intersection with the community to break down the “invisible racist barriers between (Lehigh) and South Bethlehem.”
“There was a sense that (inclusive spaces) weren’t as visible as they could be,” Reihman said. “Buildings send messages, and what you see is an expression of those values. Plus, it’s always a challenge for us in LTS to let students know the resources available to them.”
Reihman said it is important to help students feel like they belong at Lehigh and to make it easy for them to find resources on topics that matter.
Luis Brunstein, university liaison for Multicultural Communities, said the LTS CIRCLE is a symbol of the university’s commitment to become a more inclusive, anti-racist institution.
Brunstein said he thinks the space will have more of an impact on minority students and those who are underrepresented, such as low income, first generation and/or students of color.
“For many students who are not connected as much to these ideas, it will help contribute to the effort of normalizing the conversation towards a narrative where diversity, inclusion and equity are part of the conversation in a regular day as opposed to some kind of special event,” Brunstein said.
Arvin Jagdeo, ‘25, said the space provides the opportunity for students of color to share their experiences with students who may not understand them.
However, he said the impact depends on how willing students are to explore new ideas and perspectives.
“It’s a good start,” Jagdeo said, “but it might take some time to actually have certain initiatives happening.”
Reihman said LTS is always looking for more feedback, which students can share via the QR codes posted around the CIRCLE.
He said students who are interested in relaying their suggestions verbally or want to reserve the space for an event can visit the FML Help Desk. They may also visit help.lehigh.edu.
“We put a lot of work into it, but I don’t want this to be patting us on the back,” Reihman said. “It’s for the students. It’s for people to use. We want to see it vibrant and active, and it’s a work in progress.”
Hewitt said the CIRCLE will continue to develop. He hopes to increase the amount of non-English and art books in the space, and he is experimenting with different ways to make the area interactive.
Eventually, he said he hopes they are able to lend the books to community members.
Brunstein anticipates people will question the purpose of the space, but he said simply having it speaks toward a change in the direction of the university’s philosophy.
“Obviously we wanted to see more than just change in the philosophy, we want to see effective change,” Brunstein said. “You have to have a way of communicating your intentions, so having a space is a way of letting the community know, this is what we’re planning to do.”