Pathways to Leadership

Season 6, Episode 9

Kesha Powell and Amen Emile have been working at BPL for over 20 years in various roles, from public safety to circulation manager. Thanks to BPL's Pathways to Leadership program—a scholarship and mentorship initiative designed to diversify the field of librarianship—they will soon be fully-certified librarians. 

Want to learn more about topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

  • If you'd like to learn more about Pathways to Leadership, send an email to pathways [at] bklynlibrary [dot] org.
  • Check out this list of books related to librarians and other library careers.
  • Learn more about the Librarians of Tomorrow program for teens.
  • Listen to our Season 3 episode "Marching Onward" which gives background about BPL's "Real Talk" sessions, and "On Passing," a Season 3 episode about Black and bi-racial women librarians throughout history and today.

Check out these books about librarians and library work.

Episode Transcript

Kesha Powell Here at BPL, I think I surrounded myself with like minded people that wanted, you know, the best for me. And so, I spoke to some other librarians. I looked in within myself to find my purpose. And I was like—Hey, I'm going to become a librarian.  


Adwoa Adusei That’s Kesha Powell, the Circulation Manager at the Clinton Hill branch. She started out as a part-timer with Brooklyn Public Library 20 years ago. 

Kesha Powell In the last, I guess, three years, I finally made a decision I felt like there's not enough African-American librarians and I wanted to make a difference for people of color especially with children coming and they see me, you know, sitting behind that desk and like, you know, looking up to me. And wanted just to make a difference. And I want these little kids to say, hey, I want to be just like her.  

Adwoa Adusei Kesha is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Library Science, and, she’s not alone on this journey. She’s a scholar within BPL’s Pathways to Leadership Program, a scholarship and mentorship initiative specifically for BPL staff who want to become librarians.  

There are so many fundamental roles within a library system that keep these institutions running, from custodial to public safety, administration to clerical, but being a librarian often means access to more career growth opportunities and financial resources. Librarianship titled positions often require an accredited Master's degree in Library Science (alternatively known as an MLS or MLIS degree). And as with any tertiary education in America, these degrees can be prohibitively expensive, and so within the field there remain representation gaps that correlate to America’s socioeconomic failings around race and gender. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, 86% of the 186,000 librarians and media specialists polled identified as white. 

Pathways to Leadership was designed to address the gap. The program started in 2021 with a cohort of six, and now has eleven scholars made up of BPL staff members from across departments, titles, and backgrounds. Recently, Kesha sat down with a fellow scholar, Amen Emile. Both have worked at BPL for over 20 years in various roles – and both will be set to complete their Master's in Library Science. I’ll let the scholars take it from here. I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed: Stories that start at the library.  


The first cohort of Pathways to Leadership.
From left: Nikeisha Smothers, Freddie Rivera, Amen Emile, Kay Jordan-Wilkie, Kesha Powell, Avigail Najjar

Kesha Powell Hi Emile, how are you?

Amen Emile I'm good, how are you, Kesha?

Kesha Powell I'm really, really excited that we both are on this podcast and just giving everybody a little bit about our journey and the Pathway program. Can you introduce yourself and your title?

Amen Emile My name is Amen Emile. And I'm a YA Trainee at the Paederget branch. I've been with BPL for over 20 years. I work as a Library Associate for 13 years. I switched over to Public Safety. I worked there for four years. I switched to TRS. While I was a TRS, I attended Mercy College where I graduated with my Bachelor's in Psychology. Just when I was wondering how I'm going for my Master's knowing that how expensive, you know, it was going to be. And that's when Pathways to Leadership happened. It came right on time. 

Kesha Powell What's been the most challenging part of the program?  

Amen Emile Not being able to get in contact face to face to face with your teachers and your classmates. And you have to be very self-motivated to be able to keep up with work and school at the same time. And sometimes the internet could be an issue. You might have your internet at home working and then the time that you need to submit your work, that's when something happens or it's down. There are a few other issues, but with goodwill, once you want something, you work hard for it, so you make it happen.  

Kesha Powell I definitely will tell you, with perseverance and support from other people, we definitely get through it. I would say the most rewarding part is you actually completing it. You know, be the first graduate in my immediate family. So, this is such an awesome thing right now.  


Kesha Powell So Emile, let me ask you this, has there been any one person who has pushed you for success on this journey at BPL or outside of BPL?

Amen Emile Nobody really push me to do anything. It's just that since I've been working at the library for so long and I'm watching the kids that used to come to ask for help and then they're graduating. I'm sitting in one position. That's why I was switching from title to title so I could just move up. But then it came to me ... with books, I feel hungry for knowledge. I just decided to go back to school because, you know, nothing wrong with me and I can learn. So the whole the whole pandemic, I was in school online taking my Bachelor's. Nobody knew about until I finished. And that's when everybody was like you. 'You were in school' I'm like, 'Yep.' And then I finished with my Bachelor's and then you just everything happens on time. It’s like I was never too late. And here I am, almost done.

Kesha Powell It's really a familiar thing for me also. Because I never thought I would get this far. You know, coming from the urban community. I feel like you know me coming this far in my life allowed me to open up doors. Because I just thought that, like, what can I do to give back to my community? I don't have any money. But I definitely felt like the library does a lot of great things for the community. And I think that me sitting behind that desk allows me to give out the information that the community needs. Because you never know what a person may be feeling you know, they want to ask for some information about housing, how to get a job, or just simply how to fill out an application. And I think that's a really rewarding feeling for me. I'm excited, I'm enthusiastic ... Just a whole bunch of positive things that's going through me right now.  

Amen Emile Giving big thanks to Caroline for all her support and for those planning on coming to the program, for them to know that they won't be left alone they'll get all the support they need.

Kesha Powell Caroline is the best, and she helped me in a lot of my assignments. And I just wanna tap my hat off, even though I don't have a hat, I want to tap my hat off to Caroline. She's the best. 

Caroline Kravitz Oh, my goodness. Thank you, guys. That is so sweet.

The second cohort of the Pathways to Leadership program.
From left: Jenica Holder, Maxine Wynter, Shalimar Rosario, Fatima Fatih, Courtney Truong


Adwoa Adusei At the end of their conversation, Emile and Kesha gave a shoutout to Caroline Kravitz, the Scholarship Program Coordinator at BPL. She’s the last voice that you just heard. Her stalwart support of the scholars on this distinct pathway to leadership, isn’t just a product of the job description though, it’s almost woven into the fabric of program, by design. Here’s Caroline again. 

Caroline Kravitz So, each scholar is awarded a scholarship that's equivalent to the cost of the full tuition and fees for an MLIS degree and any New York state public institution. So that's Queens College, the University of Albany and University of Buffalo. And then we're also able to provide funds for other costs that come up. So that might be for transportation to get to class, devices like laptops or hotspots, even child care. We support scholars from application through graduation. So, we provide assistance as they're applying to their MLS programs and as they near the end of their degree, we'll also support them as they move into librarian roles through career coaching, resumé assistance, interview prep and activities of that nature.  

Adwoa Adusei The Pathways to Leadership program is meant to address disparities within BPL. Sophie McGrath, the Manager of Learning and Development at BPL, said the conversation about how to diversify BPL’s librarians was really energized three years ago, during what we internally called “The Real Talk Sessions.” We’ll put a link in our show notes to a season three episode about the foundation of those talks. 

Sophie McGrath So, following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, a series of conversations was started that really came from staff reflecting on where we were as a society, what was their lived experience and were kind of calling on leaders to have some form of engagement on this conversation. And so that, you know, brought out some uncomfortable but very real truths for people about how they indeed had structural barriers to advancement. And some of that is a challenge that Americans experience across the country, the prohibitive cost of further education. But that doesn't mean that BPL can't do a lot to remove those barriers. Particularly, participants noted a lack of racial and ethnic diversity among librarian-titled employees. So, if you walk into any one of our 61 locations, you would think on the face of it, that our staff are incredibly diverse. 

Adwoa Adusei But when it came to librarian-titled roles, it was clear that the number of BPL librarians who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color did not match the racial and ethnic make-up of Brooklyn. According to the 2020 Census, 62% of the population we serve identifies as Black, Indigenous and People of Color and almost 39% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. 

Caroline Kravitz (left) talks with members of both cohorts of Pathways to Leadership.

Sophie McGrath And so, the conversation started around, okay, well, how do we change these numbers and what would need to happen?

Adwoa Adusei There was the sense among staff that the Library used to have more opportunities for career advancement for people in all kinds of staff positions – and many people wanted something like that to come back. 


Adwoa Adusei Over the last two years, the team behind Pathways continues to receive feedback directly from staff to meet the program’s ambitious outcomes. Eligibility for the Pathways program has evolved from only full-time staff members to any staff member, including part-timers who are in good standing with BPL and have worked here for at least two years. And, BPL wants the program to serve as a model for others in the field. As Sophie puts it, Pathways can’t operate in a vacuum.

Sophie McGrath You know, it’s called Pathways to Leadership. The MLIS is step one. Step two is: let's hope these people become leaders within BPL or maybe elsewhere or within the industry at large. And so we've been working on developing relationships across the U.S. with other institutions, other libraries of all kinds of sizes.

Adwoa Adusei While this particular program is for current staff, there are other opportunities for non-staff members to engage in librarianship-focused DEI initiatives at BPL. Emile mentioned that he is a YA Trainee at the Padearget branch. The trainee positions are filled by students already pursuing a Library Science degree and who want to work in public librarianship.  And for any young patrons out there curious about a career in librarianship , BPL has also created a Librarians of Tomorrow (LOT) program. We’ll put links to learn more about these initiatives on our web page.    

The Pathways to Leadership program and is made possible by the founding funding of Susan & David Marcinek, Andrea Bozzo & John Martinez, Nina Collins, Goldhirsh Foundation, Betty Kahn, The Henlopen Foundation, Miriam Katowitz, Sandra & Peter Schubert, Kathy Weil, Leslie Feder & Garrick Leonard, Amol Naik and other generous supporters. 

Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library. This episode was written and hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, with help from Virginia Marshall. Thanks to Drew Stanley of the BPL Strategy department for helping with demographic information. You can read a transcript of this episode and see pictures of our cohorts on our website: BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.  

Our Borrowed team is made up of:  Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton, Damaris Olivo, and Ali Post. Jennifer Proffitt and Ashley Gill run our social media. Our music composer is Billy Libby. Meryl Friedman designed our logo. Borrowed will be taking a bit of a break over the summer, but in the meantime whenever you’re next in one of the branches, ask whoever’s behind the desk about their views on future of librarianship.