Featured student: Kashif Graham
Education: Bachelor’s of Arts in English literature, and Spanish from Lehman College (City University of New York); Master of Arts in Church Ministry from the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee; will graduate Spring 2019 with an MSIS degree.
Current job: I moved to Nashville to start working at Vanderbilt Divinity School Library as collections maintenance coordinator and then was promoted to outreach librarian for religion and theology.
I can think of a time in the eighth grade where I didn’t feel so safe in my school any more, so I hid out in the library. The shelves and the stacks of books became like a fortress to me and I felt safe there, and that never left me.
When I was an undergrad at Lehman, I frequented the library and I would always start my research there. I had big ideas and needed to look for the obscurest of resources.
After Lehman, I moved to Tennessee to work at Lee University’s William G. Squires Library as Public Services Coordinator. I was in a library management role, but not as a professional librarian. I did that for three years and that kind of whetted my appetite for the information sciences world, and for helping students, researchers and seekers find the resources they need. That’s where my library journey started.
After seminary, my plan was to go into full-time ministry. But toward the end of my journey, I started coming out to some of my peers as gay. I went to a very conservative seminary and I realized I was not going to be ordained in that denomination, so I had to find out what the next right move was. I wanted to be able to use seminary education, because I still felt called to the ministry. I started investigating theological librarianship as a bridge to both of my passions—ministry and libraries.
One of the reasons I decided to become a librarian, too, is that there weren’t enough people who looked like me. I thought, how different would that be, for someone to sit down at a reference desk and see someone who looks like them? There definitely aren’t enough men of color who are librarians.
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has the premiere Tennessee library program, hands-down. There were many nights when I was living in Cleveland that I would drive the back roads to Knoxville. Especially being both queer and a person of faith, Knoxville was a safe place where I could do a lot of thinking. I would drive through the UT campus. I always said, “I want to go here for something, I want to go here.”
And then I discovered the library program. A number of my Squires Library colleagues had gone to UT, and seeing how they worked as library professionals, I knew that this was the program for me.
How has your experience been at UT?
I am so appreciative of my professors. I was in a new city when I started the program. I didn’t know anybody. I was freshly out as a gay man, and I was trying to navigate this new life. It was such a comfort to me that Dr. Cindy Welch would say at the end of every class, “Well, with that, I release you into the night.” It was like someone was tucking you in. She ended up being an instrumental part of my journey and I’ve taken classes with her throughout my time at SIS.
I also took (lecturer) Julie Winkelstein’s class on homelessness and libraries. That class changed everything for me. I, myself, was in this new city living in a very expensive apartment at the time. I thought, what would happen if I suddenly couldn’t pay for this—where would I go? The resources and discussions in that class really opened my eyes that there are so many of us only two or three paychecks away from experiencing homelessness. After her class, I began to see people I hadn’t noticed before. People in between buildings and under awnings. Her class redirected my attention.
Dr. Rachel Fleming-May was so helpful to me in the job-seeking process. I had a sizable presentation and interview that were quite daunting to me. We spoke over the phone on a Sunday, and she coached me through and helped me piece my ideas together. I ultimately got the job!
I really appreciated that my professors were not just about teaching in our Zoom classes; it was about forming relationships. I didn’t think that we could do that through a digital medium. But we did and our relationships extended outside of the classroom. I’m really grateful to have gone through this program for that reason. I know that these relationships will carry on with me throughout my career.
I think no matter what happens in the future, I will always be a librarian. There are a number of writing projects that I will be working on, as well as launching a podcast that deals with the intersection of faith, sexuality and race. No matter what work I do, I will always look at the world through a librarian’s lens: equitable access for all.