For Trans Awareness Week, the Emerald is publishing interviews by the Ingersoll Gender Center with important trans community members and the work they are doing for gender equity. This content is produced by Ingersoll Gender Center and provided to the Emerald for publication. To read the other interviews in this series, click here.
by Grayson Crane
Sunny Kim is a teen librarian at the Rainier Beach branch of the Seattle Public Library and is active in our communities. Grayson Crane of Ingersoll Gender Center interviewed Kim on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Who are you and what are you doing?
I am a teen librarian at the Rainier Beach Branch of the Seattle Public Library, where I’ve been working for a little over a year. Before that, I was working at different community non-profits, like Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP) and Social Justice Fund NW (SJF), that are oriented towards social justice and community work. My work has mostly been working with teens. I stepped away from nonprofits as the process of fundraising for my own salary was something I didn’t enjoy and I also had a big health issue come up. Having a health crisis without a diagnosis pulled me away from that community work with SYPP, and brought me to working at SJF and social justice philanthropy.
During all this time, I’ve felt really taken care of by community in Seattle. I started thinking about places where I can take care of other folks. This led me to public libraries that are often at the heart of communities.
As a librarian I try to take care of folks, sometimes it looks like helping people with printing, faxing, or finding resources. A lot of my work is helping folks on their worst day. I try to engage in all situations generously and in a friendly way. The library can help level the playing field for our communities.
As a teen librarian, my job is advocating for teens in the library, first to other patrons and then with my co-workers at the library. The framework I’ve adopted from my previous work is to see teenagers as full human beings who we, as a society, don’t give a lot of power to and assume a lot about.
I start by building relationships with teens in the library — working to build connection so that the first thing they hear isn’t a negative statement about how they don’t belong here in the library. I am stepping into the libraries after youth-centered work in a social justice environment and I always bring an emphasis on relationships and trust. When I see teens that come to the library out in the community, folks say hello and call out that I’m their librarian. It’s satisfying to know that my efforts are being reciprocated. That there are real relationships there and that all parties are knowing each other and putting an effort into getting to know each other.
I also do school visits to promote resources and share books with teenagers, like at Rainier Beach High School, Aki Kurose Middle School, and South Lake High School. I try to promote the library as a community resource, where teens can come get help with homework, or play games with friend, and figure out ways to welcome teens into the library.
Similar to that, I’ve done some panels, like one at Geek Girl Con where I talk to folks about books and a love of reading. Geek Girl Con brings in a lot diverse folks and is a unique convention because of its emphasis on being intergenerational and centering women, girls, transgender, and nonbinary folks. When I do panels, as a non-binary person, it feels great to be able to connect folks to POC, trans, and disabled authors. As a librarian, I try to curate and uplift the voices that aren’t part of the mainstream.
Why are you doing the work you are doing?
A lot of reasons! Mostly, I want people to feel seen. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in public libraries. I never recall being engaged by library staff, even though I was taking out giant stacks of books with books above my reading level every day. I was there, but invisible. I think there will always be kids growing up in libraries for a variety of reasons. Some kids have parents that are always working or some families don’t have access to quality afterschool programming. I want to make sure all the young people in our communities have the opportunity to feel seen and to grow up in safe spaces.
Librarianship is very very white. One of the consequences of such a homogeneous field is that there aren’t enough people who can understand folks with marginalized identities that have had a harder time in life. Not because folks aren’t trying, but if it hasn’t happened to you or someone dear to you, it’s hard to understand. It’s hard for folks to understand from the outside how multiple oppressions can come together really screw up your life in unique and punishing ways.
I think that library workers really do think about community, yet every corner of the country is impacted by systemic racism and transphobia, including libraries. I’ve had multiple queer and trans youth come up to me and ask, “How did you get here?” saying that they’d never met someone with the same pronouns as them working as a librarian. Through participating on readers advisory panels, I’ve been able to easily meet and help folks in the audience looking for trans authors or books with trans characters in them. Being that visible presence in community for resources, connections to information, and life saving representation is a lot of why I am doing my work.
What are you working on?
Like a lot of things in our world, libraries weren’t built with transgender inclusion in mind. Many trans librarians and library workers have been doing a lot of education and emotional labor around improving those conditions. I am proud of the work I’ve been able to do with Micah Kehrein, Bean Yogi, and Reed Garber-Pearson. The four of us created two workshops for the Washington Library Association Conference last year — a shorter intro to trans inclusion in the libraries and a longer format for assessing policies, practices, procedures, and facilities. We reached over 100 folks attending in person at that conference and then reprised the intro for the Washington State Library’s First Tuesday Webinar series. We’ve had over views 700 and counting on YouTube. Finally, we’ll be presenting our pre-conference workshop again at this January’s American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Seattle.
While I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to educate folks in our profession, I’ve felt stuck doing ground-level education. It is totally important but I’d like to be doing more imagining and pushing. We have shared resources broadly online but there is still a lot of one-on-one work that needs to happen as well. There’s so much room for growth and it is great to see folks flower into awareness.
When do you feel the most powerful? What makes you feel powerful?
I don’t think about being powerful as an ideal state. I think an ideal state for me is feeling connected. It feels full. That’s when I feel that things are right, that I feel good, that I have strong connections to the people around me.
Queer and trans communities, especially disabled queer and trans people of color, build incredibly beautiful support networks. I hate that mainstream society doesn’t understand that. As an example, there was a young adult book by a cis-person about a trans person of color character. The book won an award, but of course the committee was made of cis people. In the book, the character spends all of her time in isolation, and I was thinking this isn’t real! The author didn’t understand our community, they didn’t understand the ways our community needs each other to survive. People that aren’t a part of queer communities don’t understand the ways we care for each other. For example, I am so grateful to young queer and trans folks that are Instagram famous. I deeply appreciate that they are being vulnerable online, offering positive support to their followers, and allowing other people to really see them. I still remember friending a Korean American trans person for the first time in the early 2000s.
Conversely, I read a different young adult book about a queer person of color coming of age and it was full of all these beautiful scenes of adult queer communities communicating in complex relationships and across conflict. It was so different than the other book. We have a lot to offer, if only folks outside our community knew. We were forced to build this for ourselves. The ways we build community are truly magnificent. Our community is out here, we are doing amazing work. Now y’all get to say that your librarian is non-binary person of color!