Michael S. Fitts, MLIS
Assistant Dean for User Access & Diversity
The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Editor’s note: This article is under copyright and used with the permission of BMJ. It was published in the BMJ Insider’s Newsletter in March 2021.
“All disabilities are not visible”
Sometimes in life, we are forced into a situation that requires us to blend our professional and personal lives. Many of us experienced this during 2020, working from home with child co-workers demanding snacks all day.
But for those living with a disability, or challenged by a lack of representation, work and home life often intersect. And this is the place where good leadership can make all the difference.
Join us for an insightful discussion on inclusion, disability and leadership with Michael S. Fitts, MLIS, Assistant Dean for User Access & Diversity at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). But first, learn a little about Michael through this brief video produced by UAB Libraries.
BMJ: Congratulations on recently celebrating your 25th anniversary at UAB! What do you enjoy most about working for UAB Libraries?
MSF: I started working here full time around 1996, and it has been quite the journey. I began as a student worker, which was my first real job. When I started at UAB, I wasn’t even aware that librarianship was a thing or that there was a degree associated with it.
But I loved working in the library as a student, and because of that, a lot of people encouraged me to go to library school. I remember being like, “what is that?”, but I did end up going there and I’m so glad that I did. It’s been a really rewarding career choice.
I’ve always wanted to help people, so it’s a good fit. And although I’m now an administrator, I still enjoy my job and am thankful that I still get to help people. Not on the front line, but in a different way.
One thing I enjoy about this environment is that you get the opportunity to test and learn. We can try something and if it doesn’t work, we can look at it in a different way and try something else. That’s one of the great things about working for UAB. When interviewing potential employees or faculty members, we usually talk about how open we are and that we have the ability to experiment. We thrive in this sort of environment, which provides the opportunity to explore and discover what your niche is.
It’s also really great that UAB includes librarians as faculty members, which helps us gain respect. I hate to say that, but in academia especially, titles matter. Librarians aren’t always given the respect they deserve for the skillset they bring. (Editor’s note: Can I get an “Amen”? 🙂 )
BMJ: How do the libraries interact with the various UAB schools?
MSF: College should promote independent thinking. Getting people accurate information and trying to deal with the misinformation out there is a top priority. Maybe it is because of my career choice, but I still don’t understand how people can go to “Dr. Google” and just type in something and go with the first thing they see. It’s really scary.
Pre-Covid, there were a number of partnerships within UAB that facilitated educational events. I look forward to a time when these are up and running again. For instance, between the library and the school of public health or humanities, where oftentimes, librarians go to events to introduce themselves and the library services. We also have librarians who serve as liaisons to the different schools, so we try to have office hours dedicated to the students. But how we host events really depends on the school’s needs. Some like physical hours, while some prefer events or flyers in their mailbox.
BMJ: I was thinking about your current job title: Assistant Dean for User Access & Diversity. I assume that when you started working at UAB, this was not an active job title. How did that unfold?
MSF: It’s been a really interesting journey, and I am the first person in the library to have “diversity” in their title. I think that when I initially started getting into diversity work, I was a faculty advisor for UAB’s NAACP on campus. So that’s kind of where it began. That opened a lot of doors, including leading me to become the UAB African American Faculty Association’s second president. People were familiar with the work I had done with the students, and that led me to be considered for the position.
I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to be in the classroom all the time. But I must admit that I really enjoy working for students and with them in an advisor role. So, I guess the relationship we had helped me grow and really understand the importance of diversity.
BMJ: UAB has extensive DEI programs. How has that changed over the years?
MSF: It really has changed and seems like every other year UAB is getting recognized for their diversity efforts. I am actually serving as the Inaugural Chair for the UAB Libraries Diversity, Equity and Inclusion taskforce, which formed in late 2020. We spend time looking at different things and thinking about how we can be more effective and diverse. We are all here to learn. There are things I’m still learning, and I’m certainly not an expert. The taskforce is a good place where you can get professional, honest advice.
I can remember the early years, when I was still advising for the NAACP, that there were certain issues that happened on campus. One of the first things I dealt with was a racist note left on the door of a resident advisor. During the time it was reported, we were very blessed to have access to the president of the university. She was the kind of person who would call you directly.
Her leadership gave us a foundation for these types of programs. She made resolving the issue of this offensive note a priority for herself. I think that did wonders and set me up to be able to do some of the diverse things I’ve been able to do, including serving for six years as the first male president of the African American Faculty Association, which I mentioned previously.
A lot of colleagues I’ve met through that arena are still close colleagues. We’re a support system. I have a great working relationship with every president who has held the position after me. Roles like these bring more respect to librarians, and I’m thankful that UAB gives its administration the opportunity and flexibility to allow for extracurricular activities such as this.
BMJ: Do you have any recommendations for your colleagues hoping to get more involved in DEI advocacy work?
MSF: For me, it is second nature. Could have been the note on the RA’s desk, but I cannot remember a time at UAB when I wasn’t involved in some sort of advocacy work. I really believe that UAB has pure intentions.
Most of the time when you mention diversity, people think black and white. But there are so many other things to keep in mind. We need to be careful. An institution can be diverse in its hiring practices, but it can quickly become a checklist more than a mission. So you can have all of these different people, but still fail at including them. That is why I love working here in this capacity.
I don’t necessarily try to rank the DEI terms, but I believe that inclusion is the most important part. There are certain people who don’t feel comfortable speaking out in a room full of people, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute. So that’s why I want to always be as inclusive as possible. Let people from different backgrounds and skillsets participate. For some, it’s easier to write an email to express themselves. There are so many aspects. It’s not fair to exclude people who aren’t extroverts.
I also find that you can help mold the understanding of undergrad students on this topic. They’re great to work with, and one of my former students actually went on to work for the NAACP’s National Office. I get to know the students well during their time at UAB, mainly by traveling with them across the country for various initiatives. So many of my students have also gone on to become politicians. I want to see people be successful and follow their dreams.
BMJ: Speaking of inclusion, if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about your 2011 diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. One of the things that struck me in the UAB video is when you said: “You never know who you’re helping by giving your story”. That’s such a true statement and got me wondering if people have confided in you after hearing your story.
MSF: No one has ever asked me that before, and I really appreciate the question. The answer is yes. Now, it was quite a while before I divulged this news to anyone. But I sort of came out in a sense. I’m fairly active on Facebook, so I finally posted a status that talked about it. After that, so many people reached out to my inbox to say they thought it was courageous, and then also opened up about things they’re suffering from, not necessarily Parkinson’s Disease. To have that type of influence and impression on someone is so awesome. At the end of the day, I want to be able to help people.
If you are doing advocate work and trying to help people, it takes the attention off yourself. We can all have pity parties when we want to, and I used to throw them for myself. But I think putting my focus and energy on others is so much more important. People really did respond when I made that revelation. I never thought I’d do that on social media, but it worked out.
I’m pretty shy and reserved, but I did this because of the positive impact I believed it would have on people. I’ve been blessed to be able to work in the UAB environment and be able to travel as an invited speaker and sit on panel discussions that help people.
BMJ: During the past 10 years, you have learned how to function at work with Parkinson’s Disease, and I know that you don’t want to stop working anytime soon. What helps you face this daily challenge, and do you have any tips for others who might be trying to navigate life while living with a chronic condition?
MSF: It sounds simple to go to work and act professional, but when you’re not feeling good mentally and physically, it can be a real challenge.
The best decision I’ve made in my journey with Parkinson’s is to become active in a support group. I wasn’t going to do it at first, but am so glad I did. In all fairness, someone asked me what my first thought was when I walked into the support group meeting and I said: “Why am I in this room with all these old white people?”. We laugh about it now and I don’t mean any disrespect, but I believe in just putting it out there. The president of the organization told me she’d never let me live it down. She says “I understand the white, but who are you calling old?”. 😊
The point I was trying to make was that I didn’t see myself in any of the people in that room. It’s all about inclusion. I was early onset at age 38; the typical age for diagnosis is 65 and older. So I wanted to bring that to the forefront for the group. People are always looking for someone who looks like them. And I don’t just necessarily mean race, but age and various situations. Most of the people in my support group don’t work anymore, but I do. But I feel like it’s important to keep working as long as I can, even though it can be challenging. So there are diverse issues and challenges in my professional and my personal life. I meld the two together and am really grateful UAB gives me that opportunity to do that.
One of the other challenges I have is living with a chronic disease by myself. That’s the other side of things people deal with. I don’t have the luxury of having a partner, which concerns me sometimes. I’m doing pretty well, but if something were to happen to me, I’m not sure what I would do. So I try to be cognizant of that, but I share it and talk about it with the group.
BMJ: You said that UAB has a recently new support group for people with chronic illnesses. How did it get started?
MSF: A few years ago, I approached the person who had just presented on employee wellness at UAB. I thanked her and asked if there is any type of support group as part of a list of the services they had. She said it had come up before, but it never really took off. She promised to get back to me so we could do some brainstorming. And, true to her word, she did do that, and Hopeful Healing has now been going strong for two or three years, at least.
Admittedly, there are not a lot of people there, so it can fluctuate. But I can tell you that it’s something incredible and I don’t take it for granted. The person who runs it asks us to “check in”, which includes how we’re doing physically, spiritually and emotionally. You might be surprised at how cleansing that is. To have an environment where you can be yourself and not look over your shoulder worried someone is judging you for something you’ve gone through or something you say. I don’t try to force people into it, but I do encourage them to get involved. I have a colleague who was hesitant, but she finally came to a meeting and now a lot of times she beats me there!
I really had a hard time last year. I didn’t exactly realize what it was or that it was so bad. Keeping in consideration that we were in the middle of a pandemic, didn’t know when the office was going to open back up, several of my employees ended up getting furloughed, I had a new boss, and of course all the civil unrest. It was all so much. All of that, plus the fact that my external Parkinson’s Disease support group wasn’t meeting, really did a number on me. The depression and anxiety was so much. Overall, I’m thankful for how UAB handled the situation, but it was really tough. There were so many unknowns.
Since we switched to a virtual and visual arena, we’ve been experiencing more participation. When people don’t have to worry about driving home after work, picking up kids, etc., we’re finding that people have more time to participate in the different programs. That’s a silver lining of the pandemic that has worked out pretty well.
BMJ: Are you able to dedicate any of your advocacy work directly to Parkinson’s Disease?
MSF: As part of the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s patient counsel, I have been able to travel in the U.S. and spend time focusing on areas of research and how we can help with the process. The leadership at UAB is considerate, thoughtful and supportive of this work. UAB is a leader in research and having access to that work has always been such a great resource for me.
You’re always going to do a better job on something that you feel passionate about. The advocacy part of it I’m definitely passionate about because I can share some of the feelings or situations that arise with people who need to hear it. It’s a perfect melding together of those two worlds. I can’t stress enough how thankful I am for that.
BMJ: How has COVID-19 affected the UAB libraries?
MSF: A lot of people wouldn’t necessarily consider librarians essential workers, but that’s simply not true. We’re providing information for people to learn more about COVID. One of my arguments was – if we’re essential employees – why can’t we get our vaccines? But a lot of the librarians have now gotten their vaccine and I recently received my second dose.
During all the time I was coming in the library with students, I didn’t test positive for COVID. We were having a little challenge with some students and masks, but overall, they’ve done well. We provide masks to those who don’t have one. There’s also an app program called UAB Healthcheck that asks people if they’ve been exposed and how they’re feeling. At the end of it, it shows a passport that you have to flash in every building, including the library. I think that’s really good.
Students are going to try you. We didn’t have as much difficulty with graduate students and professional students, but some of the undergrads think they can just pull their mask up when they know you’re coming. I just don’t know why they’d put themselves in harm’s way, but all in all, it’s gone pretty well. Even when we were short staffed, I was able to pitch in. Going between the libraries was a blessing because I could pick up where they needed help. Now we’re trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Over the spring and summer of last year, I was proud to have devised a curbside delivery service so that our faculty and grad students could get the resources they need. There’s a lot online, but not everything. That’s a difference between the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences and the Mervyn H. Sterne Academic Library. Obviously databases and online resources are more needed at the point of care through the health sciences library. But I would say that although our library offerings are different, it still works.
Interviewed by Lauren Jones, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager, BMJ