When Tyshawna Neal-Dixon was in her early teens, showing up to Dixwell’s Stetson Branch Library with her brother to use the computers and pick up books, she didn’t know that the foundation for her future was being laid every time she stepped in the doors.
She’d grown up in the Dixwell neighborhood a few feet away in the Florence Virtue Homes on Charles Street. She enjoyed spending time at the library, particularly after her mother died.
Unbeknownst to her, the then-new librarian there, Diane Brown, who would soon become the branch manager, had been asked by her sister, who had become her guardian, to keep an extra eye on her.
Ultimately, Brown went a step forward, planting a seed that is now shaping Neal-Dixon’s life.
Later this month Neal-Dixon begins work at Fair Haven’s branch library — becoming the city’s third black librarian, and completing a journey that began under the tutelage of a nationally recognized community librarian who has made her own corner of Dixwell a safe and nurturing haven for young people in the neighborhood.
“I was here all the time,” Neal-Dixon recalled. “Ms. Diane would let me do my homework in her office. But I would shelve books.”
“She would be here all the time and we would call her Sasha because we couldn’t remember her name,” Brown recalled with a chuckle. But Brown never forgot, how the quiet and diligent girl worked at the library and often talked to Neal-Dixon about what she wanted to do with her future.
“I remember that what she wanted to do most after she got out of high school, was to go away to college,” Brown said. “But I told her, I think you would make a great librarian.”
And Brown kept saying it as the teenaged Neal-Dixon worked her way through high school.
But Neal-Dixon didn’t commit to the idea automatically. Not because she didn’t want to be a librarian, she said, but because was a little scared that she couldn’t be like Brown, a famed local firebrand who has worked to transform the Stetson Branch Library into Dixwell’s heartbeat.
Brown received her master of library science degree in 2004. She became branch manager just two years later, taking over from Maria Tonelli. And all of that coincided with Neal-Dixon’s tenure as a teenager at the library.
“I was a bit intimidated,” Neal-Dixon said. “Here was this beautiful black woman who was in charge of this library, who I thought was the branch manager when I first started coming here. She was my inspiration.”
Neal-Dixon continued to volunteer at the library. That volunteer work would turn into a job at the library through the city’s Youth @ Work project thanks to the help of mentor Lindsey Rominski. She would stick with that work while finishing high school at Metropolitan Business Academy. She and Brown would continue to talk about her future, and Brown would casually remind her that she would be a great librarian.
And she would do exactly what she’d told Brown she wanted to do: go away to college.
With the help of scholarships, she chose a school as far away from New Haven and its big-little urban city culture as one could get. That school was Bethany College, a small, private liberal arts college in Bethany, West Virginia. It was a culture shock, to say the least.
“It took me a full semester to get adjusted,” Neal-Dixon said. But adjust she did and obtained a degree in environmental science in 2012. But the library never left her, and she never left it.
Brown said what going off to college had turned that quiet and seemingly shy girl, into a quiet but confident young woman. “She wasn’t a little girl anymore,” she said.
Passing The Torch
When Neal-Dixon couldn’t find work in her field after college she took a part-time gig working at the Ives Branch Library downtown. And as she kept talking with Brown, whom she’d kept in contact with all through her college years, library school was starting to sound better and better.
Two years ago, she decided to make the leap and enrolled in an online program through the University of Wisconsin. She did it while working multiple jobs, being a wife and a mom. She finished the degree program and starting June 26 she will be the outreach librarian II at the Fair Haven Branch Library.
And no one is happier than Brown.
Brown, who counts as her mentor the late City Librarian James C. Welbourne, said she has made it her business to continue his mission of training black librarians. She was the last one that he trained before he died and she said, though she has mentored all of the young librarians who have come through her doors regardless of their race, she’s always felt a responsibility to black librarians.
That is with good reason. Brown, and now Neal-Dixon, are one of only three black librarians in the city.
Nationally, racial and ethnic minorities make up just 12 percent of the credentialed librarians working in public, academic and school libraries, according to the most recent Diversity Counts study, conducted by the American Library Association.
Brown said she believes that there aren’t more black librarians because young black people don’t have anyone to expose them to the work beyond entering the field through a teacher training program as a media specialist, which requires a teaching certificate. She also believes that some might be intimidated by the fact that you have to have a master’s degree. But she said black librarians are needed as the purpose and culture of libraries change. They’re also needed because she needs to pass the torch.
“I’m not going to be able to do this forever,” Brown said of her dedication to growing librarians. “Someone needs to take the helm.”
She said she knew Neal-Dixon had the right qualities to be a librarian. “She’s good with people,” she said. “You can teach and train people to do the work, but you can’t train personality.”
Brown called Neal-Dixon a bonafide success story as someone who grew up in New Haven, lost her mother at a young age and decided to devote her life to her community as a librarian. She said she believes Neal-Dixon’s mother would be proud of her. Brown, who sees herself as a mother figure to Neal-Dixon, certainly expressed a mother’s pride in what she has accomplished.
“I’m just so proud of her and grateful that she’s someone I can pass the torch to,” she said. “She’s truly qualified and she’s committed to this city.”
Neal Dixon said she’s happy to take the torch.
“I’m very eager to get started,” she said.