Charlene Maxey-Harris has a second-floor office in UNL's Love Library, where light filters in from the south and photos line a bookcase — her kids, her dad, her husband, her sweet-as-sugar grandsons.
Her big desk has the look of one very busy woman. And the coaster for a guest’s coffee has a message: UNL Libraries values diversity ...
The woman who inhabits this space has a long title and a resume that stretches seven pages.
Books she has co-authored. Presentations she has given. Positions she has held. Awards she has received.
The interim associate dean and associate professor of libraries is welcoming and warm and focused on a cold February morning.
She wears her hair pulled back in a braided bun, and striking sparkly glasses.
She’s steady and persistent and high-quality, says her daughter Shannon Mangram. “It’s so cool for me to watch her as a young professional trying to make a difference.”
She is one of her favorite people, says Susan Sapp. “She is like the one person you can’t do without. She’s like the hub and we’re all the spokes.”
She is a woman with presence, says Dolores Kirkland, who met Maxey-Harris long ago at Christ Temple Church. “She has never forgotten who she is, but she has never rested on any laurels.”
Maxey-Harris is a mother of four and a grandmother of two.
A tenured professor. A woman of mighty faith. The wife of a pastor.
The oldest daughter of legends. Albert Maxey, a basketball star who became a Lincoln police officer and the first black man to reach the rank of lieutenant. JoAnn Maxey, the first black woman on the Lincoln School Board, the first black female Nebraska state senator who was 54 when she died of cancer in 1992 and now has an elementary school named in her honor.
Oh, she misses her mom, Maxey-Harris says. It was her mom who pushed her to go off to Howard University after she graduated from Lincoln High in 1979.
“I needed to be in an environment where I didn’t have to stand out. She saw that as a way to get out and not be angry.”
Times were changing. “Roots” had just come out. And the young black woman was exploring her own roots and identity in a predominantly white place.
And feeling a bit bitter.
“I had some experiences that were not very pleasant here and it was good to be in D.C.”
She came back to Lincoln to finish her undergraduate work and fell in love with John Harris while pursuing her master’s degree in library science at the University of Missouri.
“He was 'Mr. Encourager' even before he founded Encouragement Unlimited,” she says. (Harris is now equally encouraging as pastor of First Baptist of Lincoln.)
They married a year after she went off to New Hampshire for a job at Dartmouth.
She laughs about the interview.
“I think they were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them.”
Maxey-Harris is accustomed to assumptions.
But the interview committee offered her the job and she accepted, staying for four years until the impending birth of the couple’s first baby brought them back to Lincoln.
She’s been in the UNL library for 19 years now.
She took a break from her career when her children were small. Her mom had just died and life felt overwhelming.
“University Libraries gave me the opportunity to come back in part-time. They opened that door of opportunity for me.”
Maxey-Harris talks a lot about opportunity. About doors opening, walking through them with gratitude.
“I have a song that says, ‘God took me and made something beautiful out of my life,’” she says. “He took a wretch like me and made something out of my life.”
And she gave God her hand.
Under her leadership, a diversity committee was formed and the department started having conversations about race and ethnicity and finding common ground.
She became the diversity librarian, a position she developed.
She started the buy-in. “This is a hard issue and this is a heart issue,” she’d say in diversity training sessions. “It requires all of us on board.”
It was a fit for her.
She began leading training sessions.
She started working to change the makeup of the library.
“Growing up in Lincoln, being the only (African-American), or one of a few, I’ve always wanted to see more diversity.”
She traveled the country — and still does — talking at conferences, talking at receptions, promoting the department.
“I’m very proud of the lasting result of recruiting people of underrepresented communities,” she says. “I tell people, ‘I’m from Nebraska, If you want to know how I got here, ask me.’ I see it as a place of opportunity.”
At one time the diversity of library faculty was 12 percent, a number that is now slightly lower because of attrition.
Her department appreciates her leadership.
“She walks beside you,” says Lorna Dawes, assistant professor in libraries. “She wants you to be successful.”
Dawes came to Lincoln from South Carolina in 2011. Maxey-Harris helped her find a church, discover places to eat, navigate the school system for her children.
Her office door is always open. She mediates. Leads by example. “She is my boss who became my friend,” Dawes says.
The pair have worked together on the African Poetry Book Fund, establishing poetry libraries in five African countries.
“We are the consultants and we want to expand that.”
Maxey-Harris has her eye on other projects, too.
Growing up at 28th and S streets, her family immersed in the life of the neighborhood, has led her to delve into that rich history.
“I remember so clearly a tight African-American community. Churches were the center, the Malone Center was the center. … I want to make sure that history doesn’t get lost.”
She’d like to dig deeper in the history of black students on campus in the early years, too. “Where do you stay? How do you live day-to-day? They needed the support of the community.”
But there is only so much time.
A sabbatical, Maxey-Harris says. Someday.
She's a busy woman.
Recently, Maxey-Harris wrote a few words for the 150-year anniversary celebration of NU, answering the question: What does being a Husker mean to you?
“I represent a legacy of underrepresented voices,” she began.
She paid homage to her parents, her father who came to Lincoln on a Husker basketball scholarship and brought his bride to this place, changing the course of their lives.
Maxey-Harris has changed lives, too.
“She has given thousands of hours to community issues and involvement on boards,” Sapp says.
“The lessons she learned from her mom and dad are strong,” Kirkland says. “Charlene strikes me as being cut out of that mold. A person of excellence, really.”
Kirkland calls Maxey-Harris “a mirror of her mother.” She talks about seasons of life. Her friend as a grandmother now, entering a new stage.
And Mangram, her oldest daughter, sees her mom as more than a mom now that she is one herself.
Her wisdom and patience, the voice of reason.
A strong black woman and role model, making a difference with each research paper, each presentation, each conversation.
“I think it’s important to note that sometimes it’s not the people who are the loudest or who have the spotlight on them who are making the difference,” Mangram said. “Sometimes, it’s the people who are faithful and continue to chip away one thing at a time.”