Last month, we were excited to announce the establishment of the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship in conjunction with Simmons College. This scholarship will provide opportunities for students of color to enroll in the Simmons College graduate program in children’s literature, one of the country’s finest.
In this interview, we talk to two of the key players behind the new scholarship. Cathryn M. Mercier, PhD is the Director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College and the director of the center’s M.A. and M.F.A. programs. Jason Low is the Publisher/Co-owner of LEE & LOW BOOKS.
Specifically, who will the scholarship help in terms of preparing for a career in publishing?
Cathryn M. Mercier: Our graduate programs attract students from a wide range of professional interests. They can be writers enrolled in an MFA program who are in graduate seminars with students intending to pursue careers as librarians or teachers; with students who want to pursue doctoral studies where they can focus on literature for young people; with reviewers or booksellers or rare book dealers; with others seeking careers in children’s book publishing – in editorial, marketing, design. The cross-professionalism of a graduate program in children’s literature that itself embraces the cross-disciplinarity and multi-vocality of the field appeals to students who share the belief that books change lives.
While there are always slight shifts in the student’s professional interests, the past ten years have seen a steady increase in the number of students wanting to enter publishing. Yet, we consistently find that doors to the field are very hard to open. Writers in the program find it difficult to get their work read by either editorial departments or by literary agents. As the competition to be read increases, writers of color struggle to find their way into publishing venues.
Similarly, internships – often operating as volunteer positions and once considered a version of career exploration – have become a necessary apprenticeship. Yet, many many students need to work during the summers; they simply cannot afford to take on a volunteer internship. Even a stipended internship might help to pay the rent, but it may not go much further than that.
First-generation college students – of which I am one – find it very hard to enter publishing partly because they just don’t “know the ropes” and need mentoring; and, again I speak from experience, they find it financially challenging to give up summer earnings for an internship when those earnings are needed elsewhere.
I do believe that this scholarship will make accessible a whole range of publishing arenas – writing, marketing, editing, agency, publicity – to students who have been otherwise disadvantaged, discouraged, or simply excluded from those fields. The scholarship might go to a student in the writing program to alleviate tuition costs; it might go to a student in the form of a stipend to support internship work; it might go to a student seeking to complete a nonfiction (or fiction!) manuscript and needing to complete research. Yes, I am looking at the scholarship as a way to diversify our student body and I hope that this opportunity for scholarship consideration will appeal to prospective students of color.
How will the scholarship help bring equity to publishing?
CMM: In one sense, this scholarship will first change the pipeline of those entering the study of literature for children and young adults. Our program’s commitment to diversity and inclusion means that all students are engaged in thinking about who is and is not included in literature; about the terms of inclusion; about the authority and authenticity of representations of diverse experiences. I mention this because equity comes from changing who works in publishing and from changing how anyone who works in publishing thinks about diversity and inclusion – of what they publish and to whom they sell what they publish.
Jason Low: If the scholarship can lessen the economic burden of obtaining an advanced degree from Simmons, we may be able to contribute to diversifying future publishing staffs. Simmons graduates go on to become librarians who influence collection development and serve on award committees. They also become reviewers who are the tastemakers of the industry. And many Simmons alumni become editors who are responsible for acquiring stories that may inspire children for generations to come. These are all key positions that make up the publishing ecosystem, and currently these roles are overwhelming white.
Cathryn, what gave you the idea to create a publishing scholarship?
CMM: Our program has a number of scholarships for students and students across the spectrum of professional careers as well as students from diverse backgrounds have always been considered for all scholarships. However, as I heard more and more students wanting to enter publishing, as I saw the need for more books by writers of color, and as I saw the movement from an internship as an optional experience to an apprenticeship, I became quite interested in addressing this specific set of needs. The program had an alumna who wanted to commit to increasing diversity in the student body and found motivation in the current student interest in publishing as well as the need to diversify publishing.
Cathryn, what are some of the challenges you faced in establishing this scholarship, and how did you overcome them?
CMM: The primary challenge was in getting to the goal of $100,000 so that the fund could be named. Again, we had an alumna donor wanting to make a significant gift and we had Lee & Low’s significant gift, but still we were not at the naming level. Naming is important for a whole range of reasons – not the last of which is that a named scholarship helps with recruitment and a student who is awarded a named scholarship gets to wear that banner throughout their career. Our alumna donor was so excited about the Lee & Low interest that she asked if we might be able to name the scholarship “Lee & Low…and Friends.” In addition, when she saw that we were close, but not close enough, she earmarked part of her gift as a challenge grant to the entire alumni body of the children’s literature programs. Within months, and through the generosity of many donors, we reached the goal.
Of course, we do hope that the fund will continue to grow. Just because we reached our goal does not mean that we’ve closed the book on this one! I know that a scholarship dedicated to diversifying our student body will continue to be a compelling one for alumni – and hopefully for others in publishing who wish to effect necessary change.
Why did Lee & Low Books partner with Simmons College to establish a scholarship?
JL: Inequality pervades almost every aspect of life, from the films and TV shows we watch, to the books we read, to the people we call our neighbors. To believe that the lack of representation in the workplace does not in some way greatly influence the kinds of books published and how they are marketed, sold, and reviewed is naïve at best and willfully ignorant at worst.
Since Lee & Low is an employer of people who work in publishing, we have seen a good many resumes come across our desks over the years. Many of the most qualified candidates went to Simmons College, so a partnership with Simmons represents an important piece of the puzzle.
Jason, why do you think it is the responsibility of publishers to offer opportunities like this? What would you say to other publishers who have been approached to help sponsor similar programs?
JL: Quite simply the push has to come from publishers; they need to make a definitive statement that the industry wants to change. In the scheme of things, the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship is just the beginning. For this scholarship to be successful, it has to grow and remain active for many consecutive years for it to make a dent in publishing’s diversity deficit. Lee & Low cannot do it alone. We need other publishers to step up and replicate this scholarship at other colleges with publishing and librarianship programs.
Recruitment is one key part of diversifying the industry; retainment is another. What steps does Simmons take to ensure that diverse students feel welcome at Simmons once they are accepted?
CMM: Graduate students attend orientation and School (we are in the School of Library and Information Science) has a wide range of student groups – many of them affinity groups – that students join. Nonetheless, a few days ago I met with the graduate program’s student advisory board to solicit their help and insight about increasing facets of diversity and inclusion throughout our graduate programs. They suggested extending the kind of mentoring work that we do with MFA candidates, thesis writers, and independent projects to diverse students. MFA, etc., students are placed with individual mentors to work on creative or scholarly projects. I’m interested in how we might develop such a mentoring program for diverse students.
What are some of the benefits for all students of a more diverse student body?
CMM: What aren’t the benefits? The best graduate seminar discussions come for the widest range of possible experiences and insights. Some of our assignments require collaboration, and successful collaboration means working within and across differences. In a graduate classroom, we look at the ways in which one’s culture matters in a book and to do that best, we need to have cultural diversity and multiple voices in all our conversations. The more diverse the student body, the more voices we have from all elements of our complex society, the better we become at unpacking our differences and shaping a shared future.
Jason, how diverse is the staff of Lee & Low Books?
JL: Lee & Low is one of the few minority-owned publishers. Overall, our staff is reflective of this with 69% of our staff consisting of people of color.
What are some of the economic benefits of a more diverse work staff?
JL: Different perspectives help grow a business in ways that management could never predict or come up with on its own. Our staff is an integral part of what has helped Lee & Low become a stronger company and we value our staff by listening to them. Our diverse staff (in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender) puts Lee & Low in a unique position to act on a mission that has evolved. When Lee & Low was first founded in 1991, our mission was to publish multicultural books. Over time, we added stories with characters with disabilities and LGBTQAI themes. Who knows how the mission will expand next. Publishing books is a quietly passionate business. Having staff of all backgrounds who are deeply invested in diverse books matters. So are there economic benefits to hiring diversely? Yes, there are.
You have said that this scholarship is one way to address the “pipeline” problem in which publishers struggle to find qualified diverse candidates for positions. What are some other ways the industry can address this problem?
JL: When we are looking at entry-level candidates to hire, we often look for some relevant experience, usually in the form of publishing internships. Recently, we converted our internship program to accept diverse candidates only. We also made our internships paid, since many college kids cannot afford to serve in unpaid internships.
When publishers are looking to fill positions they may try to expand their search to colleges outside of their normal circles. Sending representatives to colleges to talk about careers in publishing is the kind of outreach that may be necessary to inform people that publishing is a rewarding career that is worth serious consideration. I have been to schools where students were unaware of our industry, but after I finished my presentation, they were interested.
Finally, once diverse staff is hired, mentorships should be provided. Being the only African American person in a department can be a challenge. Empathy and clear support from the top goes a long way. The only way the industry will become more diverse is by retaining the diverse candidates who decide to choose publishing as a career. Retention is crucial.