Chicago, IL, January 30, 2015
photos courtesy of Dan Bostrom
This past weekend, I went to Chicago to attend the first ever Day of Diversity organized by the Association of Library Services for Children (ALSC) and Children’s Book Council (CBC). This event, which took place in conjunction with ALA’s Midwinter Conference, brought together 100 people from all parts of the book world including publishers, editors, librarians, booksellers, and authors. It included a mix of noted diversity advocates and newbies. The ultimate goal was to inform, engage, and ultimately find ways to turn talk into action.
I was part of a History and Myths panel. The myth busting parts of our talks were as follows:
Jason Low (publisher): Lack of diversity is only a problem in children’s literature
Gene Luen Yang (author): diverse graphic novels are only for diverse readers
Adriana Dominguez (literary agent): Diverse authors are hard to find
K.T. Horning (director of CCBC): We are in a post-racial society
Important takeaway: Diversity sells! Gene Luen Yang proved this when he announced that Ms. Marvel is now the top selling comic at Marvel, even outselling Spiderman. Ms. Marvel is a superhero originally embodied by Carol Danvers as a white, blond woman but who was recently recast as Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American, Muslim teenager from New Jersey.
The rest of the day had distinct highs and lows for me. First a high:
the Lightening Talk speeches were excellent since my views of the diversity issue are often from a macro perspective. The Lightening talks reminded me of the very personal reasons people become diversity advocates, which helps to put a human face to the movement.
Author Sara Farizan’s retelling of her struggles with sexual identity was quietly funny to the point that she should consider a side career in standup.
Author/Co-founder and President of We need Diverse Books (WNDB), Ellen Oh’s story about her family acting as the inspiration behind why she writes was moving. I will admit I was surprised that she didn’t toot WNDB’s horn a little louder, as she has every right to do. After all, WNDB’s energy and contribution to the diversity movement is that important.
Author Cynthia Letich Smith’s talk created a sense of urgency for me and humanized what is truly at stake. Readers of middle grade and YA novels age out every four years. How many kids have we lost already to adulthood?
Editorial Director of Dial Namrata Tripathi offered a beautiful illustration of the responsibility that comes with being an editor of color and the acceptance of that responsibility. And I wasn’t the only one who thought it was pretty great. While I was complimenting Namrata on her speech, Roger Sutton appeared and asked Namrata if he could reprint her speech for The Horn Book, so look for it in the coming months.
The low points of the day were the breakout sessions. The ambitions of the Day of Diversity were clear: ask hard questions and lean into discomfort. But the format of the breakout sessions lacked the kind of structure and experienced mediators to accomplish this task. Expert diversity trainers would have played a key role in helping to guide discussions into and out of difficult topics. Putting a bunch of people in a room together does not automatically result in sharing, especially when it comes to tough topics like race. Advance preparation with diversity trainers and publishing professionals to familiarize breakout leaders with obstacles and how they relate specifically to publishing’s unique set of problems might have gotten things moving.
The big obstacle that was not addressed (and still needs to be) was:
White privilege. White privilege is the big one. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. It essentially impacts all of the above, from editors, sales staff, and marketing staff to reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. It is the main reason inequality has persisted for so long.
The next day, after the day of diversity had ended, I had a brief conversation with a white editor who had attended the previous day’s event. She stated she wanted to help, but was uncomfortable with her role as a white gatekeeper. Satia Orange’s social justice “Braveheart” call-to-action moment during her closing speech in which she urged us to “do something dramatic,” had struck just the right chord to me, but it was perplexing to this editor. Satia referred to “lives being at stake” and this editor simply did not know what she was talking about.
For those who are not dialed into the lack of diversity and social justice as everyday issues that affect millions, the call to actions may be a couple steps beyond what people new to this issue are ready for. We cannot expect that because someone attends a one-day event on diversity that they are trained and ready to start incorporating diversity into their library, author pool, or marketing plan.
In my mind, different parts of this discussion could be broken out to different venues. For example, an editor who wants to learn more about how to acquire and develop diverse manuscripts should have a place to learn directly from other editors who have developed skills and experience in this area. Conferences like SCBWI often bring editors together on panels to discuss subjects such as these, but those panels are usually attended by authors and not fellow editors.
At the end of the conference, I learned that thirty librarians were invited to the Day of Diversity. Many of the librarians were more at the beginning stages of their journey in realizing how detrimental racial inequality is to publishing. Perhaps next time, if there is a next time, there could be two conferences, the first for diversity beginners and the second which would go beyond this and would be intended for seasoned diversity advocates only.
While I may sound like I am being hyper critical of the Day of Diversity, the truth is I sincerely appreciate what the organizers did. The scope of the day was ambitious and I applaud tenacious efforts like this to tackle a problem as big and complex as diversity. The diversity problem in publishing is huge and will require many years of trial and error. As we inch closer to answers we will discover that the diversity gap will never conform to a one size fits all solution.
Other recaps of the Day of Diversity: