ALA Midwinter Day of Diversity Recap and Reflections

Chicago, IL, January 30, 2015
photos courtesy of Dan Bostrom

diversity 102This 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.

Arthur Levine (center), Jason Low (right)
Arthur Levine (center), Jason Low (right)

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.

Important takeaways:
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.

(from left to right) Lydia Breiseth, Pat Mora, Oralia Garza de Cortes
(from left to right) Lydia Breiseth, Pat Mora, Oralia Garza de Cortes

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.

(from left to right) Phoebe Yeh, Carolynn Johnson, René Saldaña, Jr.
(from left to right) Phoebe Yeh, Carolynn Johnson, René Saldaña, Jr.

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:

Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature

Librarian Edi Campbell

Children’s Literature Professor Sarah Park

Bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle

Author Janet Wong

14 thoughts on “ALA Midwinter Day of Diversity Recap and Reflections”

  1. Jason–your conversation with the editor the day after is so telling about where we need to make a HUGE intervention.

    I’m adding your post to my list of links. So far I’ve found 12 (including yours). Those 13 voices (including mine) are calling for more, more, more good (and less bad). I wonder what the conversations are amongst those who don’t understand? In private, I mean. What are the editors who were there taking back to their houses?

  2. One editor that is committed to diversity said that she can’t do anything about backlist books that are stereotypical. Who can, I wonder?

    From many conversations online, it is clear that there is a perception that those of us who object are yelling and scaring away white allies who want to help. My sense is the allies who think we’re yelling gather around their tables and talk about us. I want them to talk about the things we talk about: how all of this impacts our kids.

  3. I hear you, Debbie. People can, if they want post their thoughts about DOD here and we can certainly talk about it for the benefit of others. An attempt to bring those two separate conversations together.

  4. Well done, Jason. I too felt I was at a Diversity 101 workshop for newbies. Unfortunate for those of us who wanted a much deeper level of conversation than what we got. Until publishers lacking in multicultural literature -and that’s very different from diversity-set up goals for themselves and hold themselves publicly accountable for publishing more books that reflect the colorline-this conversation will be just that- a conversation:civil and tepid, with not much real hope for change so long as we are muzzled into niceness with silly rules designed to deflate the much-need tension required for that change to take place. My take-aways: also Cynthia Letich Smith’s sense of urgency. Her statement struck home a real chord for me-as I relfect on the loss of millions of children of color to literature during a very brief very short four year cycle-validated my own sense of outrage, particularly when 22% of all children in the U.S. are Latino-and growing. Basta! Enough with the talk. Show me the marketing plans and financial investment for publishing great multicultural books; show me the goals for producing more books. Time to walk the walk!

  5. I am a bookseller at an independent children’s bookstore in Denver, CO. I would not characterize your reflection about this event as “hyper critical” Your feedback is thoughtful and it sounds like you lament yet another missed opportunity to have created a space for honest dialogue about white privilege and the power of “white gatekeepers” in the world of children’s book publishing. And yes, the same thinking that a one day conference on Diversity is sufficient can be likened to the idea that one month is sufficient to study “Black History” or “Hispanic Heritage.”

  6. I disagree with your assessment of breakout sessions, always deferring to “experts” and “professionals” is exactly what got us into this mess. Allowing those in “authority” to dictate what is important, who can speak, who has a voice, what books sell, who gets the awards, etc. etc., we need to move beyond this. And, using terms like “high” and “low” points seems like a poor choice of words and very dismissive especially to those in the groups who did in fact have some real conversations. It’s too bad you didn’t use your opportunity on stage to specifically address the big white privilege elephant in the room, perhaps that could have assisted in setting a different tone for the day and moving it beyond diversity 101.

    1. I am glad that your breakout session was productive. During my panel my goal was to bust a myth that the diversity problem is very large and complex and extends beyond publishing. I also emphasized that everything that has been done up until this point has gotten diverse books less than 10% of the market in over two decades. Given that I shared a panel with three other heavy hitters I was allotted only 10 minutes, one has to pack a lot in. A subject like white privilege would require more time, but I agree that I could have and should have addressed it. One has to start somewhere.

  7. “We need a national conversation on race.” If we could sell a book every time we hear a politician proclaim the phrase after an incident oft preventable by diversity training – critical as authentic as awkward – authors of color would top the NY Times Bestseller List. I’ve come to believe that we don’t need ‘that conversation’. Where would it occur? What would be said? Who would moderate? Most key, what would change after the polite discourse? We need our books. We need them read again and again. We need them promoted and valued. You are ahead. No needing, wanting, or waiting for white privilege to be dissected by those who are not prepared to deconstruct the dynamics creating that very privilege, i. e., confronting cultural ‘standing’ as existential identity. Deeper than most are willing to go. Of course, we need discussion – after deconstruction. How, oh how, we do! ‘Schooling’ dominant culture, however, can lead to going hoarse; losing the voice we need to speak truth to power. Ain’t happening. The conversation, as you witnessed, is futile when held with convention’s oblivious notion of a well-meaning moment followed by appeasement in the place of progress. The conversation? It is the dialogue of sincere commitment. It is in our work – be one the writer, publisher, agent, teacher, parent, librarian, bookstore owner, shelf stocker, and especially reader. Lee & Low is walking the walk where others fear to talk the talk. Let your walk BE the talk. Thank you for your conviction. Even the frustration expressed in this post is commendable. You care because you ‘get’ it. You are doing something about it. Thank you.”

  8. The breakout sessions in my group were very practical, action-based discussions and therefore quite useful. I think many great things happened during the day. I was, however, surprised by a conversation at the end of the day that made me think some of the white allies (I’m white, for context) don’t really yet get the enormity of white privilege and its consequences. That’s a big problem that needs to be addressed in a widespread way — through workshops in publishing houses that, like any kind of awareness training, are mandatory. They can be positive and forward-looking but must be direct, honest, and eye-opening. I’m not sure how many charts and graphs it will take to get the shocking statistics to sink in. A mix of those, plus a few of the best essays, a great trainer or two, and shared personal stories from both adults and kids talking about how it feels never to find themselves as the heroes might be effective. Are there any models for such workshops already out there?

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