Over the last few years, we have seen the number of panels about diversity skyrocket. It wasn’t long ago that an all-white BookCon lineup inspired the creation of We Need Diverse Books; now, a few years later, we constantly come across conference lineups with multiple diversity-focused panels (take the upcoming YALSA Symposium for young adult librarians, as just one example). Many regional and national conferences have adopted diversity as a conference theme, and we have been invited to speak at multiple Diversity Summits, Diversity Days, and more.
This is a terrific thing. Panels are an important way to keep the focus on this topic and to educate the movers and shakers within all different industries about why diversity matters. The high number of panels focused on diversity is a good indicator that more people are thinking about these issues than ever before.
But here’s the thing about panels: just putting the word “diversity” on a panel and hoping it does the job isn’t enough. In fact, when diversity-focused panels are put together carelessly, they can do more harm than good. As in all other situations, diversity on panel programming must be approached in a nuanced and thoughtful way. Here are a few things to consider before you put together diverse programming for a panel:
- Do you have any diverse people on your Diversity Panel? This seems like a no-brainer, but I have on more than one occasion seen panels focused on diversity that feature only white speakers (in fact, all-white panels are still so common that they inspired this hilarious satire, Rent A Minority). If your panel has a specific focus, such as LGBTQ diversity or racial diversity, you should aim to have multiple people on the panel who can speak with
authority on that topic. If your panel is more general, you should still aim to populate it with people who can offer a diverse array of perspectives. When marginalized people are in the minority – or missing completely – even on panels that focus on them, it sends a poor message about whose voice matters.
- Have you only invited diverse people to be on your Diversity Panel, or are they also part of other programming? If your panel on diversity has a great lineup of authors of color but the rest of your programming is totally white, you have a problem. This pigeonholes authors of color and reduces them to tools for understanding without allowing them to promote themselves or their work. It also goes against the idea that diverse books are for everyone. For every author of color you put on a diversity panel, try to find several others to put on panels that are not focused on diversity. A mantra I saw recently on Twitter put it best: “Diversity on panels, not diversity panels.”
- Who should your panelists be? Accept that not every diverse author will want to represent his/her community on a panel. For some, the issue may feel too private or personal. For others, this simply may not be their area of interest or expertise. Don’t simply assume all authors of color are interested in being on panels about diversity; not every person of color needs or wants to be an expert in diversity issues in publishing, and the same goes for people from other marginalized groups. Seek out authors who have made this conversation a part of their professional life, spoken about it publicly, and positioned themselves as leaders in the movement.
- Do you actually need a “diversity panel”? Because so many groups have put together so many panels on diversity in the last few years, the topic can begin to feel redundant–in fact, some argue that even the word diversity itself is starting to lose its meaning. Questions like “Why is diversity in books important?” don’t necessarily move the conversation forward. This great article argues that it’s time to move on from Diversity Panels completely. One thing is certain: your audience will get more out of your panel if you can focus it on a specific topic that will resonate with your audience instead of just sticking with “Diversity 101.” Consider what your goals are beyond just general awareness and build a panel around that.
- What do you want people to leave with? Leave time for concrete suggestions and takeaways. Panels are a great way to broaden the conversation, but they can only do so much. In order for real change to occur, people must leave panels inspired to take action. Often the idea of concrete takeaways is left for the very end of panels, as a last question. But by building in time for it and asking panelists to come up with concrete suggestions beforehand to share, you can help ensure that the panel will serve as a building block for the movement.
Here are a few thoughtful articles on the topic for further reading:
What did we miss? Share your thoughts in the comments.