Policies On Diversity Are Only The Beginning

Some thing require more than just a diversity policy.

An organizational policy on diversity is a lot like a school policy against bullying. It may make the people on top, school boards, administrators, teachers and counselors, feel good. It certainly gives them something to point to when parents or the news media come by with questions. But ask the kids how that policy really works, and you get the real truth. Bullies barely notice, and when they do, they don’t care.

I belong to several professional organizations I want to talk about, RWA ( Romance Writers of America), ALA (American Library Association), and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). The good news is, all have looked around and noticed the overwhelmingly pale skinned, cis-gendered, middle-class, and non-disabled nature of their memberships. They are both putting together statements and policies.

RWA admits that their members from marginalized groups experience a different RWA than do those from the majority. They created a Diversity Ad Hoc committee as outlined in this blog post: RWA Reaffirms Its Dedication To Diversity Elements .

The report the committee made to the RWA board in Nov 2015 notes that the issues involved are huge. Both current and former RWA members from marginalized groups have experienced both overt and covert hostility from members who are in the majority group. Policy does not alter that. Nor does it change publishers who are not excited about diversity. Suggestions include education efforts for publishers and members, along with solicitation of feedback from individuals who have chosen to leave the organization or who decided against joining. The committee’s efforts are on-going and I look forward to learning more about what they are doing and what future steps they wills suggest.

The ALA policy manual state that: Libraries can and should play a crucial role in empowering diverse populations for full participation in a democratic society. ALA has a long-standing interest, including several special interest groups and affiliate organizations such as REFORMA and BCALA, and an Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that includes efforts to empower diverse voices.

SCBWI has partnered with WNDB and built a discussion board on diversity. My local chapter, SCBWI-Illinois, has set up a diversity committee to study. (I’m sure other chapters have done things as well, I’m just not aware of them, I don’t know how much communication there is between chapters, just that it doesn’t get down to my level). And that’s part of what’s wrong for me, the individual member who is also part of a diverse group who has in fact felt some of the both overt and covert hostility from other members. I’d love to see SCBWI and other writers organizations recognize the need to actively pursue and cultivate “own voices,” rather than just opening the doors and wondering why no one enters.

These organization are predominantly composed of white, middle class females. That’s not because people of color don’t write. Poor people, those whose religions are outside the “mainstream” an LGBTQ+ individuals also write stories for children. But relatively few of these marginalized authors and illustrators even know about many professional writing organizations. The policies and good intentions may circulate within membership, but there is still little outreach to those who have been left outside closed doors for so long many don’t know those doors exist, much less have any idea how to enter them.

I judged a contest for children’s books earlier this year. About 15% of the books submitted to the judges had diverse main characters. They provided a fascinating set of windows and mirrors into historical figures that spanned the globe as well as LGBT figures. However, not one of the other judges found anything worthwhile in any of those books and would not give them a second glance. Listening to them was like hearing publishers explain how they “just can’t get into the character,” when they reject a diverse manuscript. Not one made their lists of finalists or had any chance at recognition. The spoke so poorly about the subject matter (including accusing one of glorifying single parents) that I almost felt the contest should just tell publishers if their book had anything outside mainstream white characters, they might as well not send it in because it would never have a chance.

Recently I had an email chat with a publisher who spoke proudly about her companies devotion to embracing diversity. I asked her to expand on what that meant. They have had many meetings on the issue, she told me and I could almost feel her pride.

I asked about the results of these meetings, and that ended everything. There was nothing she could tell me, that information was a company secret. She couldn’t numbers, goals, or any comment about their pursuit of “Own Voices.” But they were definitely committed to diversity and talking about it a lot and I should just trust them, okay?

Just like the zero-tolerance policies on bullying that leave kids scared to go to school and injured by bullies, sometimes right in front of teachers. I hope our organizations decide to go further. Do actual outreach to those who have been outsiders while at the same time educating current members on the need to be welcoming, and calling out the instances of covert hostilities. Recognize that we truly do not live in a post-racial society. That people with disabilities are still mocked or considered a hindrance, that writers and illustrators from different socioeconomic groups may need an extra leg-up instead of the snide put down, and that people from different religions or ethnic groups have interesting, and universal, stories to share. That #ownvoices can do something extra; they have the ability to provide windows and mirrors to their fellow literary professionals by there very presence in a group.  Young readers are not the only ones who need windows and mirrors.

I am a joiner. I want to see myself as a welcome participant in my groups, and I do not enjoy being shoved in the shadows. To that end I have also joined some smaller groups. First, The Chicago Writer’s Association which I have since learned has chosen to ignore the diversity (or lack thereof) among members. I am left feeling a total outsider and I’m unlikely to be renewing with that group. The other group, the Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color, is just getting started. I am one of the moderators of this Facebook group, and I hope that in the future we will grow and assist each other in the perilous world of publishing children’s books.

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