I spent a dozen years as a diversity practitioner in a corporate giant. Leaving the job did not mean leaving behind responsibility for creating more understanding and inclusion between different groups of people. Leaving the job meant taking my experiences and incorporating them into a life-long pursuit. Once a diversity practitioner, always a diversity practitioner.
With this in mind, imagine my delight when I ran across a social media campaign advocating for more diversity in books, particularly in children’s literature. The back story to this campaign (and there’s always a backstory when it comes to diversity) is an organizational faux pas that makes for a fascinating case study in any Diversity 101 course. A work in progress, here’s how the case study is shaping up so far.
BookCon is a major book conference in New York City focused on bringing readers together with authors, publishers, and celebrities.
When event planners announced the line up for this big city mix and mingle, it drew lots of attention but not for the reasons they had hoped. The celebrity line up consisted of 18 male authors, 12 female authors, and one grumpy cat. The problem was there were more cats in this distinguished conference group than people of color.
A work in progress, according to Lance Fensterman, Senior Vice President of the planning organization ReedPop. When Fensterman responded to an inquiry from BookRiot Editor-in-Chief, Jess O’Neal just a couple of days ago, he didn’t seem too concerned. “…we are not scrabbling to fix this because we have to….” he wrote.
Of course not, Fensterman. You just want to do the right thing for your readers, I’m sure. And while it’s true you may not have anyone standing over you demanding action, you’ve got a social media swarm angrily buzzing all over your big event and that’s enough to prompt action from just about anyone — even you.
What Fensterman doesn’t seem to understand is why this is important to start with — not just for BookCon but for any organizational event. Blogger and librarian Liz Burns puts it all into perspective when she posted Why It Matters: BookCon. “It matters because it looks like the default setting in reading is white.”
Wow. Hello, Fensterman? You there?
Diversity practitioners see this all the time. A group of folks get together. They put all their ideas on the table (which surprisingly look alike). Then when the shit hits the fan, they run to the diversity team for rescue.
In the few days since BookCon’s major oversight was thrust to the forefront, a social media campaign emerged: #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Scheduled to start on 1 May 2014 at 1:00 p.m. EST and run through 3 May, this campaign is already out of the start gate — that’s how much energy is behind the message. The hash tag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been trending for days and the campaign hasn’t even officially begun. Bloggers everywhere are sharing the message and for good reasons. We are as diverse as the characters we want to read about!
The campaign has three parts, and encourages anyone to join.
1 May: People are encouraged to take a photo of themselves or others holding a sign reading “We need diverse books because ____”. Photos can be submitted to the official Tumblr here, or posted in the social media venue of choice with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
2 May: At 2 p.m. EST publishers Lee & Low and Tu Books will host a Twitter chat about diversity in literature and why it matters. Join the conversation with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
3 May: A second Twitter chat is scheduled at 2 p.m. EST to share favorite diverse books and authors (#WeNeedDiverseBooks again). In an effort to match words to action and “diversify our shelves,” readers are encouraged to buy books by diverse authors and post what they buy for others to see.
It’s that simple.
In all of this debacle, there is room for humor, of course. BookRiot COO & Co-founder, Clinton Kabler, gave Fensterman and team a real elbow in the ribs when he tweeted:
BookCon is scheduled for 31 May, giving planners one month before show time. Needless to say, it will be an interesting case study to follow. I’m particularly interested to see who Fensterman adds to the line up at the last minute just because he wants to.
As for me, efforts in my life-time pursuit as a diversity practitioner can be observed in all of my books. Diverse characters are what make the conflict in Truth Runs Deep. With a strong, black male as protagonist, race, sexual orientation, religion…it’s all there. Stories from Spirit offers a collection of stories with diverse characters, all of whom seek to expand their spiritual wisdom. Finally, in the next few weeks, I’ll release The Desert Sands, the first book in my young adult mystery trilogy set in Cairo, Egypt. Throughout the series, clashing cultures and customs are front and center.
Just to clarify, I don’t write diverse characters because I have to (sorry Fensterman, I couldn’t resist). I write diverse characters because they already live in my head.