Over the last few years, American art and pop culture has begun to focus on diversity in a serious way. This is particularly true of publishing: our industry celebrates free expression but is still predominantly white in both workforce and output. Inkluded is one of a few organizations aiming to change that.
While it’s true that publishers have begun to have a difficult conversation about how to move forward, some people are frustrated that not a lot of action has been taken. This frustration brought together Inkluded’s founding members: Michael Mejias and Andrea Morrison of Writers House, along with Alexandra Hightower, Natalie Guerrero, Mary Gaule, Mackenzie Brady Watson, and Julia Kardon. Its stated mission is to “champion diversity in publishing by supporting like-minded organizations toward actualizing their missions and goals.” Already, it has begun collaborating with a number of programs. Some work from both the bottom up, like Barbershop Books, which creates child-friendly reading spaces in inner-city barbershops to increase black boys’ access to and enjoyment of reading, and the I Have a Dream Foundation, with whom Inkluded set up a day for children at the foundation to learn about the publishing process and meet people, like editors, agents, and writers, who make it all happen. Others work from the top down, like We Need Diverse Books. And this last program has an idea for getting new voices into the business.
In case you weren’t already familiar with it, We Need Diverse Books was founded in April 2014 when Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo started a Twitter exchange about the frustrating homogeneity in children’s and young adult publishing. They’d been having this conversation for a while. The impetus this time around was news of an all-white, all-male panel of children’s authors assembled for the following month’s inaugural BookCon. As the exchange unfolded, Ellen began talking about taking action and others in the book industry chimed in to express their interest.
The inaugural event was all digital and ran from May 1-3 on Facebook and Twitter. The hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks was created on April 24 to promote it. By April 29, the hashtag was trending, and WNDB’s vast social media campaign was born – and continues to this day.
This campaign drew attention to the lack of diverse literature for children. In 2013, the year before WNDB launched, only 93 children’s books out of a total of 3,200 were about African American people. From year to year, as demonstrated in a graphic assembled by multicultural children’s publisher Lee and Low, the percentage of children’s books featuring people of color holds pretty steady at 10%. However, people of color make up about a third of the country’s population, and that number is rising. Clearly, America’s actual demographics can support a broader set of books.
Of course, books are only part of the goal. Publishing itself is predominantly white. And so the We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant Program was launched in 2015 to address another problem: the barrier young people of color face when pursuing careers in publishing. Internships in children’s publishing are valuable for getting a foot in the door, but, like internships the world over, they’re generally very low-paying. Without the appropriate financial resources, a student can’t pursue the position; later, without an internship on their resume, they’re at a disadvantage in the job market.
The grant program aims to change that. It awards $2,500 to five applicants each year: already, eleven recipients have gone on to land entry-level jobs in publishing – one small step toward closing the gap. These scholarships can launch careers. And, of course, more diverse minds in the industry mean more diverse books for all of us.
This is exactly the kind of work that Inkluded likes to support. In an interview, Julia Kardon says that the group “brainstorms organizations that we know are doing good work during our monthly meetings and reach out of members of those groups.” Accordingly, Michael Mejias contacted WNDB about partnering on a fundraiser for the internship program.
And so, on the evening of March 15, a lively crowd filled Manhattan’s Writers House for wine, snacks, and a ticketed reading. The line-up was top-notch, featuring Jazmine Hughes, editor at the New York Times Magazine and co-founder of Writers of Color; Leigh Stein, executive director of Out of the Binders; YA author Cristina Moracho; and PEN/Bingham Prize-winner Mia Alvar. Moracho and Alvar read from their books, while Hughes read a Shouts & Murmurs piece. Stein read an essay about restaurant hostessing and a poem about – what else? – The Bachelor. Representatives of We Need Diverse Books spoke about the grant program and about the young professionals who now work in publishing because of it.
The evening was lively, funny, and powerful – and, fortunately for those who missed it, will happen again. A second reading, says Kardon, is planned for June and will feature Imbolo Mbue and other writers. But you don’t have to wait until then to support the work that Inkluded and WNDB are doing, They’re still raising money, and until April 15, Leigh Feldman Literary will match every dollar raised up to $5,000. You can make a tax-deductible donation here via credit card or PayPal. Mark your donation “INKLUDED” so it will count towards this pledge.
What else can you do to help the cause? Kardon has a few ideas. “If you work in marketing or publicity,” she says, “think about how certain groups of people are not routinely engaged, or how tactics to engage certain middle-class white women don’t work for other groups.” And wherever you are in the industry, she says, “Make this something you talk about and think about and make sure that you recognize that the feeling of being defensive is less important that the voices being excluded. And try to listen, always, no matter what.”
As organizations like Inkluded and We Need Diverse Books continue to shake up the status quo, our support, monetary or not, matters. There’s plenty that everyone can do to make sure that all of us really does mean all – and each of us will be better for it.