Educators’ Roundtable Part One
INTRODUCTION BY ALLIE JANE BRUCE
As Children’s Librarian at the Bank Street College of Education, I’ve got one foot in the world of education and one in the world of children’s literature. Everyone in both camps always seems to agree that the world needs more diversity in children’s literature, but I sometimes feel like a message-bearer between the two worlds. Book creators sometimes don’t know simple truths about children, such as that children under 6 are concrete, physical, and usually won’t extrapolate messages about racial justice from a symbolic book about animals. Educators sometimes don’t understand the realities of those who work in an industry that relies on profit for existence. And both groups have major work to undertake to achieve equity for marginalized children.
Hence, this roundtable, for which I asked a group of prominent book creators and educators the following questions:
As an educator, what asks do you have for book creators and the publishing industry? and/or
As a writer, what asks do you have for educators?
How can these two fields help each other teach children honestly and create a more equitable society?
As I explained to participants, I’m using the term “ask” in an activist context. I think of an ask as a way of saying “I am making this request of you, and I recognize that to answer it, you will need to change something. I do not ask this lightly.” I also invited participants to submit useful resources, and compiled their suggestions into a list.
As I read the responses, I was struck over and over again by how much I personally can and should do, as an educator, a children’s literature blogger, and a diversity advocate. I can purchase, request, and promote books that represent Native Nations accurately (as requested by Debbie Reese), that represent a greater range of stories within marginalized identities (as requested by Anshu Wahi), and that reflect strengths- and growth-based thinking rather than a deficit model (as requested by Ramón Javier). I can use picture books to reduce prejudice (as requested by Anne Sibley O’Brien). I can ask all kids, especially those from dominant groups, to read across identities and not see difference as a threat (as requested by Renée Watson) and to develop sturdy, yet flexible frames of reference for diversity, informed by accuracy and compassion (as requested by Pat Enciso). I can advocate for more and more training, reflection, and assessment for myself and my colleagues (as requested by Anshu Wahi).
Most challenging, and perhaps most important for me as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, and not-disabled teacher, I can stop reinforcing inaccurate or reductive narratives that have dehumanized and oppressed people for generations. Because as Kara Stewart says, the media deluge of stereotypes and inaccuracies is self-perpetuating, and when I take a step back, I see that I am part of the problem. It’s up to me to jam a stick in the spokes of my own power and dominance. This might require me to “let go” of some old classics, to think carefully about how or whether I promote certain books, to stand up and lend my support to allies when they say “this is not OK”, and to overtly prioritize spending my limited budget money on Own Voices books.
Most of this roundtable (including the above) was composed prior to election day. The asks within, however, are no less valid. Because as Cornelius Minor says, we have put people in space and created the Internet. We can, in fact, do this. Mistakes are inevitable, but the time for excuses has passed. Young children, I’ve learned, are unfiltered and unflinching when talking about identity; we adults owe them, and ourselves, the same honesty.
–Allie Jane Bruce (Education Liaison for We Need Diverse Books) is Children’s Librarian at the Bank Street College of Education and co-founder of ReadingWhileWhite.com.
I dream of an education system that teaches about Native people honestly. I’ve worked toward that end for many years, teaching, presenting, and providing resources at the school, district, and state levels. Yet what I do seems a few paltry drops in the ocean. It never seems to stem the overwhelming tsunami of misconceptions, and therefore mis-teaching, about Native people. Students continue to be spoon-fed inaccurate and stereotypical views of us.
However, in all my years of advocacy, I have not met a single teacher who is hostile or disagrees with my intent. They are enthusiastic and genuinely want to do the right thing. So why had they taught into the tsunami of harmful stereotypes? Because the overwhelming and self-perpetuating (self-perpetuating in that people read Native content, think it is accurate, find confirmation in the next book and in their instruction, and around it goes) media deluge of stereotypes and inaccuracies was all they knew to teach. All categories of published books – YA, MG, picture books, adult, non-fiction, history – contribute to this media deluge, and thus the formation of society’s views and expectations of us, in a big way.
My request of the publishing industry is: stop this self-perpetuating deluge. Jam a big stick in between the bike tire spokes. Just stop. Stop it cold. This entails agents (as the first gatekeepers) and editors educate themselves on what is and isn’t accurate in Native representations, and their institutions provide them the time, resources, and support to educate themselves. What harms? Why? Please read with this lens before publishing that shiny new manuscript. I’d rather have no books about Native people published than have ones that reinforce stereotypes. No student of any race needs to read those.
On the other side of that coin, I ask publishers to actively seek out and work with Native writers to publish their manuscripts in an attempt to counterbalance the stereotypes already out there. The caveat here is that agents and editors need to monitor their own lenses: Am I reading this manuscript with a lifetime of expectations about what a Native person is like? What Native life is like? Am I bowing to the pressured belief that the public only wants certain kinds of stories about Natives? Am I open to Native life and characters looking only subtly different from White life? Am I open to a broad array of Native experiences? How will I confirm a potential author’s credibility and accuracy? I recently heard an interview with Onondaga author, Eric Gansworth, who wrote one of my favorite books, If I Ever Get Out Of Here. He said, “The stories I should be telling are not about anyone else’s expectations, but about my personal experience.” That sums it up. Now, if only we can get those stories out to the schools and public.
–Kara Stewart, an enrolled member of the Sappony tribe, is a Reading Specialist in the public schools. She currently serves on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and on her Tribal Council, and is a mother of two.
The development of our young people into culturally competent citizens with a strong sense of empathy, history and social responsibility depends on many factors, and the role of children’s and YA publishers in this endeavor cannot be overlooked.
Many institutions claim to value — if not prioritize — diversity, social justice, equity and inclusion. Often, these same institutions do not commit their time and resources to the training, reflection, assessment and actual work necessary to attain these objectives. In order to foster culturally competent climates, leaders of institutions must consider what it actually means to employ a social justice lens, and what it looks like to be inclusive and equitable. And then do what it takes to get there. (Hint: it’s a process, not a box to check).
In this era of industry cross-pollination, educators and publishers committed to these values must talk with each other and get on the same page about what diversity, social justice, equity, and inclusion mean. This requires a shared analysis of identity, bias, history, and power and an understanding of how these shape experiences in the workplace, at school, and as consumers of literature. For example, in our culture, “diversity” has become a buzzword that often gets falsely reduced to race, which then gets further falsely reduced to “brown folks.” One way this misapprehension translates in children’s and young adult literature is that there is more variety in the stories of white children, while many stories about brown children pathologize their experiences, which results in the same tired stereotypes that I encountered as a voracious reader growing up in the 80s and 90s.
Diversity should manifest in the representation of multiple identities, inclusive of but not limited to race. Think about ethnicity, immigration, nationality, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, family structure, learning styles, body type, and socioeconomics. Then consider the need for diversity within diversity, wherein a range of real lived experiences of all kinds of people are given the benefit of the spotlight which throughout time has lingered brightly only on majority identities. In short: we need more books that feature non-majority identities and a range of experiences within them.
Diversity, social justice, equity, and inclusion are also about who is making decisions about what stories are getting told, who is telling them, and how. And who is in leadership positions, how books are being marketed, and what’s on the covers.
Some questions to consider for publishers:
- Does your workplace create a climate of inclusion? How?
- What trainings has your company held to hone an analysis of equity, inclusion, and justice?
- Do these trainings include an analysis of power and history?
- How diverse is your workplace?
- Are you highlighting a range of voices and authors who represent multiple identities?
- How does diversity within diversity show up in your workplace?
- Are books about non-majority identities being marketed to all children?
- What educational institutions are doing this work that you can talk to? (Here’s one)
- What publishers are already doing something about this? (Here’s one)
- What can you learn from young people about this? (Here’s one)
This is a start and an imperative for anyone who claims to value diversity, social justice, equity, and inclusion. Committing to this work will prove beneficial not only to publishers but to the children reading their books as well. These children are hungry for complex stories that accurately represent a variety of identities and experiences. This fosters empathy, supports learning about oneself and others, and provides an avenue for young people to be socially responsible, which has become a 21st century necessity. Our publishers, schools, and books must reflect that.
—Anshu Wahi is a diversity and equity consultant. Most recently, she was the Director of Diversity and Community at the Bank Street School for Children, a Progressive N-8 school partnered with the renowned Bank Street College of Education in NYC. Prior to joining Bank Street, Anshu ran the Education Program at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, training educators and creating curriculum in diversity, with a focus on religious identity. Anshu has also worked internationally in India and the United Kingdom, and has presented at numerous national conferences.
Aside from an increase in students of color, a variety of family structures, different religions, students with differing physical abilities, I would like to see the publishing industry approach the stories that include these groups from a growth mindset as opposed to a deficit model. All kids of color are not struggling. Students who have a non-traditional family structure may see that as a strength and not something to overcome. Presenting these identities as strengths as opposed to obstacles is one tangible thing that the publishing industry can do to help create a more equitable society.
–Born and raised in Washington Heights, Ramón Javier, a life-long New Yorker, is a Diversity Practitioner and Educator. A member of Prep for Prep’s eleventh contingent, he graduated from The Hackley School and Williams College. Ramón earned his EdM from Teacher’s College, Columbia University in Psychological Counseling. Ramón is a member of the NYSAIS Diversity Committee. Ramón is also a Trainer for Border Crossers.
This Roundtable will continue tomorrow with Part Two.