Giving Thanks for Diverse Books

Happy Day After Thanksgiving! Hope you had a nice time with your family and friends or whomever or whatever you chose to celebrate with. We celebrated by renting a yurt at a state park. It was a great plan until the heat went out in the middle of the night and we froze in 30-degree weather. A two night stay turned into one, it was memorable and cold.


In the spirit of sharing something good and a project that brings me thanks, I will share what I’m reading. This past summer I took the Diverse Books Challenge, and pledged to read 15 books by authors of color. The We Need Diverse Books campaign started a few years ago to highlight the alfneed for more diversity in children’s literature. The campaign included a story in The New York Times showing how few authors of color and characters of color there are in children and young adult’s literature. One of my favorite pictures from the campaign said “We Need Diverse Books because there are more aliens/werewolves/vampires/yeti in books than People of Color.” If you are a yeti or a vampire you’ll feel good about seeing yourself reflected in American literature.

I took the diverse books challenge because I felt the need to diversify the media I hear from. I took it as a personal challenge and I control a lot of the books that come into our house, so it spilled over to my family. As the family library goer I control a lot of the books our children consume. As a result many of my 15 Diverse Book challenge books are children’s literature (plus children’s books are faster to read).

I want my funyuns (children) to see diverse characters, understand others, and to see themselves reflected in books. Seattle author Ken Mochizuki, author of several children’s and young adult books, writes “the value of fiction [is] it can sometimes prepare you for what happens in life.” My job as a parent is to prepare my children for life, and life beyond our home and family. Books are helping with this preparation.

The Diverse Books Challenge has exposed us to lots of new authors, and reread several favorites. Taking this challenge has forced me to be more mindful about my book choices, and open me to new authors. Instead of just picking books off of top-ten lists, or through recommendations, I spend time looking for authors of color.

What I’ve Learned

Authors of Color are in Every Genre—A few of my favorite books in this challenge have come in unexpected places, including a book about house cleaning by the Japanese cleaning phenom KonMari or the audio version of Oprah’s book What I know for Sure. Authors of Color aren’t relegated to only world literature or the entertainment or sports sections of the library, explore and wander the shelves.

Gatekeeping in Publishing—I think it was in a Star Trek episode I heard the line “History is written by the victor.” This means that many publishers cater to mainstream audiences because they have the power to publish. As a reader I have to push to have diverse stories featured in books and put on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. As People of Color we have the numbers, if we demand to see authors of color featured they will be. Be vocal and demand to see authors and authentic characters of color featured in books. Two publishers that currently standout are Blood Orange Press and Lee & Low. (I don’t work in the publishing world, I only keep track of this on a marginal level. Perhaps there are others I don’t know of.)

New Perspectives—Being exposed to books by authors of color has brought interesting viewpoints that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. For instance in the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande made me think about aging across cultures. I also learned about the Freedom Rides from Senator John Lewis, I could have read about this period of history from a traditional history book, but reading Sen. Lewis’ version brought it to life in a real way.

Mindfulness—I just started Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh who writes about being mindful about the media we consume. This experience has shown me how mindful I have to be with exposing myself to different thoughts and perspectives. The We Need Diverse Books challenge has pushed me to dig deeper and to counter some of the noise. I still read the news and enjoy many mainstream media channels, but I try to ensure I keep different perspectives coming forward.

Requesting Books by Authors of Color—I’m fortunate to live in a city with a well-supplied library system. The Seattle Public Library provided me with almost all of the books I’ve read for the book challenge. Part of supporting authors of color and pushing publishers to publish more diverse authors is to get their books put into libraries and purchased overall. At the Seattle Public Library we can request books added to the collection through an easy online form. I’ve requested books for this challenge and the library has ordered them, a win-win-win. Win for the library that now has a more diverse collection, win for the author who has more readers, and win for the publisher with a higher book count.

Reading to Children—My children love being read to and I enjoy sharing books with them. About a month ago my kiddo said I could choose what we would read before his bedtime so I picked up a journal on racial equity. This is what he said “All I hear is word, word, word, word, word.” In other words he was tuning it out, he needs to see himself reflected in stories so he can understand the world around him. He recently brought home a book from his school library featuring a multiracial family. He chose the book because his teacher read it to him in class and he wanted to share it with me. He said he chose it because he wanted me to read it with him, he was in control and wanted to share it with me.

What this has to do with Equity— Diversifying what I read informs what I think. Equity work requires understanding others and realizing that our world view is only part of the picture.

Here is my list of 15 (and some bonus books) for the We Need Diverse Books that I’ve read over the past few months:

I hope you’ll join me in reading authors of color. Please share your favorite books either on Facebook, Twitter (@fakequity), or in the comments below.


The Danger of the Single Loud Noisy Story from a Community Perspective

If you haven’t watched the TED talk The Danger of the Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, watch it. Ms. Adichie is eloquent about why diverse stories matter. No single story encompasses a whole community’s narrative. Too often we listen to the loudest or nosiest stories. Sadly too often the loudest voices aren’t from communities the most impacted by hardship or furthest from opportunities.

When I started my current job Stephan, a mentor, asked me “Where are you getting your information?” I couldn’t answer him. I really didn’t know where I would get my information– from friends, people I like, colleagues, Facebook, the news. Benita Horn, a well-respected equity leader, calls this access F.B.I.– Friends, Brothers, and In-Laws. Quickly I realized the Yoda-like wisdom they gave me. They were telling me to be careful of listening to the loudest and nosiest voices or people whom I like and think like me.

Communities are diverse and sadly systems (government, institutions, organizations, etc.) are designed to hear the nosiest, loudest, and most organized voices. Change often comes via the majority or those who have connections. However the majority or those with access to power is not always the most impacted by a decision.

Here is an example…
tofu tacoA popular restaurant, Tacos for the People, decided to democratize their menu and are open to input from the community. I really love marinated tofu tacos with cilantro and want them kept on a menu, I’m flirting with vegan/vegetarianism so I will claim minority status (for the sake of this example). For Tuesday’s lunch I decide to “vote with my wallet” and order a fistful of tofu tacos.

When I arrive at Tacos for the People I can’t get past the front door because twenty people wearing matching colored shirts and holding signs are lined up to testify in favor of fish tacos. They knew to show up because they organized via Facebook and Twitter. A member of the group alerted the media, and others in the group went to college with the founder of Tacos for the People.

If we believe that tofu tacos versus fish tacos on a menu is a zero-sum-game, in other words only one taco will remain on the menu, the odds are much more in favor of the fish tacos. Tofu tacos, even though they serve an important need for a minority (vegan-vegetarian) community, has little chance of saving their place on the menu. This is the danger in only listening to the loud matching t-shirt people, their agendas rise up and overcast voices of others who have important needs.

“If you’re not at the table, it means you’re on the menu.”
Now before we start poking holes in the example and say the tofu taco lovers should organize and get their own shirts let’s add another layer to this example. Let’s say the tofu taco community is actually a community of color, an immigrant or refugee community, or another community such as foster care, special needs, etc. that have additional hurdles to overcome in order to mobilize and make their voices heard. Showing up to testify at a State Capitol or school board meeting often means having to rearrange work and parenting schedules quickly, figure out and budget for transportation, and navigate the weird politics of testifying (i.e. how to sign in, when to step forward, what to say in two-minutes, speaking in English if English isn’t their preferred language, etc.)—those are a lot of barriers. An equitable approach would be to have the system open up their table and ensure more voices are heard. A mentor told me “If you’re not at the table, it means you are on the menu,” which means you need to be at decision making tables to influence decision making.

How to Listen and Who to Listen to
Thinking back to the advice I received from my mentor, I’ve tried to act upon it. It is easy to get swept up in the voices of the majority and to think everyone thinks their way. It is also easy to default to those we know and their voices, this is fakequity. We have to remember communities are diverse and those farthest from opportunity have important stories we need to seek out. kungfu-panda

As leaders and community builders we need to seek out the voices and messages, not just the noisy voices. It takes time and effort to get out and find different voices, but the return on the investment of time and energy is worth it. Start with people you know then ask them to introduce you to others, and keep doing that. Ask someone to take you to a meeting you wouldn’t normally attend because their community is different and sit and listen, and go back again and again. Don’t talk at the meeting, just listen. Over time trust builds and people will share their thoughts with you and relationships start. Going fast and listening to noise is easy—fakequity. Going slow and building relationships is EQUITY.

UPDATE 10.20.15: We’re excited to see more voices reinforcing the message of the need for multiple stories. Sheri Brady, from the Aspen Forum, published Building Many Stories into Collective Impact which looks at the need for diverse stories in collective impact efforts. Check it out and leave her a comment, for that matter leave a comment here too.

posted by Erin