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Recently, we sent a number of LEE & LOW staff members from different departments to an “Undoing Racism” workshop, held by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The People’s Institute is an organization that “is a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation.” The workshop, jointly taught by a white leader and a leader of color, was a three-day intensive that covered everything from a history of race and racism to the power dynamics at play today in various systems. Participants were encouraged to reflect on their own experiences and identities, as well as to listen deeply as others shared.
We decided to do this workshop because even with LEE & LOW’s focus on diverse books, we felt that our staff would benefit from specific training in anti-racism concepts. “Even though Lee & Low’s mission is to address the lack of representation of marginalized groups through publishing diverse books, the workshop hammers home how deep institutional racism goes,” said publisher Jason Low. “The intimate setting also makes issues of racism more personal. Instead of reading about racism in the paper or online you are hearing firsthand experiences, from a person sitting three feet from where you are sitting.”
The recent problems found in books like A Fine Dessert and The Hired Girl, along with long-standing problems in publishing in general, indicate that now more than ever, publishing staffs need diversity training. While the burden of mistakes can be placed on the author and illustrator, in truth publishers share an equal part of the responsibility in making sure that the books they produce are accurate and do not reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Racial insensitivity and stereotypes making it past the editorial process are expensive mistakes–in terms of both cost and impact–but they are avoidable. Below is our staff’s reaction to the workshop, plus a follow-up meeting we held in-house. Our plan is to hold monthly meetings on racism and diversity moving forward. (Note: Answers have been condensed and edited for length.)
1. What did you learn that you did not know before attending the workshop?
Stacy Whitman, Editorial: I didn’t know some of the history before. For example, I knew about indentured servitude (I actually had a couple ancestors who were indentured), but I didn’t realize the way that indentured labor and slavery were wedged against each other, and the way whiteness was created out of that time period. I had known that church had been used as a way to keep slaves in line, and I had known about slave rebellions, but hadn’t realized how those pieces fit together with indentured servitude and creation of a status of whiteness.
Jessica Echeverria, Editorial: One of the biggest takeaways was how the deeply-entrenched history of racism in this country is never really taught in school. This was clear from some of the participants’ reaction in learning that race was a social construct. I think back to my own education growing up in Florida, and the topics of race and racism were not examined until I was in college. And even then, they were courses I elected to take and not required for all students. So yes, racism stems from ignorance, but we should be aware that this ignorance was purposeful.
Hannah Ehrlich, Marketing: One of the main things that the workshop showed me was that having open conversations about race is just really, really hard – and rarely do we white people get it right the first time. While I had thought about white privilege before, I hadn’t really thought much about the internalized superiority that white people have absorbed over generations and generations. Because of that, even when we want to be allies, often racial conversations end up with us in a defensive stance, trying to define why we are “good” white people instead of accepting our own complicity in an unfair system and spending our time listening. Conversations that center whiteness are the default, and it takes a lot of hard work to move past that. It was moving to see this play out over the course of three days, and definitely made me more aware of how, as a white person invested in racial justice, I can be a better ally by letting go of the need to define myself as “not racist.”
Louise May, Editorial: There was a good presentation of theories on the origins of institutional racism. I had not before seen the information put together this way. It was quite impactful.
Jill Eisenberg, Literacy & Sales: The workshop and follow-up discussions with my colleagues have encouraged me to examine how adults present history and historical people/groups to children. Much of the workshop was spent exposing the historical narrative of America as racist and capitalistic. I was particularly disturbed about the lack of recognition and respect Native peoples had (and have). Our presenters showed us that this explicit invisibility is even written into our Constitution (Article 1, Section 2).
Rebecca Garcia, Marketing: The facilitators asked the group how many of us were gatekeepers. I had to think about it for a moment before I raised my hand. Having never thought of myself as a person with power, it was shocking to discover that I am a gatekeeper. Before that, I thought of editors as gatekeepers. After all, they’re the ones who decide what books to acquire. But since I regularly disseminate all kinds of information through social media, of course I’m a gatekeeper. Information is power.
Veronica Schneider, Literacy & Sales: Being in literacy & sales and working at a diverse children’s publisher, I think I was aware of my role as a gatekeeper. Reflecting in the workshop, however, showed me just how strong of a gatekeeper position I maintain. I choose what kind of information reaches others-from educators to children-as I develop questions and activities for our teacher guides and carefully align Lee & Low books to schools’ curricula. Conversations with educators may begin with them sharing their needs in terms of thematic units or student reading levels, but then I take that information and decide which books would ultimately work best for various academic and social-emotional reasons. Diversity is certainly an issue that is close to our hearts here at Lee & Low, but how we approach and communicate this information to others is different based on your department and on an individual basis.
Additionally, the systemic nature of racism is a powerful concept that although I was aware of, is all the more apparent once analyzed in depth. Tracing the roots of racism to highlight the gaping holes in our knowledge in history was both eye opening and frustrating. Why aren’t we being taught this in schools? Why aren’t we openly having these discussions?
Keilin Huang, Marketing: The idea of being a “gatekeeper” really resonated with me. The LEE & LOW Facebook page has over 7,300+ likes, and whenever I post anything, I’m choosing and determining what those 7,300+ people will see. It was a realization of power that I had never thought about in-depth, and it’s a tool to use in the undoing of racism.
2. How will you apply what you have learned from the workshop to your job at Lee & Low?
Stacy, Editorial: Editorially, I’m continuing to interrogate my biases and assumptions. Thinking about further ways I can include voices of color in the projects I work on, and continuing to seek out more authors of color. Thinking about how I contribute to systemic bias, and how I can counteract it.
Jessica, Editorial: Further inspired by the workshop, I plan to continue working on books that will hopefully fill in the gaps of what’s not being taught in school. I keep thinking about Texas and the new textbooks that have whitewashed parts of US history.
Hannah, Marketing: The workshop has definitely made me more aware of my own whiteness, and how that affects the dynamics among our staff, with our authors and illustrators, and with other people we work with. It has encouraged me to examine my own culture and the lens through which I see the world – what am I missing? What am I not getting? Because I work in marketing and publicity, a big part of my job involves communication, and it’s worth exploring how racial dynamics affect that communication. Are we using language that reinforces institutionalized racism? Am I being a good ally personally, and is Lee & Low being a good ally as a company? These are all things that are important for us to consider in our work.
Louise, Editorial: The workshop reinforced my commitment to the need to acquire diverse stories that accurately represent stories from an insider point of view.
Jill, Literacy Specialist: We at Lee & Low Books publish and offer many books by and about Native peoples. It is critical to show that Native peoples aren’t just “were,” but also “are.” Our students need to read stories about and by Native peoples in recent times, not just suspended in a simplistic time capsule whether a folktale without additional background knowledge and proper context or a “by the way” side blurb in a history textbook. As I work closely with schools and organizations serving children, I want to make sure that the books we do have get in front of students before they internalize and perpetuate racist views on American history. These topics need to start early and often.
Veronica, Literacy & Sales: When speaking to schools, educators, teachers, nonprofits, and other organizations, we need to make sure to not only consider their requests and needs but to be clear/open about the different ways in which our titles can enrich + open their world. I need to keep stressing the importance of windows + mirrors concept in my work. This means showing non-diverse (mostly white) schools that diverse books have a place there, too.
Keilin, Marketing: One of the leaders said that as advocates of eradicating racism, everyone needs to constantly question the institution of racism. Even with little or no knowledge of something, supporters of undoing racism seek out information and learn as much as they can about a certain institution. They ask questions. They listen. As someone who works in children’s book publishing and has a means of reaching thousands of people every day, this really struck a chord with me. People who want to undo racism don’t always claim to be experts, rather they are proactive in their fight. They don’t stand off to the side and hope that things will magically be fixed. It takes effort, as all of us at LEE & LOW know, and that is something I will continue to strive to do both at work and personally.
3. What do you hope to continue to learn about and explore in post-workshop meetings with fellow Lee & Low staff?
Stacy, Editorial: How to know what I don’t know, and how to share that knowledge with others in a way that they’ll listen. I guess this has been my quest, editorially, all along, but the process of the workshop in particular was interesting because while it was emotionally draining, everyone in the room was listening. Everyone was participating (even the slightly weird woman who wouldn’t shut up) and working through their resistance. There was a range of resistance, of course, but the process worked to get people talking and listening.
This applies to how marketing is already thinking about audience with social media and other sales channels—who we need to discuss the importance of diversity with before introducing our books.
Jessica, Editorial: I’m excited to see how our discussion will produce new and valuable content for our readers.
Hannah, Marketing: I look forward to talking more in the future with staff members about challenges we face in our respective departments. How does editorial handle a historical manuscript that uses language we deem problematic? How does sales handle administrators who don’t think their students would be interested in diverse books? Discussing these challenges as a company will help make us stronger and more aware of the issues that we face in our work, and it will allow us to develop company-wide policies to address difficult questions.
Louise, Editorial: It would be interesting to discuss what we can do to move ourselves further to toward being a “Fully Inclusive” institution.
Veronica, Literacy & Sales: Increase the sharing of articles and books about racism. Come up with ways to address problems that are occurring in the news/present day and how Lee & Low can be part of the solution.
Has your company undergone staff diversity training? If so, we’d love to hear about what worked and what didn’t in the comments section below.
Linda Boyden was the second (and since there have been many more) person that I had gotten to know in the online kid lit community who invited me to stay before meeting me. It was in October of 2012 and … Continue reading →
The most frequent question readers ask about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is "Why hasn't this book been written before?" I'm flattered by that question, because it's the one I ask about texts that deeply move me; at the same time the information, argument, or story is new to me, it seems [...]
Artists working across boundaries must demonstrate profound respect for and deep knowledge of the Other. This means a thoroughly open-minded attitude—and much labor in terms of research and questioning one’s own assumptions.
This post was originally posted October 8, 2012. We offer some thoughts on reframing the Columbus Day holiday:
Have you ever stopped to think about the implications of celebrating Columbus Day?
While most of us probably grew up associating the holiday with classroom rhymes and mnemonic devices (“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” etc.), days off from school, or sales at the mall, it’s important to remember what really happened in October of 1492. Columbus Day occupies a dubious spot in our nation’s calendar, ostensibly commemorating both the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and the subsequent destruction and enslavement of countless indigenous people.
Check out this video created by Nu Heightz Cinema filmmakers Carlos Germosen and Crystal Whelan in 2009. In order to garner support for a movement to “reconsider Columbus Day,” Germosen and Whelan collaborated with indigenous organizations and community activists, giving voice to the horrific and painful stories behind the mythology of the holiday.
In fact, there’s been a push to eliminate Columbus Day altogether and replace it with a federal holiday in honor of Native Americans. Several states, such as Alaska, no longer recognize Columbus Day, or have replaced it with a day honoring indigenous people.
For example, since 1990, South Dakota has celebrated the second Monday of every October as Native American Day. In California, Berkeley replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in 1992, and in 1998, legislation calling for Native American Day to be celebrated as an official California state holiday on the fourth Friday of every September was also passed. Hawaii also celebrates Discoverers’ Day instead of Columbus Day in order to recognize the Polynesian discovery of the Hawaiian Islands. Many tribal governments have also reclaimed the day as Native American Day, or, like the Navajo Nation, have replaced it with a holiday honoring their own tribe.
Here are two books we found that, like the alternatives listed above, aim to dispel the myths around Columbus Day:
A Coyote Columbus Story, written by Thomas King, a Canadian novelist and broadcaster of Cherokee and Greek descent, and illustrated by Kent Monkman, a Canadian multimedia artist of Cree ancestry. It tells the story using the figure of Coyote, a traditional trickster character who, in King’s retelling, is a girl who loves to play ball!
Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow & Bob Peterson. This collection of essays, articles, poems, teaching ideas, and primary source materials helps educators teach students how to think critically and creatively about the consequences of the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent.
What are some other ways you can think of to observe Columbus Day? Do you have any favorite books or resources that tell the story of Columbus from a Native American perspective? Let us know in the comments below!
No one can discuss American history without talking about the prevalence of slavery. When the Europeans attempted to colonize America in its early days, Indians and Africans were enslaved because they were “different from them”. The excerpt below from American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction follows the dark past of colonial America and how slavery proceeded to root itself deeply into history:
America held promises of wealth and freedom for Europeans; in time, slavery became the key to the fulfillment of both. Those who ventured to the lands that became the United States of America arrived determined to extract wealth from the soil, and they soon began to rely on systems of unpaid labor to accomplish these goals. Some also came with dreams of acquiring freedoms denied them in Europe, and paradoxically slavery helped to make those freedoms possible as well. As European immigrants to the colonies initiated a system of slavery, they chose to enslave only those who were different from them—Indians and Africans. A developing racist ideology marked both Indians and Africans as heathens or savages, inferior to white Europeans and therefore suited for enslavement. When continued enslavement of Indians proved difficult or against colonists’ self-interest, Africans and their descendants alone constituted the category of slave, and their ancestry and color came to be virtually synonymous with slave.
Although Europeans primarily enslaved Africans and their descendants, in the early 1600s in both northern and southern colonies, Africans were not locked into the same sort of lifetime slavery that they later occupied. Their status in some of the early colonies was sometimes ambiguous, but by the time of the American Revolution, every English colony in America—from Virginia, where the English began their colonization project, to Massachusetts, where Puritans made claims for religious freedom—had people who were considered lifetime slaves. To understand how the enslavement of Africans came about, it is necessary to know something of the broader context of European settlement in America.
In the winter of 1606, the Virginia Company, owned by a group of merchants and wealthy gentry, sent 144 English men and boys on three ships to the East Coast of the North American continent. English explorers had established the colony of Roanoke in Carolina in 1585, but when a ship arrived to replenish supplies two years later, the colony was nowhere to be found. The would-be colonists had either died or become incorporated into Indian groups. The English failed in their first attempt to establish a permanent colony in North America. Now they were trying again, searching for a place that would sustain and enrich them.
By the time the English ships got to the site of the new colony in April 1607, only 105 men and boys were left. Despite the presence of thousands of Algonquian-speaking Indians in the area, the leader of the English group planted a cross and named the territory on behalf of James, the new king of England. They established the Jamestown Settlement as a profit-making venture of the Virginia Company, but the colony got off to a bad start. The settlers were poorly suited to the rigors of colonization. To add to their troubles, the colony was located in an unhealthy site on the edge of a swamp. The new arrivals were often ill, plagued by typhoid and dysentery from lack of proper hygiene. Human waste spilled into the water supply, the water was too salty for consumption at times, and mosquitoes and bugs were rampant. No one planted foodstuffs. The colonists entered winter unprepared and only gifts of food from the Powhatan Indians saved them.
In the winter of 1609/10, a period that colonist John Smith called the “starving time,” several of the colonists resorted to cannibalism. According to Smith, some of the colonists dug up the body of an Indian man they had killed, boiled him with roots and herbs, and ate him. One man chopped up his wife and ate her. John Smith feared that the colony would disappear much as Roanoke had, so he established a militarized regime, divided the men into work gangs with threats of severe discipline, and told them that they would either work or starve. Smith’s dramatic strategy worked. The original settlers did not all die, and more colonists, including women and children, arrived from England to help build the struggling colony.
The first dozen years of the Jamestown Colony saw hunger, disease, and violent conflicts with the Native People, but it also saw the beginnings of a cash crop that could generate wealth for the investors in the Virginia Company back in England, as well as for planters within the colony. In 1617, the colonist John Rolfe brought a new variety of tobacco from the West Indies to Jamestown. In tobacco the colonists found the saleable commodity for which they had been searching, and they shipped their first cargo to England later that year. The crop, however, made huge demands on the soil. Cultivation required large amounts of land because it quickly drained soil of its nutrients. This meant that colonists kept spreading out generating immense friction with the Powhatan Indians who had long occupied and used the land. Tobacco was also a labor-intensive crop, and clearing land for new fields every few years required a great deal of labor. The colony needed people who would do the work.
Into this unsettled situation came twenty Africans in 1619. According to one census there were already some Africans in the Jamestown colony, but August 1619, when a Dutch warship moored at Point Comfort on the James River, marks the first documented arrival of Africans in the colony. John Rolfe wrote, “About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars.” According to Rolfe, “the Governor and Cape Marchant bought [them] for victuals at the easiest rates they could.” Colonists who did not have much excess food thought it worthwhile to trade food for laborers.
The Africans occupied a status of “unfreeness”; officials of the colony had purchased them, yet they were not perpetual slaves in the way that Africans would later be in the colony. For the most part, they worked alongside the Europeans who had been brought into the colony as indentured servants, and who were expected to work usually for a period of seven years to pay off the cost of their passage from England, Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands, or elsewhere in Europe. For the first several decades of its existence, European indentured servants constituted the majority of workers in the Jamestown Colony. Living conditions were as harsh for them as it was for the Africans as noted in the desperate pleas of a young English indentured servant who begged his parents to get him back to England.
In March 1623, Richard Frethorne wrote from near Jamestown to his mother and father in England begging them to find a way to get him back to England. He was hungry, feared coming down with scurvy or the bloody flux, and described graphically the poor conditions under which he and others in the colony lived. He was worse off, he said, than the beggars who came to his family’s door in England. Frethorne’s letter is a rare document from either white or black servants in seventeenth-century Virginia, but it certainly reflects the conditions under which most of them lived. The Africans, captured inland, taken to the coast, put on ships, taken to the Caribbean, and captured again by another nation’s ships, were even farther removed from any hope of redemption than Frethorne. Even if they could have written, they would have had no way of sending an appeal for help. As it happens, Frethorne was not successful either. His letter made it to London but remained in the offices of the Virginia Company. His parents probably never heard his appeal.
A new year means a new chance to get to all the things you didn’t get to last year. And by “things,” what we really mean is BOOKS. We also know that reading diversely doesn’t happen by accident; it takes a concerted effort to read a wide range of books.
So, we thought we’d help on both counts by offering up a list of the diverse authors we’re resolving to read in 2015. Some are new, and some have just been on our list for years. This is the year we plan to get to them – perhaps this will be your year, too?
Ink and Ashes is Tu Books’ first New Visions Award winner! This debut novel follows a Japanese American teen named Claire Takata. After finding a letter from her deceased father, she opens a door to the past that she should have left closed.
Everyone’s talking about Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in verse about her childhood in the American South and in Brooklyn that recently won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. But have you read it yet?
Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel follows Oscar, an overweight, ghetto Dominican American nerd as he dreams of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkein. This book is filled with Dominican history, magical realism, science-fiction and comic book references.
In this debut novel, Kristen, has a seemingly ideal life. She’s just been voted homecoming queen and is a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college. Everything unravels when Kristen and her boyfriend decide to take it to the next level, and Kristen finds out she’s intersex. Somehow her secret is leaked to the whole school.
This novel covers the Parsley Massacre of 1937 in Dominican Republic. Anabelle Desir and her lover Sebastien, decide they will get married at the end of the cane season and return to Haiti. When the Generalissimo Trujillo calls for an ethnic cleansing of the country’s Haitians, Anabelle and Sebastien struggle to survive.
Lewis “Shoe” Blake, a boy growing in the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in upsate New York in 1975, isn’t used to white people like George Haddonfield being nice to him. Lewis is also the target of the bully Eddie Reininger. Will George still be Lewis’s friend when he finds out the truth of how Lewis actually lives?
Masako Katori lives with her dead-beat husband in the suburbs of Tokyo, where she makes boxed lunches in a factory. After violently strangling her husband, she uses the help of coworkers to cover her crime.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, which is set in a fantasy Asian-inspired world, inspired an anime of the same name. Balsa is a body guard who is hired by Prince Chagum’s mother to protect him from his father, the emperor, who wants him dead. A strange spirit possesses Prince Chagum that may be a threat to the kingdom.
American-born Sunny is an albino girl living in Nigeria. Although she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, Sunny discovers her latent magical abilities and joins 3 other students to learn how to control her powers. Sunny and her friends have to capture a career criminal who uses magic as well.
Naila’s conservative immigrant parents say that they will let her wear her hair how she wants, choose what she will study and be when she grows up, but they will choose her husband. When Naila breaks this rule by falling in love with a boy named Saif, her parents take her to Pakistan to reconnect her with her roots. But Naila’s parents’ plans have changed, and they’ve arranged a marriage for her.
Everyone thinks George is a boy, but George knows that she’s a girl. After her teacher announces that the class play is Charlotte’s Web, George hatches a plan with her best Kelly, so that everyone can know who she is once and for all.
Fortunately there are awards and grants out there help writers of color achieve their publication dreams.
We’ve created a list of awards and grants to help you get started!
New Voices Award – Established in 2000, is for the unpublished author of color for a picture book manuscript.
New Visions Award – Modeled after LEE & LOW’s New Voices Award, this award is for Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Mystery middle grade or YA novels.
SCBWI Emerging Voices Grant – This award is given to two unpublished writers or illustrators from ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in children’s literature in America and who have a ready-to-submit completed work for children.
SLF Diverse Writers and Diverse Worlds Grants – These grants are new works and works in progress. The Diverse Writers Grant focuses on writers from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds, and the Diverse Worlds Grant is for stories that best present a diverse world, regardless of the author’s background.
Those who worked in Silicon Valley knew the industry had a diversity problem. But exactly how big the problem was, was anyone’s guess. That’s when Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, stepped up and asked a key question: Where are the numbers? She argued that in an industry obsessed with analytics and data, there was no baseline for evaluating the diversity problem and thus no way to track improvement. She wanted to know how many women were working at tech companies, especially in engineering. And she offered Pinterest’s numbers to start.
Then something revolutionary happened—more tech companies came on board and offered their numbers. Soon it wasn’t just small and mid-size companies, it was Apple, Google, and Facebook. In all, more than two hundred tech companies of all sizes have now publicly released statistics about diversity among staff—a bold display of transparency. In response, several companies have stepped forward with solutions, Google has offered to pay for 1,000 women to take coding classes, and Intel has committed $300 million to diversifying its workforce in three to five years. While Silicon Valley has many of the same diversity problems as everyone else, it is addressing the problem in very real and practical ways from which other industries (like publishing) can learn a lot. We spoke to three tech industry professionals and a diversity expert for their thoughts:
Kimberly Bryant is Founder and Executive Director of Black Girls CODE, a non-profit organization dedicated to “changing the face of technology” by introducing girls of color (ages 7–17) to the field of technology and computer science with a concentration on entrepreneurial concepts.
Rosalind Hudnell, Vice President Human Resources, Chief Diversity Officer, Intel Corporation, was recognized in Black Enterprise magazine’s 2011 list of “Top Executives in Diversity.” This recognition places Rosalind in an elite group of diversity officers and vice presidents that are considered to be the nation’s highest-ranking and most influential executives leading corporate diversity initiatives.
Leah Smiley is President and Founder of The Society for Diversity, the #1 professional association for diversity and inclusion. With 15 years of corporate human resources experiences and more than 10 years of experience in diversity, Smiley has served over 400 members and thousands of non-members through the Society for Diversity since 2009. She also has extensive training and consulting experience in every sector, allowing her to obtain publicity in traditional, and social, media outlets throughout the world.
Tracy Chou is a software engineer and tech lead at Pinterest, currently on the monetization team; she was previously at Quora, also as an early engineer there. With initiatives in the workplace and the community, Tracy works actively to promote diversity in the tech industry and has pushed for greater transparency and discussion on the topic with a Github project crowdsourcing data on women in software engineering. She was named Forbes Tech 30 under 30 in 2014 and recently profiled in Vogue for her work.
THE PIPELINE SOLUTION
Jason Low: Let’s start with Kimberly Bryant and Black Girls CODE. Kimberly, why don’t more parents and teachers encourage girls to pursue and excel in STEM subjects and careers? Where does this gender bias come from and why does it persist?
Kimberly Bryant: There are many issues why parents of students from underrepresented communities don’t encourage their girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers. Some of the reasons are culturally based and rooted in the perception of the industry as a male dominated and female “unfriendly” field. These parents are more apt to direct their girls into career fields that are perceived as safer or more welcoming to women (such as medicine, healthcare, teaching, etc). So the stereotypes influence parental guidance. These communities of parents are also unaware of the opportunities, which exist in a more broader section of STEM fields. In this case the lack of exposure to STEM careers is a large driver in parents lack of focus on these opportunities for their girls.
In terms of educators the issues seem to be a bit different. There is still quite a bit of implicit bias exhibited by educators throughout the K–12 pipeline and beyond which reveals itself in some educators becoming the defacto “gate keepers” to a career path in tech for girls. These educators whether willingly or unwillingly carry perceived biases into the classroom which manifest in both explicit and implicit messages which tell female students that they are not equipped to pursue more rigorous STEM study. We’ve heard many cases where girls are discouraged from pursuing classes in technology and science and instead steered into a less rigorous curriculum path. This gender bias is present throughout our society so it also reveals itself in this way in the classroom. There is a perception that one is “born” with talent innately to pursue rigorous study in the field rather than fluidity in STEM subject matter being a learned skill.
JL: I noticed that there is a NY chapter of Black Girls CODE. I read that BGC has worked with 3,000 girls so far and has a goal of working with a million girls. In order to make a dent in the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in technology will it be necessary to have a Black Girls CODE chapter in every major city? What will it take to replicate the Black Girls CODE model across the country?
KB: We do believe it will be necessary to have a Black Girls CODE chapter in multiple cities across the US in order to reach our goal of teaching one million girls of color to code by 2040. In fact we try to model our organization as the “girl scouts of technology” with this very idea in mind—our organization must become widely available and synonymous with girls of color in tech in urban, rural, and suburban communities across the nation in order to reach this goal. It’s a daunting task to say the least but definitely achievable as we continue to seek support for our growing list of chapter across the country and internationally as well. It will take many additional partners stepping up to support this work across multiple sectors including philanthropic entities, government, and corporate partners to make this reach possible. Yet even if we reach this goal we will only reach a fraction of the girls from underrepresented communities that will compose our population demographics by the year 2040, which highlights the fact that this is not a problem that one organization alone can solve. We stress the need for coding to be taught in all schools in addition to the work that organizations such as Black Girls CODE is doing in the non-profit sector.
JL: There have been a number of recent articles that show that 41% of women leave technology mid career as opposed to 17% of men. This is an equally troubling trend given that organizations like yours are working so hard to make qualified women available for the industry to hire. What are some basic solutions to retain the future pipeline of women coming into the industry?
KB: When we look at the issue of diversity in tech today the issue is often described as a “pipeline” problem. In most cases when this terminology is used it directs the focus to the K–12 sector as representing the tech pipeline. I believe this is an incorrect description of the tech pipeline. If we describe the tech pipeline as more circular and encompassing in this analogy it would incorporate the K–12 segment, post-graduate students, and career women in technology. In this description of a much broader pipeline I believe it becomes very clear that we have leaks in every conceivable segment of this pipeline. With attrition rates for both women and minorities at such high levels it really is indicative of a much more endemic issue in tech culture and structure than simply an early pipeline issue. So although the work of orgs such as Black Girls CODE can go far in terms of front-loading the pipeline, we are preparing these students to go on to careers in technology. If the companies that meet them when they begin their careers are not culturally sensitive to valuing and supporting the career growth and needs for a diverse pool of employees then we will continue to see the high attrition numbers described above. There is a need for some serious analysis and transformation of corporate culture to create more nurturing environments for women and people of color if we truly want to see the diversity numbers improve. One key facet of this transformation specifically is to see broader representation of women and minorities across all levels of the corporation (from the board room to entry level) and then a transformation in corporate culture to a more diverse and culturally sensitive environment.
THE DIVERSITY INVESTMENT
JL: Next up is Rosalind Hudnell. Rosalind, for many years, technology leaders would always state that the industry was a true meritocracy and that the applicants of color and women candidates were simply not out there to hire. Being that Intel is now leading the charge to diversify its workforce, what kinds of programs, partnerships, and/scholarships will Intel be investing in to develop future diverse applicants who will be interviewing for jobs in technology in 3-5 years?
Rosalind Hudnell: Intel has a long-standing history of diversity and full inclusion work and we’ve learned a great deal over the last decade. We intend to apply these learnings in a more intentional way to achieve our diversity goals in hiring, but also in retaining and growing our people, especially women and under-represented program. Research shows that there is a significant dropout between year 1 and year 2 of engineering programs. When we learned this, we launched our Stay With It engineering program. We believe that we can shift students to staying with these careers if we share more of why these careers matter and make a difference while also providing an environment that inspires and gives practical hands on experience with role models and mentors. People connect with what they see and believe for themselves.
JL: $300 million is a substantial investment on Intel’s part toward diversity. What are the advantages of having a more diverse workforce? How will having more equal representation in Intel’s ranks result in better products and a more successful company?
RH: The business case for diversity and inclusion has been widely researched and proven. We believe that full inclusion, without artificial barriers or bias, is critical to Intel’s long-term business success and essential to achieving our vision of creating the world’s best smart and connected technology. Doing so will help us better reflect our customers, consumers and global marketplace. Creating an inclusive culture that consistently leverages the full range of all our employees’ perspectives and capabilities is critical to innovation and achieving our business objectives.
CONFRONTING THE LACK OF DIVERSITY
JL: Now some questions for Leah Smiley. Leah, past and current diversity efforts have mostly been driven by people of color and have largely excluded white people. Last year, you wrote some observations/advice regarding Google’s diversity efforts. “Make current staff part of the solution” was one of your tips. Please expound upon this for us.
Leah Smiley: It’s important to include current staff when transforming the cultural fabric of an organization. But I admonish you to proceed with caution because the knee-jerk reaction can be worse than inaction.
Often times, an organization will gather all of the diverse people and take a lot of pictures for marketing purposes, or they will promote a person from an under-represented group to the role of Chief Diversity Officer. These are examples of knee-jerk reactions—and should be avoided at all costs.
A better approach would be to: (1) clearly define the purpose of the diversity officer role (i.e., how does it correspond to organizational goals); (2) seek to fill the position with smart people who have the skills to accomplish intended results—regardless of race/gender/etc.; (3) create high-profile and high-potential diversity councils or employee resource groups to support the diversity officer role.
Diversity discussions must be led by all people and they can’t exclude divergent thoughts or beliefs. Education and training can always supplement any person who fulfills the role, but there is no substitute for credibility. Placing smart people in the Chief Diversity Officer role (regardless of their differences or similarities) allows the organization to effect genuine change without sacrificing professional integrity.
JL: Addressing inequality issues is often times referred to as necessary but “messy work”. What are some of the most ideal factors that can make diversity work (a) successful (b) sustainable, and (c) lasting?
LS: I once presented an employee benefits presentation where I was tasked with delivering the bad news: your benefits are changing, your cost are going up and you’re not getting a raise. I did so many of these talks in the past that I could deliver a great message with my eyes closed. But one tech group didn’t receive my message too well. Although they were highly compensated, in comparison to every other meeting I facilitated, these employees went bananas! I didn’t know where I went wrong. When I talked to my boss afterwards, he schooled me about ignoring the elephant in the room. The bigger issue was that the company was in financial trouble, and the benefits were just one of many that had recently changed for the worse. In my arrogance, I proceeded with a “business as usual” attitude, and things went very wrong quickly.
In the same way, addressing “inequality” can be messy if you are not dealing with the bigger issues, which may include, but are not limited to:
(1) Perceptions of management (i.e., Is management too lax? Is the management team akin to the “good ‘ole boys club”?)
(2) Communication (i.e., Was this person hired because he is black or because he is the best qualified for the job? Why was the Office of Diversity created in the first place?)
(3) Informal rules (i.e., Is hiring based on “who you know” or is there a formal process? Is discipline informal or are there written policies?)
DIVERSITY ACTIVISM MEANS EVERYONE
JL: The last question is for Tracy Chou. Tracy, your initiative to create a gender baseline for the Silicon Valley’s workforce was an important first step toward improving representation. One question: Pinterest’s diversity numbers among tech workers has grown from 13% to 20%. This news, along with Intel’s recent announcement of committing $300 million dollars toward diversifying their workforce is great news for diversity. What do you think the future looks like for addressing this issue and are you encouraged?
Tracy Chou: The first part of addressing this issue, which is already underway, is heightened awareness and sensitivity to it. We still have a long way to go on this front, though. In the immediate future, we’re still working towards broad-based awareness, a more nuanced understanding of pipeline and retention issues, cutting across gender, race, and other lines, to drive a deep commitment to change. It’s not enough for PR to pay lip service to change and throw some money around. It’s everyone’s job to care and to ensure that change is effected at all levels. To that end, the next part of addressing this issue is an orientation towards outcomes; we need to try different approaches, learn which ones work and which ones doesn’t, and iterate. This will all go much faster if we are honest with each other and willing to work together. In the same way that publishing statistics on current demographics has been critical to establish a broad baseline and thus our starting point, continued transparency on the various strategies and tactics being deployed, and their efficacy, is important for us as an industry to figure out the right direction to go and how to accelerate our movement in that direction.
I’m generally very encouraged by the heightened discourse on diversity issues in the past year; it’s starting to reach prominence even in mainstream media. I see momentum and I am hopeful we can capitalize on it.
Special thanks to all who contributed. More to come.
March is Women’s History Month! It’s never a bad time to learn about the contributions that women have made and continue to make. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve put together a list that features some of our favorite historical ladies and great fiction for children and older readers!
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone – this award-winning book follows the life of Melba Liston, a trailblazing trombonist, composer and arranger and one of the unsung heroes of the Jazz age.
The Legend of Freedom Hill – Rosabel, who is African American, and Sophie, who is Jewish, become friends. When Rosabel’s mother, a runaway slave gets captured by a slave catcher, Rosabel and Sophie put their heads together to free her.
Cat Girl’s Day Off – Natalie must use her Talent talking to cats to stop a high profile celebrity kidnapping.
Rattlesnake Mesa – After EdNah’s beloved grandmother dies, she is sent to live with her father on a Navajo reservation, and then to an Indian boarding school.
Ink and Ashes – Claire opens the door to her deceased father’s path and finds a family secret that could kill her.
Killer of Enemies – In a future where technology has failed, Lozen has been gifted with a unique set of abilities, magic and survival skills that she uses to hunt monsters for the people who kidnapped her family.
Rose Eagle – In this prequel to Killer of Enemies, we join Rose Eagle as she goes on a quest to find healing for her people.
Tofu Quilt – Yeung Ying, a young girl who grows up in 1960s Hong Kong, aspires to become a writer, against the conventions of society and family members.
If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that over the past few years we’ve released a series of infographics about the diversity gap in different industries including publishing, film, television, theater, and politics. Our infographic studies were designed to give people who were unfamiliar with issues of race and gender a sense of how deep the diversity problem goes in the United States and how entrenched these issues are in every facet of media. Our latest infographic, The Diversity Gap in Silicon Valley, is our first study that reports on a bigger question: What comes after the numbers are established? Once we acknowledge the diversity gap, what can we do to close it?
The tech industry presents a unique model for this. After Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou asked, “Where are our numbers?” hundreds of companies, both large and small, chose to release the diversity statistics of their staffs in a transparent way. Although the numbers showed a lack of diversity, after they were revealed there was a flurry of activity across the industry to address the problem. We were encouraged to see the brightest and the best minds in technology confronting a decades-old problem with pragmatism, budgets, and goals.
Given this, we were inspired to create our own baseline survey in the hopes that it could serve as a catalyst for the same kind of movement within the publishing industry. The Diversity Baseline Survey we’ve proposed would be the first of its kind for US publishers. It involves creating statistics that do not yet exist by measuring staff diversity among publishers and review journals in four areas: gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability.
There is precedence for a survey like this, not only from the tech industry, but also from the publishing industry in the United Kingdom. Both industries ran surveys as recently as 2014. Even large publishing houses, such as Hachette UK, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House UK, were among the publishers who participated in the British survey. Hopefully, this is a good sign that these companies might extend their participation to the US version of the survey.
In the past, publishers have usually put the responsibility on readers for the lack of diverse representation in books. The extremely dated adage that “diverse books do not sell” has become a belief that has reached mythical proportions. While it’s important for readers to support diverse books with their dollars and voices, it’s equally important for publishers to self-reflect on how they can do better on their end. We must acknowledge that one factor contributing to the lack of diverse books is the lack of diversity among the people who edit, market, review, and sell the books. Surveying our staffs and reporting on our findings would give us a starting point, not to point fingers or assign blame (especially since most media industries face similar problems) but to bring clarity to the problem so we can understand it better, attempt to correct it, and measure whether or not we are improving.
Publishers, the onus is on us to move forward. Many publishers have said that they support We Need Diverse Books and the movement for more diverse books, but words are not the same as action. If we are serious about increasing the number and quality of diverse books, it is essential for us to be transparent about our own challenges. By surveying our staffs and sharing our numbers, we can work together to put in place sustainable programs that will increase diversity among publishing staffs in the long-term.
Here are some ways you can help:
Sign the petition. We consider transparency in the publishing industry both a social and economic justice cause. If you agree, stand up and be counted. Your name in support of this effort will be used to convince publishers to join this effort.
Place a comment in the comment field of School Library Journal’s article about the survey. Public commentary about this issue from educators, librarians, reviewers, editors, authors, and illustrators helps put a face to this problem. Many of the gatekeepers/decision makers do not understand the problem, but words can make a difference and change people’s minds.
Ask your publishers to sign on. If you are an author or illustrator, contact your editors and other publishing contacts and encourage them to participate in the survey. Your voice in support of this effort can make a difference.
Subscribe to Lee & Low’s blog or social media channels. Understanding the issues is important, but the complexity surrounding issues of race and gender can be daunting. We discuss these issues on a daily basis. Learn through reading and engagement in a safe place to ask questions and stay current on the issues.
I haven’t read a historical romance featuring Native American protagonists in a long time, so I snapped this up from the library. When I was younger, I used to eat these up. Ride the Wind, Nakoa’s Woman, Only Earth and Sky Last Forever – if it featured Native Americans, it ended up on my wish list. There were so many of them published in the 80s and 90s, and then – nothing! Regencies took over, I read more fantasy and comic books, and that was the end of that reading phase of my life.
I enjoyed Running Wolf, but I did have some problems with it, mainly due to the power disparity between Running Wolf and Snow Raven. After she is captured in a raid, she is taken to Running Wolf’s village. As his captive and a hated Crow, his Sioux clan does not treat her well. She is beaten and stripped naked, and after Running Wolf gives her to his mother, Ebbing Water, she is ill-treated and only given food and a blanket because of Running Wolf’s intervention. His mother hates Snow Raven because she is a Crow, and a Crow warrior killed her husband. She is instantly suspicious of her son’s motives. Why has he brought this captive to their village? While he claims that he captured Snow Raven so she would have a servant to make her life easier after he moves into his own tepee, even Running Wolf knows that he’s not being honest with himself.
Snow Raven is fierce and independent, and when she’s taken captive, she thinks about taking her own life. She doesn’t want to die, however, and she thinks that her father, Chief Six Elks, will eventually rescue her. Then she realizes what an impossible task that will be for her people. All of their horses were stolen by the Sioux, winter will soon settle over the Plains, and preparations need to be taken for the winter. How will they even hunt without their horses? This does pose an almost insurmountable challenge for her village, because they depend so heavily on the horse to help with hunting, protection, and moving the village as the weather changes.
Once she’s given to Ebbing Water, she understands the position she’s in. Snow Raven has to work for everything, and still she’s given only meager servings of food and nothing to clothe herself with. She didn’t expect to be treated well, and her own people probably would have killed a captive Sioux, but she’s not willing to just give up. After her mother died, Snow Raven began to pursue tasks typically undertaken by boys. Though her father didn’t encourage her, she was taught to hunt, ride, and shoot a bow like a man. These skills are put to good use, as she is able to trap small game, and because of Running Wolf, she is allowed to keep the hides.
I liked Snow Raven, because she is tough and determined to survive. She’s also capable and brave. Running Wolf, on the other hand, I had a harder time with. He is a war chief, and he believes that his duty to his people trumps everything else. These feelings for this Crow captive? They are fleeting and a test of his ability to be a future leader. As a war chief, he’s not supposed to be selfish and keep things for himself. Whenever he thinks of Snow Raven, he becomes jealous and possessive. He only gives her to his mother because it would be unseemly for him to keep her for himself. So, instead of just keeping her, and keeping her safe, he puts Snow Raven in so many needlessly dangerous situations. His mother hates her because she is Crow, and she would be more than happy to cut her throat. Many of his tribesmen are accusing Snow Raven of being a witch and casting a spell over him, and his erratic behavior towards her doesn’t help matters. I thought he was the exact opposite of what he wanted to be: by pretending that Snow Raven didn’t mean anything to him, he came across as selfish and unfeeling to me. While I’m sure he pacified some of his people, he alienated me, the reader, and I just wanted Snow Raven to steal a horse and run far, far away.
My opinion of him improved later in the book, but if I hadn’t liked Snow Raven so much, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed Running Wolf. It’s grimmer and a little grittier than I was expecting, and I didn’t find it particularly romantic. I did find it engrossing and hard to put down, but if you are looking for sunshine and rainbows, I don’t think you are going to find it here.
Review copy obtained from my local library
Running Wolf is a valiant Sioux warrior. During his first raid as war chief, he captures a surprising Crow enemy—a woman! This spirited fighter is unlike any he’s ever met. Her beauty and audacity are entrancing, but threaten his iron resolve…
Snow Raven must focus on freeing herself, not on the man who keeps her captive. But as she falls deeper under Running Wolf’s spell, she realizes he is her warrior—and she’ll risk everything for him!
This year marks our sixteenth annual New Voices Award, Lee & Low’s writing contest for unpublished writers of color.
In this blog series, past New Voices winners gather to give advice for aspiring writers. This month, we’re talking about what “voice” means to an author.
When discussing the various elements of writing craft, “voice” seems to be the most difficult to pin down. You can’t plot it on a chart or even clearly define what the word means, and yet it is one of the most important elements of a story. Editors (and readers) are always looking for strong, distinct voices. It is an invisible string that echoes throughout a story and pulls the reader in. And when an author or character’s voice is nonexistent or inconsistent, it is the first thing we notice.
Voice builds trust between the author, characters, and readers. To develop a strong voice that will ring true, an author needs to understand both the story and him/herself as a writer. What is the tone of the story? Who are your characters? If a key feature—gender, age, cultural background—of the main character changes, would the voice change? It should! There are many ways to approach “voice,” and below, Linda Boyden and Paula Yoo share their techniques.
The Blue Roses was my first published book. I had written many picture book manuscripts prior to it, most of which are still gathering dust and mold, but now I see how that process was vital for me to evolve as a writer. I developed the voice of this main character, Rosalie, by experimenting.
I wrote many versions of the book. I considered writing it inthird person, having one of the adult
characters do the narrating for about a nano-second; in my heart I knew this was Rosalie’s story and no one else’s, but that didn’t stop me from more experimenting. I tried having her voice be that of a child, but Papa’s death would have been too harsh an experience for a child to deal with objectively. Instead, Rosalie narrates as her adult self, after having had enough time to smooth the edges of her loss. So experiment until you understand the heart of your character; that’s where you’ll find their true voice.
For me, voice comes out of nowhere. I can’t predict when I will find the “voice” of my story. Voice is not only the way my main character narrates the story (his/her style of speaking, their point of view, their personality) but also in the tone of the entire story (humorous, tragic, touching). Sometimes I find my “voice” AFTER I do a ton of research and preparation, such as figuring out the story beats and plot twists and the character’s emotional journey/arc. Sometimes the voice finds ME first—I’ll just start writing a story from the point of view of a character that has taken over me because he/she has something important and unique to say. Ultimately, I think “voice” for me comes from my heart. What moves me emotionally when I write? What about a story or character makes me laugh or cry? For me, “Voice” is the heart of my story—what emotions do I want to bring out in not only in my readers but also in myself? You can write a book that has the most original and surprising plot, the most compelling and fascinating characters, and a unique setting. But if there is no EMOTION, then that book falls flat. That’s where “Voice” comes in—“Voice” determines the emotion behind the story. I wish I could give a more specific answer with facts and evidence, but when it comes to writing from the heart, there is no formula.
In a groundbreaking announcement, First Book, a non-profit social enterprise launched the Stories for All Project. The project’s aim is to introduce a significant number of multicultural books into the hands of low-income children. LEE & LOW was chosen as one of two publishers to be a part of this endeavor and receive a $500,000 award.
For us the presence of this project further addresses the fact that diverse books are a necessity. Making multicultural books available to low-income families is a step toward addressing the chasm between people who believe these books are important to actually making the books available to the children who need them.
For years I have been involved in conversations with librarians and educators on the subject of how we need more diverse books. However, there is this strange disconnect where people continue to point out the lack of diverse books without doing the most obvious thing, which is supporting the companies that publish these books in the first place. The support is simple. It involves buying the books. It also involves telling people about the books and recommending them to buy the books. The more this happens the more books we can publish.
What First Book has done is monumental in supporting multicultural books. It is a bold statement that I hope is just the beginning. An infusion of this many diverse books increases the chances of a child being able to see a face like his or her own staring back at them from the pages of a book. This moment of recognition for a child will create a profound experience that will be forever associated with the act of reading. This powerful relationship to books is one that they will hopefully cultivate for the rest of their lives.
On behalf of everyone at LEE & LOW I want to thank CEO Kyle Zimmer, Executive Vice President Chandler Arnold, Vice President Erica Perl, along with all the dedicated people working on the Stories for All Project. First Book’s commitment and dedication to literacy and multicultural literature is to be commended. This will be a game changer for many children who will be receiving their very first book ever.
Publishing diverse children’s books for more than two decades has given us a unique perspective when it comes to diversity. While our mission is to bring more diverse books to children, we hope our efforts as activists keep the wider conversation on race and inequality in the spotlight. Our previous Diversity Gap studies on the Tony Awards and the children’s book industry revealed a disturbing trend in ethnic and gender representation. We decided to focus on the television industry next.
Emmy Awards infographic (click for larger image)
Our Diversity Gap study on the Emmy Awards was the logical choice for objectively looking at the small screen. Since the Emmys will be presented on September 22, 2013, we collected data to see if a diversity gap exists in television. See our infographic above for Emmy related facts like:
No woman of color has ever won an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series
In the last twenty years, winners in the Best Director of a Comedy Series were 100% white and 95% male
An African American woman has not been nominated for lead actress in a Comedy Series since The Cosby Show(1986)
We implemented the methodology we have used previously, with the help of the Writer’s Guild of America West, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with two talented writer/actors. Their combined insights into the mechanism behind making television illuminate why the lack of diversity in casting and writing remains a very real, very complex problem.
Luisa Leschin definitely believes in the richness of diversity. She has enjoyed four very successful careers: ballet dancer, actress, voice-over artist and television script writer. Her writing credits include The George Lopez Show and Everybody Hates Chris. She is currently developing a children‘s sitcom pilot with EOne Entertainment with a theme of healthy living and is writing a pilot about Latino millennials called Homies.
Luisa, what types of roles were you being cast for when you were an actress?
LL: I was lucky enough to be a working actress during the 1980s and early 1990s. I started my career in New York, where I studied with Uta Hagen, a legendary actress and teacher. I speak un-accented English, but judging from my auditions, I soon realized that I better work on my Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Colombian, and Puerto Rican spitfire accents because those were the only roles for which I was being considered. I remember walking onto the set of Hill Street Blues, where I was playing the pregnant girlfriend of a gang member. We had just been arrested. My fellow “actor” introduced himself to me and asked me how many times I had been arrested, because he’d been arrested twice! Toward the end of my on-camera career, I did a “role-count” and discovered that I had played a pregnant woman (in various stages of delivery) no less than six times, hookers, maids, gang-girlfriends, and as I got older, gang-girlfriend’s mothers . . . and not much else.
Kelvin, in our initial conversation you said you felt that as an actor you have resigned yourself to always playing second banana—that you would never appear as a main character in a TV show. You attributed this to a standard of beauty. Could you elaborate on this for us?
KY: I may have used the word “resigned” but I think, more accurately, as an Asian American actor you just come to understand the market place as it is. That’s not to say that you don’t hope it could someday change, but you understand that American audiences are not generally even ready for a female lead most of the time, so it is unlikely they will mass-consume a television show or a studio feature with an Asian American carrying the story. That said, this year we’ve seen Mindy Kaling and Ken Jeong take on huge projects that are viewed by millions of people. But these are, of course, the exception rather than the rule.
As I said before, it’s not entirely an issue of race either. I don’t think Dan Devito had any illusions in Romancing the Stone that he was gonna get to kiss Kathleen Turner. The paradigm of the American hero is, in the main, a handsome white dude, say, six feet tall—and that’s just how it is. I truly feel though, at the end of the day, audiences are going to connect with the best storytelling. We’ve seen that movie goers will champion protagonists in every shape, color, or form (even a talking pig!) if the storytelling is honest and resonant. So in some ways, I just challenge Asian American writers, producers, and directors to introduce great stories that feature different types of protagonists. It wouldn’t be fair or realistic to charge other people to tell your stories. People are just “writing what they know,” which can be a virtue while simultaneously a tragedy.
Luisa, you founded the comedy troupe Latins Anonymous. Tell us the goal of Latins Anonymous and how this led to you become a writer.
LL: The resulting frustration of having a demo reel that was a hit parade of stereotypes led me to join forces with three other Latino actors who were in the same boat. We knew that as actors we were powerless to effect change from the stage. We just didn’t have the voice to do it. The real power came from higher up—the writers and producers. So that’s why I embarked on a writing career, to help change how Latino roles were written and perceived, and also just to get more Latino actors in front of the camera. Ironically, this move pretty much killed my acting career because casting directors who came to see our show skewering stereotypes were too embarrassed to offer us those same stereotypical roles.
Kelvin, you attended college at UCLA, where the number of Asians make up 49% of the student population. Yet you mentioned that you are the only person of color in a thirteen person writing team. Why doesn’t the density of Asians living and working in Southern California amount to a larger representation of Asians in decision-making roles in TV?
KY: Don’t know. I know for a FACT that Asian Americans love to consume media—movies, television, video games, social media, all of it—so their lack of representation over the past several years is probably a combination of factors including cultural emphasis in different fields, a lack of avenues within the industry, and some level of systemic prejudice (particularly in the past).
However, I do think this is about to change big time. I think in the next few years you will see a flood of Asian content creators. Some of that is simply the rapidly closing cultural gap that social media and the internet are facilitating. Young Asian writers and actors and directors are growing up seeing Ang Lee and Justin Lin and Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou win Oscars and BAFTAs. The world, for better or for worse, is remarkably smaller than it was a decade ago and audiences are more open, even hungry, for unique voices. I also think new media renders many of those past obstacles powerless against the thousands of outlets for Asian American creativity. For instance, even if your stern Korean father wants you to become a doctor, he can’t really stop you anymore from making small movies with your iPhone and cutting them with some app. People can write, shoot, edit, and even distribute content from a $300 laptop. How was an Asian American teenager supposed to do that in 1990? Not to make Asian parents seem like the only barrier, and also not to make them seem all like Kim Jong Eun. I just think we’re about to see an influx of new voices and, thus, new stories. Which is very exciting.
Luisa, during our conversation you mentioned “that there is a system” in place to break into writing for television. Describe for us what that system is and what are some of the hurdles involved with addressing the problem of the diversity gap in TV programs.
LL: We all know the famous quote by William Goldman: “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” And we also know that many roads lead to Rome. . . . So, having stipulated that, I’m talking about the established network system. If you manage to get in on the ground level as a staff writer or story editor and then move up the ladder to senior story editor, producer, co-producer, and ultimately co-executive producer you will then become a known entity to the networks. At this point the powers that be feel confident that you have experienced firsthand about how TV shows are written and run. The network is willing to listen to show ideas from you, willing to consider ordering a pilot from you, because they know you have put in your time working under showrunners they trust and that you have experience on how things are done. This is the path that most showrunners have taken to rise to the position where a network trusts them to run a multi-million dollar show.
Which brings us to the biggest problem facing us in trying to narrow the diversity gap. There are very few diverse writers because there are few diverse showrunners/creators because there are few diverse executives who think that people of color and/or women tell stories that ”their” audience wants to hear. Certainly there are other ways of breaking into television writing, especially with all the new media platforms, but ultimately there are no shortcuts for putting in the time and learning the workings of television from the bottom up.
Kelvin, what are some of the factors that may keep white writers and producers from taking a chance on casting or writing more characters who are people of color into TV shows?
KY: I honestly think most writers just write what they know. Particularly in TV, which is by definition on a deadline, it’s just not going to be your instinct to pitch a story about a Pakistani family if you have never had any experiences with Pakistani families. Nor do I blame writers and producers for remaining within a personal wheelhouse of stories that reflect their particular vantage point on the world. Every once in a while, you get an Ang Lee or a Coen Brothers—storytellers who find a way to turn something quite foreign to them into something deeply personal. But I think most of us, when given that rare chance to tell a story, want to tell the stories we dreamed of sharing with the world. Our own stories. And that’s okay. That’s not just okay; that’s good. So the issue is, how do we get more eclectic people into the room? How does the face of TV writing start to look more like the face of America?
Luisa, you worked on The George Lopez Show, which aired for five seasons. From your description of the system, how did a show like this get made in the first place?
LL: It took a movie star, an established showrunner of multiple hit shows and an exceptional talent. At the time, Sandra Bullock had a development deal at Warner Brothers. Someone told her about stand-up comedian George Lopez and she and showrunner Bruce Helford (Creator of Norm, The Drew Carey Show, and Anger Management) went to see his show. Sandy fell in love with George’s talent and told Warner Brothers this was the show she wanted to develop. It took a lot of pull and star power to get the show on the air.
Everyone always has that one great idea for a pilot. But it’s seldom about the idea. All you have to do is look at most hits on TV. Cosby, a show about a family; Seinfeld, a show about nothing; Friends, six friends sitting on a couch. The salability of a pilot really rides on the team behind it. Who is the talent big enough to carry a show that has broad appeal for middle America? And who will be writing and running the show? This is why the same dozen showrunners get pilot after pilot every season. (Can you say Chuck Lorre? Bill Lawrence?) It’s because they have a track record in the network system and executives know they can deliver a show.
Luisa, you have done considerable work on some successful sitcoms over the years. Are there shows that you have worked on, or actors and actresses, who have been overlooked by the Emmy Awards?
LL: Yes! Every show I have worked on had brilliant actors who should have been at least nominated to receive an Emmy: George Lopez, Constance Marie, Belita Moreno from The George Lopez Show; Terry Cruise, Tichina Arnold, both from Everybody Hates Chris. Too often shows that feature diversity are overlooked by voters of the Academy. I don’t believe it’s any kind of conscious bias. Having been a judge for a few award shows myself, I discovered that I was more favorably inclined to a show if I had already watched the show, if I was familiar with the characters or if I might have already seen the nominated performer or episode. In short, I was already a fan. The sad fact is that most judges in the Academy are not diverse and may not be watching shows that feature diversity and/or diverse characters.
One thing worth noting about the 2013 Emmy Awards: Kerry Washington is nominated for best actress in a drama for Scandal. If she wins, she will be the first actress of color to win an Emmy Award for a drama in the sixty-five year history of the award! The fact that she is nominated at all is a testament to Shonda Rhimes’s style of ethnically inclusive casting and writing. Ms. Rhimes is essentially the embodiment of what Luisa Leschin describes as the television system for breaking into writing. Ms. Rhimes worked her way up the ranks, paid her dues, and became a showrunner. Her version of television presents a real world example of what TV shows could look like: ethnically and gender inclusive, entertaining, and . . . successful.
With the release of our new book, “First Fire,” which is a retelling of a Cherokee folktale, we decided to sit down with storyteller, Lloyd Arneach, to find out more about the culture and the art of storytelling. Arneach is a longtime Native American storyteller that got his start in a rather interesting and unexpected way. He’s keen on Cherokee culture, having grown up in Cherokee, North Carolina, and learning from his family. Arneach spent about twenty years sharing the culture and history of his people at universities, museums and even Girl Scout meetings. Now he’s been a storyteller now for over twenty years and still has a lot of stories to be told.
Me: Can you tell me a little bit about how you first got involved with storytelling? What inspired you?
Lloyd: Well, I really backed into it! My late wife and I were living in Atlanta, and we had a babysitter who was in a Girl Scout troop. And she couldn’t find a book on Indians in the entire county library system. And she said, “wait a minute! I babysit for an Indian, maybe he can help me.” So she called me up and asked if I could help her and I said sure. She told me the requirements, and they were fairly simple and I said, “sure! But I’m going to have to come straight from work, I won’t have time to go home and change. Is that going to be a problem?” She said no, so the next Girl Scout meeting I came straight from work. I went in and sat down and the young girls looked at me and I could hear one of them say, “I don’t know where the Indian is but he’s going to be here pretty soon.” I was working as a computer programmer at that time and I was wearing a three-piece suit, so you don’t see many Indians in three-piece suits. I got up to talk and you could hear their jaws hitting the ground. She started calling other scout leaders who had the same problem in that county, they couldn’t find books on the Indians. I became a resource material as a result. Boy scouts started calling, and then schools started calling, and museums started calling. I was sharing primarily Cherokee culture and history at that time.
In 1985, I got a call from student at Georgia State University and she said she was in a Folklore class. Her assignment was to record stories from original tellers, and I said she would need to go to the reservation in Cherokee to find a storyteller. She said “no, you’d be fine!” So she came and recorded some stories, and I didn’t think anything about it. Then in ‘88 I got a call from Dr. John Burleson at Georgia State and he said “I teach the Folklore class here at Georgia State and our students have been collecting stories. And the stories we have recorded from you I’m going to be putting in a book with these others I have collected, and I’m calling all storytellers to be invited to a book signing. Would you be willing to come?” I said, well let me know. Well, in November of ‘88, we discovered my wife had a terminal brain tumor. It destroyed her motor capabilities and she couldn’t walk, she had very little control of her hands. But her mental capabilities were still there and her ability to communicate had not diminished. My father-in-law, my son, and I brought her home and someone was with her twenty-four hours a day. I was still working at that time, so I would go to work and my father-in-law and son would be taking care of her during the day and I would come home and I would relieve my father-in-law and he’d go fix supper and come back and relieve me while I ate supper. This is how it went until the spring of ’89. Dr. Burleson called me back and said “we’re going to have a book signing in September would you be willing to come?” And I talked to my wife, Charlotte, and she said “go ahead!” you know, I needed to get out of the house. Well, she passed away in the end of August in ’89 and I was doing everything I could to fill my time. So I went to the book signing and as I was taking a break, a lady came up to me and said “I’m Betty Ann Wylie and I’m a member of the Southern Order of Storytellers. We have a storytime festival in January, would you be willing to come and share your stories?” and I said “YES!” so in January of 1990, I started sharing stories. It was never something I intended to do.
So from 1970 to1990, I was just sharing Cherokee culture and history, but in 1990 I started sharing stories and I’ve been doing it ever since. So it was never something I intended to do, I literally backed into it.
It’s something I thoroughly enjoy, I had never really thought about it. I was a very introverted individual. My late wife brought me out of my shell. She taught me that people are interesting, but you have to talk with them to find out these interesting things about them. If you don’t talk, you don’t know. She was a very good people person; she had unbelievable people skills. She taught me to come out and enjoy people, and if she hadn’t done that I would have never agreed to do the first session in front of the girl scouts.
Me: How did you learn the stories? Who taught you?
Lloyd: I had two great uncles who were wonderful storytellers and at our family gatherings, Uncle George would tell a story and Uncle Dave would tell a story. It was like a tennis match! And without realizing it, I was learning the old stories of our people. And then my mother had Tuberculosis for two years and I went to live with my great uncle. My great aunt taught French at the University of Oklahoma, so we went out during the winter to Oklahoma where she teached University. My other aunt, my mom’s sister, was studying languages and lived on the cottage at Aunt Dell and Uncle George’s property. She and Aunt Dell would speak French. Well without realizing it, I was in second grade, I started picking up conversational French. So after the school year ended, we came back to Cherokee for the summer. I was walking through downtown Cherokee, after graduating from the second grade, and this tourist stopped me and said “Hau! You speak-a the English?” and I said “Bonjour! Comment ça va?” He called his wife over, “hey Gertrude! Get over here and listen to this kid speak Indian!” So that’s when I realized how much people really didn’t know about Indians, in second grade. So when I was going out sharing culture, I tried not to dress in the feathers and buck skin, because I realized the young people would think this is what an Indian looks like today. So I wanted to try to avoid that stereotype. Also not many people knew of an Indian who was a computer programmer – they don’t associate those two.
Me: Do you find that stories change over time since they are all learned through word-of-mouth?
Lloyd: The nucleus of the story stays the same, but each person uses different words. Some people might use very flowery descriptions of the “long winding trail to the sharp rock,” somebody else might say “he took the long trail up to the top of the mountain.” But still, the important essence was that he went to the top of the mountain.
Me: Which do you prefer? Do you prefer more flowery descriptions?
Lloyd: Not flowery, but I try and visualize the story as I’m telling it and describe what I see. I’m aware the audience may not be aware if I say “there were snake dens,” but if I say “there were Rattlesnake dens,” suddenly they’re realizing “oh my gosh! This wasn’t just a walk past snakes, but they were dangerous snakes!” and it pulls their attention into the story. I’m trying to keep the audience involved in the story. If I say, “Well, there were some Indian medicine right along the trail, that means nothing. If I say “there was kudzu” which we have learned to use for medicine, they say “oh!” and it’s a totally different approach to the story.
Me: Do you have a personal favorite story to tell?
Lloyd: Yes, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce. A very moving story and for me, I have to have about an hour with the audience. And what I do when I first go into a program, I do a couple of stories and do a very quick read on the audience. And by “read,” I mean that when I tell a story, there may be a point in the story where the audience should react and they may laugh, but instead their response should be an “ohhh yes” and when I get that reaction I realize they don’t understand the story. And so I’ll switch to a different group of stories and they’ll never realize the program has changed in mid-stride. It’s just been garnered over years of sharing with different groups and seeing how they respond. One of the best pieces of advice came from an internationally known storyteller named Carmen Deedy, and she was really my first good mentor when I was coming up. She was very quick, she picked things up very very fast, a very intelligent woman. And we were talking, I was grousing about the programs I had and how I couldn’t get this one guy to pay attention. And she said “Lloyd, if there are a hundred people in the room and one person isn’t paying attention to you, why are you focusing on them? There are ninety-nine people who are hanging on every word, share with them. If the one person comes around, fine, but reward the ninety-nine people for their attention.”
That would save me so much heartache over the years, because it was obvious some people didn’t want to be there. “Storytelling? That’s for kids!” But I’d tell them, if you give me twenty minutes and an open mind, I will change the mind of any adult.
I’m seventy and I only have a few summers left where I can get out and travel on my own without someone attending me or worrying about me. So I’m cutting down a lot of my programs now, because there’s still things I want to do – I’ve still got my bucket list! And that involves traveling.
Me: Is there one thing you’d want younger generations to know about the Cherokee or storytelling?
Lloyd: Stories are meant to be shared. Share them. Everybody has stories. They might not realize it but everybody has stories.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lloyd Arneach, visit his webstie at www.arneach.com
The House of Purple Cedar is set in Skullyville, Oklahoma at the turning of the 20th century. The New Hope Academy for Girls just burned down and a new Indian Agent has just arrived in town. Rose and her brother, Jamey joined Amofo, their grandfather, for a trip into town, a rare treat that would replace their daily chores. This outing actually placed them in the right place at the wrong time. The town marshall appears, alcohol leads to events and Amofo is struck with a board.
House of Purple Cedar unfolds as a story of how those who are disempowered choose to react when they are abused. The process of deciding how to react was a slow, deliberate process for Amofo as it was for Choctaw elders and Rose keenly observes this process. The narrative voice changes and we come to understand power balances throughout the community. We realize that while an individual’s actions define their own relationship, the community as a whole plays a role in allowing things to happen.
There are houses of purple cedar in the story, however, I’m not sure why ‘purple cedar’. I’ve spent some time researching this wood and can’t find anything about it. The more I looked, the more curious I’ve become about its significance.
Tingle manages better than most to weave in and out of time and back and forth between narrative voices. Rose, a young girl throughout most of the story, is the only character who has a narrative voice thus making the book appealing to young readers. Rose lives with her parents and grandparents in a home outside the city. Skullyville is a small community where Choctaw and Nahullos (Whites) all know each other, worship separately, maintain prejudices and come together in unpredictable ways. While Choctaw identity is essential to the story, this isn’t a story about being Choctaw.
‘Hearing’ the community sing “Amazing Grace” will give you goose bumps. Tingle brings faith to life and makes it another character in this story. No doubt, Tingle is a storyteller! He brings together many characters, details and events in this story in a very gentle, purposeful way.
Thank you, Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos, for providing me a review copy at ALA Midwinter!
Yoshi is a high school senior being raised by his grandmother in Oklahoma well, until grams catches him with this girl he brought home for the night. Gram has a strict “No Company Allowed” policy that she enforces with a shotgun. Yoshi is given the boot and he decides to head to Texas in search of his sister, Ruby. Oh, they’re a werecat family.
Feral Nights is told in multiple voices. While I’ve had enough of multi voiced books to last me a lifetime, Leitich Smith carries it off quite well. The voices are unique and easy to distinguish.
There’s Clyde, a werepossum with 4 younger siblings. He sees ghosts.
Travis, whom Ruby is suspected of killing. He’s a ghost.
And there’s Aimee, a human who genuinely likes werepeople.
The witty dialog and use of present tense writing keep the story moving at a brisk pace. Leitich Smith smoothly packs in a unique, descriptive backstory as she builds an incredible world of werepeople, vampires, deities and humans. Wereanimals (werecats, wereorcas, werebears, werelions…) are at the core of the story with a werecat accused of killing a werearmadillo. More than that, they’re Ruby and Travis. While everyone has animal characteristics, they each also have fully developed human personalities. That Leitich Smith manages to do this all in 290 pages is amazing. Just as the reader has gotten familiar with the characters and the relationships they’re building, everything flips on its head. Needless to say, this is not a predictable story.
This review is really doing the book little justice because Leitich Smith so flawlessly weaves her tale. It’s like watching anyone who does something well: you don’t want to pick it apart because you just want to enjoy the artistry.
Feral Nights is the first book in the Feral Series. Feral Curse was released this past January and Feral Pride is forthcoming. All books are published by Candlewick. Cynthia Leitich Blogs at Cynsations. She’s the best selling author of the Tantalize series, Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins) and number other books.
Summer blockbuster season is in full swing. For many moviegoers, that means escaping to a galaxy far, far away—or perhaps just a different version of our own planet Earth—through science fiction and fantasy movies. As fans clamor for the latest cinematic thrills, we decided to focus our next Diversity Gap study on the level of racial and gender representation in these ever-popular genres that consistently rake in the big bucks for movie studios. We reviewed the top 100 domestic grossing sci-fi and fantasy films as reported by Box Office Mojo. The results were staggeringly disappointing, if not surprising in light of our past Diversity Gap studies of the Tony Awards, the Emmy Awards, the children’s book industry, The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller List, US politics, and the Academy Awards, where we analyzed multi-year samplings and found a disturbingly consistent lack of diversity.
The Diversity Gap in Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films infographic (click for larger image)
Among the top 100 domestic grossing films through 2014:
• only 8% of films star a protagonist of color • of the 8 protagonists of color, all are men; 6 are played by Will Smith and 1 is a cartoon character (Aladdin) • 0% of protagonists are women of color • 0% of protagonists are LGBTQ • 1% of protagonists are people with a disability
The following interviews with two prominent entertainment equality advocacy groups shed more light on the subject.
Marissa Lee is co-founder of Racebending.com, an international grassroots organization of media consumers who support entertainment equality. Racebending.com advocates for underrepresented groups in entertainment media and is dedicated to furthering equal opportunities in Hollywood and beyond.
Imran Siddiquee is Director of Communications at the Representation Project, which is a movement that uses film and media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes and to shift people’s consciousness toward change. The Representation project was the follow-up to the critically acclaimed documentary Miss Representation.
Jason Low: Do these statistics surprise you? Why or why not?
Marissa Lee: The statistics are certainly striking, especially since sci-fi and fantasy belong to a genre that prides itself on creativity and imagination. These statistics aren’t necessarily surprising, since lack of diversity in Hollywood films is a well-known problem. There have been enough studies and articles, and any moviegoer can pause to notice there is a disparity. . . . Hollywood can’t go on pretending that this isn’t a problem.
JL: Do you think the American movie-going audience would support a big, blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy movie with a diverse protagonist if a studio made it?
Imran Siddiquee: Yes, definitely. But I think an important thing to understand about Hollywood blockbusters is that they are almost never flukes; they are preordained. Sure, we have the occasional surprise indie hit, but you need a lot of money and marketing behind you to become a blockbuster. Just look at the top ten films in each of the last five years: nearly every single one had a budget of more than $100 million (a lot of them were also sci-fi/fantasy films).
Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a single film released this year starring a person of color with a budget of more than $50 million, let alone a sci-fi film, which is naturally going to be more expensive. The same goes for most of the last decade. So for anyone who might say “people just don’t watch sci-fi movies starring people of color,” or “there’s no evidence that this would work,” the truth is that we have no evidence that it wouldn’t work.
Studios take a couple of massively expensive chances every year on mostly unknown actors or directors—aka giving the Spider-Man franchise to Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield in 2012—but they just don’t take those kinds of chances on people of color. In other words, if Hollywood wanted to make a blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy film starring a woman of color, they definitely could.
ML: I think American audiences would support a film with a diverse protagonist, because we already have. One pullout statistic from your infographic is that Will Smith leads six of the top 100 big sci-fi/fantasy films. His race wasn’t a huge impediment to box office success and may have, in fact, been part of what made him all-American and relatable. That was back in the late 1990s, but since then, Hollywood hasn’t tried to find a new Will Smith. This is kind of ironic, given that Hollywood likes to stick to formulas and sequels! They could push forward another actor—or actress—of color with Smith’s charisma. They haven’t.
The American movie audience supports any movie that Hollywood successfully markets well, especially—but not always—if the film is well produced. Hollywood has managed to market some weird stuff, like a tentpole movie about talking teenage turtle martial artists, or cars that change into space robots, and so on. I don’t buy that when it comes to marketing diverse leads, suddenly this giant industry can’t do it.
I’d be interested in seeing how many of these top 100 grossing sci-fi and fantasy films star non-human leads. I wonder if there are more films with non-human leads than minority human leads on the list!
(Side note: Does the infographic count Keanu Reeves as white or as a person of color? I think he has more than one movie on this list given The Matrix trilogy…)
Editorial note: Yes, Keanu Reeves is counted as a PoC and did make the list for The Matrix. The second Matrix film, The Matrix Reloaded was the only installment of the trilogy to make the top 100 list.
JL: What challenges have you faced or seen peers facing as a woman/person of color, etc.?
ML: There are films with built-in audiences that Hollywood still insists on whitewashing, which has a very adverse effect on actors of color. Let’s be honest, audiences would have still flocked to see The Hunger Games or Twilight if characters like Katniss or Jacob had been cast with people of color as they were written in the books. An actor with a disability could have played the protagonist in Avatar—if we have the technology and imagination to animate a fanciful world populated by blue cat people, we could have cast an actor with a disability similar to the lead character’s in that role. As a result of these casting decisions, up and coming actors from underrepresented groups were deprived of career exposure from being a part of these established franchises, making it harder for Hollywood ever to try and launch a new franchise with an actor from an underrepresented group.
Every single Marvel Studios movie has centered around a presumably straight, white, male protagonist, even if white women (mostly love interests) and men of color (support roles) have played roles in the film. The franchise is a box office juggernaut and has a ton of movies on this list, but we’ve gotten two to three movies about each of the men on the Avengers and there’s yet to be a film about Black Widow. Both of Marvel’s ensemble films—The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy—trimmed down the superhero teams for their film adaptations, and the women characters, save for one, were the first to be cut. Most moviegoers will never know that women of color and LGBTQ characters were cut from Guardians of the Galaxy, but audiences will get to relate to the talking raccoon and the talking tree.
More recently, the Divergent franchise cast Naomi Watts to play a character who was a woman of color in the books. It’s a supporting role for an already established franchise, and for whatever reason the production still couldn’t bring themselves to cast an actor of color.
Trends that fans have noted in the media include that in big blockbuster sci-fi and fantasy films, the presence of a straight, white, able-bodied, cis male in some central role in the story is almost guaranteed, while the presence of characters with “minority” identities (e.g. LGBTQ folks, people of color, people with disabilities, women, etc.) is not. Even when a character who isn’t a straight, white cis male is centered in a story, there’s probably a straight, white, cis male character playing second, if not lead, billing. For example, while we can reasonably assume that the next few Star Trek and Star Wars movies will have some diverse characters, we can guarantee that at least one of the leads will be a straight, white man. If The Hunger Games or Twilight had cast actors of color for Katniss or Jacob, there would still have been plenty of lead roles filled by white actors. DC is including Wonder Woman in an upcoming movie, but the film will also feature Batman and Superman.
This means that someone with a lot of intersecting privileged identities (especially straight, white men) will always be able to walk into a multiplex and find a sci-fi/fantasy movie starring someone who shares those identities. If you have a lot of marginalized identities, then representation is a sometimes thing, never a solid guarantee. There is a very small but vocal minority of people who want to maintain this status quo, and Hollywood seems to cater toward them due to institutionalized racism, fear, and habits. But there are just as many, if not more, people who are willing to support, vociferously, films with diverse leads. I wish our money was as good as theirs.
JL: How can consumers encourage more diversity in movies?
IS: Avoid buying tickets to films which clearly rely on stereotypes or demeaning portrayals of people based on gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, ability, or circumstance. And anytime you do watch a film, give it The Representation Test afterward. The test grades films on their inclusiveness pertaining to all those above categories. When a movie scores really low on the test, use #NotBuyingIt on Twitter to let the filmmakers and all your friends know how you feel. Since so much of this industry is based on money, this is one way we can express our discontent and get the attention of the studios.
ML: Media literacy is a huge start. As media consumers, we should feel empowered to critique the media we consume, and to decide what media we choose to consume. Beyond helpful steps like going to see movies that feature diverse leads, it’s just as important to start conversations in our own communities and with our friends and family (the people we consume media with!) to raise awareness about diversity and representation. Even if we don’t go to see movies that whitewash or exclude or present discriminatory content, people we know will. One way we can help change things is by continuing to start conversations. We need to create an environment where it is safe to criticize popular franchises for lacking diversity. We also need to keep drowning out the malcontents who cannot even handle actors of diverse backgrounds in supporting roles. Social media has really knocked down barriers when it comes to communicating our opinions with Hollywood brass. It’s also given us several spaces where we can discuss the media we consume with our friends and family. In addition, the internet has really changed how we access and consume media. There are Kickstarters and indie channels and online comics and other outlets so we don’t have to be reliant on big production studios or publishers as our only sources of entertainment.
JL: How close or far do you think we are from getting these statistics to change?
IS: When you’re talking about representation that is this low, it’s hard to go anywhere but up. For instance, 0% for women of color in top sci-fi films means I’m being honest when I say things will certainly improve soon, but that’s not saying much. I think we are pretty far away from true equality, or a cinema that reflects and includes the broad diversity of human experiences in the real world.
Too many wealthy, white men still run Hollywood, and their decisions still have too much power. As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of movies are very expensive, and so it’s hard for independent or upstart filmmakers to break through or compete.
That being said, the slight increase in success for white women in blockbuster sci-fi movies, such as Gravity, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, means change is possible. And it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Oscar wins for 12 Years a Slave last year, because while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it is a film that everyone in the industry now knows about and has probably seen. And the whole reason we’re even talking about representation in movies right now is because we know how much seeing different experiences on screen can impact people’s real world thoughts and attitudes. So films like 12 Years a Slave are part of the gradual shifting of consciousness that has to happen in Hollywood to get to a point where studios are consistently greenlighting big-budget films starring people of color.
ML: As budgets for tentpole science fiction and fantasy movies have soared, studios have been more reluctant to take a chance on actors or characters that they perceive as risks. Because people of color and women are also already more likely to consume movies than white people and men, maybe they don’t feel an incentive to change what they are doing because, from their perspective, minorities are perfectly willing to watch films starring white guys. Hollywood is pretty stubborn, especially when it comes to tentpole movies. We are seeing more diversity in television, particularly in children’s television, as well as in online content. The establishment will change when someone influential in Hollywood decides to take the risk and make an effort to diversify their film offerings. The stats in this infographic are focused on profit, not art. For things to change, Hollywood needs to believe that diversity can be profitable.
This is not an isolated incident, but a wide reaching societal problem.
Read more Diversity Gap studies on:
Halloween is right around the corner. There’s no better way to celebrate than by reading books that will scare you to pieces! Here’s a lucky thirteen list of our favorites (all featuring diverse characters or by diverse authors):
Half World by Hiromi Goto – Melanie Tamaki lives with her mother in abject poverty. Then, her mother disappears. Melanie must journey to the mysterious Half World to save her.
Vodnik by Bryce Moore – Sixteen-year-old Tomas moves back to Slovakia with his family and discovers the folktales of his childhood were more than just stories.
The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa – Allie Sekemoto survives by scavenging for food by day. She hates the vampires who keep humans like cattle for their food. Until the day she dies and wakes up as a vampire.
Liar by Justine Larbalestier – Micah is a liar; it’s the only thing she’ll tell you the truth about. But when her boyfriend Zach is murdered, the whole truth has to come out.
Battle Royale by Koushan Takami – A group of junior high school students are sent to an island and forced to fight to the death until only one of them survives.
172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad – Three teenagers win the vacation of a lifetime: a week-long trip to the moon. But something sinister is waiting for them in the black vacuum of space.
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake – Cas Lowood is a ghost hunter, called to Thunder Bay, Ontario to get rid of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, who has killed every person who has stepped foot in the house she haunts.
I’ll admit it: I was looking for a Native American book by a Native American author to write about in light of Thanksgiving and National American Indian Heritage Month as many teachers do this time of year.
This led me to reread and re-experience the Children’s Book Press treasure,This Land is My Land, by artist George Littlechild. As winner of the 1994 Jane Addams Picture Book Award and 1993 National Parenting Publications Gold Medal, This Land is My Land is a notable treat for students and readers of all ages.
The book features 17 of the artist’s mixed media paintings organized to portray Native American history in North America and Littlechild’s own heritage and childhood. As I studied Littlechild’s paintings and read his accompanying essays about each, I felt as if I were on a gallery walk with my own earbud connected to the artist.
Although this picture book would make a great counterpoint to many Thanksgiving books out there, This Land is My Land is valuable beyond the Thanksgiving-relevant content. It is a great example of how art is a powerful medium for critical thinking development and can be integrated into literacy instruction (not just the assigned art block a couple times a week).
Click on the image to read the text
So, what does close reading (or “looking?”) look like with art?
Like a text, a piece of art is another place for students to engage with multiple times and each time diving into another level of meaning and interpretation. Using art in the classroom relates to the reading standard 7 of the Common Core, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. Additionally, many of these questions are questions we would use with students in the close reading of a text.
Below is an example of how students can progress with their observations and thinking. I separated levels of questions into three viewings based on level of complexity, but of course one could (and should) return to a worthwhile painting many, many times.
First look (literal comprehension/understanding)
What is happening?
What patterns do you see? What images, colors, and symbols do you see repeated or used most often in this painting or across paintings?
What materials does Littlechild use?
How does Littlechild use positive or negative space?
How does Littlechild use the foreground and background?
Who is the narrator?
What are some common ideas or events portrayed in his artwork?
What is the central idea of the painting? What is the central idea of the paintings taken altogether? What makes you think so?
Second look (higher level thinking/interpretation of meaning)
What effect do repeated colors, images, patterns, or symbols have on his art and the central idea?
What effect does a specific material, such as shells or sequins, have on his art and the central idea?
What does “Indian” mean to Littlechild?
How does Littlechild’s background (childhood, heritage, identity, family relationships) affect the subjects, themes, and materials of his paintings?
What has Littlechild learned from his elders? What does he want viewers to learn from or think about events in the past and our heritages?
What is the mood of one piece of the artwork or the collective body of artwork? What makes you think so? What colors, patterns, materials, or images does he use to convey mood?
What is the purpose of his art? Why would Littlechild create this painting or assemble these paintings into a collection? Why talk about these events and his heritage and childhood at all?
Who do you think is the intended audience of This Land is My Land? What might Littlechild want them to do with this narrative and perspective?
How does Littlechild demonstrate pride in and appreciation for his heritage? How does he convey pain in Native American history? How does he convey the closeness of his community?
Third look (higher level thinking/analysis of artist’s craft/structure/methods)
Why does Littlechild choose to start the book with a dedication to his ancestors and include their photographs?
How is the collection of paintings organized? How does the chronological structure convey or confirm his central idea? How does this mixed media collection compare to a biography in book form?
Why does Littlechild choose the title and painting for the book cover: This Land is My Land? He doesn’t like the song, “This land is your land, this land is my land,” or its meaning; so, why does it fit as the title and cover painting for the book? What does this choice tell us about the central idea of the book? What message does he want to convey to viewers?
Why does Littlechild use photographs in the painting, instead of just drawing the figures? What effect do the photographs have on the story he is telling and on the painting itself? (Repeat this question for feathers, sequins, shells, and feathers)
Why do you think the artist chooses to use the motif of stars? What do a “star” mean in this context? the number four? horses?
Why does Littlechild choose art/mixed media collage to represent events in his own life and convey his the central idea?
For further reading on integrating the Arts with the Common Core, check out these fantastic resources:
How are you integrating art with the Common Core? What tips do you have for choosing high quality art to teach? What art are you using already? Let us know!
Jill Eisenberg, our Senior Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators.
November is Native American Heritage Month! Native American Heritage Month evolved from the efforts of various individuals at the turn of the 20th century who tried to get a day of recognition for Native Americans. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a resolution that appointed November as Native American Heritage Month. You can learn more about Native American Heritage Month here.
For many years, Native people were silenced and their stories were set aside, hidden, or drowned out. That’s why it’s especially important to read stories about Native characters, told in Native voices. Celebrate Native American Heritage Month with these great books by Native writers:
Quiet Hero by S.D. Nelson – Ira Hayes grew up on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. When he was in his late teens, World War II raged, and Ira Hayes joined the Marine corps. Eventually they were sent to the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where a chance event and an extraordinary photograph catapulted Ira to national awareness and transformed his life forever.
Crazy Horse’s Vision by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by S.D. Nelson – Crazy Horse, whose childhood nickname was “Curly,” defies traditional custom and risks his own life by running away, up to the hills, to seek a vision.
Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by S.D. Nelson – While Jim Thorpe struggled at school, he excelled at sports. He later went on to win several Olympic medals.
Home to Medicine Mountain by Chiori Santiago, illustrated by Judith Lowry – Two Native American brothers are sent to a strict, government-run boarding school. There, they are forced to speak English and to unlearn their Native American ways. Inspired by their dreams of home and the memories of their grandmother’s stories, the boys embark on an adventurous journey from the harsh residential school to their home in Susanville, California.
Sky Dancers by Connie Ann Kirk, illustrated by Christy Hale – John Cloud’s father is in New York City, far away from their Mohawk Reservation, building sky scrapers. One day, Mama takes John to New York City and he sees his Papa high on a beam, building the Empire State Building.
Kiki’s Journey by Kristy Orona-Ramirez, illustrated by Jonathan Warm Day – Kiki is a city girl that calls Los Angeles her home. Her family left the Taos Pueblo reservation when she was a baby, so it doesn’t feel like home. How will it feel to revisit the reservation?
Stories for Teens
Rattlesnake Mesa by EdNah New Rider Weber, photographs by Richela Renkun – When EdNah’s beloved grandmother dies, she is sent to live on a Navajo reservation with a father she barely knows. Once EdNah finds herself getting used to her new life, she is sent to a strict government-run Indian boarding school.
Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac – When Luke King’s father, a black ops infiltrator, goes missing, Luke realizes his life will never be the same again. Luke sets out to search for his father, all the while trying to avoid the attention of the school’s mysterious elite clique of Russian hipsters, who seem much too interested in his own personal secret
Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac – In a future where technology has failed, Lozen has been gifted with a unique set of abilities magic and survival skills that she uses to hunt monsters for the people who kidnapped her family. As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.
Rose Eagle by Joseph Bruchac – Several years before Killer of Enemies, the Lakota are forced to mine ore for the Ones, their overlords. Rose Eagle’s aunt has a vision of Rose as a healer. She sends Rose on a quest to find healing for their people.
What other books by Native American authors and illustrators do you recommend?
Ten years before the events in Killer of Enemies, before the Silver Cloud, the Lakota were forced to work in the Deeps, mining for ore so that the Ones, the overlords, could continue their wars. But when the Cloud came and enveloped Earth, all electronics were shut off. Some miners were trapped in the deepest Deeps and suffocated, but the Lakota were warned to escape, and the upper Deeps became a place of refuge for them in a post-Cloud world.
In the midst of this chaos, Rose Eagle’s aunt has a dream: Rose will become a medicine woman, a healer. She sends Rose into the Black Hills on a quest to find healing for their people.
Gangly and soft-spoken, Rose is no warrior. She seeks medicine, not danger. Nevertheless, danger finds her, but love and healing soon follow. When Rose Eagle completes her quest, she may return with more than she ever thought she was looking for.
November is Native American Heritage Month, which is as good a time as any to discuss the slight issue we have with observance months. Native American Heritage Month and Black History Month, for example, were established to celebrate cultures that otherwise went ignored, stereotyped, or otherwise underappreciated. Educators often use these months as a reason to pull titles by/about a particular culture off the shelf to share with students.
While we can generate a recommended reading list just as well as the next publisher, the problem we find with Native American Heritage Month is that it puts Native American books—and people—in a box. The observance month can easily lead to the bad habit of featuring these books and culture for one month out of the entire year. Ask yourself: Have we ever taken this approach with books that feature white protagonists?
On the other hand, observance months can definitely do some good: they remind educators to highlight the achievements of particular cultures, and can make students from those cultures feel acknowledged and appreciated. But wouldn’t it be better if that feeling and effort could be maintained all twelve months of the year?
brochure/all inclusive reading poster
For us, featuring diverse books throughout the year is second nature. Our approach is to dig deeper and go beyond just one month. We identify the various ways our books can apply to everyday, universal experiences and communicate this as widely as possible. We developed a ten-step process for becoming a more inclusive reader, part of a brochure that folds out to a poster (see right).
Educators stuck in the heritage month mindset can instead use the recommended book lists for those months as a jumping-off point to permanently diversify their collections. If you use particular books during a heritage month, ask yourself: What other themes does this book touch upon? How can I connect it to other parts of the curriculum or use it to teach additional skills?
Our book Buffalo Song by Joseph Bruchac is often included in roundups and recommendations for Native American Heritage Month. The book is a biography of Walking Coyote, who brought the buffalo herds of the American West back from the brink of extinction. While this book is certainly a good fit for Native American Heritage Month, it can also be used to teach about many other things, such as:
• Environmental conservation
• Nonfiction and biography
• Core values like perseverance and respect
Now here’s a challenge for you: Take the books used this month to celebrate Native American Heritage Month and brainstorm ways that they can be used throughout the year. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.