Letter from the Publisher: Announcing Our New Board Co-Chairs
A few years ago, a prominent African American social-justice activist visited our office to discuss a potential book collaboration. We had a wide-ranging and fruitful conversation, noting many parallels between her passion for healing and justice and ours for the same. At one point she remarked, “I see you’ve published some authors of color, and I also noticed a few staff members of color as I walked in. But I need to ask: How many of them are sitting at this table?”
I understood her question to be both literal and metaphoric: On one hand, she was clearly noting that the three staff members sitting at that very table with her were white. On another level, since we were meeting in our large conference room, I also inferred that she was curious about how many people of color we had in leadership at NAB.
I did not have a great answer for her. I had not been publisher for long, but I knew that only about 10 percent of our new authors that year were writers of color, that our staff was 16 percent people of color, and that our board of directors was 10 percent POC. Beyond the numbers, I knew that our organization was not making racial equity a priority, despite the efforts of some.
This is hardly surprising. We are part of a publishing industry that en masse has reflected the same disproportionate outcomes, and despite a lot of talk, progress has been slow. By not doing any extra work as an organization, we were perpetuating the norms of the sea we were swimming in. Moreover, instead of a racial-equity lens, our organization had largely subscribed to the colorblind narrative, which says that it is virtuous to not see race and to champion instead a sense of our collective humanity. The problem with the colorblind narrative in modern-day America is that it is merely aspirational: the fact is that race does matter in the way people of color experience daily life, from having to work harder to overcome baked-in biases in classrooms and offices to initiating ‘the talk’ with young children to avoid being shot by cops to trying to shop in peace while store security guards follow like hawks. To ignore race is to ignore a very real fact of people of color’s lived experience and thus does nothing to challenge white supremacy. As one of our authors Rev. angel Kyodo williams once told me, “I may not necessarily wake up feeling like a black queer woman, but by lunchtime America has made that painfully clear.”
And so I responded honestly to the potential author about where our organization was at and our sincere desire to change it. I told her about how my experience working on Rev. angel’s book Radical Dharma had fundamentally altered my racial consciousness around editing. She seemed to appreciate my candor, but, to my great non-surprise, she chose not to pursue the book project with us. I think she could sense that organizationally we were not where she needed us to be, and that intention to change is not enough.
This felt like a watershed moment for me and for North Atlantic Books. Racial justice had always been an important part of my personal life, and professionally I had worked for organizations that had done significant racial-equity work, some of which were led by people of color. But I had also worked for predominantly white institutions that had not prioritized racial equity. Now that I was the publisher and in an executive decision-making role, whom could I blame if we continued to drag our feet? Furthermore, through the staff surveys we administer twice a year, I knew that I was not alone in my belief that racial equity was mission-critical, not mission-optional. After all, a key part of our mission is to “collaborate with partners to develop cross-cultural perspectives.” Wasn’t it essential then that we worked to co-create a new table, one that was spacious enough for people of all backgrounds to share power?
And so our racial-equity work began in earnest. We focused first on the books we were acquiring. What conferences were we going to? What authors were we reading at home? What leads were we most doggedly pursuing? The fact was that most of the manuscripts passively coming to us were written by white authors, yet we knew there were countless writers, healers, and practitioners of color surely working on books. Our acquisitions team committed itself to finding those authors, just as it had done a few years prior in terms of publishing more women. With the latter, change came more quickly: we shifted the ratio percentage from 26:74 female:male writers to 59:41 in five-years time. (Publishing more transgender voices is an emergent priority for us.) With race, however, change has come much more slowly: we shifted the ratio percentage from 9:91 POC:white authors to 16:84 in three years. Our goal for our 2020 front list is to sign 20 percent writers of color and 25 percent by 2021. It’s highly likely that we were able to move the gender gap more forcefully because of who was doing the acquiring: 73 percent of our staff are women. In contrast, 18 percent of our current staff are POC. As a friend of color once told me, “Whenever we’re invited to something, whether it’s a party or a business opportunity, we’ve learned through hard knocks to look through the window to see how many people inside look like us. If we see mostly white faces, out of self-protection we might think twice about coming in. Especially if the only people of color at the party are there to serve the white guests.”
Racial-equity work in any form has to move beyond notions of representation being enough, and be cognizant that there are manifestations of power and privilege that can seep, usually unseen, into how we engage with others, especially given the power dynamics between editor and author, leadership and staff. Improved outcomes are great, but they will likely be marginal unless there is a cultural and systems change from within. As one racial-equity consultant remarked, “Most employers hope to bring diversity to their staff without actually doing any racial-equity work. I call that ‘Post and Pray.'”
So we needed to dig deeper. We decided to send our staff to Race Forward’s powerful Racial Equity Training. As ramesh kathanadhi, a co-facilitator of the training, put it, “I finally realized that when predominantly white institutions asked me what they needed to do to become more racially equitable, I needed to invite them to ask a different kind of question: ‘What have you done to create a racially homogenized organization? What mechanisms made that so? What choices are you continuing to make that produce that outcome? Until you know this, you cannot put something different in its place.'”
Out of this training came the creation of our Racial-Equity Committee, which meets every month and takes a racial-equity lens to our work, from how we word job descriptions to where we post them, from how we phrase our submissions guidelines to where we look for authors. Our shifts in the former have already significantly impacted the racial diversity of the applicant pool for a job we recently listed.
Fortunately, our Board of Directors has taken similar steps. In 2018, it made explicit the need for a more diverse board and charged its current members with bringing forth compelling candidates. For the first time in NAB’s history, we now have a transgender member of our board, and 23 percent of our board members are people of color. The board also voted to create its own Racial-Equity Committee and to send its members to Race Forward’s training.
And in March, our board unanimously elected two new co-chairs, J. K. Fowler and S. Rae Peoples. The reason they were elected is because of their passion, their deep intellect, their many assets, and their willingness to serve. But it is important to state explicitly that they are both people of color. To watch this happen around the same table where I met with the author two years prior filled me with a certain feeling: I wouldn’t call it hope, because it has more sweat to it than that; I wouldn’t call it pride, because it’s simply the right thing to do; and I wouldn’t call it relief, because the work is just beginning. Let’s just say it felt like an opening, a new chapter.
Our outgoing and incoming board chairs seem to share in that sense of expansion. As outgoing board chair Mary Louise Hegarty sees it, “At North Atlantic Books we sometimes think of ourselves at the cutting edge of publishing. Two years ago, when we began to look inwards at the organization itself, it became apparent that what had been driving our sense of the cutting edge actually had a face, and it was white. With a mission dedicated to developing ‘cross-cultural perspectives,’ we recognized that our board’s composition, with only one member of color, was not aligned with our mission. Last year we took a first affirmative leap towards embodying diversity on the board. Last month, during my final meeting as chair, not only did the board earmark funds in the budget for racial-equity training, but we elected board co-chairs who are both people of color, making de facto white leadership redundant. Not every chairperson has the privilege to step away from leadership on such a high note. The young, dynamic voices of J.K. and S. Rae will now drive North Atlantic Books’ board towards exploring exciting new places on the cutting edge. I’m all in.”
In S. Rae’s words, “We are all living at a point that is begging for us to dream up and work for a better way of relating to ourselves, to each other, and to the world around us. North Atlantic Books has such a vital publishing history, and it feels like it is on the brink of a very beautiful and dynamic journey towards community-driven race- and social-justice work—work that moves us closer to creating a better way of living. I am elated to join the organization on such a meaningful and bold path forward.”
Finally, as J. K. puts it, “We must be better. We exist within a country founded, built, and sustained through capitalist-white-supremacist values, and this pervades all organizations and systems—it is in the air that we breathe. It takes courage to want to do things differently because there are real costs for moving against this seemingly ‘natural’ red tide. North Atlantic Books has begun this journey. Shifts have already started to occur. And in an industry that builds platforms for voices to be heard, it is important and necessary that we do all that we can to give space to those voices that have been intentionally marginalized for too long and to continue the work of shifting the narrative and cultivating new, soma-centric modes of operating. I am honored to be on this journey with North Atlantic Books as co-chair for the Board of Directors. To the many conscious steps ahead.”
One thing I’ve learned about racial-equity work is that there is no finish line, no point at which you throw up your arms in celebration and say, “We made it!” The work is perpetual and exists on the daily; it is akin to both cultivating awareness and working a muscle. The point is to show up for the challenge, not only whenever and however it appears, but to actively seek it out. As ramesh put it at the training, “It’s functional for oppression that we struggle to talk about it. But it must be grappled with, because you cannot accidentally create justice. Inaction is action when you have an unjust operating system in the background.”
S. Rae Peoples
S. Rae Peoples is the founder and principal consultant at Red Lotus Consulting, a race equity and justice service boutique. A dedicated mother, education administrator, and social activist, she enjoys being present in spaces that allow her to offer personal narratives, experiences, and truths to the richness of community. A founding member of Parents United for Public Schools, her writings and opinions have been published in the Washington Post, the East Bay Express, the Oakland Post, BlogHer, as well as in Young, Fabulous, and Self-Employed magazine. She has spent 20 years cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion within the education, political, and nonprofit sectors. Her background, along with her skills in building bridges, gives S. Rae a keen contextual lens in the areas of curricula, frameworks, and educational best practices. A native of California with a Midwest upbringing, she is rooted in motherhood and community in Oakland, CA.
J.K. Fowler is the founder and executive director of Nomadic Press, a community-focused literary and arts non-profit with operations in Oakland, CA, Des Moines, IA, and Brooklyn, NY. He also serves as the Director of Communications for Peace and Partnerships at the Oakland Peace Center. He serves on Cogswell College’s English and Humanities Professional Advisory Board, has taught at Rutgers University, and guest lectured at Mills College. He has been published in a wide range of publications, including Oakland Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Datebook SF, Bay Area Reporter, Eleven Eleven, Foglifter, COG Magazine, and elsewhere, has performed across the Bay Area and Brooklyn, and has been featured in a number of radio shows and online podcasts, including KPFA, Fuel My Fiction, StoryCorps, and others. He is the recipient of the 2016 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award and travels this world with a Kelpie named Stella.