Lessons from Lee & Low

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by Nilofer Ali, Resources Manager

diverse group of chidren readingIn a world where perspectives of scarcity infiltrate nearly every area of our lives, the DEI space is one that has a stronger tendency towards a perspective of “plenty.” Collaboration and information-sharing with a growth mindset is the norm, and folks working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion uplift and support one another. In addition, we take time to recognize the work that was done by pioneers in the field, upon whose efforts we build today. It is in the collaborative, uplifting spirit of the DEI community that I share this with you today, honoring the dedication and vision of a giant in the publishing industry.

Last week the announcement of the passing of Lee & Low’s visionary co-founder, Thomas Low, landed in my inbox. I was introduced to Lee & Low Publishing last year when a colleague sent me Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, and took this opportunity to read more deeply into the history of the company. It’s truly remarkable. Friends Thomas Low and Philip Lee started Lee & Low Publishers in 1991, neither having any experience in the industry. They simply recognized a lack of mirrors for children of color in children’s books and set out to rectify that. In doing so, they looked for where the gaps were in representation and for opportunity, and structured the company goals and strategy to fill those gaps. Here are some of the things they noticed, and what they did to fill the gap:

  • People of color were (and still are) underrepresented in children’s books, so they focused on publishing books about people of color.
  • Authors and illustrators of color were (and still are) are highly underrepresented in the publishing industry, so they increased their focus on bringing in previously unpublished authors and illustrators of color into the industry.
  • Books with characters of color have historically tended to be presented as folklore or in historical settings, whereas stories reflecting contemporary cultures have long been lacking, so they limited their selections to contemporary stories.
  • They saw that there is no lack of stories with talking animals as characters, so they prioritize stories about people. (Interestingly enough, studies indicate that a child of color is more likely to see stories with animal characters than stories with characters of color.)

Their model serves as an example to all of us working towards equity. We need to carefully look at our industries, our organizations, and our communities through the lens of equity. Who is being left out? What assumptions are we making about people’s culture, language, and abilities? The Lee & Low story offers another example to follow: we don’t need experience to do the right thing. We can learn what we need to know as we observe the reality of the world we live in, and work to fill the gaps.

I encourage you to read more about the history of Lee & Low Publishing, and about the late Thomas Low. We honor his work and those of our other DEI predecessors by renewing our intentions daily, honing our focus, and strengthening our efforts. Who are your role models in diversity, equity, and inclusion? I’d love to hear from you.

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