By Nilofer Ali, Resources Manager
Media around the world has exploded with outrage over racism and the threat to Black lives in the United States (in particular but not exclusively), with many asking the question, “How did we get here?” In the United States that is, of course, a complex matter. Today I’d like to just touch on one area of influence, which is representation in educational publishing.
The books and lessons we are exposed to as children in school serve as one important aspect of the development of our individual and collective identities and world views. Our knowledge as human beings is constituted by what we gain from institutions like school, media, religion, and family, but also through our experiences. Ideally, in an equitable society, many diverse experiences are reflected in societal institutions like schools, media, and civic organizations. In the United States, however, it has long been recognized that schoolbooks, for example, promote the dominant Eurocentric, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, cis-gender, male, narrative. Information depicting the histories and realities of other populations has been relegated to mere mention, if at all.
Individuals and organizations have been attempting to change this for hundreds of years. One method has been to diversify who is doing the work. Lee & Low, whose late co-founder Thomas Low I profiled in my last piece, instituted their groundbreaking Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015, as a first attempt to gather data on which populations are represented in the publishing industry. What they found was dismal from the perspective of diversity. Among 8 review journals and 34 publishers, the survey indicated that the overwhelming majority of people producing material in publishing are white/Caucasian, women/cis-women, heterosexual, and without a disability. Lee & Low followed up in 2019 with a second survey, which indicated some change at executive and board levels, as well as some changes in the representation of people with disabilities, but otherwise, there was no statistically significant improvement in diversity. Although the Lee & Low survey spanned the entire publishing industry and not just educational publishing, it’s hard to imagine that things would be drastically different within educational publishing.
Today, more companies are taking steps to reduce bias among their staff, and to diversify their staff and contracted workers. What’s needed are people from many backgrounds, identities, and experiences at every level of every organization. We need heterogeneity at the project planning level so that from the earliest stages of product inception, we have diverse experts looking at standards and markets, and building representation into the prototype, scope, and focus testing. Teams designing templates and writer’s guidelines should be multi-cultural, as should writing and editing teams. We need art researchers, artists, and designers to be from different backgrounds, as well as folks in production/composition, quality control, and those final stages of product development. But beyond diversity in the project flow, we need more voices and backgrounds represented at executive levels, to ensure inclusive environments, so that when a voice along the product development speaks, it is heard and valued.