Academic publishing is a fascinating world, as my time as the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellow at the University of Washington Press has shown me. During my fellowship, I have met and worked with intellectually curious and critical individuals committed to collaborative work, to producing scholarship and knowledge as a public good, and to opening doors to diverse voices in publishing and in the academy. But what should commitment to diversity really look like in an industry that is still 76 % White? When we look at editorial departments, the numbers are less encouraging: a recent survey on diversity in publishing revealed that Black/Afro-American/ Afro-Caribbean colleagues in these departments make up only 1% of all editorial positions. Folks that identify as Latinx/Latino/Mexican make up only 2%, and Native Americans or First Nations colleagues represent less than 1% of all editorial jobs.
The Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship, spearheaded by Larin McLaughlin, editor in chief at the University of Washington Press and this year’s AUPresses Constituency Award winner, is a pipeline program designed to address this problem, with a particular emphasis on diversifying acquisitions departments at participating presses and beyond. “Fixing” the diversity problem in publishing necessitates more than increasing representation of BIPOC people across the industry. We should also reflect about diversity in terms of representation for our LGTBQ+ colleagues as well as in terms of neurodiversity and ability. However, here, I want to focus on the need to provide spaces and retention practices that encourage BIPOC folks to enter, stay, and thrive in the publishing industry.
Undoubtedly, those of us who have participated in this fellowship have benefited from this opportunity. During the fourteen months I worked at the press, I learned about the acquisitions process through formal and informal mentoring opportunities and conversations with my colleagues Mike Baccam, Lorri Hagman, Neecole Bostick, Andrew Berzanskis, and Larin McLaughlin. I have also had the privilege of sharing this experience with an incredible cohort of fellows past and present, whose support and mentorship has been invaluable. Because of the UW Press’s incredibly collaborative spirit, I also had the opportunity to learn from other colleagues in editorial design and production, marketing, and in rights and contracts.
I’m leaving the fellowship with experiences and lessons that will continue to shape my professional journey, so in my mind there is no question that the Mellon Fellowship is a significant resource and intervention to challenge the industry’s inequities and an amazing opportunity. But what will happen when the program ends? What happens at presses where there are no analogous programs? We need more than programs like this fellowship to fix problems that are structural and for which there are no easy solutions. Coming up with ways to solve the lack of diversity in publishing requires an industry-wide commitment to radically transform the visible and invisible structures that make academic publishing a predominantly white industry. In this post, I would like to focus on three types of barriers to inclusion, which the industry must face head-on. The first, the need to reimagine our outreach and hiring practices across departments; the second, the need to build meaningful and engaged mentoring relationships with BIPOC folks who enter publishing; and the third, the need to establish pay equity across the industry.
The first barrier speaks to the question of how to make diversity not a platitude or afterthought but a central goal in our outreach and hiring practices. Make this an intention and purpose in all of your efforts. What would happen if we gave the candidate’s engagement with and commitment to diversity the same weight we give the rest of their professional experience? Think about the transformative potential of these considerations and make them central to your outreach and hiring practices.
The second barrier speaks to the value of fostering meaningful and engaged mentoring relationships with BIPOC folks in publishing. Mentorship can make a difference as an effective retention strategy. Consider how your BIPOC colleagues feel about entering and working in an industry where the majority of folks who work in it are white. Here are some possible fears: Will I be tokenized? Will I face micro-aggressions? Will I be encouraged to speak-up? Will my opinion and viewpoints matter? The most effective pedagogies are those where educators think about and design their courses not with the average student in mind (thinking in terms of “average” is a fraught concept, anyway), but in ways that unlock individual potential, while acknowledging that the diversity of our life experiences is a constituent part of how we learn. Meaningful and engaged mentorship is similar to the role of instructors and facilitators in that it requires intentionality and cultural responsiveness. Make establishing a mentoring relationship intentional, provide guidance, be proactive about meeting the needs of your mentee, and, lastly, open spaces for your mentee to approach you with uncomfortable or hard conversations.
Lastly, think about the urgency of establishing pay equity across the industry, particularly for folks in entry-level positions. Retention strategies require us to think about our colleagues’ material realities. Should we be asking our colleagues in entry-level positions to sacrifice their financial stability and well-being in order to stay in publishing? Most of us would agree the answer is no. Let us go a step further: because publishing is an apprenticeship-based industry, where moving from entry-level positions to mid-career or managerial positions takes a considerable investment of time, are there expected sacrifices ultimately matched in compensation, possibilities of advancement, and job security? Can BIPOC people or folks who come from low-income families, folks who are first-generation students, who have familial responsibilities, or who do not have networks of financial support really assume this sacrifice? Now think about the ways that oppression and exclusions intersect and overlap, and ask yourself if promoting pay equity and paying higher livable wages is not also a necessary component of the industry’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
We all have privileges, some more than others, but if publishing is serious about overcoming the historical and structural barriers that keep the industry predominantly white, we need to take action. While implementing diversity initiatives like the Mellon Fellowship is a step in the right direction, it must be one of many steps on the path to transformative change.
Hanni Jalil migrated with her siblings to the United States from Cali-Colombia; she is the 2019-2020 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellow. This fall, she will join California State University Channel Islands as an assistant professor of Latin American history.