Speaking Out & Speaking Up

Yesterday, I was the speaker at the CISV USA greater Springfield Chapter's annual kick-off. I was approached and asked to share the speech, so I thought I'd plunk it here (with links!) for anyone who is interested in what I had to say about diversity and doing something about it.

Everyone Deserves to See Themselves on the Shelves

Thank you for having me. I am so glad that you are talking about diversity here at CISV because this is something we in the writing community are talking about, too. And while I could talk a lot about different aspects of diversity as both an author and an educator, I decided I would focus on something that was important to me, personally: widening the concept of diversity and what we can actively do to promote it.

What I’ve noticed is that while people say that diversity isn’t a simple black-and-white issue, the definition of diversity certainly seems to be. When we speak about diversity, the first things that would often come up would be race and most often be African and Caucasian to the exclusion (or eventual addendum) of Asians and Latinos. The next check box might include gender, or at least the binary—male and female—and sexual orientation, or at least the binary—gay and straight. Both of these are wide-spectrum, mutually-exclusive categories that often defy categorization yet are collapsed together and reduced to a simple X/Y dichotomy. Still, they’re at least on the radar. Religious diversity often ranks third.

You can imagine, then, how hard it is to talk about diversity in any meaningful way when the automatic definition of diversity really isn’t that diverse. When I talk about the characters in my books being diverse, I have to be sure that I am introducing people to the myriad of possibilities that this might include: there is diversity in race and gender, sure, but also sexual orientation and sexual identity, then there’s religious and spiritual diversity which not only includes different faiths and belief systems, but people of strong faith and casual faith as well as agnostics and atheists. There is the entire political spectrum and socio-economic, regional and ethnic identities. There are physical, mental and emotional challenges, personality types, birth order, not to mention body types and all the mixes in-between that defy definition into neat, little boxes. Because the truth is if you take any handful of people, even if they look the same, you can find things they have in common and things they don’t have in common at all. That is because the stories we write are human stories—stories about what it means to be all the wide varieties of human, to have a family, a friend, to have a heart and to have it broken, to trust and feel trusted, to betray and feel betrayed, to be frightened at the unfamiliar, to be brave, to step up, to be challenged and fail and challenged and fail and feel like giving up, but trying once more, to persevere and succeed; to feel proud about our accomplishments and, having overcome our fears, continue on our personal journey. Despite our many self-defining differences, everyone knows what it feels to be human. It is a diverse definition for a common bond.

So: we want to be inclusive, we want to celebrate diversity and share that with the next generation to share with one another. How do we do that? Well, not to be completely self-serving here, but I’d start with books. I love books. I’ve been a writer and a reader my whole life. My children grew up with me reading books to them and with them and to myself. We frequent libraries and bookstores and used book stores and have reading time and writing time. Books open us up to a world of possibilities. They are a safe place to play, to ask tough questions, to meet new people, to try out the wrong decisions and learn from them, to try out the right decisions and feel proud of them, to get a peek into another world, another mind, another heart, another set of eyes; books hold friends that will always be there waiting for you, whenever you need them, for the rest of your life. So, yes, I’d start with books.

Now, this is important: I want each of you to think about the answers to these questions to yourself: When was the last time you read a story, to yourself or a child, that featured a Latina protagonist? A homeless protagonist? A transgender protagonist? An Islamic protagonist? A blind protagonist? A Korean protagonist? An autistic protagonist? Not a secondary or love interest or a “best friend” character, but the main character of the story? I am a big believer that everyone deserves to see themselves on the shelves and everyone deserves to be the hero—or heroine—of their story. It is empowering to the reader to see themselves reflected in the world and it’s empowering to learn intimately about another human being.

This dovetails an important conversation happening in children’s literature: namely, who gets to tell these stories? Look at the front cover of your favorite children’s book. Who wrote your story? Who illustrated your story? Who published your story? Who is telling your story? If history is written by the victors, then the majority of our worldview through published literature is written by white, heteronormative, Christian males. The outcry for diverse books is also the want for diverse voices, diverse writers, diverse artists and diverse publishers. This is absolutely essential if we want our shelves to be inclusive and now, with a nearly limitless storage capacity at our fingertips, there is plenty of room on those shelves. Personally, I dislike the question about who is “allowed” to write what kinds of books? Writers and artists are imaginative, creative people—we write about what we’re passionate about which is better than the adage “write what you know.” Are white, heteronormative, Christian males capable of writing good books about bisexual Taoist skater punks from New Zealand? Sure! But if they want to do a good job, they have to do their homework, do lots of research, ask hard questions, talk to lots of real people and do their best to tell the best story that they can. We have to remember that no one is writing about a category; every story is about one, individual human being. But it is important to recognize that other voices are missing. And when they break through, these voices often go unnoticed, unrecognized and unrewarded with medals or honors or future contracts. As valid as a majority writer’s story might be, there might be a bisexual Taoist skater punk from New Zealand who wants to tell their story, or they may want to write about mutant dragon warriors from Alpha Centauri. Everyone is “allowed” to write the stories that move them, but we must acknowledge, what Chimamanda Adichie describes as the danger of the single story. If we are to learn about the world, and each other, we must listen to one another’s voices, one another’s stories.

We cannot purport to support diversity if we do so only with a Like or a Share or a Retweet. We have to use our voices and our words and, most importantly, our wallets. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you there’s a BIG DIFFERENCE between talk and action. We have to back up our words with actions. It’s one thing to be a cheerleader, it’s another thing to lead. I challenge you to go home and look at your bookshelves—and I am praying that everyone here has bookshelves at home—and if you don’t, go to your local library and scan their shelves. Are they diverse? Do they represent all the people I’ve mentioned who share this world with us? Are they introducing you, your family, your children or your community to the wealth of human diversity? If not, you know what to do: buy those books, request those books, read those books and read them to others. Pass them along. Pay it forward. This is the difference between talk and action.

This is your world, this is your story—take ownership and take action.

Thank you.

Children’s International Summer Villages [CISV] is a volunteer organization founded in 1951 committed to educating and inspiring youth to act for a more just and peaceful world. We work to bring peace education to our communities as well as send young people ages 11 – 19 to programs locally, regionally, nationally and around the world. We have 21 chapters in the USA and 70 around the globe. The four educational content areas we operate in are: Diversity, Conflict resolution, Human rights and Sustainability. This year, 2014, we have been dedicated to Diversity. CISV is committed to sharing the following values in our work: Friendship, Engagement, Enthusiasm, Cooperation and Inclusiveness.


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