MLK Day reflections on diversifying publishing

MLK Day reflections on diversifying publishing

By Christie Henry

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. —Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

Publishing itself is an act of mutuality, a series of symbiotic relationships ranging from idea and page, to author and publisher, to bookseller and reader. The garments we createbooksare shaped by current knowledge, imagination, and tools, and are also often cloaked by or interwoven with fabrics of history. There is unique and enduring beauty in these fabrics and garments, but they also propagate patterns: patterns of ideas and impact, patterns of peer review, patterns of excellence, and patterns of exclusion.

Inspired by Dr. King’s courage to lead a movement for powerful change with purpose and intent, three years ago Princeton University Press launched a strategic initiative in equity and inclusion. Just as our scholarly authors approach their diverse subjects, we have brought rigor and intention and resources to studying the patterns of PUP publishing. Our goal is to illuminate the through lines of our publishing narrative and our internal collaborations (another mutualism), and to reckon with the limitations of that narrative, most specifically what, and who, have been excluded. Our ambition is to strengthen our relevance and resilience with purposeful inclusive action.

On the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, we want to share some of the ideas and actions our initiative has inspired, and invite yours in turn. As publishers, we are entrusted daily with the privilege of actualizing the words of others, in global and enduring ways. But in the work of equity and justice, we need to actualize our own words. Our mission statement commits us to “embrace the highest standards of scholarship, inclusivity, and diversity in our publishing.” The actions we are taking in support of these words compel us to reckon with our own biases and with systemic exclusion, and to search beyond the heuristics and norms that a long successful history can create.

Our approach to purposeful change has been inclusive of staff across the globe, collaborating on committees and joining resource groups within the Press, and with team members engaged throughout the AUPresses and AAP communities on equal justice initiatives.We have shared some of our actions on our News updates, along with highlights of new works and series acquired that hold promise of ongoing diversification of our publishing program.

Among the most recent announcements is the creation of a five-year Diversify Publishing Fellowship, for which we will recruit, train, mentor, and collaborate with ten individuals from communities historically excluded from publishing, and in doing so hope to launch publishing careers for these fellows. Inspired by Mellon Diversity Fellows and having experienced the impact of a transition to paid internships three years ago, we are hopeful this cohort of fellows will shape the future of publishing, joining initiatives underway in the AAP and AUPresses communities. In summer 2021 we will be among the presses hosting AAP-UNCF interns, through a program created for students of African American, Asian, Latinx, and Native American descent. And we will continue our new partnership with City College of New York’s publishing internships, a program that has been formative in diversifying race, class, and ethnicity among early career publishers.

Our ambitions for the Fellowship and internships can be realized only if our Press culture is inclusive, every collaboration is inspired by our Code of Conduct, and every staff member is treated fairly and respectfully, with equal contributory opportunities. Recognizing the importance of expertise in learning and change, we are grateful to the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble and The Equity Paradigm, which have helped us to build empathy from story, to navigate challenging conversations with the LARA method, to identify the legacy of systemic racism, and to decenter white supremacy. Embracing the spirit of peer review that forms the foundation of our publishing, we also engaged TEP in an equity assessment of the press, which will help establish priorities for more learning and action in the months ahead.

That peer review ethos also guided a study of our publishing demographics. Partnering with Princeton University’s Graduate School, we have hosted University Administrative Fellows for several years. Their systematic studies of the demographics of Press-published authors and those under contract—our future—have resulted in data that is unequivocally motivating. Our editorial department has embraced the opportunity to use this knowledge as a catalyst for actions, which include appeals to our series editors for their commitments as essential partners in our diversification commitments, as well as further assessments of the demographics and framework of peer review.

We also have benefited from ongoing mutualities with every Press author, and the intellectual property they entrust to us. At every stage of the life cycle of their work, we are seeking ways to diversify content and impact. In the months ahead, our contracts will be assessed for transparency and inclusive language. We will diversify our freelancer and vendor partnerships. And we will seek new partnerships to support historically marginalized authors, furthering the mission of the Global Equity Grants we have awarded since launching this program for underrepresented authors in March of 2020.

Why now? We exist within communities actively reckoning with their exclusivity—publishing and higher education both. Publishing statistics reported by The Publishers Association (UK) and the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey make acutely clear the need for ambitious and purposeful industry transformation. We fundamentally believe that scholarly nonprofit publishing has a mission to do right, and only in fulfilling that mission can we ensure the continuing relevance and resilience of PUP publishing, a responsibility entrusted to us for over a century. As Dr. King shared with Oberlin College students in a 1965 commencement speech, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Christie Henry is the director of Princeton University Press.