If there’s one lesson learned from last year’s activism and protests, it’s that silence is complicity. In that spirit, I share some thoughts about the children’s book community, diversity, and SCBWI.
SCBWI is a family business. As with many family businesses, a few people who were friends and family worked hard at a thing they loved, taking no money for a time. Eventually, they found other people with the same passion, and the organization grew from mimeographed newsletters to an organization with international digital communications and conferences. As the original founders aged, they gave the organization to their children and so it has grown for 50 years. In order to grow, they also needed a small army of volunteers.
That’s right. The Regional Advisors who liaise with members, book hotels, coordinate schedules, plan menus, develop mentorships, judge scholarships…all unpaid. There are also one-and-done volunteer opportunities for event registration, driving industry professionals, etc.
The volunteers in charge of big events recruit already low-paid editors and agents and authors for a small stipend and sometimes travel and lodging reimbursement. No industry professional is getting rich off of these events considering they often put in many hours planning panels and reviewing manuscripts and portfolios to “give back” to the children’s book community with the hope that they’ll find a diamond in the rough.
Back to the volunteers. They are compensated with complimentary entrance to regional and national conferences and VIP events where they might grip and grin with Children’s Book royalty in the hopes that it might further their careers. It’s no surprise that the “it’s who you know” proverb is important in any industry.
Now, doing all this organizing takes a lot of time and energy. The active volunteers are often whiter and wealthier, but there are exceptions. There are some diverse creators who have been working diligently to grow the organization. Some volunteers are not at all wealthy and their sweat equity gets them into places of which they would be otherwise priced out.
Does this sound familiar? Interns in the children’s publishing world have also been historically whiter and wealthier because they can work unpaid and still live in NYC. Just as interns become industry professionals, Regional Advisors sometimes end up on the Board of Advisors after they have given many years of service.
I was an SCBWI-NE conference co-director in 2008, and co-director of the New England “Many Voices” conference in 2009. I was a Regional Advisor from 2009-2011. In that time, I advocated for scholarships, conferences, and keynoters that would increase diverse representation. It is because I gave so much energy to the organization, that I care about its future. Let me also say that I am writing this with information that was true at the end of my own tenure. If you know of Regional Advisors who are being paid, please say so in the comments.
It is my humble opinion that we will not see lasting change in the organization until the rank and file members are diverse and that diversity is reflected in the regional staff. THAT will not happen until volunteers are replaced by paid staff who are hired to answer to the many voices of its members.