A Personal Perspective on Diversity

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By Jenny Cayabyab Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore

Diversity. It’s a topic that has come up at the last couple of Winter Institutes. Let’s be honest — it can be an awkward subject to talk about.

It is difficult to express ourselves on this topic because we fear causing offense. My skin is brown, but that does not mean that my opinions about diversity in our industry represent the opinions of all brown booksellers. It also does not mean that my opinions might not upset others. Recent headlines regarding the lack of diversity at the Oscars provide ample evidence of this. The initial issue was the lack of Oscar nominees of color. Now most of the ensuing controversies revolve around opinions expressed by individuals in the industry.

We’ve asked ABA to address the lack of diversity in the bookselling community. But diversity means something different to each person. We use diversity to describe many things, and to ask ABA to tackle “diversity” is asking it to undertake an unwieldy task. First, ABA member bookstores need to define what diversity means to us, and we need to be specific in what we want ABA to do for us. Do we want more people of color in the industry? Do we want more books published about race, gender identity, and religious tolerance? Do we want a startup program for bringing bookstores into underserved populations? Do we want programs to entice a younger generation to make bookselling their career? Those are just a few examples. The first step is to identify what we want and move from there to develop programs.

In all honesty, I would like to see us move away from the fixation on the word “diversity.” Spencer Kornhaber agrees in his January Atlantic article “A Person Can’t Be Diverse.” This word is constantly misused and has been thrown around enough that it has become ineffective. The more I use the word diversity, the more I think that it’s not a good word to describe “differences.” And I think it is differences that we are really talking about.

So, let us perhaps focus on celebrating differences.

My first Winter Institute was in San Jose in 2010 (Wi5). At the time, my husband and I were two of the youngest bookstore owners at Wi5. There were not many young people in the industry. A fellow Oregon bookstore owner took us to the Emerging Leaders social event. The Emerging Leaders Council was created in 2006, and its goal was to foster the development of the next generation of booksellers. The program included scholarships to the Winter Institute and receptions across the U.S. I recall about 15 people at the Wi5 Emerging Leaders event. Fast forward to 2016 and I noticed a remarkable number of younger booksellers who attended Winter Institute 11 in Denver. The Emerging Leaders program no longer exists because of the increased number of younger booksellers. It was an effective program that helped bring awareness and create change.

Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, credits the Emerging Leaders scholarship as vital to her becoming a bookseller and opening her store. Perhaps by establishing scholarships, resources, and programs that celebrate differences, we can foster more diversity, too. Hopefully, in the future we will no longer need such programs, just like we no longer need the Emerging Leaders group.

We can’t force diversity, but we can encourage it. We can celebrate differences and make people feel like they are part of a community by focusing on them as booksellers. Let’s focus on getting enthusiastic new booksellers into this industry regardless of their backgrounds. We can do this by providing scholarships, support groups, and programs that make the path to becoming a bookstore owner or career bookseller easier. Diversity will happen if we provide those resources.

About the Author

Jenny Cayabyab Cohen is a third generation Filipino-American who married into a Jewish family. She is the kid who regularly checked out 20 library books at once and never returned them on time. Jenny and her husband, Muir, own Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River, Oregon. She is currently a member of the ABA Booksellers Advisory Council (BAC). Jenny would love to hear your suggestions for diversity programs for ABA: E-mail her at events@waucomabookstore.com or share on social media with the hashtag #definediversity. Jenny (@jeycay) can be found on Twitter and Instagram.