by Sabrina Vourvoulias
First, a quick quiz:
- Did you read the headline, and automatically compile a mental checklist of the authors and staffers from underserved communities you’ve published or hired?
Congrats, but … you were gauging diversity.
- Did you read the headline and start enumerating the kind of outreach you’ve done to ensure underserved community members feel welcomed to submit/apply to your publication?
Congrats, but … you were thinking about inclusion.
Although the acronym DEI sandwiches equity between the other two like an overlooked middle child, diversity and inclusion are actually baselines; equity is the level-setter.
Equity can be defined as fairness and justice in policy, practice and opportunity, consciously designed to address the distinct challenges of non-dominant social groups, with an eye to equitable outcomes.
And it doesn’t play well with checklists.
Content is where most SFF publications have focused their DEI efforts. This work is exceedingly important, but since it has more frequently been written about, it is not my focus here.
In addition to being a SFF writer, I’m the editor of a news website covering nonprofit and social impact organizations, and I’ve noticed that there are a lot of similarities between these two spheres (as well as a similar history of institutional inequity). I’ve been pleased to note the work being done recently in both to advance equity. From liberatory philanthropy to community- centric fundraising to SFF publications that are intentional in dismantling white supremacy, there have been some important equity initiatives that have taken root during the past few years.
But there is a crucial aspect of equity work which I’ve seen the nonprofit sector engage with in a way that SFF publications have yet to do: confronting internal processes considered “best practices” that in actuality shore up the status quo and actively disadvantage those who are outside of the existing power structure.
Here are a few of those for you to consider.
Inequities in the submissions process
While digital submissions have made the process of submitting work for publication considerably easier and nominally cheaper, they haven’t necessarily made the process more equitable.
The digital divide is real, and there are plenty of places (including big cities like Philadelphia, where I work) without free municipal wifi to ensure access. Some lower-income people, particularly BIPOC folks, access the internet solely via phone. Ask yourself, does your submission process make that possible? How long will it take to submit that way, and how much will it cost? (An important consideration for someone who is economically vulnerable and purchasing minutes and gigabytes for their phone.)
Also, returning citizens, and other folks living in so-called “halfway houses” for substance use, etc., are often subject to smartphone restrictions and may only have access to SMS-only phones. People experiencing homelessness may not even have that.
If equity is your goal, you might want to think of offering the option of mail-in submissions as a way to get around these digital access and hardware issues. If you are a place-based publication and have the means and ambition to do so, creating a submission fund at actual shelters and/or halfway houses for resident use would be a radical act of community building.
On another front, digitalization of the submission process has led to some submissions windows that open at midnight and close when a target number is reached (in practical terms, usually before noon). These favor writers who have stable internet connections and access to them 24/7 — effectively excluding anyone who connects via shared library computers, or school and coffeeshop hotspots.
Submission formatting guidelines are also barriers.
Again, adherence to them demands hours of access to computers. But beyond that, they reinforce norms of “white professionalism” that can burden writers of traditionally marginalized backgrounds with extra work. That is particularly true for immigrant writers who are not English-dominant or are from non-Anglo countries that have quite different writing conventions. (Read Sam Chenkin’s blog post at Reclaim the Sector about how “white professionalism” plays out in the nonprofit world.)
Content management systems (online publications) and programs like InDesign (print publications) can handle any text and formatting changes quickly and effortlessly, so ask yourself — are the guidelines really serving any function other than gatekeeping?
Two other submissions practices deserve examination if your goal is equity: the practice of restricting simultaneous submissions, and submission response time.
I am glad to note that some SFF publications have relaxed their simultaneous submission prohibitions recently. This practice penalizes writers with a small body of available work — which tends to be working class folks, those in vulnerable or unstable housing situations, and those just starting out. And the thing is, there’s no reason for the practice that can’t be resolved with a single phrase: “If it gets accepted elsewhere, let us know immediately.”
Egregiously long holds on stories submitted — whether at the initial or final stage of consideration — are a thornier matter. The practice can have real-world impact for economically vulnerable people, who might need the money a sale would generate, but are prevented from shopping it to other publications since the submission is languishing in the publication’s submissions queue (another reason to allow simultaneous submissions). If you are tempted to dismiss even small SFF publication sales as a negligible source of income, you’ve never experienced the vanishingly small budgets some working people live on.
Yes, SFF publication editors are swamped, but holding a piece for more than six months without making a final decision on it also carries a whiff of what Nonprofit AF’s Vu Le calls the Asymmetric Requirement of Gratitude (ARG!). “This is when one party is expected to be grateful to another party, even though both parties are needed for something meaningful to happen.”
Operational and managerial inequities
Take a look at your masthead. Is all the diversity clustered at slush or design level? If you are white, economically comfortable, cishet, abled and neurotypical, have you created space for folks who aren’t? If you are the founder or head honcho, is it time to change the power dynamic at the publication and relinquish your space so that your publication can better serve SFF’s full readership? Have you planned for a successor?
These questions are likely familiar to most SFF publishers, but they bear repeating. Here are some more:
Is anyone on your staff paid? If not, how many hours of free labor are you asking them to put in, and is the burden of work falling on those who are not white, economically comfortable, cishet, abled and neurotypical?
If you are paying people on your staff, are you transparent about the pay scale upfront? And, yes, this matters even for passion projects and side gigs.
I have noticed a number of job listings for editors at SFF publications over the years that don’t specify whether the position is paid; and those that do, don’t specify what the pay is. In writing about this lack of transparency in the nonprofit sector, Le cautions that “not disclosing salary information increases the gender and racial wage gaps as well as wastes everyone’s time. If organizations want to walk the talk on equity, diversity, and inclusion, then disclosing salary is a quick, tangible, and relatively easy action to take.”
Farrah Parkes, the executive director of the Gender Justice Fund, is more blunt: “One of the tools of white supremacy is silence around money because then you get more control.”
Your equity frenemy, data
I want to draw your attention briefly to the collection of data on DEI efforts, both in content and readership.
Data sets tracking the diversity of a SFF publication’s content or readership are an important part of accountability. But too often the data used is over-aggregated.
Over-aggregated data — say, collecting data about female-identifying writers submitting work without any other data points — can lead to simplistic takes on a complex issue, and stall your efforts to reach writers (and readers) that have not traditionally been courted by SFF publishing.
Disaggregated data is more useful.
As an example, this article by Resolve Philly’s Data and Impact Editor Julie Christie focuses on the importance of disaggregation of data about the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, where over-aggregation “oversimplifies people who represent 40 nationalities, more than 40 languages, and more than 54 ethnicities, each with complex and essential cultural and political differences.”
Over-aggregated data may tell you that 25% of your content is written by AAPI writers, but disaggregated data can tell you if all of the AAPI pieces you published were by Chinese-American authors. That difference is not insignificant in your efforts to make your publication a more equitable one.
The need for disaggregated data only gets more important when you consider your readership.
There are equity issues embedded in the ways that data is collected, analyzed, interpreted, as well as who is doing the collecting — especially in communities that have been historically subjected to extractive data collection. It is beyond the scope of this article to look at that, but if you are interested, Chicago Beyond’s guidebook “Why am I always being researched?” is a very approachable starting point for thinking about research equity.
Some final thoughts
If you are white, economically comfortable, cishet, abled and neurotypical, and the work you are doing to advance equity at your SFF publication isn’t making you uncomfortable, you aren’t doing it right.
Remember, equity is a level-setter. Reallocate resources. Create space for others at the top decision-making levels. Stop letting white people set the priorities. Give up power.
Realize that you are building something that is bigger than you, bigger even than your publication.
And keep doing the work because, as Liz Dozier, the founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, says, “there is no arrival in this work of disrupting power.”
Author’s note: in addition to those cited within, this article is informed by the equity work of Philadelphia-area nonprofit leaders Sidney Hargro, Markita Morris-Louis, Vanessa Briggs and Elicia Gonzales.
Sabrina Vourvoulias (she/her/ella) is an award-winning Latina journalist and the editor of Generocity.org. She is the author of the speculative novel, Ink (Rosarium Publishing), and her SFF short fiction has been published at Tor.com, Uncanny, Strange Horizons and Apex magazines, among others, as well as in numerous anthologies. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.