Julio the Pool Boy and 12 Other Lessons from the Field: How We're Building a More Inclusive Writing Center
About a year ago, GrubStreet staffers Jonathan Escoffery and Sarah Colwill-Brown held a focus group with six students of color to find out more about their experiences in Grub classrooms and within our community at large. The group met in the evening in our small conference room overlooking the Boston Common. A large poster created by a locally famous ad man hung above the table. It was the first in a series of ads he created for us, pro bono, fifteen years ago. We produced it for the Park Street T-station, but when the MBTA saw the ad, they decided not to run it. Indeed, they banned it.
The ad was part of a series, with the tag line “turning ____ into writers since 1997,” and featuring taxi drivers, dentists, bartenders, and others. This one read: “Julio the pool boy slowly took off his shirt, revealing his muscled belly as Sandra inched slowly backwards on her marriage bed. Turning housewives into writers since 1997.”
Two days before the ad was set to run, a woman from the MBTA called to tell me they were refusing to run it because it "promoted extra-marital affairs." Dumbfounded, I explained it was a send-up of pulp fiction, and questioned how they could ban this ad but be fine with the scantily clad fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls in the Calvin Klein ads. I remember hearing the frustration in the woman’s voice when she said: “I just thought you were a nice little nonprofit. We had no idea you’d send us this!” In the end, Boston Magazine picked up the story and published our ad in their pages. Over the years, amused by this episode in Grub’s history, I’d always made sure that the poster was highly visible in our offices so that, when giving visitors the tour, I could retell the story.
Until the night of the focus group.
During the focus group, the students of color reported that they often didn’t see themselves in, and didn’t feel welcome in our workshops and the literary landscape beyond. They had many helpful suggestions for how we might turn things around. As things were winding down, in response to a question about whether there was anything else we needed to know, a student gestured toward the Julio poster. She pointed out that a poster depicting a Latino person as the help perpetuates a stereotype and suggests that this is the defining narrative for a whole group of people. This is particularly harmful, she went on to say, in a dominantly white space that didn't offer alternative narratives from people of color. Jonathan and Sarah were sheepish and loving in sharing this news with me the following day. They knew how much I loved that poster. As soon as they told me, I knew the student was right. Back at my desk, I cringed when imagining how many times I had talked with pride about that poster as I showed visitors around our offices. I wondered how many people had seen it as racist and kept quiet to protect my feelings, or because they feared they’d be seen as taking it too seriously and not seeing the humor in it. Later that morning, I took it down.
In the last five years, as we’ve worked increasingly harder to become a more inclusive organization, a place that both feels like home and offers an excellent education to people of all backgrounds and income levels, we’ve had many moments like this one. But we’ve also had successes, and we are making progress. In honor of our 20th anniversary, we decided to bring the largest ever cohort of GrubStreet staff to AWP in Washington DC to share some of what we’ve learned. Our hope is that our work—our failures as well as our successes—will help others who feel equally passionate about building a publishing pipeline and literary ecosystem that reflects the socio-economic and racial make-up of our country today.
I’m proud of how, as a staff, we’ve come to terms with our shortcomings and worked hard at making meaningful change happen for our community. I wish I could share all of the thinking we brought to AWP, but that would make for an impossibly long post. And this one is long enough! Instead, I’m sharing the essential takeaways from the two panels which most directly address our inclusion work: “Committing to Inclusion: What does it ‘Really’ Mean?” and “Beyond Diversity: How to Run the Truly Inclusive Creative Writing Workshop.” Sonya Larson, our Assistant Muse Director, moderated the first conversation with a panel featuring Jonathan Escoffery, our Advocacy and Program Manager, Alison Murphy, our Program Director, and Deborah Plummer, a diversity and inclusion expert and GrubStreet board member. Alison Murphy led the discussion on inclusive workshops with Jonathan, Eson Kim, our Youth Program Manager, Dariel Saurez, our Head of Faculty and Curriculum, and writer and GrubStreet Instructor, Matthew Salesses.
Here are the main takeaways from both panels:
Bake it into your DNA. Commit to inclusion in a way that touches every aspect of the organization’s work. Plan for change. Real change. If your inclusion work is sidelined as a “project,” it won’t be effective. At GrubStreet, we rewrote our mission, created a plan that addressed leadership, staffing, marketing, and programming, and examined whether our norms, practices, and traditions were inadvertently undermining our values and communicating an exclusionary message.
Shoot for inclusion over diversity. Diversity is when one person hosts a dinner party, writes a grocery list, and invites a wide array of people to partake in a preset menu. Now imagine the same table, except the guests are invited to bring their own favorite foods, and offer ingredients to share and exchange, and the menu and the cooking are accomplished together. That’s inclusion.
Don’t shame people. Assume everyone has biases, and cultivate a culture in which people feel free to call them out when necessary with honesty, love, and the humility that comes from knowing we all have blind spots. Make sure you’re still laughing and keeping it light as well. You’re going to step in it, and that’s really okay.
Get educated. Prepare yourself to devote significant time, energy, and resources. We were very lucky to have Deborah Plummer on our board. She led our staff and board through invaluable training sessions, which we in turn shared with our instructors.
Think about all the decisions you make. For example, we’re conscious of the food and supply vendors we choose to work with, supporting local POC-owned businesses to ensure that we use our resources in a way that reflects our values.
Ask the right questions. An effective diversity campaign isn’t about numbers. It’s about asking underrepresented communities the right questions and listening to their answers, and then crafting a strategy based on their needs. Be prepared for the outcome that their needs will not necessarily match yours.
Listen to your students, instructors, and donors, and take their concerns seriously, even if you disagree. Treat people with dignity but know that you may lose people who don’t like the change they see. That’s hard, of course, but you’ll also attract new people, and many of your present community members will be truly energized to see how serious you are about creating a truly inclusive community.
Hire diverse instructors. Increasing the diversity of our instructor pool has been the most powerful lever in being attractive to, and equipped to serve, a more diverse student body. This initiative has also improved our cultural competency across the board.
Question traditional workshop models. “Tried-and-true” workshop methods like the cone of silence and the universal reader often inadvertently prioritize white, mainstream voices. Remember that the workshop is a construct; it’s not set in stone. Who says it has to be just one way?
Create a broad and varied reading list. Instructors should be aware of different literary traditions, both American and international, so that they won't automatically dismiss work that feels unfamiliar and push students toward the tradition with which the instructor is most comfortable.
Empower students to help create their workshop experience. Give them tools, such as the ability to call “redirect” during their workshop, so that they can still move the conversation toward fertile territory. Allow them to talk about their intentions. Create opportunities for low-pressure participation, such as group recaps of workshop pieces.
Set expectations with students beforehand for what it means to be a good workshop citizen, and how you expect them to contribute to an inclusive environment. For help with this, refer to the “What Makes a Good Workshop Citizen?” podcast on GrubWrites, by Eson Kim. We’ve found this an effective teaching tool, and often share it with our students at the beginning of a course to open a conversation about what respect, listening, and inclusivity mean in a workshop setting.
The morning I took down the poster from our conference room, Jonathan sweetly suggested I take it home and hang it in my house. “Sure,” I said. “Now that I know it’s a racist poster, I’ll hang it in my house!” We both laughed. A few weeks later, our new mission statement took pride of place on the conference room wall:
Narrative transforms lives, builds bridges, and produces empathy. By rigorously developing voices of every type and talent and by removing barriers to entry, GrubStreet fosters the creation of meaningful stories and ensures that excellent writing remains vital and relevant.
It was with this mission in mind—and the future we are dedicated to building—that we chose the theme for our booth at AWP. We decided to ask our friends, students, and anyone who stopped by what future they wished for in their own writing life, or in the writing world. Some answers were funny: “Fame and glory,” “more cheese at readings,” and “I want to write the novel Batman would support.” Some serious: “persist,” and “more equity,” and “more women’s voices to be heard.” There were, of course, many who expressed a desire to finally finish that novel or to get a first essay published. My favorite, hands down, was this one: “I wish for more people in the world who believe in places that don’t exist.” For my part, I wish for more and more people in the world to have the opportunity to write and tell their stories, because I firmly believe that greater democracy in storytelling will lead to a more equitable and just world. At GrubStreet, we are humbly and often falteringly trying to do our part.
Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston and securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. The Barr Foundation recently named her a 2019 Barr Fellow in recognition of her leadership. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.See other articles by Eve Bridburg