How Annysa Polanco is Championing Diversity at Penguin Random House

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Last week, Publishers Weekly released the latest data on the racial and ethnic makeup of the publishing world. While the trade magazine reported a slight increase in diversity, numbers are still abysmal — with 84% of employees at publishing houses being white and 3% being Latino. There is always a margin of error depending on who is conducting the studies and how many publishing companies respond, but the numbers are so disproportionate that there is no way of denying a problem with representation.

The lack of people of color in staff positions mirrors the underrepresentation of diverse characters in books, especially children’s books. Of the approximately 3,134 texts published in 2018 and reviewed at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 5% (or 120 books) had Latino characters. This is a major problem.

When children see themselves in a story, it helps them establish their value and place in society. It teaches them that they matter, that they belong and that they can do anything, including author their own books. When they don’t see themselves in stories, it limits their beliefs and starts the life-long journey of what it means to be the “other.”

While Lee & Low has acknowledged that the number of diverse books has increased substantially in the past 24 years, the numbers of books written by people of color has not risen at the same rates. In 2017, 31% of children’s books were published by and/or about people of color. This is the highest percentage on record since 1994. And yet, Black, Latino and Native authors combined wrote only 7% of the new children’s books published.

“The lack of people of color in staff positions mirrors the underrepresentation of diverse characters in books.”

It is true that a rise in the self-publishing industry has provided an avenue for authors to publish their own books on their own terms without having to contend with gatekeepers in the major publishing industry. For underrepresented writers who have been on the sidelines waiting for a seat at the publishing table, self-publishing has opened a door that circumvents the traditional publishing route.

Unfortunately, without the resources of a major publishing company, it can be challenging for self-published books to reach a wider audience. Publishing is only the first step in the long and expensive journey that helps books circulate widely. There is still the matter of reviews, distribution, marketing and partnerships for acquisition. It is no wonder Latino authors often feel discouraged after self-publishing.

Another major challenge that Latino authors come to face is the actual title of “diversity books” and the damaging beliefs that they can only be enjoyed by readers of the same race or ethnicity. While books with animal, fantasy and white characters are deemed appropriate for all, there is an underlying mindset that Latino books are for Latino children only. The reality is that all children benefit from reading about different perspectives and cultures. It widens their worldview by challenging them to think outside of their lived experiences.

While campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #OwnVoices and #DiverseSpines have helped in starting to change the numbers for inclusivity across genres, the people working at book publishers are still mostly white. At major publishing companies, diversity and inclusion initiatives have often been handed over as one-off assignments or side projects for human resources and executive-level figureheads. But one of the “big 5” publishing houses is working to change that. In 2017, Penguin Random House (PRH) hired Annysa Polanco as its Associate Director of Diversity and Inclusion, a position created to focus on organizational diversity.

Here, Polanco shares how she is using a systems approach to change the culture of one of the biggest publishing companies in the country — and, hopefully, increase diversity in books.

We have edited and condensed this interview for clarity.

How did you break into the publishing world and why is this work important to you?

I had a very non-traditional route into publishing. My background is in social work, with experience working in nonprofit and higher education spaces. At my previous role, I worked at the Posse Foundation, where I supported the career development of scholars and alumni. PRH was one of the employer partnerships that I managed to support their hiring pipelines. I always felt on the outside of the systems I was helping students navigate through, and I knew I could only prepare them so much. When I learned about the new diversity role at PRH, I jumped at the opportunity to work from the inside out and discovered that this is exactly where I should be.

“I am an advocate for equitable access and undoing oppressive systems.”

This work is so important to me for a number of reasons. To start, I believe in books. I have always had a deep personal belief in the power of reading and the impact stories have because of the way books helped me see beyond my circumstances growing up. I am driven by the idea that so many people in the same communities of color I grew up in and serve have so much knowledge to not only give but be exposed to, and we do a disservice to the same communities we are trying to reach by not including them and not having their voices at the table through the entire process of a story being developed.

I am an advocate for equitable access and undoing oppressive systems. As a first-generation Latina from a low-socioeconomic immigrant household who had to start making adult decisions at the age of 10, my entire life has been about navigating systems without knowing the rules, without having the right language and without having the resources. I get to do a job that is at the intersection of what I have learned to do best and what I love most: helping people be their authentic selves and realize their greatest passion.

What has been your greatest challenge in this role so far?

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Being in the diversity and inclusion space is oftentimes emotionally exhausting. I constantly have to navigate how vulnerable I am going to be at any given moment and how much of myself I need to give to move this work forward. In order to create an authentically inclusive environment and maintain it for recruitment, retention and advancement purposes, it requires all of us to take a hard look at not only how the industry excludes people from coming in but also how our processes and policies exclude people, how our company norms exclude people, how our meetings exclude people and how we as individuals perpetuate exclusion by our own behavior.

Because of my role, I become the subject matter expert on anything related to diversity, which I admit is great because it has given me access to a number of people and conversations in the company. However, oftentimes people forget that there is still a living, breathing human in this role who is a Latina women navigating these same homogeneous spaces. I am constantly having to scan the room and tailor what I say depending on the audience and what is being asked of my presence at any given moment all while dealing with the subversive messages that I don’t actually belong in the spaces I am trying to make more inclusive.

I’ve heard you talk a lot about the cultural shifts that need to happen before there is a real change in the number of people of color being hired by publishing companies. What does this mean and how are you working to make that shift at PRH?

Coming in with a lens specifically on employees and company culture, I am approaching this work from the inside out. I am not only trying to understand what the experiences are of underrepresented and marginalized individuals in our workplace, but I am also trying to understand, as an organization, where the biggest gaps and areas of opportunities are, how decisions are made, who the key stakeholders are, how the company operates and what is given priority. By understanding organizational behavior and the systems that are in place, I am better equipped to understand what levers need to be pulled to move both how diverse our workforce should be and how to change the current culture. I want the organization to value diversity but also integrate it fully until we know no other way to be. For change to be sustainable and for us not to have a revolving door of people of color, diversifying the industry needs to be tackled from every angle.

In terms of the specific cultural shifts that need to happen, I think the biggest ones we are currently working on are both giving people the language to have these conversations and setting up structures in place for change to be sustainable. It’s about equipping people to talk about how bias, microaggressions and oppression play out in the company. It is also giving people the framework to think about diversity and inclusion in terms of how it impacts the individual employee’s ability to thrive in the industry, how it impacts the success of individual teams, the business as a whole from revenue to turnover to increasingly diverse consumer markets, all the way to our mission of connecting stories to readers everywhere. By framing diversity and inclusion in this way and adapting that framework according to whose buy-in I need, it helps them come down to have very real, uncomfortable and vulnerable conversations about the experiences of underrepresented people in our company and the need for cultural competence in how we manage people, how we talk about people and how we push initiatives forward.

What is the one initiative you are most proud of since you started working at PRH?

One of the initiatives I am proud of is launching employee resource groups (ERGs). These serve as organized platforms that employees can utilize to promote change. While PRH has had our LGBTQ Network for a number of years, we did not have any other groups that operated under a formal employee resource group structure. In February, we launched the POC@PRH group for employees who self-identify as a member of a racially or ethnically underrepresented group and the Accessibility & Wellness group to support and enrich employees who are personally connected to the subject of visible and invisible disabilities.

“Diversifying the industry needs to be tackled from every angle.”

When driven by employees themselves and integrated into the business, ERGs that are equipped with the right financial and development resources do more than serve as social communities. They are able to make concrete changes to workplace policies, structures, company brands and even the ways internal and external talent is managed. They provide spaces for employees to not feel alone in their experiences. When done right, they can collectively raise specific needs of employees in those communities and advise on necessary changes for us to be more inclusive. This, in turn, provides opportunities for employee development, education, recruitment, retention and business outreach.

What recommendations do you have for Latinos interested in breaking into the publishing world?

To start, tap into as many industry resources and newsletters as possible: Latinx in Publishing, Minorities in Publishing podcast and POC in Publishing, to name a few. When networking, be very specific about how your skills are transferable. Connect the dots for recruiters, especially when you have untraditional experiences that have equipped you to be the best person for a particular role. Finally, lean into your culture. I remember how my mom used to wake me up in the morning with “Ponte las pilas y levantate.” What I am slowly learning is how to take the parts of my culture to work for me instead of against me. I firmly believe that our abuelas, moms and aunts are natural community organizers. No one makes a pot of sancocho to feed a small village, gathers a caravan of people packed in a car, and barks out orders for who is cleaning, who is cooking a week’s worth of food,and who is picking up kids from school faster than my mom when the need arises. Using that same concept to rally and galvanize each other is important, especially in an industry where change is slow.