The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators goes super-bureaucratic to battle charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has spent weeks parrying social-media criticism of its stances on antisemitism and Islamophobia. Now the U.S. arm of the international nonprofit for children’s book creators promises it’s ready for a new chapter.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The SCBWI told its members July 8 that it plans an outside equity audit and will revamp its governance. The pledges come as more than 850 members of the children’s literature community have signed an open letter calling for change.
The move also follows the high-profile departure of SCBWI’s first Equity and Inclusion Officer, April Powers. Powers resigned June 27, after a dispute with a new member in June spiraled into a referendum on the group’s public statements about various kinds of bigotry.
“It is clear to us now that our lines of communication with our membership need to be better,” reads the July 8 letter to SCBWI members, tweeted by author Gayle Pitman. “There is a need for more transparency and a call for many reforms. We are ready to meet those needs.”
SCBWI promised that “there will be more” in the coming days aside from the four points outlined in their letter, which included “hiring an outside DEI consultancy firm to evaluate all aspects of our organization and help us move forward.” SCBWI also pledged to implement the outside suggestion to have a rotating Board of Directors, change its volunteer agreement to remove a “non-disparagement clause,” and bring more transparency to the group’s financials.
The SCBWI letter addressed some but not all of the requests from the open letter circulating on Twitter. That missive–drafted by author Ishta Mercurio with musician Tara Trudel and signed by hundreds of current and former SCBWI members, as well as an array of agents, volunteers and SCBWI chapter administrators–cited flaws in the group’s organizational structure. The letter also raised concerns about how it elects its board and its volunteer contract.
“An organization that refuses to tolerate public criticism from member volunteers is an organization that refuses to be held accountable,” the letter reads. “It is an attitude that imposes a hierarchy rooted in inequity, that is disrespectful of your member volunteers’ experience, intelligence and expertise, and that is antithetical to your professions of commitment to equity.”
Neither letter mentions Powers’ departure or what preceded it. That series of events began when aspiring author and new SCBWI member Razan Abdin-Adnani questioned why the organization released a statement in support of the Jewish community and, earlier in the year, the Asian community, but hadn’t expressed support for the Palestinian or Muslim communities.
Powers initially responded on Twitter that “If we see a surge against Muslims globally as we have w/other groups, expect us to speak out.” As debate swirled and grew more heated, Powers deleted Abdin-Adnani’s comments, among others. Abdin-Adnani was also temporarily blocked from both SCBWI’s and Powers’ Twitter accounts.
Abdin-Adnani tweeted her experiences on June 22, calling the exchange “painful and othering for me & the Palestinian/Muslim community at large as we didn’t see similar sentiments extended toward us during a time when we’re suffering. And then to have my voice dismissed and then deleted? As a paying member, no less? Ouch.”
SCBWI executive director Lin Oliver subsequently apologized to her and the Muslim and Palestinian communities in a statement since removed from the organization’s website. She said the organization would create seats for Muslim members of the group on both its board and Equity and Inclusion Committee. She also announced that “effective immediately, we have accepted the resignation of April, our Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer.”
The departure of Powers, who is Black and Jewish, spurred a firestorm of coverage, much of which charged that SCBWI forced out Powers after she issued a statement against anti-Jewish hate. (Powers said on social media that the decision to leave was hers.) PEN America, the literary nonprofit devoted to free expression, expressed concern, while other commentators, including former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and actress Debra Messing, deemed the entire episode antisemitic.
This isn’t the first time SCBWI or Powers has grappled with criticism over representation of marginalized communities. In 2020, members complained about the Minnesota state chapter’s new Facebook banner illustration, which featured a child depicted with slanted eyes, and Powers’ response to those complaints. That chapter’s lead volunteers eventually resigned, and the banner redrawn so that the child had oval eyes.