#AUPresses21 | Stepping Up to Support Racial Justice Movements

Yelena Kalinsky's picture

In this series of reports, members of the Elephant editorial collective recap selected panels from the 2021 AUPresses Virtual Annual Meeting held June 7-18, 2021. We welcome further discussion of issues raised by the panelists via the Reply box below each post.

Caitlin Tyler-Richards, Acquisitions Editor, Michigan State University Press

Tiffany Adams, Associate Marketing Director, Journals Division, The University of Chicago Press
Emily Hamilton, Assistant Director and Marketing Director, University of Minnesota Press
Sharmila Sen, Editorial Director, Harvard University Press

This panel presented three concrete examples of how university presses “stepped up” to respond to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations against racism and police brutality in May of last year: Racism in America: A Reader, an edited anthology in the form of a free ebook from Harvard University Press; Reading for Racial Justice, an online collection of University of Minnesota Press titles; and Research in Policing, Civil Rights, and Racial Justice, a collection of articles from University of Chicago Press journals division.

Each of the panelists expressed the urgent need to respond to events and the belief that university presses have something tangible to contribute. Among those mentioned were research-backed sources of information for students, journalists, and the public and a broad platform for uplifting the voices and research of Black authors and authors of color. Each of the projects drew on the strengths and unique position of the press or the project team to shape the project, from reaching out to Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed to contribute a preface to the HUP anthology, to enlisting UCP journal editors to help vet articles, to drawing on UMP’s backlist of titles in the areas of policing, civil rights, and racial justice.

The aims of each project helped define its parameters, and those parameters sometimes changed in the short course of putting the projects together. HUP’s aim was to make a book focused specifically on anti-Black racism that would be read by a maximally broad audience. Thus Racism in America: A Reader limits its contributions to twenty authors, nearly all Black or authors of color, and all but one (an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark) written in the last twenty years. Gordon-Reed’s preface and a new cover were both commissioned to increase the book’s visibility and communicate its aims. Located in Minneapolis where many of the events seen on the news were taking place (in some cases in staff members’ own neighborhoods), UMP’s Reading for Racial Justice collection, which was launched just one week after Floyd’s murder, was accompanied by a statement of solidarity affirming unequivocally that Black lives matter. The assembled titles were made free to read through the summer of 2020 and then again opened after the killing of Daunte Wright and during the trial of Derek Chauvin the following spring. Finally, UCP’s Research in Policing, Civil Rights, and Racial Justice collection was originally conceived as a way to circulate research on how institutions like the police, courts, prisons, and the healthcare system, affect people who are Black, and was in part a response to witnessing protests and demonstrations taking place in Chicago and the police force deployed to counter those protests. That scope expanded as the project got underway and the project team received requests to include more material.

One thing that came to the fore in the conversation was the importance of equitable labor: the toll that such fast and potentially intense work could take on staff members and the need to mitigate the uneven emotional labor that work may require of staff members of color. The turnaround time was very quick: several days in the case of the two collections and one month in the case of the book. In some cases, senior staff took the brunt of the work on themselves, staff were given time for the projects during work hours, and some staff chose to work extra to move the project forward, even though work on the project was not mandatory. Although there was little time to reflect early on due to the speed of the work, one panelist emphasized the importance of checking in with staff and making sure they could take a break when needed. It was clear that buy-in from senior management was a crucial factor in all three projects.

Another issue raised by an audience member focused on centering and representing Black voices without presuming to speak for them. From the journals division, Adams stressed the importance of retweeting, amplifying, and celebrating authors’ and editors’ work, whether on social media or in conference exhibits, without editorializing or trying to rewrite their posts. In the case of the edited anthology, Sen made sure to present the idea and seek honest feedback from each of the authors included. The goal was to support authors who have been doing research on anti-Black racism long before it was the subject of mainstream attention.

Based on traffic to each project, the impacts have been substantial and in some cases led to further thinking and re-evaluation of editorial practices. Combing journals’ back issues for research on racial justice alerted some editors that they were not publishing as much in that area as they thought. Instructors and readers from far afield have reported using the projects to supplement their reading lists and syllabi.

Looking back at each of the ways that the three presses “stepped up” to support racial justice movements, the presenters could imagine improvements (working more closely with individual authors from the UMP backlist, a reading guide or other teaching asset to accompany the HUP book, more conversations about the exact scope of the UCP lists). But overall, each of the projects were powerful models of response in the moment that all presenters agreed should spur presses to do more proactively to address racial justice.