Episode 46! The NCTE Panel That Went VERY Wrong: Conversation with Tillie Walden, PART 1

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Welcome to episode 46 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). 

This week’s episode is different, it’s another time-specific as well as event based topic. In this 2-part interview Grace Lin talks with graphic novelist Tillie Walden about a recent panel discussion that went very, very awry. This is Part 1 of the interview, please come back on Wed to hear Part 2.

On Saturday, November 17th, 2018, a panel entitled “Disproportionately Censored: A Conversation with YA Authors Who Write About Race, Gender, and Sexuality” took place as part of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) 2018 Conference in Houston, TX. There were five panelists: Michael Cart, Sabina Kahn, Bill Konisberg, Tillie Walden and Sarah Cortez and it was moderated by Joan Kaywell. Unfortunately, the last panelist, Sarah Cortez, participated in a very hurtful and harmful manner.

Two days later, Bill Konisberg would deliver an incredibly heartfelt speech at ALAN: the assembly on Literature for adolescents of the NCTE: where he outlined some of Sarah Cortez’ harmful comments. In his speech (please read the entirety HERE) he says:

She was allegedly there to talk about challenges to Latino texts for young adults, but when asked she passed on that, claiming that Latinos were not disproportionately challenged at all, that in fact the major concerns she had were for the marginalized groups in this country: straight people, Catholics, and the police.

Her comments included the following:

-LGBTQ people make up only 3 to 4 percent of the population, so why do we need all these books for so few kids?

-Books like THE HATE U GIVE paint cops in a bad light, and are dangerous. She’s a cop.

-Parents have a moral responsibility to protect kids from LGBTQ texts.

-Gays are mentally ill and that the average gay man only lives to 39.

Someone from the audience fact checked her. It came from The Family Research Council, considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, from 1994, the height of the epidemic, and had long since been debunked as a myth.

She did this all, she brayed about the tragic, horrible deaths of so many young gay men, with a confident smile on her face.

Of course, this was extremely shocking and many of the children’s community were up in arms. How did this happen?

When NCTE posted a tweet saying they were investigating, they were criticized for being too vague and general.  

Many criticized the moderator Joan Kaywell for inviting Sarah Cortez onto the panel and for allowing the panel to continue. Joan, who is not a big user of social media, then released a letter on Friday, November 23, 2018. Here is her letter in entirety:

In all of my 30+ years attending NCTE and ALAN, I have never met an author who was not reflective and sensitive to the human condition. Never. And I know many authors. Many. I am the one who invited “the author” to be on the panel “Disproportionally Censored: A Conversation with YA Authors Who Write about Race, Gender, and Sexuality” — not NCTE and not Paula Greathouse, the chair of the Standing Committee against Censorship and the chair of the session. Paula is my former doctoral student and she asked me to find an author who writes about race who could speak on the issue.

After asking a few of my author friends who I knew were attending NCTE but were too busy to speak on the panel, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from this author about an inquiry I had made to her about signing a couple of her books — Windows into My World: Latino Youth Write about Their Lives and You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens — for the Ted Hipple Special Collection of Autographed YA and Tween Books that is housed in the Special Collections at the USF Library in Tampa. We chatted about the Collection, and I told her of its origin - that Ted was one of the founders of ALAN, the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English, and I was privileged to have him as my mentor. Love is a powerful motivator so I created the Collection in his honor. She was lovely on the phone, had never heard of ALAN, but remarked that it had been many years since she had spoken at NCTE. I told her that NCTE was in Houston this year, and she said she lived in Houston and would love to get back into the fold. I asked her if she could speak on the issue that books representing Latin youth are disproportionately censored and she responded that she sure could. I am always trying to bring new people and old friends back to NCTE so I asked her to speak on the panel.

 In preparation for the session, I asked each author to send me three questions that they would like me to ask them. I then organized them in a way that seems like a logical flow, making sure that every author has a chance to answer the question that means most to them but giving each author a chance to respond if they want. Here is a screen shot of the questions that I gave to each author to speak about:

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Michael Cart gave a beautifully articulated response to the first question and passed the microphone to his left and that’s when everything blew up. Everyone was shocked, including myself. Trying to get things on track, I said that this was an opportunity for growth and understanding if we could listen to one another. That did not happen and things got heated. It was awful. I, too, got angry.

One thing I know is that people get hurt when things are spoken in anger. It is probably a good thing that I am not very skilled in social media and have not been privy to the rants on twitter. I have spoken with a representative of NCTE staff and they are listening. They are gathering information and are focusing on ways to keep the NCTE community safe; we are family. As much as I hated what this author had to say, I recognize the irony that she was speaking on this particular panel that promotes intellectual freedom and opposes censorship. Anger can be good AFTER reflection. Please be mindful of the things you can say that might be hurtful to the NCTE community. There is room for real growth here. I know, for me, I have been talking about what happened more so than I would have had this blow up not occurred.

I’m hoping that all educators who are listening will have courage to stand up for all marginalized youth and be motivated by the love they have for all of their students.

I have much more to say but being with family and friends at Thanksgiving will give me more energy to respond later after more reflection.

Sincerely,

Joan Kaywell

In response, on that very same day,  ELATE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education  and GSEA Genders and Sexualities Equality Alliance released a letter. Here is their letter:

On Saturday, November 17th, 2018, a panel entitled “Disproportionately Censored: A Conversation with YA Authors Who Write About Race, Gender, and Sexuality” took place as part of the NCTE 2018 Conference at 4:15 pm in room 362 ABC of the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, TX. This panel was sponsored by the Standing Committee Against Censorship and was also a part of the ELATE, TE, and LGBTQ strands.

In the panel, one of the invited authors, Sarah Cortez, engaged in homophobic and racist hate speech that affected members of both the panel and members of the audience. Bill Konigsberg, an author on the panel, directly detailed these comments in his speech. As Konigsberg noted, one of the statements, fact-checked by an audience member, came from The Family Research Council, an organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks the activity of hate groups across the U.S.

Three days after the session, NCTE’s social media accounts told us they were “sorry to learn, and continue to be saddened by, the fact that panelists and attendees experienced hateful comments from a panelist during a session on Saturday.” A follow-up tweet noted, “Since Saturday we have been meeting with the panelists involved and listening and learning from the experience. If you are willing to share your feedback or experience we welcome it here.” Several members responded to NCTE on Twitter, criticizing their response for not naming Sarah Cortez and using passive and problematic language to describe what took place. For example,  S.R. Toliver tweeted, ”We are deeply sorry to learn” is not the same as clearly saying “we know about the homophobic comments of Sarah Cortez, and we are investigating the incident to do better in the future.”

Author and panel presenter Joan Kaywell also issued a response. While Kaywell takes responsibility for inviting the speaker, she also writes, “As much as I hated what this author had to say, I recognize the irony that she was speaking on this particular panel that promotes intellectual freedom and opposes censorship. Anger can be good AFTER reflection. Please be mindful of the things you can say that might be hurtful to the NCTE community.” On these comments, we wish to note that what Cortez said is not representative of intellectual freedom, since it was neither intellectual nor grounded in facts or research. We add that ignoring and not naming the incident is a form of censorship. In addition, we wish to note that reserving anger for a particular space/time is a privilege only afforded to some. To those in the audience, particularly those from marginalized groups, including those who identify as LGBTQ, it may not have been possible to regulate anger to a particular post-reflection space. Racial microaggressions from both Kaywell and Cortez were reported during the presentation, further adding to a hostile environment that discouraged participation from marginalized audience members.

We know and are appreciative of the fact that NCTE leadership is still investigating, but we find the response so far to be inadequate. Is NCTE a place where anyone has a platform, even those who try to erase or harass marginalized groups? Will NCTE leadership draw the line when the NCTE community, including members and students, are threatened? Will NCTE engage in the type of anti-bias work it asks its members to undertake? As members of NCTE, it is questions like these to which we want answers.

We believe that talking about what transpired is the only way to empower NCTE members, make them feel safe, and create lasting change. We also wish to remind NCTE leadership that Cortez’s words were a direct violation of the Mutual Respect and Anti-Harassment Policy NCTE has displayed prominently in their conference program. Cortez’s comments were dehumanizing and made members of the NCTE family feel unsafe. For all of these reasons, we demand NCTE leadership, namely the NCTE Executive Committee, take action in the following ways:

1) Denounce the hateful comments made by Cortez, naming the speaker and naming the comments as hate speech.

2) Be transparent by letting the NCTE community know how this incident is being handled, and how similar incidents will be handled in the future. Respond immediately to future incidents instead of waiting for victims to respond.

3) Adopt a policy and/or procedures that protects members and ensures increased accountability when something like this happens, even though it may be uncomfortable or difficult to do so.  

4) Outline responsibilities for each panel participant’s role, including steps to to take if participants violate NCTE’s policies. Add in accountability measures where needed.

5) Encourage members to speak out against supremacy, racism, and all other forms of hate.

6) Support a critical media literacy campaign that helps members become better at distinguishing between truth, opinion, and fact.

We look forward to hearing the Executive Committee’s response.

Signed,

ELATE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education

GSEA Genders and Sexualities Equality Alliance

Then, on Nov. 26, NCTE, apparently finishing their inquiries, officially responded with this statement:

NCTE Response to Disproportionately Censored Panel

On Saturday, November 17, 2018, the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship sponsored a session at the NCTE Annual Convention titled “Disproportionately Censored: A Conversation with YA Authors Who Write about Race, Gender, and Sexuality” (Session L.06). During the session, one of the panelists unexpectedly expressed  abhorrent homophobic views that run counter to NCTE’s well-published beliefs. While NCTE firmly believes in promoting diverse perspectives and supporting intellectual and academic freedom, we do not tolerate or condone beliefs that are bigoted at their core. We want all of our members to know that NCTE and its leadership unequivocally reject bigotry in all forms.

This letter is a formal denouncement of what took place in session L.06, and it outlines next steps.

Since the time of the session on November 17, we (NCTE’s current president and 2018 Program Chair, Executive Director, and staff) have been working together to learn, listen, and identify deliberate action steps. This included reaching out to the session chair, the moderator, and each panelist and inviting conversations to understand more specifically what took place.

The three clear opportunities to address this beyond the 2018 NCTE Convention are:

1. We will reexamine our processes surrounding program selection and how presenters are informed of and agree to our Mutual Respect & Anti-Harassment Policy.

2. We will create a guide for panel moderators that articulates what can and should be done to create safe learning spaces for both presenters and participants.

3. This topic will be an important part of the next in-person Executive Committee meeting (February 2019).

NCTE invites further feedback here, and we appreciate the contributions our community has shared over the past week.

Signed byt

Franki Sibberson, NCTE President & 2018 Convention Program Chair

Emily Kirkpatrick, Executive Director

So, what does all this mean? Today, we hear from one of the panelists, Tillie Walden, who discusses what happened, why this needs to be discussed and what can be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again. This is Part 1, please come back on Wednesday to hear Part 2.

Read all the kidlitwomen* essays shared in March

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On today's podcast you will hear:

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Tillie Walden is a cartoonist from Austin, Texas who has released six graphic novels, including THE END OF SUMMER, a gorgeous story of a family who is about to lock themselves into a giant, maze-like mansion at the beginning of a three-year winter, A CITY INSIDE, a dreamy comic that manages to feel loose and airy, while displaying her trademark laser-guided drawing chops and almost feels like a guided meditation through the artist’s mind, SPINNING, a 400pp memoir of her experience as a competitive figure skater through grade and high school. Her newest book is, ON A SUNBEAM which has two interweaving timelines: A ragtag crew travels to the deepest reaches of space, rebuilding beautiful, broken structures to piece the past together and two girls meet in boarding school and fall deeply in love—only to learn the pain of loss. And was a Washington Post 10 best graphic novels of 2018.

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Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.  Grace's new picture book,  A Big Mooncake for Little Star is now available. 

 TRANSCRIPT


Grace:                      Okay, welcome Tillie. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. I really apologize for making you relive it, but I think it-

Tillie:                        That is okay.

Grace:                      I think it's really important that we need to talk about this, right, to get an understanding of what happened. But before we start, a new thing I am trying to do on this podcast is to ask for people to self identify, so we can correctly use pronouns. So I'm a cisgendered Asian American woman, who uses she and her. Would you care to self identify for our audience?

Tillie:                        Of course I am a cisgender white female using she/her pronouns.

Grace:                      Great. All right. So let's start at the very beginning. You were on the Disproportionately Censored: A Conversation with YA Authors Who Write about Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Can you tell me how the idea of this panel came about?

Tillie:                        So that's part of it that I really don't know. Because when I was asked to be a part of NCTE, it's usually my publicist who handles fitting me to the right kind of panels. I knew I was going to be on, and it always happens that I end up on panels usually having to talk about my identity because they want a lesbian to talk about lesbian things. So someone mentioned, "Do you want to be on this panel about censorship?" And I assumed, I've never really been disproportionately censored, but I assumed they wanted my perspective as a gay woman. So I was like, "Yeah, sure. Fine." I got it in an email and to be fair I didn't really read it. It was one of those things where after NCTE, I was about to go on another book tour in Germany. That was taking up all of my attention. So I just saw this email about some panel about censorship. Yeah, sure. Fine. At one point they did send us questions about what was going to be on the panel. I skimmed them. They looked totally fine. I recognized a couple of the other panelists' names and it was like, "Okay, sure." And I had no idea that it would turn out this.

Grace:                      So you're often asked to be on panels as a lesbian woman, is that correct?

Tillie:                        Almost exclusively. Either they want to hear a woman in comics perspective, women in YA, or something to do with gay things. It's a common theme right now. I think a lot of institutions are really curious and also maybe just seeing diversity almost as a fad, and they want to be cool and play along. I think it's more rare to find people who are genuinely interested in my perspective. So yeah, it's very common and I've made my peace with it because it's a way for me to reach people and talk about what I do.

Grace:                      That sounds really similar to a lot of what I do in terms of race as well. so I think it's really interesting. So you don't know who conceived this panel then?

Tillie:                        I have no idea. And it seemed like when I was brought in on it, the panelists had been decided. The moderator to been decided, and that's pretty normal for how I do things. I usually prefer my publishers or the event to take care of it because I don't have a lot of time to devote to doing my research on these sorts of panels and taking care of things. I mostly just have the time to be there.

Grace:                      That makes sense. I think that's similar to a lot of authors. So the moderator of this panel was Joan Kaywell. And the other panelists were Michael Cart, Sabina Khan, Bill Konigsberg, and Sarah Cortez. And you said, had you met any of them before?

Tillie:                        So I had realized that I had seen something about Sabina on Twitter, and I had seen stuff about Bill online as well. So those are the only two whose names I was familiar with. And also, I can't recall if they had mentioned Sarah. Sarah was a last minute addition, so I actually don't believe she was mentioned in any of the initial emails about it. And interestingly enough, when the panel started, we were all sitting there and there were just enough chairs for me, Michael, Bill, and Sabina. And then it was like oh wait, there's one more person and it's Sarah. And she was there, but I wasn't aware with how this process worked. I wasn't aware of how they picked us, or how they picked Sarah. That was very much behind the scenes.

Grace:                      So did you all speak before the panel then? I guess either during the initial emails or even right before the panel went live?

Tillie:                        There were some emails back and forth with everyone, but they were pretty sporadic. It was obvious that everyone was busy with other things and this panel was not everyone's priority, which is usually true with a lot of these events. And we spoke all very, very briefly right before the panel. It was the sort of thing where I was coming from something else and so were the others. We all had our publicists and publishers and people around. I only just was able to say hello to everyone before we were sitting there and we were all handed a sheet of paper, with the questions on it.

Grace:                      So did Sarah Cortez come with a publisher, or with a publicist?

Tillie:                        I didn't notice her having a publisher. It seemed like Sabina and Bill, I might be getting this wrong. I believe published with Scholastic. it seems like they had people around. But no, I didn't notice her. She just appeared. And the one thing I did notice was that she had a manila folder with paper in it, which I thought was weird. Just because I don't normally see people coming to panels with papers, and we were all handed a sheet of paper with the questions and then I later realized on the panel what was in that manila folder, which was not too good.

Grace:                      Okay. So in Bill's speech at ALAN, he says most of the panelists came to talk about the topic, which of course was about the censorship. But one panelist did not, which was of course Sarah Cortez. She took the mic, and then things went awry. So would you be willing to tell us what happened in more detail?

Tillie:                        Yes. And I will try my best to relay it as I recall it. It was so shocking at the time, and I'm very much used to going to these panels and then instantly forgetting about it and moving onto the next one. Because as I'm sure you know we do a lot of these events. You just pass through them, and then you get to focus on your real work, which is making books. So I have had actually some trouble piecing together the order in which things happened, but I will try and and explain. And I'm sure Sabina and Bill and the other panelists maybe could remember it differently. This is the best I can do.

Tillie:                        But basically we showed up. We started by introducing ourselves and I believe Joan also introduced us a little bit. And one of the first questions was something to do with identity. And I believe Bill spoke a bit. I mentioned how I've published a memoir which was about being a lesbian in sports and struggling with that identity. And we very quickly veered into the topic of LGBTQ issues because Michael, myself, and Bill are all somewhere under that umbrella. And Sabina also spoke a bit about her daughter and queer issues.

Tillie:                        And so we very immediately veered into that space, and that was when Sarah, one of the first things she said was, and she opened her manila folder to reference it. She said that, I'm not sure I have this totally. I'm not sure what number it was. It was something like less than one percent of the population is gay. So why is it that they are going to be more than one percent of books? And we all paused because we weren't sure if we totally grasped the intention of what she was saying. Because so far, everything has been very clearly there are queer people on this stage. We're going to be talking about these issues. And she was basically saying there's not that many gay people in the world, so why do they need to be in books?

Tillie:                        But we all let it pass because again, she said it so matter of factly and without any malice that I thought maybe something was wrong with me. I thought I was hearing it wrong and I looked at Sabina and it was like okay, moving on. And then I could tell also Bill was a little like [inaudible 00:08:47] then we kept talking. Joan I believe asked another question, a question which I cannot recall at all what it was. And then Sarah said that, and this felt very totally out of the blue that most. She said most gay men die by the age of 35.

Tillie:                        And we were like what? First of all, I don't think that's true. And Bill just was the first to notice that something was really wrong here. And Bill was like, "Why would you say that? Why would you bring up when gay men die?" And she mentioned something about suicide, and it was very triggering. The audience was starting to get a little confused, and the audience was reacting. They were making sounds. And Bill was like, "Are you referencing the aids crisis? What are you doing?" And I looked over at Sarah and she was very smug, and just smiling and very pleased with herself for mentioning these statistics about the death of a gay people. And from that point on, it really starts to mix up in my mind because it got very intense very, very quickly.

Tillie:                        Sabina spoke about ... We began to talk about what do you do in a situation if there's a queer child and they want to read queer content in their books, but the parents aren't sure about it. And Sabina and me and Bill were all mentioning that especially with the internet now, if there's a book that's censored. Because again, we were attempting to talk about censorship. There's a book that's censored, in most cases kids find a way around it, right? You can find that book. You can go on Amazon, you can go on the internet. And that ultimately if a child needs a story, I there's hope that they'll be able to find it. And Sarah immediately came back to say that children don't have any rights to read those kinds of stories, that the parents get to decide.

Tillie:                        So if you have a gay kid who wants to read a book about a gay character, if the parents say they can't, then she's like, "They shouldn't." And I immediately jumped on that and was like, "That's ***." A straight parent ultimately can't understand what a gay child. They can attempt to. But something about that really rubbed me the wrong way because as a lesbian I was like, "No wait. Every kid deserves to be seen. Every kid deserves to read these stories, even if their parents don't necessarily understand it." And somehow, I mentioned some homophobia I had experienced. And Sarah came back to say in response that the discrimination she had faced as a cop and as a Catholic was much greater than the discrimination I had faced as a lesbian. And I was like, "No, you do not get to say that."

Tillie:                        And I was especially raw because I get really upset when we talk about law enforcement in this country, because it's a really disgusting situation in my mind. She immediately jumped on this bandwagon to talk about how cops are the victims. And we all tried to come back and I said something along the lines of, "That's not fair because cops aren't getting murdered at the rate that black people are getting murdered." And we were so off on the topic of censorship at this point. I was looking at the moderator and looking at, there were people from NCTE leadership in the room and no one was doing anything to stop this or to help us get back on track. We just devolved.

Tillie:                        And Sarah then, it became this battle between Sarah and myself. She kept saying homophobic things, racist things. I also noticed every time Sabina spoke, and Sabina is a woman of color. Sarah would roll her eyes and whisper things under her breath that I usually couldn't make out, but she was very disrespectful to Sabina I thought. And at one point, I really lost it and I was like you ... She said, "Tillie, I think you think I'm racist and homophobic." And I said, "I do think you're racist. Everything you've talked about so far has presented the fact that you don't respect people of color. You don't respect me as a lesbian. You've walked on this panel and you've disrespected all of us." And she started shaking her head. People in the audience started shouting. And at this point, there were tears in people's eyes. And as if things could not get any worse at that point, and this is difficult to talk about because what was said was very upsetting.

Tillie:                        I'm the kind of person where I want everyone to be happy and I can't talk about this panel and protect people. So at this point, we were all losing our minds. Sarah had managed to offend all of us and a lot of people in the audience. And at that point, the moderator Joan, I think in an attempt to calm everyone down told us, she said, "I want to present a situation, a scenario to you," and I don't know if you've heard about this thus far. But it came out of nowhere. We all settled down and we turn to Joan to listen to her. I was hoping it would mean that things would get better. And she started it by saying a black woman is raped.

Tillie:                        And I couldn't. I wanted to get up and leave in that instant. I really did. And I felt horrible, and I saw the audience's reaction and it just got worse. She said, "A black woman is raped by a white man. She does not take care of the child. She stands on the street, she smokes." She presented a situation that I felt was very, very offensive. Then she talked about how this mixed race child is born. Every tragedy ever befalls her. She's abused, she's in foster care, her mother dies. She's raised by grandparents who then die. And this was not on our sheet of paper of what we were talking about. None of us had any context for what was going on or why this was being said. And she ended it by saying, "Does this person deserve books?" Or something along those lines.

 PLEASE COME BACK ON WED FOR PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW

GRACE LIN