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Diversity and Inclusion—A Conversation with Conscious Style Guide Creator Karen Yin

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By Melanie Padgett Powers

Words have power. We, as association media, publishing and communications experts, know this. And as we choose our words—and our sources, images and graphics—we need to reflect on how those choices reflect on our associations and our industries and the impact they have on our readers and members.

As our country dives deeper into much-needed conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion, I wanted to speak with someone I know who has been thinking about and working on these issues for a long time.

In this Q&A, I interviewed Karen Yin, a fellow editor I’ve learned a lot from over the past five years. Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, the essential guide to conscious language. Winner of the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for advancing the craft of professional editing, Yin is also the force behind the Editors of Color Database and the Database of Diverse Databases, tools for diversifying your staff and sources. Before that, Yin was the executive editor of three national lifestyle magazines and the head of editorial at two entertainment ad agencies.

Melanie Padgett Powers: Everyone seems to be talking about diversity and inclusion all of a sudden. Why is it important for editors and writers to consider these issues
Karen Yin: While reviewing a client’s e-commerce listings for playground equipment, I asked why they had ticked the box for “boys” but not “girls” in the search parameters. They didn’t realize they had been limiting their audience for years because of an old decision. But that’s what we do when we don’t examine our biases and which boxes we ticked long ago. It’s one thing to strategically narrow the target audience, but when the goal is to reach more readers or customers, we need to consciously choose words and images that welcome and reflect the diversity of gender, race, age and appearance of our intended audience. Because as gatekeepers, we can do more than keep errors out. Gatekeepers are also gate openers, and it’s this power to let through more of the things we want to nurture in this world that makes conscious editing and writing an act of compassion.

MPP: Many associations follow a particular style guide, like the Associated Press Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style. Shouldn’t we simply follow their lead?
KY: Following one style guide is enough till it isn’t. I created Conscious Style Guide in 2015 precisely because there was a gap in guidance, and I knew from years of studying style recommendations from marginalized communities, such as the Asian American Journalists Association and GLAAD, that information on preferred wording and framing was out there—people had already done the work. It matters that these guides were put together by members of those communities, as opposed to an outsider drawing biased conclusions. Making the guides easier to find by gathering them on one website was a logical next step in my personal quest to spread inclusive, respectful and empowering language.

MPP: When people think of diversity, they often think of racial and ethnic diversity. But is there more to it than that?
KY: It does seem like “diversity” is used more often to refer to race and ethnicity, which can have the effect of erasing other types of diversity. But if we pause to consider the whole spectrum of perspectives omitted throughout history due to discrimination and prejudice, it provides a clearer understanding of our vast diversity and the many unconscious biases and harmful systems that persist. When thinking about diversity, it’s important to make space for historically vulnerable and underrepresented communities instead of methodically including people from each category. Focusing on diversity is OK as a first step to becoming aware of biased practices, but it’s not the end-all. As a society, we need to think beyond diversity and be willing to examine and transform the deeply flawed beliefs embedded in our systems—such as legal and educational—preventing progress toward social equity.

MPP: Where should we go to learn more about these issues?
KY: An easy way to start learning about these issues is to subscribe to my free “The Conscious Language Newsletter,” a monthly roundup of the latest news and resources. I describe it as a gentle way to stay in touch with how language is evolving, why it continues to matter, and, most important, our role in using language skillfully to improve our lives.

Melanie Padgett Powers is a freelance writer and editor, and owner of MelEdits.  Also check out her podcast