Fireside Chat with Ritu Bhasin and Léonicka Valcius

The subject of diversity has grown in importance in Canadian publishing over the past few years, with ACP publishing a report this year on the state of diversity in the industry. Publishers are eager to incorporate inclusive practices but are not necessarily sure where to start. As part of TechForum 2019, Léonicka Valcius sat down with keynote speaker Ritu Bhasin and together discussed navigating diversity in publishing. Léonicka Valcius is the founder of #DiverseCanLit, the founding Chair of the Board of Directors of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), as well as assistant agent at Transatlantic Agency. Ritu Bhasin is an award-winning speaker, author, and expert in diversity and inclusion, women’s advancement and authentic leadership. The conversation ran in a Q & A format using questions from the audience that the two speakers then answered together. The fireside chat also built on Bhasin’s keynote speech about dismantling bias to build more inclusive businesses. You can read our recap of the keynote speech here.

Bhasin and Valcius first tackled the issue of how individuals and leaders looking to create change can ask questions about how to be more diverse and inclusive without fearing missteps. Both speakers emphasized the importance of being prepared as a way to avoid unnecessary stress and saying something foolish. They advised implanting as much inclusive language in your mind in advance of the situation, for example by writing what you plan on asking and scripting some responses or reactions. Planting responses in this way will help override the fear of saying something wrong, which discourages conversation. The speakers also suggested preparing phrases such as:

“I’m sorry in advance, some of this will come out wrong. I am still learning, and I apologize.”

“Can I please ask you about X?”

These phrases help to lay the groundwork for a safe space for both parties. These phrases let the person you are approaching know that the questioner is authentic in wanting to learn and listen. Saying “I am sorry” in advance goes a long way to diffusing any stress or tension and helps to show that you are approaching the conversation with an open heart and mind. Asking for permission demonstrates empathy for the person you are asking and creates a safe space for them to react authentically, especially if they are not able to provide an answer to your question at that moment.

Bhasin and Valcius next provided some simple concrete actions to do in case of a public mistake, such as a racist incident or comment at an author event:

  • Ask forgiveness and apologize. Do not say, “I didn’t mean that”. In this situation, impact overrides intent. Something like “I am so sorry. Can you tell me what I did wrong and why? And what I can do instead?” is better phrasing, as it focuses the conversation on pain and healing, and not avoidance and blame.
  • Sometimes you must sit in your own discomfort and let someone else flourish and thrive. In other words, it is not the person’s job to forgive you or teach you how to be better. Take the mistake as a sign to take a backseat and let someone else take the lead on a situation.

Advice was also given on how an institution can apologize for a misstep. The ideal apology will have words backed by actions and will also reach out to the impacted communities. Diversity and inclusion values are often communicated badly. Having members of the community you are speaking about at the table as you proceed and allowing them to speak goes a long way. Beyond speaking with impacted communities, it is important to publicly show support for them. Additionally, leadership must openly acknowledge failures and own their mistakes. However, no apology is going to be perfect, and a company should be ready for backlash and open to corrections.

For a good example of what to do, the speakers recommended looking at how Starbucks reacted to a racist incident at one of their Philadelphia locations. First, the CEO spoke against the incident. Second, all Starbucks locations were shut down so that all employees could take part in intervention and anti-racism training. According to Bhasin and Valcius, what makes this reaction great is that it features a public apology from an authoritative figure followed by an action that supports the statement. This sends a strong signal to the market, including competitors and consumers, about the company’s values. The CEO spoke about valuing diversity and safety, and then acted to make sure that all Starbucks locations reflected these values.

The question of how to balance business imperatives with social ones arose from the discussion about apologies. Both speakers urged the audience to move away from the perception that these imperatives are binary. Publishing especially should be aware of how business and social imperatives are linked and understand how they feed into each other. For publishers, properly setting up diversity for success will lead to better sales, as the social imperative of telling and listening to stories in turn feeds sales and the business imperative.

Businesses shifting to more diverse and inclusive practices can set themselves up for success. Over the course of the fireside, Bhasin and Valcius talked about different steps businesses can take towards inclusion:

  • Take the time to question and interrupt and fight your own internalized biases. Personal bias change is first step to global systemic disruption.
  • Take stock of your company’s diversity and inclusivity strategies and establish a baseline in order to see how much more it can do. The speakers reminded the audience that every action matters and every decision makes a difference. Which voices are currently being lifted up? Who could you be lifting up?
  • In order to build an inclusive workplace, businesses can begin by adopting practices that work around unconscious bias. Well-meaning leaders unconsciously push conformity because they think minimizing differences will increase the chances of success. This is a diversity tactic, well-intentioned but harmful, and ultimately focused on numbers and not authentic inclusion. Unconscious gatekeeping can also occur in industry entry points. There needs to be more intentional inclusion, which requires more active undoing of systems without bragging or counting. Blind submissions, for example, work around bias in staff recruitment and manuscript submissions.
  • The speakers also encouraged publishers to seek out diverse content and to not just stick to social media stars who might not be able to produce literary content. Representation matters. The mere presence of diverse people helps to disrupt beliefs.


In addition to these company-wide steps, the speakers encouraged the audience to own behaviours and biases in order to change the system and disrupt ideas of who belongs in what spaces. As publishing seeks to become more inclusive, the actions offered by TechForum speakers offer simple starting points for individuals working throughout the industry.

07/03/2019 | Book Fairs, Events