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Jan 14, 2022

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A case for BIPOC books

A case for BIPOC books

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In children’s and young adult (YA) literature, representation matters. According to an article on the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) has found that the highest percentage of available books by African American authors or illustrators between 1985 and 2014 was 3.

5%. The percentage was even lower for other communities of color in that same period.

The CCBC has indexed every new book to track diversity trends in children’s and young adult literature since 1985. By looking at the CCBC’s 2020 statistics, one finds that the percentage of books about Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) by U.S. publishers is approximately 30%, or 949 out of 3,115 books.

Housed in the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, the center annually publishes CCBC Choices, a list of 250 best children’s and YA books selected from upwards of 3,500 titles. The list highlights great books with emphasis on diverse voices. A quick search for the keywords “refugee” and “immigrant” in this 2021 publication yields 21 and 22 entries respectively — a theme that is of interest to me as a storyteller writing about the experiences of Somalis in Minnesota and beyond.

The center’s reasons for promoting and supporting diverse children’s literature include validation and representation. The UW article notes that hashtags such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoice were also born out of a need to change the status quo on two fronts: low percentage of books with BIPOC characters and misrepresentations of communities of color in literature. The #OwnVoice movement particularly advocates that “cultural insiders” write about BIPOC characters and tell their stories in their own voices.

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In the early 1990s, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop penned an essay titled, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” The essay explores the importance of giving BIPOC children the opportunity to see themselves represented and reflected in literature. And since currently “more than half of K–12 public school students are children of color,” the need for representation in literature is real — and immediate. A piece on the PBS blog observes: “Seeing ourselves in literature is a gift. It is an empowering experience as a reader to see a protagonist who has a similar name to us and shares a similar background.”

Abdullahi JannoIn a 2015 YouTube clip, Bishop again invites readers to get a sense of the experiences of underrepresented communities by reading diverse books as windows into unfamiliar worlds. This view is also reflected in a quote by a former head of the CCBC: “If children grow up never seeing, never reading, never hearing the variety of the wide range of voices, they lose so much…. They are going to be stunned when everyone is not like them.” In other words, diversifying children’s literature is both enriching and worth celebrating.

Reading brings joy and expands a child’s horizon. As is often said, literature teaches empathy. And the promotion of BIPOC literature is not a demotion of any other type of literature. Instead, it’s an assertion that these underrepresented voices are also an integral part of America’s literary tradition: E Pluribus Unum — Out of many, One.

Abdullahi Janno is a storyteller and educator. He writes short stories both in Somali and English. He lives and works in St. Paul.

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Oil Firms Claim Baltimores Climate Lawsuit Threatens US Energy Security

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US oil firms have been accused of using scare tactics after telling a federal court on Tuesday that lawsuits alleging fossil fuel companies lied about the climate crisis could threaten America’s oil supply.

At a closely watched appeals court hearing to decide whether a lawsuit by the city of Baltimore should be heard in state or federal court, an attorney for BP, Exxon, Shell and other energy firms painted the case as a threat to America’s energy independence.


Kannon Shanmugam, representing the industry, told the court that if the city were to succeed in state court, and win billions of dollars in compensation, that could kill offshore drilling. “The relief that Baltimore seeks would deter, if not render entirely impractical, any further production on the outer continental shelf,” he said.

The outcome of the case may have a bearing on nearly a dozen other lawsuits by states and municipalities.

Karen Sokol, a law professor at Loyola University who specializes in climate litigation, called the claim one of a number of “sterile scare tactics” deployed by the oil industry as it fights to move the Baltimore and other cases out of state jurisdictions, where consumer protection and other laws favor the plaintiffs, and in to federal courts where the fossil fuel companies believe they have the advantage.

“It’s a scare tactic, which is telling the courts to back off, we’re a very powerful industry and we’re essential right now to energy security. If you step into this, you’re going to screw everything up,” she said.

Baltimore’s case accuses oil firms of breaching Maryland state consumer protection and other laws by running disinformation campaigns to cover up what they knew about the dangers of burning fossil fuels.

The outcome of Tuesday’s hearing will influence similar cases within the same federal jurisdiction, including a suit by Charleston, South Carolina. It may also have a bearing on nearly a dozen other lawsuits by states and municipalities in other jurisdictions. A federal appeals court in Hawaii is scheduled to hear a similar case next month.

Shanmugam told the court that the case should fall under federal jurisdiction because pollution is regulated by national laws, and the climate crisis is a national and international issue. Shanmugam also accused Baltimore and other municipalities of using the courts to try and change climate policy.

“Global climate change is obviously the subject of international agreements, as well as pervasive regulation by the federal government,“ he said.

Vic Sher, representing Baltimore, said that the city’s case is not about the regulation of pollution but the lies told by the fossil fuel industry. “The goal of the complaint, sadly, cannot address global climate change. It’s focused very narrowly on a past pattern of conduct based on deception and failure to warn, and it seeks compensatory damages for injuries that flow from that past conduct,” he said.

Sokol said the judges appeared “very skeptical” about the basis of the oil industry’s claim that the Baltimore case belongs in federal court. She said the industry’s legal argument did not address the substance of the city’s claim that Big Oil ran a disinformation campaign and lied about the harm caused by its part in creating the climate crisis, and instead tried to put the focus on who regulates pollution.

Sokol said that if the appeals court decision goes against the oil industry she expects the firms to try to go back to the supreme court as part of a strategy to delay the Baltimore and other cases being heard by a jury for as long as possible.

“It will continue to fight this thing out in the procedural stage till hell freezes over, before it allows it to get to discovery, much less a trial, because it knows the civil discovery system of state courts is so powerful that it would be forced to discord documents that would shed light on the extent of this disinformation campaign even beyond what we already know.”

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