Funny how things happen sometimes, isn’t it? I just finished reading Frozen Fire by Tim Bowler, then picked up Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Both of these are YA novels, recent publications (well, 2006 and 2011), and both have a healthy dose of otherworldliness about the stories. These events alone are not surprising. I read about an average of two novels a week, and many, if not most, of them are YA.
But today I had to attend mandatory training at my new job. The class was called “Managing Inclusion.” Five years ago, it would have been called “Diversity Training,” but corporate America has matured, apparently, beyond simply understanding diversity and moved on to inclusion for all people. This is a good thing. For a lot of reasons.
Again, not a weird or surprising occurrence. Corporate trainer attends mandatory session at work.
But here’s the rub: The combination of four hours of discussion about inclusion versus exclusion and the impact of both on the workplace resonated with me through the literature I’d been reading.
No – neither Delirium nor Frozen Fire is about corporate America… But hang in there with me. I really do have a point.
Part of our discussion in this class centered around how exclusion can be forceful and intentional, but it can also occur subtly without even the excluder realizing what they are doing. On the other hand, inclusion is always active. You cannot passively include someone. You must make an effort to make sure people are included. We also talked about how the behaviors of including and excluding people start very young. We learn very early in life to plop people into buckets, usually based on what they look like. And as we mature, those buckets get more complex, but the main skill is ingrained – we still sort and categorize…and judge.
So I’m listened and participated in this discussion with a room full of adults, all professional, all well-educated, all successful in their chosen fields. And I kept making “connections” (a word used by many a language arts teacher!) back to the two books I named, not to mention to recent conversations around my own dinner table.
In Frozen Fire, Bowler gives us examples of very active exclusion when the people in the town, specifically the teenagers, forcefully exclude a group of travelers from the town. People openly dismiss them and even take violent action against them. Worse yet – the same townspeople show how aggressively a mob can exclude based on rumor and hearsay when they decide one of the main characters is guilty of horrible crimes. Even when presented with undeniable proof that he didn’t commit the crime, he unwittingly proves his differences run deeper than the town ever thought. They are so threatened by this innocent boy, they still pursue him and force him out.
In the beginning of Delirium (on only about 5 chapters in, but had started reading immediately before the inclusion class, so it was fresh on my mind), a group of people live in the “wilderness” between cities. Everyone knows they are out there…calls them the Invalids “secretly” and understands that the government denies their existence because they are harmful and bad.
As I’m pondering the suggested actions I should take to make sure my work team is inclusive and thinking in the back of my head about how these stories illustrate exclusion, I started wondering at how the children of the world…the kids in my own home included…learn about actions that include or exclude. And how they recognize the consequences of those actions.
Recently, a sixth grade girl I know started talking to me about an event in her school cafeteria. The conversation went something like this:
My friend: “Sally got mad when someone tried to sit with us at lunch today.”
My Friend: “Sally didn’t want her there. She doesn’t like her.”
Me: “Why doesn’t she like her?”
My Friend: “The other girl is pretty quiet and doesn’t have many friends. I guess Sally just thinks she’s different. But Sally said right to her face – go away. You can’t sit here with us.”
Me. “That’s horrible! What did you do?”
My Friend: “I made room for her to sit on the other side of me. Sally gave me a dirty look, but I thought she was being mean and hurting the other girl’s feelings.”
So…wow. Yeah. Exclusion right there. And don’t we all remember being the one made to feel the outsider for some reason, if not in childhood, then as an adult? And can I just say how proud I was of my friend – this girl who, at the tender age of 12, had it in her heart to do the right thing even in the face of disapproval from others? So proud.
Do we have enough positive messages of inclusion in the literature that kids pull off of library shelves today? Stories, after all, teach us so much. Stories model behavior. Or as my writing partner would say: Stories are good medicine.
Do we have enough stories with characters who are different – different in color, religion, language, sexual orientation, dress, body size…(The list goes on and on.) Are there enough stories out there where difference is just part of what characters are, not who they are? And is it up to us – as writers, as artists, as people who care about children enough to write books for them – is it up to us to make sure messages of inclusion are … ahem…included in our work? Should we, as a writing (and parenting, teaching, loving, grandparenting, aunt- and uncle-ing, working, living, breathing) community present as many stories with as many different characters as possible to illustrate the power of inclusion through art? And the flip side – the power of exclusion and its consequences?
Imagine the power of stories that model acceptance and inclusion – and how that could change our world.
Food for thought. Keep writing.