People of Color in Publishing Looks to Spark Change Across the Industry

A woman speaks from a podium with artwork all around her
Image credit: Patrice Caldwell
October 24, 2019

With the Wellesley attitude of “if there’s something you want to do, you can do it,” Patrice Caldwell ’15 worked her way into the world of publishing after graduating from Wellesley with a degree in political science. She got her first job as an editorial assistant at Scholastic, where two out of her three bosses were graduates of women’s colleges. “They loved that about my application,” she said, laughing. 

Caldwell saw right away that the industry as a whole was overwhelmingly white—79 percent, according to a 2016 Lee & Low study. As the daughter of a community organizer, activism runs in Caldwell’s blood. The Black Lives Matter movement was making headlines while Caldwell was at Wellesley, and she took part in conversations with the administration and student protests. It was only natural that, a few years later, she recognized that she needed to find a way to spark change in the publishing industry.

The first step? Connect people of color across the industry. “In August of 2016, I added people of color in publishing I knew to a Facebook group,” said Caldwell.

The group grew into People of Color in Publishing, an organization that “seek[s] to create a safe and inclusive space celebrating and promoting diversity,” according to its website, and to “advocate and foster career development and advancement of people of color (including Native/Indigenous) professionals’ and writers’ work.”

POC in Publishing held its first meeting at Scholastic’s headquarters in New York, and more than 60 people “just casually showed up,” Caldwell said. There were young people just beginning their careers as well as professionals switching roles within the industry. 

To date, POC in Publishing has helped more than 40 people get jobs in publishing. Caldwell is proud of that success, but she said it’s just “the first step.” By promoting strong professional development and mentorship programs and creating a regular discussion series to support aspiring publishers as well as midcareer professionals striving to reach senior positions, POC in Publishing wants to make a lasting impact.

“What needs to change,” Caldwell told BuzzFeed earlier this year, “is that publishers, oftentimes white people in publishing, need to stop viewing diversity as a trending thing, as the perfect decor for a story, and begin to do the work themselves. The work to vet submissions and queries—yes, even those by people of color—…and the work to hire and retain POC staff.”

Now a literary agent and author whose anthology A Phoenix First Must Burn is set to be released in March 2020, Caldwell reflects on the importance of finding mentors early on in her career. She knows others haven’t been as lucky. “I wanted to create for others the opportunities, mentorship, and peer support that I had,” Caldwell told Bustle last year. “I think mentorship from senior and executive-level professionals is important, but so is knowing people who are at your level and just above your level.” Caldwell counts among her mentors Susan Meyer, professor of English at Wellesley, and Tracey Cameron, assistant dean of intercultural education and director of Harambee House.

“Wellesley teaches the idea of sending the elevator back down,” Caldwell said. “It shouldn’t be as hard for everyone.”  

Photo: Patrice Caldwell ’15 welcomes guests at the POC in Publishing official launch party in 2017.

With reporting by Macy Lipkin ’23