‘Gatekeepers Are Also Gate Openers’; Writing Copy That Invites in All

One of the advantages of living in the Washington, D.C., area is the opportunity to take part on the frontlines of important events. I used to play tennis with a friend here who would tell me about being present at Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.
Last night I went down to the Capitol for the viewing of Congressman John Lewis, who was the youngest person to speak on that famous day. I had been fortunate to meet him once in 2006 at an art gallery of all places. He was so gracious in signing an illustrated book titled John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement, and in addressing the lucky 25 or 30 of us on famous events of his life—and, of course, of the country.

What struck me more than anything last night was the diversity of the crowd—all masked of course—in all facets: age, race, ethnicity, gender, even clothing. Police were helpful, cold water was handed out and with a western sky backdrop at sunset, it was almost overwhelming.

Looking around, I also thought, “This is our audience, not in the future but now, and we need to make sure that our outreach is always welcoming if not enticing to everyone.” A colleague of mine in another division here, Melanie Padgett Powers—an excellent freelance writer and editor; reach her at MelEdits—conducted a recent interview with Karen Yin (pictured), founder of Conscious Style Guide, the essential guide to conscious language. Winner of the 2017 ACES (the society for editing) 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.

“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,” Yin said. “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.”

She offered an example: “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.”
Yin is careful to point out that diversity goes so much beyond what we normally think. “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,” she said. “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.”
I love that metaphor of gatekeepers as gate openers. Nobody does this better than Donna Jefferson at Chesapeake Family. When you go onto that homepage, you see all kinds of diverse images—Cute Kid Cover Contest, How Childcare Centers Are Operating During the Pandemic and showcasing the digital issues of their magazine.

But the image I like the best is the graphic for one of their most popular contests: “Here are your 2020 Favorite Docs.” Everyone can see themselves somewhere in that image. And you can be sure that adds significantly to the entries that Chesapeake Family receives. (I will be reporting more on Jefferson and some virtual successes she’s had soon.)

In 2015, Yin created that Conscious Style Guide, which is a great reference. In one recent article titled Are All Grandmothers Amazing Cooks?Karen Eng writes, “The food media has reached a consensus: Everyone loves Grandma’s cooking… I have a Chinese grandmother, and the biggest food memory I have of visiting her as a kid is the paper bag of assorted muffins she would bring home from her job at Dunkin’ Donuts.”
“Following one style guide is enough till it isn’t,” Yin said. “I created Conscious Style Guide precisely because there was a gap in guidance, and I knew from years of studying style recommendations from marginalized communities… 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.”
I had two Jewish grandmothers who couldn’t cook a lick, though they did cover their couches in squeaky plastic. The point is that we just need to take a second look at our copy—especially for marketing—and make sure we don’t put any of these assumptions or biases in. Not because we’re bad people if we do, but because we want as many people as possible to keep reading and nodding and engaging and buying.

If our audience is even some of the people I saw last night, then it’s a must.

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