Receipts and Resignation

Last week I publicly announced I’d stepped down from my volunteer roles on the national level with JASNA. I said I would give more details on that, and I am going to give you that here. 

If you missed my initial statement, here it is

This month I stepped down from all my JASNA national roles. I’ll talk about it in more detail soon, but if you know me you’ll know that I want to make real change in this community, not be tokenized and ignored. And I felt like I couldn’t make real and much-needed change there.

My DMs are open if you have questions. This wasn’t an easy choice, but my trust was broken for the last time.

I feel personal responsibility for anyone who might take my presence on the national level as a sign of approval, insurance of safety or a signal of real diversity, equity and inclusion efforts taking place. 

Anyway, I wanted to be transparent with y’all. I’m sure some will say this was a moody, youthful choice, but it wasn’t. I thought long and hard about this. It’s flattering anyone would still think I’m young.

This was not an easy choice, and it came with a lot of heartbreak on my part. But after months of back-and-forth with JASNA on the JASNA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee (JEDI) and some other issues I will expand on in a minute, I was tired. I was exhausted. 

None of this is to say the work JEDI does is not needed. It’s beyond necessary. I just felt that I could not continue to be a productive member, and I did not want to continue a back-and-forth with JASNA national that was growing less and less productive, and more like we (the committee, that is) were being backed into a corner. At least that is how I felt. 

And to be clear, this is all going to be my thoughts and feelings, and should not serve to reflect that of anyone else, including the remaining JEDI members. 

And, not to be THAT person, but since I’ve gotten a lot of people this week making assumptions I thought I’d clarify my status. I’m a life member and I’ve been doing major volunteer work for the org for YEARS. I’m for sure invested in making it the best place it can be. My membership status shouldn’t matter but whatever. 

The Diversity Statement

When I was first asked to be on the committee I understood that writing the JASNA diversity statement was a crucial task. The committee worked on one with info on the mission of the committee and submitted it to the national board ahead of a JASNA Board Meeting that was held on October 3, 2020. 

Last on the agenda for that meeting was the Proposed JASNA Diversity Statement Motion. You can see it below in full:

In order to fulfill our mission to foster among the widest number of readers the study, appreciation, and understanding of Jane Austen’s works, her life, and her genius, JASNA has an inherent responsibility to ensure that all people feel welcomed, valued, and safe at our meetings, events, and community spaces. There is no place in JASNA for discrimination or exclusion of any kind on the basis of age, color, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity, gender expression or disability.

The JASNA Equity Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee seeks to support JASNA in meeting its goals to increase the diversity of our membership and promote the reading of Jane Austen among diverse audiences, with particular emphasis on traditionally underrepresented groups. The committee develops processes and recommendations to ensure that all members feel welcomed in our organization and feel encouraged to report any incidents of discrimination that may occur during a JASNA event or discussion. Please send questions, comments, and inquiries about how you can get involved to JEDI@jasna.org.

During the discussion of this statement, which was to be put on the JASNA website, many chimed in with how pleased they were that JASNA was taking a stand and making progress. And then someone brought up legal concerns. Now, for context, JEDI tried to be very specific with this statement and even consulted other community guidelines and statements in order to write this. The intent was to be specific and leave no room for misunderstanding. 

When you’re writing statements like this, you should be as specific as possible to protect your most vulnerable members. There should be no question should someone violate your guidelines. You also signal to prospective members, donors and volunteers exactly where you stand. It’s overall a good policy, in my personal opinion, to be specific and strong. 

In the board meeting someone brought up issues with the wording, saying there may be legal issues with it. I was very confused, as we’d consulted laws around protected classes to make this. I was also confused because JASNA board members knew we’d been working on this, so why not ask these crucial questions before we are up to vote on it? I feel like the committee would have been more than happy to get a lawyer to look it over.

After much discussion, it was decided that the statement would be tabled until a lawyer looked it over and gave feedback. (A note here too that some on the board called/call JEDI an “external committee” as if it wasn’t made by and for JASNA. This also indicates to me that those that think this are threatened by potential DEI oversight or input into their work. Not to say that suddenly any one committee should get to take precedence over others, but considering how needed and urgent this work is, and how JEDI made it clear we were trying to support efforts, this was always a very odd way to view the committee.) 

I want to note too, that during this there were some comments about making this sound more “felicitous.” Lol. If a basic diversity statement makes you uncomfortable that says a lot more about you than the statement.

Anyway. Fast forward to January 31, 2021. That is when I found out that the Executive Committee of JASNA (which doesn’t include board members at-large as I was not aware of this even happening), had rejected the proposed statement and rewritten it and approved their new language themselves. Here is their approved statement:

To fulfill JASNA’s mission of fostering among the widest number of readers the study, appreciation, and understanding of Jane Austen’s works, her life, and her genius, JASNA strives to ensure that all people are welcome and feel valued in its meetings, events, and community spaces. JASNA is committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Society. 

Again, to my knowledge no member of JEDI was asked for feedback during this process.

During a JEDI meeting I learned that JASNA had consulted a lawyer, but it was a JASNA member and clearly not outside counsel. That was very concerning to me. I felt extremely uncomfortable and even a little misled about this process and the outcome. 

I also felt like, if we can’t get a national commitment to a strong statement and real goals (even if it makes some in the room uncomfortable) then what promise do we have that we can do the work we are trying to do? How can I, in good faith, work on projects that could bring in new members if there is not a safety net to protect them?

I also felt like this was further indication that JASNA was not ready to have hard and specific conversations. And I was tired. 

Resignation

On February 8, 2021 I sent out my resignation letters after the JEDI letter to the JASNA President was sent out. (We wrote a letter explaining our feelings about the handling and outcome of the diversity statement, expressed our frustrations with a lot of things we’d been experiencing and asking for clarification on what the committee was supposed to be doing because it certainly felt like we were getting roadblocked from things we were attempting to work on.)

Here is what my resignation letters said:

To whom it may concern:

I am stepping down from my role on the JASNA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee [my role on the social media team, my role on the JASNA board as a board-member at-large] effective immediately. I will be stepping down from all of my JASNA national board-related volunteer roles as well. 

After the recent handling of the JASNA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee’s diversity statement, I feel my trust in JASNA as an organization has been broken irrevocably and no excuse or response can change how I feel about the overall treatment of that committee and its goals. 

It is clear from my experience that JASNA is not ready or aware of the issues that it needs to address, and the severity of centering the feelings of the privileged members over those of the vulnerable and unprotected members. I feel I have given JASNA a lot of my time and knowledge and feel that I have repeatedly been disrespected and unprotected. 

I cannot in good faith continue to volunteer on the national level knowing that my presence could signal to potential new members that this is an anti-racist space when it is not, in fact, a safe space. And clearly there is an unwillingness to understand why safe spaces are important. 

I appreciate the time I have spent on the work I have gotten to fulfill in these spaces, but I hope you understand why I can no longer participate on this level. 

Thank you for your time,

Bianca Hernandez-Knight

This is what I got in response to my resignation from the board itself:

Dear Bianca,

I accept your resignation and appreciate all the time and effort you have contributed to JASNA. 

I am sorry you have felt disrespected and unprotected as that was not anyone’s intent.

Yours truly,

Liz

The thing that strikes me here is that there was no attempt to ask how JASNA could have done better, or further questions into what triggered me leaving. Anyway. 

I want you to see the response the JEDI letter got. It’s very telling about where JASNA stands and where they see the role of JEDI. 

February 22, 2021

Dear Members of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee,

Thank you for your letter of February 8. In this response I will clarify some of your questions that relate to the role and charge of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.

As you know, JASNA principally and strongly relies on members who volunteer to serve as officers, as elected at-large members of the Board of Directors, or as appointed committee members. Our mission is to inspire an appreciation of Jane Austen’s life and works. With our services to members—meetings, conferences, and publications–we foster a congenial, collegial environment for those who wish to study and to enjoy Austen and her writings.

As the organization’s bylaws state, JASNA has five standing committees. The duties or “charges” for each standing committee are already specified in the bylaws. JASNA also has the ability to create ad hoc committees as stated in the bylaws, “The Board of Directors may at any time appoint committees consisting of Members of the Society to perform such duties and make such investigations and reports as the Board shall determine.” At present, JASNA has six ad hoc committees of which the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee is one.

The specific charge or “duties” given to the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee consists of two areas that were identified in a 2018 planning retreat as important to the future of JASNA:

Part 1. Partner with Other Organizations to Strengthen JASNA (i.e. Educational, Academic, Cultural, etc.)

Bring in the next generation of Austen scholars

JASNA needs to recruit and retain more outstanding scholars

Forming partnerships with educational and cultural institutions, etc.

Create and maintain partnerships with organizations which do work that supports and strengthens our mission and vision

Part 2. Promote the Reading of Jane Austen Among Diverse Audiences

Keeping Austen relevant

Increase education for the public on Jane Austen and related topics

Make sure Austen is read in K-12 school by both sexes

Promote the reading of Jane Austen

Encourage reading of Jane Austen

Notably, this charge focuses on external outreach. In developing partnerships with other organizations and particularly in reaching out to expand the diversity of readers, you will be enhancing appreciation for Austen. The committee chair received this charge in December 2019, and it was clarified again in 2020. Because some miscommunication has occurred and some confusion about your role has persisted, I ask your committee to re-focus and to follow your charge with particular emphasis on part 2.

Please be assured that JASNA’s efforts to support diversity, equity, and inclusion are not limited to the committee on which you serve. These values are integrated into everything we do and because of that commitment, these efforts will not always be specifically funneled through the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. In addition to your charge, your committee may occasionally be consulted in pertinent discussions, but many initiatives will start elsewhere. For example, the “Jane Austen and Diversity” Persuasions On-Line issue originated outside of the committee, but the committee was consulted about the Call for Papers.

We can all move forward in a collaborative way with the following approaches:

—The President of JASNA is an ex officio member of all JASNA committees as stated in the bylaws and I routinely attend committee meetings. To help facilitate my role and to help me fulfill my governance responsibilities to the Board and to improve communication, please notify me in advance about your meeting plans and please send me minutes for all meetings in case I do not attend in person. (The last minutes I received are from August 2020.)

— If the committee is conducting business in email rather than in more formal meetings, I would like to receive copies or summaries of your messages in order to stay informed about your progress.

—If you wish to depart from your specific charge in the future, please consult with me and the

appropriate vice president (Conferences, Regions, or Publications) before engaging in the work. In an organization with the size and complexity of JASNA, the vice presidents and/or presidents have to be deeply engaged in all aspects of their areas of governance.

—To ensure appropriate communication in other areas, please copy (cc) all communications to the appropriate vice-president. If, for instance, you receive an invitation to speak to a Region, please consult the VP-Regions.

Your committee has a great opportunity to expand familiarity with Jane Austen to many diverse

audiences. Whether you consider a) developing webpages for K-12 teachers or b) creating a menu of options for Regions to use in outreach to their local libraries and schools or c) discover other creative ways to implement Part 2, the Board will welcome your suggestions in these areas. Your charge is extensive, and I will explore other ways to support Part 1 so that you can focus on Part 2.

In addition to improving our communication and collaboration to support JASNA’s mission, I will take all the suggestions you have made to date, including those in your February 8 letter, under advisement and discussion with the appropriate Vice-President or with the Executive Committee. Your work to date will not be discarded. JASNA’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement is posted on our website and we are taking into account your suggestions for Community Guidelines.

I look forward to your progress on achieving the goals enunciated in your charge. If I can help in any way, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you for your service to JASNA. I look forward to your next report.

All the best,

Liz

Liz Philosophos Cooper

President, JASNA

Pardon?

There was a JEDI meeting on January 27, 2021 about JASNA AGMs. I was led to believe this was to be a conversation with the VP to help with DEI efforts in that realm. It felt like an olive branch because JEDI had been talking to AGM coordinators and I was under the impression that someone felt that was outside our role. Maybe the communication I got on that was faulty, but that was the impression I went into this meeting with. 

Two conversations from this stand out to me as worth mentioning since… well you’ll see. 

The VP gave a presentation and at the end asked for feedback and ideas from JEDI. So we tried to help. 

At one point I mentioned that maybe JASNA could ask for voluntary demographic info in the post-conference survey so that it could at least gauge who is attending and have some numbers to work off of. 

The responses I got were… I felt they were weird. 

A board member said that JASNA has never collected demographic info. (I’ve heard this many, many times from them because this has come up before.) 

The VP talked about how at every AGM life members already come to her asking for special treatment so what would she tell them then?

I was super confused by that response, and said as much. No one had said anything about special treatment, we were just trying to get basic data to work with. 

Another interaction from that night that makes me cringe is the… discomfort from the national board members present at the use of “safe spaces” by JEDI members. We were trying to explain why community guidelines that are visible in AGM signup, the site and program would be useful for creating a safe and welcoming space. 

It felt to me that the board members present were… not pleased with the use of “safe.” And questioned what we meant by that. 

Oh yeah, and at the time they did not seem hot on the idea of community guidelines

Oh god, thinking back to this meeting there were SO MANY other weird things that came up but basically The Dickens Project has a lot of really good guidelines and resources if you’re looking for examples of leaders in this space. 

We need to talk about membership

Of the many things that was weird to me, and maybe it’s just me, is that I kept hearing that JEDI was not to worry about or focus on increasing membership. 

Which is weird to me because I thought the org was trying to work on increasing membership.

Also, I just have to mention, that I have heard the joke of “JASNA needs more men” from a national board member in relation to the DEI committee and idk but it’s just not funny to me? Like… sure I assume the demographics of JASNA have more women but 1. JASNA doesn’t collect even voluntary demographic info and 2. When I look around the room I’m far less concerned with the lack of men in this space then I am the complete lack of BIPoC. Maybe that’s just me. 

Overall, it was clear JEDI was trying to tackle the glaring issues within JASNA and JASNA was more concerned with what the board saw as a need, not the feedback of a whole committee made of experts on this very issue. 

If an org doesn’t want to invest in creating a safe space internally, one that would be welcoming to diverse audiences, then it shouldn’t bring in new audiences. And it was clear to me JASNA was not interested in either. It felt to me that it was perfectly content being exclusive, old and white.

Honestly, if JASNA doesn’t want to change, just say that. Stop putting out continuously vague statements about DEI efforts and fumbling the work. Just say you’re comfortable with the status quo and the rest of us can go make a safe space to enjoy Austen with others.

Take a turn about my emails

Another reason I stepped down is because I asked for help in 2018 dealing with a member saying some racist stuff and the then VP of Regions said she’d call me and work it out and never did. I have since had to keep dealing with this member and had no guidance on how to do so and no help on how to protect my member (or myself) from them. 

Coming back to last week:

I haven’t gotten any response or interaction from JASNA in regards to my social media post. 

I did, however, get this email from the VP of Regions on Thursday, Feb. 25. It was sent to Regional Coordinators, and I am a Regional Coordinator. 

Dear RCs,

The Executive Committee met January 30 to discuss the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee’s proposed diversity draft as presented at the October 3, 2020, JASNA Board Meeting. A legal opinion was reviewed as well as insurance guidance.

The Executive Committee voted unanimously to adopt the following statement, which is posted on our website http://www.jasna.org/about/ . The JASNA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee recommends a more detailed statement, however, which we will continue to discuss. 

Diversity and Inclusion Statement:  To fulfill JASNA’s mission of fostering among the widest number of readers the study, appreciation, and understanding of Jane Austen’s works, her life, and her genius, JASNA strives to ensure that all people are welcome and feel valued in its meetings, events, and community spaces. JASNA is committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Society.

This past month, Linda Slothouber and I had a meeting focused on AGMs with the JASNA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee in which they suggested that we look at specific ways to communicate a spirit of welcome and inclusivity at our meetings.  One way to do so is with Community Guidelines.  As we work on guidelines, we are looking at other organizations’ guidelines and considering how to raise awareness and make sure all participants feel welcome and safe.

We will be releasing a statement soon about concerns that have been raised this week on social media about JASNA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. We will also be communicating with you as we continue to work on these matters and will give you the tools to respond to member questions. You may also refer these questions to me.

Thanks for all you do,

Debra Roush

VP Regions

JASNA

It wasn’t directly to just me, it went to all RCs. I just happen to be an RC soooo I got it. 

If I were on this board I would have advised they include the following to make a real impactful statement, and not just more vague promises:

  1. Acknowledges and takes responsibility for the issues they have had.
  2. Apologizes for previous incidents.
  3. Promises to be more transparent going forward.
  4. Promises to give JEDI more support and space to work, instead of limiting it. 
  5. Gives credit to the work of JEDI, and the members of it.
  6. Promises to re-evaluate the Diversity Statement. 
  7. Promises to no longer have vague statements like this one: https://twitter.com/jasnaorg/status/1364346762887061505 

[Tweet reads: We understand the concerns raised in recent tweets and want to assure members & friends that JASNA is committed to supporting diversity & equity in the Society and ensuring all feel welcome and safe. We’re working on the points that have been raised, & more will be posted soon.]

A perfectly normal experience. 

I want to also say, that from start to finish I guess my board member at-large experience was exactly how most people have told me theirs went. I was voted in in 2019, I wasn’t really talked to about my duties or what I could do as a board member (until the JEDI chair reached out to me). I did reach out myself to the comms chair because I do that work professionally and wanted to help revamp the social pages. 

I recently found out that, though my experience had been normal, the JEDI chair, who had been elected as a board member at-large when I was, had an abnormal experience. This is not to fault him for it at all. But I do think it worth mentioning (especially after the membership “joke” I talked about earlier) that the JASNA President apparently reached out to him early-on to get an idea of his interests. And eventually would tap him to become the chair of a DEI committee. 

No offense to him, but it will never sit well with me that someone who was elected right when I was got special treatment and a whole committee to run. And, to his credit, he has done a LOT to support the committee’s efforts, but I will always wonder what it was about me that was not good enough to warrant outreach early in my board experience like he was. What left me wanting in qualifications? Was I not the “diverse” group that JASNA wanted to include going forward?

I don’t know, but as much as I try to push it from my mind, it hurts. It twists like a knife into my gut, telling me that no matter what I do, no matter the change I push for or work I do, I am not worthy of recognition or promotion. Doubly so when I think of the lacking response to my resignation email. 

I should wrap up. 

All this is to say: I left my positions because I had given JASNA one more chance and my trust was broken again. I felt that a reply to the letter from JEDI I signed wouldn’t change my mind because what would make me trust their word this time? My experiences are not going to be the same as everyone else’s, that’s for sure.

But what I wanna show here is why I left so you understand the context and in that, how you can support JEDI and demand the org do better.

JEDI is full of brilliant and energetic people who WANT to make change. The issues I saw and felt personally were that those changes were not in line with what others in the org want or are ready for. But even then, it cannot be all on JEDI. There are clear long-standing and structural issues at play here and they MUST be addressed and dismantled for this org, or any org like this, to stay relevant. 

Again, I’m a life member (until my membership is revoked I guess) and I still handle stuff for my region (yes, I’m an RC), so clearly I have faith in some parts of this org, right? I’ve met extraordinary people through Jane Austen fandom and spaces. I think the org has a window, a swiftly closing one, but still a very small window to apologize for past wrongs (of which there have been many, from the looks of the DMs I got) and swiftly prioritize working on internal and structural issues. 

If you know me then you know I’m gonna hold people accountable. And I’m gonna call out gatekeeping and racism, and I’m not gonna do that while tiptoeing around fragility. And ultimately I left because I felt like I was talking to a wall, and I felt like I could put my efforts to better use elsewhere. 

I could learn a lot from Elinor Dashwood. Her steely calm and resolve even when she is in turmoil is something I have respect for because I wish so badly I could be that way some days. But in spite of best efforts, and the ever insistent cult of “politeness” in the Austen-space I cannot be anyone but myself. 

[A note on “politeness” in this fandom: I see it often used and weaponized by white women in this space to silence conversations around creating safe spaces and confronting racism. It is unacceptable. If you are uncomfortable discussing racism, I highly suggest you not be in positions of power and influence in groups, clubs or orgs.]

What now:

Here’s what you can do.

Write to JASNA and CC JEDI. Let the board know why supporting DEI efforts (and like, really supporting them, not being performative), and listening to feedback from JEDI is important. Even if you aren’t a member, I think it’s important because they need to know that they are seen as a leader in the space, and leading sometimes means doing the hard things, having the difficult conversations and letting go of some of your power. 

Keep pushing for a plan and details. Not just from JASNA, but any place that has promised DEI efforts would be a major focus for them. Many, many orgs have made vague statements in the summer and haven’t lived up to them or made real change (you can see JASNA’s below in the Appendix). Saying things like, “we are committed to supporting diversity and equity and ensuring all feel welcome and safe” is not a plan. HOW are you going to do that? WHAT are the goals? WHO is going to handle this and what power and oversight do they have?

Work on anti-racist efforts in your region. Legit, start at home. Educate your sphere of influence (whether that’s your JASNA Region, book club or even FB chat) and talk about how to be allies, how to call out racism you see and how to support BIPoC in this community. 

If you want to be part of an anti-racist Austen space you are welcome to join the Jane Austen Universe. Please consider submitting to #VirtualJaneCon  as well! It’s a free and open event to ALL. I also would me remiss if I didn’t direct you to Bonnets at Dawn

A finally, trust your gut. If you feel like you aren’t being respected or valued, trust that and take care of yourself. 

I have some resources below on how you can work on this locally:

Dickens Project has AMAZING resources and examples of how to structure guidelines and convos: https://dickens.ucsc.edu/programs/virtual-universe/vdu-community.html 

The Battle Over Jane Austen’s Whiteness (required reading) https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-battle-over-jane-austens-whiteness 

Recognizing the Enduring Whiteness of Jane Austen: https://lithub.com/recognizing-the-enduring-whiteness-of-jane-austen/ 

Confronting Racism in the Jane Austen community: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLHbLk5gQib/ 

Confronting Racism in the Jane Austen Community: Orgs and Clubs: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCi9cXeAjef/ 

Talking about the Romani in Jane Austen’s Emma: https://www.instagram.com/p/CDPl2I_gL_j/ 

Diversify Your Jane Austen Adaptations: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCxGSGQgyvX/ 

Jane Austen Book Club Recs: https://www.instagram.com/p/CClpWqOA5xQ/ 

Community Moderation Tips: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLVGwV3AgnF/ 

Appendix

 On June 10, 2020, the JASNA communications team sent an email to all members, with a Message from the President that included the following language: 

“JASNA will also respond [to the protests in favor of racial justice that followed the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020] by making sure all people feel welcome, valued, and safe at our meetings and events. There is no place in JASNA for racism or discrimination of any kind. Prior to recent events, a committee led by George Justice was commissioned to work on two of JASNA’s long-term Strategic Planning goals: increasing the diversity of our membership and promoting the reading of Jane Austen among more diverse audiences. The committee will also be chartered to develop processes and recommendations to ensure that all members feel welcome within our organization and feel encouraged to report any incidents of racism that may occur during a JASNA or Regional event or discussion.” 

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