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The case for using literature to kickstart conversations about race at work

Anti-racist reading lists are a hot commodity in the wake of protests over police brutality and widespread injustice against Black Americans. But they’re far from a cure-all. As Lauren Michele Jackson argued in Vulture, treating literature by Black authors as a primer on racism and allyship may serve to flatten the richness and artistry of those books.

Part of the issue is that reading can be an insular experience. People looking to deepen their understanding of race and inequality may benefit more from participating in a dialogue that features many different perspectives—ideally, with someone knowledgeable about the material at hand guiding the discussion. That’s why Ann Kowal Smith, founder and executive director of Books@Work, suggests discussing literature as a means of broaching conversations about race in the workplace. Research also suggests that reading literature may help increase empathy and understanding of others’ experiences, potentially spurring better real-world behavior.

Books@Work, founded as a nonprofit in 2011, partners with organizations around the world to provide group discussions of short stories and books to employees, with a focus on fiction and narrative nonfiction. The groups are facilitated by professors with expertise in the subject matter, which Smith says ensures the conversations are thoughtful and productive.  The discussions are meant to help employees go deep on issues like race and identity in a way that typical diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings do not.

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