Valarie Guagnini in the Publisher’s Chair

Valarie Guagnini in the Publisher’s Chair

Valarie Guagnini is the Head of EDIB (Equity/Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging) for Cambridge University Press, based in New York. Her background is in sales, including business development and advertising sales for trade magazines. She is a Chinese-Jamaican, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Gen X, mother of three adult children, one of whom has a seizure disorder.

Thanks for joining us Valarie! Can you tell me about your role as Head of EDIB Academic at Cambridge University Press?

After the death of George Floyd, Mandy Hill, my Managing Director, created the Anti-Racism Action Group. We were tasked with making (then) Cambridge University Press accountable for certain actions; we looked at how we communicated events across the whole business, from local offices to our main office in the UK, and created an Anti-Racism Toolkit for our US and UK offices. Because of my involvement in this action group and how passionate I am about EDIB issues, when the position for Head of EDIB (Academic) came up, my then boss threatened to fire me if I didn’t go for the job! And I’m very grateful that he identified this passion in me and pushed me to take the role.

EDIB stands for Equality/Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging and knowing that acronym is probably the best way to understand my role. I used to be head of EDIB alongside business development manager for humanities and social sciences titles, but we quickly realized that EDIB was not a small area. It garnered more and more attention as we got involved with various issues and needed to be a full-time role. For the most part now, I am a conduit and a voice of representation: I sit on EDIB committees and groups for our journals and marketing teams, and the academic board. I provide guidance on areas that need more attention and require discussions around recruitment, retention and EDIB guidance for our products.

I’m a proponent of the squiggly career. I looked at my skills and saw how they could be transferred into another area of the business as opposed to just going up the ladder.

Can you go into more detail about why it’s so important to have this role?

I believe that EDIB should be something that's embedded into every organisation. We should constantly be thinking about what diversity and inclusion look like. What does it mean to belong and what does belonging look like? If you don’t feel you belong somewhere as your whole self, then you’re not able to be an active person in the workforce and you won’t be very effective to your company. The fact that some people don’t feel their whole selves is not something I’m comfortable with. In this moment, I feel like I belong to CUP&A but it hasn’t always been the case. Have I had imposter syndrome because I am the only black female in a room? Yes. And has it been hard to speak up in those moments? Yes.

Mandy, my current boss, has provided me so much support and reassurance to take on this role and made me feel like I not only deserve it but belong to it. By having that support, I am confidently able to speak up more about things and I can still identify with people who have been challenged in the workplace.

Is what held you back in the first place to take on this rule due to some of the EDIB issues that you’re trying to tackle?

Yes - it’s definitely to do with some of those issues but I found this path and there’s a reason that I’m here and deserve to be here. I think it’s really important to try and push past what is considered the norm and this is why I care so much about the position now in EDIB but have also been challenged along the way to get there.

Does working at such a prestigious institution, rooted in so much history and tradition, motivate you to make changes?

The world is constantly changing and we should all be constant with learning. I love speaking to the younger people within this organisation because they keep me on my toes and I learn so much from them; they are at the forefront of change. At the end of the day, we are just trying to get people to be kind and accepting. We’ve had some very honest and challenging conversations within this organization which I think is a great thing because we learn from each other during those interactions.

What are your areas of focus at the moment?

We're currently looking at how we recruit our people  and identifying what ’it means to be a fair recruiter. We now have a hybrid working schedule and flexible working for individuals - it’s really important to be agile. And when it comes to retention, if people feel like they've reached the plateau of their career in one area, how can we then transition that into another area of the business? It makes sense to try and keep the people that we train from an economic perspective. So we really try to nurture that loyalty and make sure that we’re keeping people who can see a future within Cambridge as much as possible. We also don’t want to lose the wealth of knowledge that our people have.

We’re  diversifying our author base by looking at different avenues to creative diversity, for example going to a new conference to meet new authors there. I don’t think you can have diversity of product without diversity of people so we are also considering race, socio-economic background, education, sexuality and neurodiversity.

We’re about to launch our global EDIB strategy and our product principles for the Academic publishing group. I’m also discussing a mentorship program at the moment along with a name change policy and creating ways for our authors to identify their pronouns optionally.

What steps could other university presses take to start enacting some of these changes too?

What we can all do is work together to create change and opening a dialogue and conversation about diversity and inclusion is the first step. Practical things we can also do include changing the way we think about commissioning, for example, if you’re writing on the economic upbringing of Ethiopia, have an Ethiopian author as part of the process. Some presses are making this a hard and fast rule now which is really good. Making small changes like this will make a big difference.

Do you have any recommendations of training workshops for companies to tackle EDIB issues in the workplace?

We talk about conscious inclusion and learned behaviour. At the end of the day, your history is your learned behaviour: how you approach things, your ideas, your thoughts and your decisions are all because of your history or upbringing. So we need to look at how we get people to consciously think about diversity and inclusion and how their words and behaviour affect others. I’m really proud that Cambridge University Press & Assessment has rolled out conscious inclusion training as part of our EDIB Academy for our colleagues.

There is a wonderful group in the UK called We Create Space. I've sat in a few of their sessions on intersectionality and belonging and they were brilliant. Unleashed is another UK group and I have listened to one of their sessions with Nicholé McGill-Higgins. She stretches your consciousness to a point where you're almost uncomfortable, but this helps you to understand other aspects about yourself and why you’re doing certain things. Nicholé trained my anti-racism toolkit crew to run drop-in sessions too. I also sat in a session recently called from The Diversity Movement in the US with Kurt Merriweather and he was phenomenal. So there are definitely courses and trainers out there who can help guide you. You can also come to me if you want to know more.

Thank you Valarie!

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