The Woman Working to Ensure No Community Is Left Without Literature
Lisa Lucas is the first black woman to be named executive director of the National Book Foundation—and in her second year in the position, her vision is more ambitious than ever.
Photo courtesy Lisa Lucas.
You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
Last year, Lisa Lucas was named executive director of the National Book Foundation, making her the youngest person and first black woman to hold this title.
As soon as she was hired, Lucas sought to bring inclusivity and excitement to the foundation and its reading list. This year, many were delighted to see that the National Book Foundation’s esteemed 5 Under 35 Award, which recognizes exceptional debut work, was comprised entirely of women, with three being women of color.
Broadly spoke to Lucas to hear about her second year at the foundation, learning along the way what a truly broad definition of “inclusivity” looks like in action.
BROADLY: 2017 was your second year as executive director of the National Book Foundation. How have you seen your role evolve this year?
LISA LUCAS: It's interesting. You come in the first year, and for me, there was so much energy around a young person and woman of color coming into the National Book Foundation that we did this whole kind of charm campaign where we were like, “Yay! Books! We're gonna do all this cool stuff.” But that really hides so much actual administrative work you have to do when you’re trying to reinforce what the future will look like for your organization. The first year, we spent a lot of time building databases and reinforcing operational structures.
This second year was so satisfying, because we got to really start to see the programmatic and all the nuts-and-bolts stuff come together. We have the staffing and the capacity to launch new programming.
"We need people of color at the table, we need women at the table, we need everyone at the table for a reasonable representation of people who actually live in this country."
What types of programs did you start?
What I was most proud of was our Book Rich Environments initiative. That was this big, massive collaboration with HUD, the Department of Education, and the Urban Libraries Council. We all got together and asked, “How do you infuse a community with books?” We solicited donations and ended up with 270,000 books.
We then managed to distribute those books to public housing authorities all throughout the country. All the young people got an enormous number of new books, and they got these really high quality, exciting books for free. For this program, libraries had to make sure everybody got a library card, so there were connections made between the public housing authorities and the local library and the literacy organizations working on the ground to help these communities. I remember walking through an event we did in New York and there was this table with Jacqueline Woodson and Judy Blume, and there were kids with bags and they were book shopping, running around saying, "I want this and I want this.” Grandparents were picking up books for their grandkids and parents were picking up books for their kids.
I came into this role with the idea that books—great books, literature even—should be accessible and exciting to all communities. Does the program that I just described change the accessibility and appeal for everyone, everywhere? Or even for every child that received a book at that particular program? No, it didn't. But it felt like a real step.
You came into the National Book Foundation with a broad vision of inclusivity, and that program really seems to put that vision into action.
It does! Inclusivity is so much, right? I mean, I'm a black woman and we need certain types of inclusivity in publishing and all kinds of things. We need people of color at the table, we need women at the table, we need everyone at the table for a reasonable representation of people who actually live in this country. But for reading, it's also more than that, because we have so many people who feel like they’ve been left out of literature. There are so many people who aren’t even excited about books. They don’t feel like it’s for them.
So inclusivity, for me, when I think of my job, is also about regional inclusion. It's about including people who read romance books as part of literature. It means including young people, it means including people of color.
Does this inclusivity also include infiltrating the structures of the publishing world? This year, the winners of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 prize were all women, and three were women of color.
Yes. Well, I'm trying to bring excitement to all aspects. And I think that trying to create excitement around the book awards, around 5 Under 35, around books at large, is about not condescending to people. It's about talking about reading like it's a real, universally beloved enterprise.
"I came into this role with the idea that books—great books, literature even—should be accessible and exciting to all communities."
It's about being equitable with how and who I talk with about how exciting books are. I would also say that we are a nation divided in many ways. But it would be irresponsible of me not to look across my own politics and say, "I want people different from me to read" and to make sure I’m issuing an invitation in that direction. After going through the year we all went through together, I'm just thinking, Let's remember that art is about humanity and that we all share that. If we can find a way to connect on that level, maybe we'll get someplace.
You’ve held so many different positions, finally leading to here. What advice would you give young people who want to establish themselves in the arts or pursue any passion
Work really hard. You get nothing if you don't work hard. Everybody always wants that magic bullet that's gonna ricochet you to the top of the thing you most passionately want to do—except that work is work. It's called work for a reason. There's always a spreadsheet. It doesn't matter if you're an actress or you're a dancer, there's rigor and discipline that's required by every single career, no matter how glamorous and lovely. There are emails to respond to, things to organize, there's always a boss of somebody.
I think that work ethic: that ability to sit down and think that the work is worthwhile and know that even if it stinks, you're learning something. Even if that learning is just learning to be disciplined about something you don't feel like doing. In aggregate, it matters. Looking over the time that I have worked—and I’m only 37 and have quite a while to go before I'm done working— I think the lesson is that none of it was useless.
What excites you about entering a new year?
I'm still wading through what books are coming out. Marilynne Robinson has a new collection of essays I’m really excited about, that will be great.
But every year we have "the books of 2017" and we have a wall of the books, 1500 books. Every year, I think, Wow, there's a whole other year of these books coming, there's a whole world of opportunity to connect them with the reader. That blank slate with all that opportunity, and all those stories I haven’t read yet. I think that’s exciting.
I have to ask, do you read books digitally or are they in your hand?
I think it's great that people read digitally, especially for older readers, to be able to have a bigger font and a backlight. But I am a big fan of a paper book.