Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

A friend doesn’t answer an email, or worse, answers with the terse, Busy. More later. Later never comes.

A man goes to a party because he wants to belong, impress a friend. Some drunks beat on him. He’s never invited back. Still he wishes he could be. A street person asks for some change. No one makes eye contact. A newbie graduate is looking for an opening, any way to begin life, a working life. He’s passed over for someone with more experience, someone who looks better on paper. A small independent publisher pitches her authors to big time festival directors. The reply comes swiftly; we are fully booked this year, feel free to try us again next year. Next year, the response will likely be the same.  A writer tries to get some buzz going about her book, perhaps secure an audience larger than her family and closest friends. Reviews are good. Still with so many books out there, who will notice?

 I think about these kinds of things, and the idea of belonging, all the time. This concept of inclusion guides my actions and decisions. I have made some very bad decisions to avoid hurting another person’s feelings. Now, I try hard to think things through, understand my own motivations before making a decision.

Somewhere along the line I must have felt the sting of being excluded. It could have happened at any time? Likely it occurred more than once. I don’t hold onto those memories−for example, I couldn’t relate an anecdote from my past if you asked me to right now−but those experiences hold onto me in a way I only feel in my actions.

When I’ve been excluded or ignored, I don’t show my feelings. I don’t expect any of us do. Nor have we done so since we were five and no one wanted to play with us. You remember when you complained to your mother that so and so liked so and so better than they liked you and that’s why they didn’t want to play with you? The sense one feels at not being accepted is the same at 5 as it is at 55.  You never outgrow it. Or at least I haven’t.  

I cannot guide the actions of others. I’ve come to terms with that. However, I do what I think is right for me. So I keep sending emails that might go unanswered. When a street person approaches me, I do make eye contact. And in my role as festival organizer, I do not reject any author or publisher outright. I listen to the pitches, read the books, think and rethink and think again how to make something work for everyone. I ensure a good mix of star and up-and-coming authors in my program because I know the audience comes for the celebrity and more often than not, discovers a new star in the making. Everyone wins. I like that.

I am as inclusive as possible, I explain my decisions fully and honestly, give authors and publishers opportunities in subsequent years to attend the festival. I try to understand why the egomaniac author (few and far between) needs so much attention and try to accommodate. I put myself in their shoes, everyone’s shoes. How would I feel, how would I want to be treated? I act accordingly.

And to be fair, this need to be inclusive has also led to some of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I think about how the festival has grown, all the great books I’ve read, the incredibly talented and generous people I’ve met, and how my own writing has flourished. This could not have happened without a strong focus on inclusivity. Well that and an incredible team. When I look around, they flank me on all sides.

I’m upset when others aren’t as inclusive, but as my dad used to say, if you compare yourself to others, you’ll find yourself lacking or think of yourself as superior. I don’t want to be either. I just want everyone to be heard and to feel as though they belong.

As I write this, I think, God do I ever sound Pollyanna. So what? I wear the label proudly. I do think I can change the world, even if it’s only one person, one festival, and one book at a time. And that’s okay with me. I’ve got the time.

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