‘What are you going to do about it?’ – Marley Dias inspires 3% Conference theme

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By Doug Zanger | Americas Editor

September 21, 2016 | 8 min read

When you look at the accomplishments of Marley Dias, not knowing her age, it’s obviously impressive. When you learn that she is an 11-year-old, fifth grade student from West Orange, New Jersey who took it upon herself to affect change, you realize that the world is lucky to have someone in it who will continue to make a difference.

Dias is the founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks, a book drive to collect the stories of women of color. She has made the public rounds on Ellen, has been honored at events and shared time with the likes of Oprah and Michelle Obama. She was also recently named editor-in-residence for Elle magazine, where she debuted a special “Marley Mag” zine. There’s plenty going on with Dias but that hasn’t changed her focus or mission.

Back in February, Dias shared her story with NPR. Getting ready to go back to school, the passionate reader and self-professed “book nerd” noticed that there was a glaring lack of diversity (both gender and race) in the books she was reading and assigned. Most of the books were about white boys or dogs. Or white boys and their dogs.

“We were only reading books such as ‘Where The Red Fern Grows,’ ‘Crash,’ the ‘Shiloh’ series and ‘Old Yeller,’” she told NPR’s David Greene. “So I noticed that. Then I was frustrated because I was never reading books about black girls or any different type of character.”

At home, she had access to books with more diverse characters but the books at school were another issue. Voicing her frustration, Dias’ mom, Janice Johnson Dias simply said, “well, what are you going to do about it?”

From that moment, Dias began her mission and #1000BlackGirlBooks was born. The goal was simple: 1,000 books that better represented black girls. Through book donations and other support, Dias blew right through that first finish line (#1000BlackGirlBooks has collected more than 7,000 books) and is setting her sights even higher, by advocating for greater diversity, both race and gender in school systems.

Dias’ story [listen below] caught the ear of 3% Conference founder Kat Gordon — so much, in fact, that she stayed in her car long after she had parked her car at San Francisco International Airport.

“It was one of those moments that NPR calls, a ‘driveway moment,’ meaning when a story is so good you stay parked in your car to hear the end of it,” says Gordon. “I ended up sitting in the airport parking lot until the segment was over.”

Though Gordon has had hundreds of speakers at her various events and MiniCons, she knew that she had to have Dias speak at this year’s conference.

“I don't think I was ever more excited than when I heard she was a yes,” notes Gordon.

Honoring the youngest speaker in the history of the 3% Conference, Dias’ mother’s words, “what are you going to do about it?’ quickly became the theme.

“We've got all these activations for attendees to make pledges about what they're going to do about different things in their offices or agencies,” says Gordon. “That was really, really appealing to me. It’s a kind of activism within the conversation, and the fact that she's so young is a great reminder to everyone in the audience that you're not too young, or too old, or not attractive enough, or not powerful enough — or all the reasons we keep ourselves contained and our excuses. We all have the power to be agents of change. I think she's a great embodiment of that.”

Gordon, also a self-professed bookworm as a kid, sees the work Dias has accomplished so far as an important point in how women, especially women of color, are portrayed in media of all forms.

“There's something very powerful about the media we consume, whether it's books, advertising, movies or TV,” says Gordon. “I think that the fact that she's diversifying, or normalizing, what fifth graders are consuming, is very much similar to what our movement is about, which is trying to normalize what advertising the American public is consuming. There were just so many things about it that struck me as relevant.”

Dias sees an opportunity and inflection point — a moment where the old ways of thinking about women, especially in media, are becoming passé. There is still clearly work to be done, but it is leavened with optimism.

“Girls are now learning to embrace their differences and be true to who they are. From the way we look to the way we act, girls are learning to appreciate themselves,” says Dias. “Body acceptance is no longer a trend, but an ideology and a way of life. Confidence is not just for a few, but for all. We still need to work on double standards for each other. We want to make sure embracing the girls we are doesn’t exclude girls who still do not fit the mold.”

Dias’ message in November in New York will be simple, yet focused and a rally cry for diversity every day.

“[It’s about doing] your best, don't worry about being the best. Strive for your greatness. Do not worry about others,” says Dias, whose talk is supported by DDB and hosted by DDB’s Diane Jackson. “I think inclusion is important in order to achieve equity. Girls’ voices need to be included. I believe diverse voices are critical to the growth of our communities.”

As for the takeaway, Gordon hopes that Dias’ conversation accomplishes a few key things.

“Again, it’s the reminder that nobody is too insignificant to be an agent for change. I hope everyone is totally inspired thinking, ‘wow, if this young girl can be such a powerful agent for change within her school, then what's my excuse if I'm not doing something in my community or in my agency?’” says Gordon.

“Also, I'd like for everyone to be reminded that what we are exposed to matters. I think that if you are somehow in the status quo — whether you are American-born, whether you are male, whether you are white, whether you are straight — I think it escapes you,” adds Gordon. “As [noted sociologist] Michael Kimmel said, ‘Privilege is invisible to those who have it’. It escapes you that what you see on TV or what you consume or what's being projected as American culture can either be limiting or expanding. I really want people to now go out to the world, because I'll bet a lot of people's kids' reading lists look like the reading list that Marley Dias brought home that day, and we have to start noticing those things.”

For Dias’ part, the future is out in front of her. So, what is she going to keep doing about it?

“I will continue to do my part at getting black girls' voices heard,” said Dias. “Not just one voice but all of our voices to be heard. That’s why I collect a variety of books where black girls are the main characters. The books are diverse, like black girls are diverse.”

11 years old, committed to her efforts, mature beyond her years and moving fast, there is still always room for wisdom.

“My mom always tells me to breathe and to make sure that I am not overdoing it,” says Dias. “Quality over quantity, if I want to do my best I have to make sure I get enough rest and don't get burned out. She believes life is long and that I should take it easy and enjoy it."

The Drum is partnering with the 3% Conference, taking place in New York City, November 3rd and 4th.

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