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#MeetThePartners: Acesso Cultura (Portugal)

In this article we take a closer look at how our partner Acesso Cultura Portugal approaches diversity and inclusion within its organization, and at its partnership with Every Story Matters (ESM) .

The cultural association Acesso Cultura has a clear vision of an inquisitive and inclusive society, in which everyone can dream, participate and develop themselves to the full. It aims to increase physical, social and intellectual access to cultural activities. This puts it completely in line with the mission of ESM, with which it is therefore a perfect match. Acesso Cultura organizes training courses, public debates, seminars and an annual conference. It also carries out audits and consultations in various areas related to access.

Putting words into action

Social justice and social influence are two of Acesso Cultura’s core values, and it therefore offers a wide variety of initiatives to promote diversity. They include The Network of Theatres with Accessible Programming , a pilot project that regularly presents performances with audio description and with interpretation in Portuguese Sign Language. The goal is to improve access to theatres for people with visual or auditory impairments, not only in Lisbon and Porto but in cultural centres across the country.

Library workshops As part of its partnership with ESM, Acesso Cultura organizes workshops for librarians and teachers in libraries in Portugal, focusing on bibliodiversity.

Andreia Brites, who guides the workshops, has been a reading mediator since 2003. We asked her for more insight into this aspect of her work.

How do you define bibliodiversity and what are the biggest obstacles?

‘Bibliodiversity is about ensuring that all readers recognize themselves in a set of universally accessible books. This means that, ideally, every library and bookstore in the world offers at least one book that is a mirror of any given reader - assuming that all people in the world are potential readers. It also means that each book has two possible relationships with its readers: for some it’s a reflection of their identity and for others a discovery, a window through which to see the other. Only true artistic and literary creativity can make this possible.'

‘So the biggest obstacles to bibliodiversity are geographical and social asymmetries at the level of the creation, publishing and distribution of books. In Europe and North America there is little access to translations of books published in African, Central or South American and Asian countries. The major publishing groups, all of them English-speaking, dominate the world and limit the circulation of stories and books. They enjoy hegemony in a system that was unbalanced from the start.'

‘Furthermore, the voices of writers are not diverse and representative enough, since many people do not have equal access to education and have fewer tools to enable them to write or illustrate. At the same time, publishers generally only support works that promise great sales.

‘Finally, it’s important to promote the critical reading of a wide range of books. Otherwise, books will not do much to change perspectives even if they become more diverse.’

Why do you say that libraries are one of the last bastions of democracy?

‘Libraries are public spaces for culture, thought, contemplation, dialogue, action and silence. They are there for everyone who enters, and they are free of charge. Few places offer so many benefits and further the development of humanity as a whole. They also actively promote citizenship, by providing information and promoting reading in every sense of the word. Finally, libraries have a mission to discover and to get to know their audience. When they do this well, they break down barriers to access by developing programmes that take into account those who feel they don’t belong in a library.’

Was there high demand for the workshops?

‘Absolutely. Before the pandemic hit Portugal in March 2020, the workshops were sold out in several libraries, including Funchal, Almada, Torres Vedras, Pombal, Ílhavo and Rio Maior. After the pandemic, interest varied, depending on the timing, but even outside the scope of the project we decided to keep offering workshops, as there was interest from other libraries.’

How do you go about structuring a workshop? How do you choose which topics are most important to talk about, since bibliodiversity is such a broad term?

‘In the introductory workshop, lasting only three hours, we had two goals. Firstly we wanted to disseminate bibliodiverse picture books, adding some critical interpretation, so that reading mediators could later identify them independently. Secondly we wanted to raise awareness of the plurality of possible readings and of our condition of being “the other” in the eyes of those whom we consider “other”.’

To which target groups did the participants belong? Why exactly was it important to involve and train them on diversity?

‘The groups were formed by reading mediators or cultural mediators. Among them were teachers, librarians and adult caregivers. For us it was important to stimulate mediators to question reading with respect to diversity so that they would make both access and reading itself more bibliodiverse for their own audiences. In Portugal, illustrated books are already demonstrating some bibliodiversity, although many gaps remain. If we know we have the books, it makes sense to share tools that stimulate readers to change.’

Did you see much or little knowledge about this topic among the participants?

‘In most cases, less than I expected. In some workshops I was faced with all kinds of prejudices about minority communities and single-parent or same-gender parenthood, and even with colonialist discourses. This was especially noticeable when bibliodiverse books were analysed by small groups. In addition to the more flagrant examples, weak critical and symbolic reading skills were very much in evidence.’

One source of inspiration used in the workshops is a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Why did you choose that particular talk?

‘In her TED Talk Chimamanda illustrates what it means to be “the other”, by assuming both roles. The argumentative structure of her talk at first creates empathy with her condition of being discriminated against. Then, when we feel a comfortable sense of solidarity, she pulls the rug from under our feet, demonstrating that a person can be stuck in either position, unless they free themselves from both through a deep process of becoming more conscious. Our intention was to provoke this discomfort and the consequent questioning in the groups.’

Did you learn anything from the workshops yourself?

‘Yes, of course! First of all, we always find hints of structural prejudices that manifest themselves without us being aware of them. I was surprised by interpretations that were very different from those that had made me choose the titles. At a certain point I started to use these diverse interpretations in moments of sharing, in order to demonstrate the validity and necessity of listening to different voices if we are to think and grow.’

Are you planning to continue these workshops in the future? What do you think would be a good next step in promoting bibliodiversity?

‘After evaluating the first fifteen workshops, Acesso Cultura decided to propose two new workshops that would continue discussing the subject. One of them promotes a comparative reading of two picture books in order to question bibliodiverse themes and rehearse critical sharing with the audiences with whom the mediators work. The other follows the logic of dissemination, with young adult books this time, analysing themes, narrative styles and their relationship with formatted and crystallised contexts of social, racial, gender or religious discrimination, illness, conflict, etc.’

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