Updated Oct. 8
By Peter Ortiz, Unity representative, National Association of Hispanic Journalists
I'm sorry I can't join you for my last UNITY meeting. And I want to thank Yvonne [Latty] for reading this on my behalf. This report reflects only my opinion and experience as a UNITY board member.
Unfortunately, I don't agree that the UNITY and NLGJA partnership has worked. It doesn't mean it can't, but based on everything I've seen and experienced during this partnership, I can't endorse NLGJA becoming a permanent member of the UNITY Alliance.
My primary concern is the damage it has caused (with) the reunification effort with NABJ and the failure in not allowing our alliance members a true opportunity to participate and vote on the name change. This was too important an issue for the board to decide without serious feedback from alliance members. They should have been allowed to vote.
As UNITY board members we are caretakers of an organization that was a historic collaboration of journalists of color. But we are simply the caretakers. It was the alliance members who owned UNITY: Journalists of Color. They owned the name that embodies who we are.
Our name let the industry know that we would not apologize for proclaiming who we are, journalists of color, and that they could not ignore us. But those who owned UNITY: Journalists of Color did not have a role in deciding to keep or kill our name. Our alliance members, not this board, needed to make that decision. And now we are seeing the consequences of excluding those who helped create UNITY: Journalists of Color and the thousands more who said: "This is ours. We own this." Some claim the mission has only expanded to include NLGJA's concerns. But this rings hollow for many journalists of color who watched us wipe out the name that symbolized that mission. Some might say journalists of color are just words. UNITY: Journalists of Color are not just words.
NLGJA made it clear that they would not be part of an organization that embraced itself as journalists of color. Despite this, NLGJA joined when we were UNITY: Journalists of Color. NLGJA was embraced as an equal alliance partner when we were UNITY: Journalists of Color. NLGJA was treated with respect when we were UNITY: Journalists of Color.
But within two hours at that April board meeting, the name was gone. Leading up to that vote, NLGJA warned that its members would boycott our convention, just a few months away, if we did not remove journalists of color from our name.
Other than anecdotal accounts from the NLGJA alliance members on the UNITY board, I saw no survey or other research indicating how the NLGJA membership felt, including from the NLGJA journalists of color.
There was plenty of time for NLGJA to poll its membership before that April meeting. We would at least have had some sense of what the entire membership felt. But we do know what UNITY: Journalists of Color co-founder Will Sutton thinks.
Peter, this is plain and simple. UNITY: Journalists of Color has existed since 1994 when we agreed after a highly successful, joint national convention that we should continue to work together on diversity issues of importance to journalists of color, and to do so formally.
There was concern, and, yes, disagreement, about whether to solidify this coalition. The one thing that pulled us together was the clearly stated focus on "journalists of color."
The UNITY history says, "In 1994, they established UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. as a permanent, not-for-profit, strategic alliance of journalists of color acting as a force for positive change to advance their presence, growth and leadership in the fast-changing global news industry."
Of course, the name change wasn't what led to the split with NABJ. But let's be honest about the name change and the damage it has done to UNITY's credibility and to moving the reunification process forward.
Again, from Will Sutton:
"My suggestion to the existing UNITY board: Drop all false hope that NABJ will return to a UNITY without a focus on 'Journalists of Color.' That's not going to happen."
If you don't want to put a clear focus on "journalists of color," drop the NABJ concerns as things that no longer matter and broaden the diversity efforts to include civil rights, education, engineering, gender, science, sports and more.
The board action to drop the name was ill-advised, and it further damaged a disappointing, frustrating and totally unavoidable split with NABJ. My native organization's concerns still stand as relates to finances, focus and leadership.
These issues were not resolved, no resolution was reached and NABJ left the coalition. If NABJ even thinks about rejoining without the name including "Journalists of Color," I will advise against it. It is at the core of what the original UNITY was all about. It's at the core of what the future UNITY must be about if we want a coalition that includes NABJ.
Will Sutton is right. If we want to advocate for journalists of color, then the world needs to know we will not hide who we are because the name offends some or does not fit their ideal of what the organization represents. The convention would have been the perfect venue to hear from our members. They could have voted via online ballot. [Alliance partners] were already voting online, so this was very doable. It would have shown our members that UNITY truly belongs to them and their input counts. This was too important an issue not to make a serious effort to learn what alliance members felt. They deserved better.
But the online voting idea was shot down.
From UNITY's first president, Lloyd LaCuesta:
"I am very disappointed by the actions of the board. "Journalists of Color" was a badge of honor for many of us who came into newsrooms in the 1960's-1970's. But most of us wore that badge hidden because some may have viewed it as violating journalistic objectivity. There is no doubt in my mind that when the four associations came together in Baltimore to plant the seeds of Unity our common bond was the fact that we were racial minorities who were journalists. We wanted a larger body to speak out for what we could not do individually.
The NABJ President who I worked closely with during those formative years was the late Tom Morgan of the New York Times. Tom, early on in our friendship, confided to me that he was Gay. But he saw himself as the representative of an African American association first and foremost. We both knew that there were Gay and Lesbian members in all of our four associations. But the issues that we were championing and working for was racial equality in the journalism industry. It just made sense.
Now some may argue that the times have changed and the goals are wider. But the history is there. Unity was founded to promote racial diversity in newsrooms and to call for fair news coverage in our respective racial communities. It's the old adage from the Sixties, united we stand, divided we fall. I am proud of what we did as Journalists of Color. Whatever the future holds for Unity, history and the work of so many who came before should never be denied.
Though times have changed, UNITY's mission to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the newsroom and advocate for fair news coverage for communities of color are even more important today. We still have too few journalists of color.
And it's journalists of color who have been and still are most impacted when news organizations decide to layoff or downsize. This needs to be the primary focus of UNITY, NAHJ, NABJ, NAJA and AAJA. Without our presence in the newsrooms we won't be in a position to make real change. Watering down our name sent a message that UNITY is no longer committed to journalists of color. In rushing through a name change vote we lost some of our most important advocates for reunification — the NABJ members themselves.
Even with all the drama surrounding the split, our NABJ supporters spoke out at the Philadelphia meeting last year and insisted that the NABJ leadership start the reunification talks.
Here is how some NABJ members felt after the name change.
[Quotations from the NABJ listserve deleted]
We had strong supporters. We were far from fixing this, but there were enough NABJ members who still cared about UNITY when it was UNITY: Journalists of Color.
There is no reason for this to have happened. What if NLGJA in joining UNITY: Journalists of Color instead said how they were honored to be part of a group that embraced journalists of color as its brand? What if NLGJA said we are proud to work for the advancement of all journalists of color and to have UNITY: Journalists of Color embrace a majority white group? Imagine the powerful message that would have sent to all journalists of color. Instead, we now have NABJ and other journalists of color feeling betrayed.
At the April board meeting, I stated that NLGJA would one day have a member serving as [UNITY: Journalists of Color] president and the odds were good he would be a white man. The executive director of NLGJA responded by saying it would be a joke. I guess that says it all.
Michael Triplett, president of NLGJA, responds:
I respect Peter's commitment to UNITY's legacy and history, although I disagree with his overall view of NLGJA's role in the future of the organization and NABJ's ultimate decision on whether to rejoin the alliance. Expanding UNITY to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender journalists was a recognition of the reality of how diversity is viewed in newsrooms and the country. That acknowledgment doesn't have to happen while downplaying the real challenges faced by journalists of color.
NLGJA has already demonstrated that there are times that UNITY's historic voice for journalists of color should take priority and we honor that history. But there are LGBT journalists of color and there are unique issues that impact LGBT journalists and I believe UNITY is a strong enough alliance to speak on those issues also. Our founder (and a founder of the Maynard Institute) Roy Aarons believed that when he first asked to join UNITY when the alliance was created, and I believe it now.