It took me a long time to decide whether this blog. But I decided I could no longer be silent. Here’s my opinion about why Unity: Journalists of Color fell apart. For those who don’t know, Unity was a coalition of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). Now, this could be a little “too much inside baseball” for people who are not journalists. But I think the essence of why Unity fell apart speaks to the broader issue of how to deal with racial issues in America.
- I was the first incorporator for the Unity 1994 convention. We had to overcome many obstacles such as a small and insular Asian community in Atlanta, on-going immigration issues in Georgia affecting Hispanics, and the controversy over the name of the Atlanta Braves and the “chop” for Native Americas. NABJ members were thrilled to come to Atlanta because, after all, it is considered the “black Mecca.” But the lion’s share of the work also fell on the backs of the Atlanta chapter of NABJ. We worked very hard and tried to address all the issues brought up by these various groups and I believe we were very successful. At that time, all the boards fully understood and insisted that Unity should be a coordinating unit for our four organizations. It was NEVER the intention of the founding group to create a fifth entity, especially one that would compete with all four organizations for grants, foundation money and programs. All that seemed to change in 2003. I believe that Unity board did not think things through and the ramifications of creating a “stand alone” organization complete with a staff and budget.
- Unity was supposed to be an advocacy coalition between our four groups because we believed in strength in numbers. While Unity has taken some positions, it has been under the Unity umbrella rather than the collective voices of our four organizations. But it never became the “industry giant” it was supposed to be. We were too busy “biting the hand that fed Unity.” We never became the in your face coalition that we wanted to be.
- The financial model and the governance issues just didn’t add up. First, there was a problem getting the actual financial statements, which is a no-no for any journalism organization. We expect others to be totally transparent about their financial reports, so we should do the same. Then, after doing the math, it became clear that NABJ and other organizations were not receiving the proceeds to which they were entitled. Most of the money was being funneled back into Unity. And when all of the other groups started suffering financially because of the downturn in the economy, Unity made no economic offers to help. Instead, it sat on largesse of almost a million dollars while everyone else was laying off people, cutting programs and closing offices. The numbers also did not add up on the board representation. NABJ has consistently attracted the largest number of registrants at every Unity convention and it has the largest membership. But those numbers were not proportionately represented on the board. It was a classic case of taxation without representation
- The right people who should have been brought in to work out the problems were not utilized. One of the joys I have from the Unity experience is that I developed long-lasting relationships and friendships with fellow journalists from all ethnicities. I still treasure those relationships today. If the resources of these sage journalists were tapped and they were involved in the process, things would have worked out and there would have been no need for NABJ to pull out. But many of these leaders have been “put out to pasture” by all of the organizations and their valuable experiences are lost.
- Finally, Unity suffers from the same mindset that plagues America. We are afraid to honestly and openly talk about race and ethnicity in the United States. President Bill Clinton made a half-hearted attempt when he authorized his commission on race, which went nowhere. Instead of making remarks behind closed doors, we need to put all of our cards on the table and deal with race and racism in this country. We must be willing to talk about the differences that exist between our groups and address those differences boldly. We need the courage to speak out and say why we don’t like each other or what are the pet peeves that really irritate us. Then we need to deal with those issues.
There is no such thing as a monolithic “black” community with self-appointed leaders and spokespeople. The label “Asian” can include people from India, China, Korea, Vietnam and several other countries. “Hispanic” covers people from Brazil, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and countries throughout the southern hemisphere. Technology has made the world much smaller and we will continue to become more diverse. So, we must be frank and in some cases, brutal with each other in order to reach a level of trust and the true meaning of Unity. Until we do face facts and devise solutions, there can be no “unity” in Unity. The black/white issues remain a difficult subject to address. Now, coming to grips with that reality that there are people from all backgrounds throughout the fabric of our society, there is no way we all cannot NOT deal with this quickly.