Commission verifies NABJ decision to exit UNITY

The National Association of Black Journalists should not go back to the Unity coalition “at this time,” a commission appointed by NABJ President Gregory H. Lee Jr. recommended Tuesday, and Juan Gonzalez of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, a Unity founder, told Journal-isms that the commission made the right decision.

“There comes a time when you must admit, even those of us who labored for years to create and preserve this unique alliance of journalists of color, that things have radically changed, that UNITY has lost its way, Gonzalez said in a statement.

Keith Reed, the NABJ treasurer who led the commission, voiced the same sentiment in an interview at the NABJ convention, which opened officially Wednesday in New Orleans.

After NABJ left the Unity coalition last year over financial and governance issues, leaving behind the national associations of Hispanic, Asian American and Native American journalists, the remaining Unity partners invited the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association to join and changed the name from “Unity: Journalists of Color, Inc.” to “Unity Journalists.”

Admission of NLGJA “was not the basis of our decision,” Reed said. “Unity had already begun to move away from its roots.”

The coalition began as a vehicle for “co-located conventions” of the partner associations, Reed said. “What it was doing was raising a lot of money,” moving toward merging organizations and “in many instances competing with one another for revenue.”

Unity was never intended to be an organization with an executive director and a full-time staff, he said.

Reed said the commission’s recommendation did not require NABJ board action and applied only to what the thinking is “right now.” Other members of the commission — Rochelle Riley, Zuri Berry, Herbert Sample, Joe Davidson and Sidmel Estes — had their own reasons for their decisions, he said.

In October, Unity President Joanna Hernandez named John Yearwood, who was one of the final NABJ representatives to Unity and opposed the NABJ pullout, as chair of a 10-member Unity President’s Reunification Commission, a counterpart to the NABJ panel appointed by Lee.

Yearwood, who is at the NABJ convention, said his commission could not advise the Unity president until it had a proposal from NABJ, which, as of now, will not be forthcoming.

Juan Gonzalez, who is credited with originating the Unity concept and was silent when the coalition accepted the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, said Tuesday that the National Association of Black Journalists was right to leave the coalition.

By accepting NLGJA and dropping “Journalists of Color” from its name, Unity “revealed . . . little understanding of the sacrifices and struggles made by so many journalists of color who preceded us.”

Gonzalez, a former president of NAHJ, took a position contrary to that of the current NAHJ leadership. On the Unity board, NAHJ President Michele Salcedo seconded the motion to drop “Journalists of Color” from the Unity name. The motion passed 11-4 with one abstention.

Here is Gonzalez’s statement:

When NABJ’s board of directors voted to leave UNITY a year ago, I argued publicly against the split.

“Leadership on both sides, I said then, should have been more responsive to legitimate governance and financial issues raised by NABJ. Like my longtime friends and colleagues, Will Sutton and Joe Davidson, and like hundreds of other journalists of color within the alliance, I was deeply troubled that the current leaderships of the various organizations failed to find a way to resolve their differences.

But before the schism could be properly assessed and perhaps rectified, the UNITY board turned its attention instead to incorporating another group, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, into the alliance. By doing so in such rapid fashion, UNITY leaders effectively discarded the core mission that made the group such a powerful voice in American journalism since its founding conference in Atlanta in 1994. They revealed, moreover, little understanding of the sacrifices and struggles made by so many journalists of color who preceded us.

Our four organizations were all the product of two centuries of unfinished business within our nation and our media system — the fight against all vestiges of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination.

Saying this in no way belittles or marginalizes similar efforts to oppose other types of discrimination, whether based on gender, sexual orientation, age, or physical disabilities.

But racial and ethnic bias has proven to be the most persistent, most divisive, most intractable of social inequities. The great moral authority of UNITY was its role as the key organization advocating better coverage of race and equal opportunity for journalists of color. Its power came from being organized and led solely by journalists of color. So when UNITY rushed to incorporate NLGJA before properly addressing the departure of NABJ — the largest and most influential group within the alliance — it sent a clear signal, whether intended or not, that racial and ethnic equality was no longer its main mission.

The leaders of UNITY, many of them my friends, will no doubt argue differently. But the same logic that says NLGJA belongs in UNITY holds true as well for Women in Communications, for the Association of Women Journalists, for the [South] Asian Journalists Association, etc.

Back in 1827, in the inaugural issue of America’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, editors Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm declared: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” So, too, did UNITY “plead the cause” of journalists and communities of color in noble fashion from 1994 to 2011. Then, a grand alliance lost its way in a well-intended but nonetheless misguided search for numbers over purpose.

So I extend my best wishes to the members of NABJ for a successful convention this week. Events of the past year have unfortunately proven you made the right decision. The pursuit of racial and ethnic equality in the media continues. All of our organizations, both those that currently exist and those yet to be created, are only vehicles toward that end. And when one of those organizations takes a different road, sometimes it is best to part.

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