By Joe Grimm
The elephant in the room made the start of UNITY ‘12 unlike its four predecessors. The opening was a plenary, not a party, and the elephant was the absence of one of the founding partners, the National Association of Black Journalists.
In her welcome, Unity Journalists President Joanna Hernandez of City University of New York called out to NABJ President Gregory H. Lee Jr., the newly named executive sports editor of the South Florida SunSentinel, for reconciliation. She also called Will Sutton to the stage.
Sutton and Juan Gonzalez cofounded the alliance of NABJ, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association. The first Unity: Journalists of Color convention was held in Atlanta in 1994.
Sutton, acting director of public relations and communications at Grambling State University, said, “Don’t fall for the ‘that was then this is now.’ Do not. If you do, you rip our quilt that has been woven for years. Can we reconcile, regroup and reconnect with NABJ? Yes, absolutely . . . . and it will be Unity at its best that makes that happen, member to member, colleague to colleague, individual s to individual with open arms, open hearts and open minds.
“I am a native of NABJ, but we got married and I don’t know how you feel about the institution, but I feel that’s forever, so we’ll always, always be family.”
The departure of NABJ overshadowed all else at the opening, including the debut of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, a dream of its founder, Roy Aarons, who died in 2004.
Hernandez said, “When I became president, a storm was brewing in Unity. NABJ had many concerns about the structure of Unity, and despite all our efforts, we could not come to an understanding. That was very painful for me and for many board members on all sides.
“But through it all, the Unity board has had one focus, and that is our joint cause. Unity’s alliances . . . agree more than ever that it is more powerful to combine our voices and that standing together is mightier than standing alone.
“Recently, NABJ informed us that its reunification commission has decided not to return to UNITY at this time. My hope is that, at some point, talks will begin anew and NABJ will be joining this family and help shape the future of UNITY in our quest to create more diverse newsrooms and a path toward a better and brighter future.”
In the panel session that followed, CNN and ESPN commentator LZ Granderson, a member of NABJ and NLGJA, said, “I love NABJ. I do not love what has come of this because I fear that, at the end of the day, it looks as if NABJ did want to be part of this organization, this conference, because of the presence of an openly gay journalists association that is predominantly white.
“In the context of the way we talk about diversity in 2012, that makes me very uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, one, because conversations about gender identity, transgendered individuals, gays and lesbians, that’s part of the diversity conversation today.
“And as far as NLGJA being predominantly white — and you know, I joke about it, yeah, we got a lot of white guys in our group, no doubt about it — but diversity is more than skin.”
He continued, “NABJ is very important to journalism. We cannot move forward under the guise of Unity without them. I think it’s very important that we work very hard to bring them back into the fold. In fact, it’s unity. Otherwise, we should call ourselves Fractured 2016.”
Panelist Ray Suarez of “PBS NewsHour” echoed Hernandez’s support for unemployed or underemployed journalists and her recollection that she had come to the 2008 convention jobless. He urged people to think not just about reunification and diversity but to talk very seriously about “the existential crisis” of transforming journalism to a future open to people of every income level.
Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at www.jobspage.com since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.