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Briggs: UNITY: Journalists of Color makes history

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The fourth UNITY: Journalists of Color convention convenes July 23 in Chicago;s McCormack Convention Center.

UNITY is probably the largest and certainly the most interesting convention of journalists in the world. Interest in the convention, which occurs every four years, has steadily grown at each event, starting in 1994 in Atlanta with 4,000 journalists, and continuing through to Washington, D.C., in 2004 with 8,000.

Unity President Karen Lincoln Michel, a Ho-Chunk journalist who is the Madison, Wis., bureau chief for the Green Bay Press Gazette, said in early July that UNITY '08 already had more than 8,000 people registered.

But if size were all there was to UNITY, than I wouldn't be writing about it today, nor would I have served as its president for a short, yet challenging, six months in 1998.

It is the belief in this union that I felt when I first heard about it at a 1988 job fair for so-called minority journalists, six years before the first convention. It was before I'd even heard of the Native American Journalists Association. It is that belief that makes me want to talk about this union, its successes and my ongoing concerns. I am writing it here because as wonderful as I expect UNITY '08 to be for me, there won't be a forum such as a business meeting where I, as a true believer, can speak my piece.

In a world where journalism continues to be censored and journalists' lives are threatened for a practice as simple as my writing this column, UNITY is an extraordinary occurrence. When you consider that UNITY at its roots is a coalition of the Asian-American, black, Hispanic and Native journalists associations then you will understand, whether you are a journalist or not, that this is an unmistakably historic undertaking.

The wonder of UNITY is that the vast majority of its people are brown or black. All the people in positions of power are Asian-American, black, Hispanic or Native. During the convention, one of the unofficial activities is admiring the beauty and intelligence of the people assembled. Another is reveling in a setting like no other in the U.S. where these people, regardless of their status as journalists, stand in authority.

If Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy for president of the United States has given America sight of a potential commander in chief who is black, UNITY has long given the predominantly white American media a live vision of true power-sharing, respectful diversity.

UNITY's governing board was built by the four associations to rotate leadership among them, making the playing field fair for the smallest group, NAJA, and the largest, the National Association of Black Journalists. Sometimes it works better than others, but what makes UNITY noteworthy is it continually attempts what no other similar coalition has accomplished.

Yet it's in this context that I want to share some of my growing concerns for UNITY, which stem from the almost forgotten history of when I was president in the lead-up to UNITY '99. It was in that six months that UNITY could have disbanded over a disagreement about the location of the convention. There was controversy about holding it in the state of Washington, which then had a ballot measure to end affirmative action (which its voters later passed).

Some said we should boycott Washington state. Others, namely me, the UNITY president who is of Yakama/Snohomish/Snoqualmie descent, wanted to stay the course. I believed that holding the convention in Seattle made a larger stand for the power of diverse peoples coming together than boycotting would.

We fought this argument in the media, in the meetings, and among our associates. In the end, the decision was made by UNITY's four associations to hold the convention in Seattle. But by 2004 some leaders in UNITY seem to have decided to let this history be forgotten.

Painful as it was, I think this disagreement was a powerful lesson in staying united. Just because we are UNITY doesn't mean we have the same histories, politics and means of activism. The power of UNITY is not that we walk in lock step, but that we keep coming back together.

This is part of UNITY's history, just as the presidential candidate debate that UNITY has announced for the upcoming convention will become part of history. If you forget the U.S. history of segregation, then you don't know why having a presidential candidate like Obama is a breakthrough.

UNITY needs to engage the members of its four associations in a multi-voiced history keeping. It needs to create more means of hearing not only from its member organizations, but also from its participants. Some form of a business meeting would be appropriate. If only because our jobs are changing - many of us are working in ethnic and new media, not in the conventional newspapers and broadcast media on which UNITY seems to exclusively focus. Some of us might find UNITY mighty expensive now that we aren't on the corporate expense account.

UNITY needs to go further in its accounting for itself, beyond its standard soundbite about the two journalists from competing Philadelphia newspapers who, over conversation, said we should get these groups together. I mean no disrespect to Will Sutton and Juan Gonzales when I say UNITY was formed in meeting rooms where leaders of the four associations hammered out how they could work together.

For many of us, UNITY has changed our lives because we got jobs, we made friends and we stepped into leadership. That should be in the history, too. So should the fact that people who read, view and listen to media have benefited because UNITY helped us to become journalists.

The predictable challenge of work with diverse groups is that it will be fraught with challenges. It's not the UNITY leaders immune from bias or stereotype. No, in UNITY work we stumble and trip into bias and stereotype periodically. But in the UNITY setting, we learn to work through these mistakes together. Everyone is always teaching and everyone is always learning.

Kara Briggs owns Red Hummingbird Media Corp. and is a columnist for Indian Country Today. She lives at the Tulalip reservation in Washington state.