Apology from JAWS board of directors

News, President's Letters l

“It’s never too late to drop your beliefs and let your wounds heal. Instead of wounding others as well.”  ― Adam Scythe, Immortals, Vol. II

JAWS is an organization I have been honored to be a part of for many years, not just because it is led by women who broke down newsroom barriers for women but because it has provided me a safe space to vent about being a woman of color in mostly all-white and all-male workplaces for most of my career.

Unfortunately, CAMP was not a safe space for many of us this year.

Several attendees made unacceptable and harmful comments toward women of color during CAMP, while some older members said they felt disrespected and irrelevant because of their age. It is imperative that we as an organization and as individuals acknowledge these wrongs in order to begin to heal and ensure our community is welcoming, inclusive and supportive of all women. One of our first steps will be hiring a professional to guide us in this work. But first we want to publicly apologize.

Please note that this is a long statement, but I fiercely believe that we must include as much information as possible here to help those who were not at CAMP or Sunday night’s dinner understand what happened and why they have seen certain comments on our listserv in the days following CAMP. It also took time to interview as many people as possible who were involved in the events.

Unacceptable comments, attitudes at CAMP

At our Sunday night dinner, outgoing board member Marina Villeneuve, head of our Diversity Committee, announced results of our survey to collect demographics of our membership and gauge the inclusiveness of JAWS. (This session was scheduled for Sunday morning, but was pushed back because the morning session went longer than expected.) She said one in four respondents feel our organization is not diverse and inclusive. This is vital information and we must take it seriously — especially because of how it played out in real time at CAMP.

Instead, Marina — along with several other women at dinner – recalls hearing and seeing some in the room snicker, laugh and roll their eyes during her report. Our fellows, a group of 15 women from diverse backgrounds, all signed a statement on Oct. 29, stating that they also heard people “smirking, laughing, talking, grumbling or rolling their eyes” during Marina’s report and Table Talks. This statement was posted on our listserv, which currently includes more than 800 people.

As Marina finished her report, a longtime member walked over to her and took the microphone. She then said the following: “We were the first diversity issue.”

I am certain that this member had no intention of discounting anyone (calls and emails to her late in the week were not returned), but this fact does not negate the reality that this comment came across as dismissive and insensitive, for anyone who might not inherently understand why it’s inappropriate.

The reason this was a grievous statement is that it did not “recognize the context that prevented certain racial minorities and women from lower-income backgrounds from having the same privileges,” as stated by all 15 fellows in their Oct. 29 statement to the JAWS Board.

Troubling comments were reported from numerous tables at dinner on Sunday night. There was a lot of defensiveness about the results, which shows JAWS has to do much more  to become a truly inclusive organization. At the table where Marina Villeneuve sat that night, she listened to a conversation where one person expressed frustration that organizations such as NABJ and NAHJ did not want to collaborate more, but what disturbed her was to hear someone else at her table say: “Well, we don’t want to work with them anyway.”

Perhaps the most disturbing comments that were reported to me came from a table where two white members joined a group of fellows, all women of color, for the Table Talks portion of the night. At this table, several fellows reported that one of the white members sat down at their table and “instantly put the women of color there on the defense by saying in an accusatory tone: ‘The tone at this table totally changed when I sat down. Do you have a problem with us [her and one other woman] being here?’”

I had a chance to speak to the member who was accused of saying this. This member said, “If this was me, I walked up to that table BECAUSE it was all young women of color and there were two open seats, and we were going to be discussing diversity. I never felt threatened or excluded. I chose to sit there. (I had no idea there was discussion assignments until the end of the evening.) I said, ‘In the spirit of tonight’s discussion, may I sit here? I’m interested in how my sitting here changes the dynamics of this group.’ In the diversity training I have had, joining a relatively homogenous group as ‘the other’ to discuss the change in dynamics has been encouraged as an ice-breaker. Obviously, it broke more than ice here, which was not my intent.”

I appreciate the fact that this member never intended to make others feel uncomfortable, but she did. And this is unacceptable.

At the same table, the fellows reported that, when this same member excused herself to the bathroom, another member said: “Make sure you go to the colored bathroom.”

This other member said she did make that joke and acknowledged it was in poor taste. For that, she apologized at the table and has apologized again. She said she made the joke in reference to a memory from high school when she and her friend discovered on a field trip to Jamestown, Va. that bathrooms were separated for “white” and “colored” people.  

The fellows at this table also said that someone said, “It’s not like you have to please Massa.” No one has taken responsibility for this statement, but the idea that someone said this is deplorable.

Both women have since apologized for the exchange that happened at their table. One wrote: “For any of my actions that hurt someone, I sincerely and deeply apologize. No hurt was intended. I hope only that we can all grow and come together to lift JAWS higher.”

Christina Tapper, managing editor at Bleacher Report, said she heard from one of the fellows sitting at another table that she had been referred to as “Jazmin No. 2,” while a fellow by that name shared the table with them. I have to agree with the fellows on this one: “It is offensive and racist to imply women of color are interchangeable or indistinguishable because of their complexion or hairstyle.” I’m not sure who made this statement, but I would ask that person to make a formal apology.

As one member wrote in her report of things that went wrong Sunday night: “The mood and tenor were so bad that I don’t think anyone got anything from that. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was so painful of a discussion and it went poorly.”

Navajo Times reporter and Emerging Journalist Fellow Pauly Denetclaw told attendees at Sunday night’s dinner that she was called “Indian” several times — a term the Associated Press has not used in its Stylebook for decades. She also noted another CAMP attendee referred to the colonization of North America as “homesteading,” which our fellows described as a term that “erases the history of stolen Native lands and genocide.”

I personally want to thank the woman who has come forward on the listserv to apologize for using the term “homesteading.”

I’d also like to bring up another issue that touched a raw nerve for some of us.

At Sunday morning’s membership meeting when I shared a snapshot of the 2018 budget, several members grabbed the microphones and began a spontaneous call for donations. While I love the fact that people want to give more to this organization, I want to acknowledge that it was off-putting to some people in the room.

As one observer noted: “To some, this was considered a good thing, but to others, it was an example of privilege being thrown in their face and reinforced the negative experiences they already were having at CAMP.”

Fara Warner, who has returned to the JAWS board, said she was among those pledging $100 toward our fundraising efforts, and she apologizes if her actions made anyone feel uncomfortable. “I can see that my actions, while not intentionally, were classist. I am more than happy for the membership to know that it was me and that I apologize for my actions.”

It should also be noted that women of color were not the only ones who experienced offensive acts.

Another woman, who is white, and a self-described Gen-Xer, shared a situation in the hotel restaurant, where one longtime JAWs member cut in front of people standing in line: “I was treated rudely by [this person] during lunch,” this woman told me. “She didn’t even see me. Talked over me and got in front of me. She goes straight up to the waitress … and cuts in line. I understand that this happens, but there is so little self-awareness … Civility is lost on a certain subset of people at JAWS.  The tone they use is disrespectful.”

I also want to note several of our white members, some who are older, have a disability, or do not fit into a binary category, felt disrespected and “invisible” at CAMP.

“It is deeply offensive when all white people are lumped together and treated as collectively responsible for the racist or race-blind blunders of some white individuals, or held accountable collectively for structural racism, without investigating what we may have done to challenge that,” one member said to me. “We cannot move forward together if we are attacked collectively or if our different ways of thinking and seeing are dismissed.”

Several other white members said they felt irrelevant and as if they had nothing to offer because of their age.

“As part of this year’s diversity initiative, cards were available throughout the weekend on a table in the foyer for people to write suggestions on what JAWS could do,” one attendee reported. “The cards were placed face up. One card referred negatively to seeing so many old white women at JAWS. Those cards helped fuel the remarks by some older white women Sunday evening during Marina’s presentation of our diversity report and planned roundtable discussions.”

In their statement to the board, the fellows acknowledged an “anonymous comment written on the diversity board (“I’ve never been to a conference with so many old white women”) set an uneasy starting point as some members’ defenses were up coming into the discussion.” But the fellows said none among them wrote the statement. “We were further misled in thinking that we were sharing candid thoughts in a safe space, only to have anonymous comments weaponized against us.”

As one former president said, “On Sunday night, we witnessed how the best of intentions can harm. We witnessed how failing to openly and fully acknowledge privilege can harm.”

Going forward

Given the sheer volume of complaints and concerns raised about this year’s CAMP and on our listserv, I want to publicly apologize to Marina and all young women of color for being subjected to offensive statements and not being taken seriously. I also apologize to white women who were made to feel irrelevant or invisible. No woman — no woman — should be made to feel disrespected, unseen, defensive, dismissed or harmed in the way many did that Sunday night and in the days following CAMP through our listserv.  We should have created a safe space for every single person, and we failed to do that.

I ask those involved in wittingly or unwittingly making offensive statements or creating a hostile environment for women of color to offer a public apology. The board will continue to determine what other steps are needed to make things right, but an apology is a much-needed first step.

We are in the process of hiring a consultant that will assess the culture of the organization, provide training for the board, offer guidance and language to help membership speak across differences and help craft thoughtful programming for JAWS regional groups and next year’s CAMP.  

It is my hope that this consultant will help us turn this challenge into an opportunity to make our organization – and our industry – more welcoming and collaborative, so that everyone feels they can contribute and nobody has to be feel defensive.

We are also going to revamp our listserv to create a safe space for our members there as well. From all these examples and more, it’s clear we need to work together to find new ways to communicate effectively with each other. The answer is not to tiptoe around each other or to be afraid to have these conversations. We need to find kind, empathetic and fearless approaches to have these important conversations so we can help each other succeed. And we need all of your help, participation and acceptance to make JAWS the organization we want it to be.

As one member wrote: “Discussion of diversity was difficult for everyone. I cried. As a group, we have been undergoing tremendous growth and change over the past few years. Growth and change are hard, but also good! And essential to the power we have to achieve our goals. … If we are committed to JAWS then we must be committed to each other. That means learning more about the members who are radically different from us; it means sharing and listening with kindness and compassion. Through that process, we will find our shared values and make a plan to work on them together.”

The board and I are committed to creating a diverse, inclusive and welcoming JAWS that allows us all to thrive and grow. We are also committed to making CAMP and JAWS safe spaces for all members. We know it is a long, uncomfortable road ahead, but we believe it is imperative our organization walks this path, beginning with this apology.

Your 2018-2019 JAWS BOARD

Yumi Wilson, President

Lindsey Anderson, Vice President

Mira Lowe, President Elect

Rachel Sams, Secretary
Deborah Douglas, Treasurer

Sarah Garrecht Gassen, Board member

Nicole Raz, Board member

Emily DeRuy,  Board member

Fara Warner, Board member

Lottie Joiner, Board member

Marina Trahan Martinez, Board member

Charisse Gibson, Board member

Jennifer Kho, Board member


Correction

It was incorrectly reported that white women sharing a table with Christina Tapper of The Bleacher Report called her “Jazmin No. 2.” The women at her table expressed support and understanding during Sunday’s difficult talks.

Instead, Tapper said she heard from one of the fellows sitting at another table that she had been referred to as “Jazmin No. 2.” This reference was mentioned in an earlier statement released to the listserv by the fellows on Oct. 29.