JAWS: A path toward redemption and reconciliation

More than three years ago, I was asked by the Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS) leadership to run for president-elect. And I’m not going to lie – I was nervous. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure I was up for the task. After all, JAWS has 600+ members who are strong, outspoken and very accomplished. I worried that I didn’t have the chops to be their leader.

Thanks to the encouragement of women like Linda Kramer Jenning, Nancy Day, Angela Greiling Keane and Sheila Solomon (so many more I need to thank), I decided to run and became president-elect in 2017. I was particularly impressed by what Sandra Fish, who was president in 2017, and the board at that time were able to do at CAMP 2017.

Held in Hot Springs, Arkansas, CAMP 2017 featured a plenary session titled “Slow Thinking: Self-Audits and Superior Sources: A Toolbox for Counteracting Bias.” They then held an Implicit Bias Training Debrief with New York Times op-ed editor Jenée Desmond-Harris and KQED host Tonya Mosley.

To me, it was a no brainer: Let’s build upon the work we did in 2017.

At CAMP 2018, I saw more women of color than ever before. Thanks to generous funding from the Ford Foundation, the Democracy Fund and individual donors, we were able to cover most of the costs of sending 15 fellows to CAMP, the same number of fellows we had in 2017. I had the honor of meeting most of our fellows and shared in their excitement being at a conference with helpful panels and important discussions about our industry. I also heard from many women who were proud to see a woman of color at the helm of JAWS.

To continue the rich discussions that blossomed at CAMP 2017, our Programming Committee scheduled diversity talks, beginning with our Diversity Committee sharing the results of a survey on the lack of diversity within JAWS at CAMP as well. The results of the diversity survey were scheduled to be shared Sunday morning, during our annual membership meeting.

Unfortunately, that meeting was thrown off track after several women decided to grab the microphones and start a fundraising campaign after hearing our individual donations were down for the year.

And to be completely honest, I believe it was that morning meeting where things started to go downhill for JAWS. By dinner, all hell broke loose after our Diversity Chair at that time shared the findings of the committee’s survey, which revealed that many women of color believe JAWS is too expensive, too cliquey and unwelcoming of outsiders.

Since things went wrong at CAMP 2018, our board has worked tirelessly to address the issues of inequity that were brought to light. There is much work left to do, but our main goal has been to address the most egregious issues, including taking action against those who made inappropriate comments that night. I am heartened to say that this board has taken those steps. We also have taken steps to ensure that such incidents never happen again by introducing a new Code of Conduct, which explicitly states that we stand for equity and inclusion.

We also were able to hire Dr. Mary J. Wardell, a diversity and inclusion consultant. In April, Dr. Wardell and her team released the findings of a climate survey that yielded results similar to the ones shared that night at CAMP 2018: Racism is a concern among some of our members, and “CAMP 2018 became a central theme of concern and disappointment for the respondents as noted by an uncovering of organizational racism, privilege, ageism, alienation, exclusivity and concern about the affordability of CAMP.”

These findings bear out what our fellows have stated publicly, including in their November 2018 article in Medium: “While JAWS opens doors for many women, doing so does not excuse the effects of discrimination by some of its members. To grow and survive, JAWS must redouble its efforts to offer women of color equal opportunity — and we feel the organization and its members need a serious look into the attitudes of privilege and dismissal of the views of perceived outsiders.”

And this is why Conor Friedersdorf’s second-hand account of CAMP 2018, published in January in The Atlantic, was not only wrong but dangerous for the way it characterized the fellows who spoke out against a real problem in our organization and in journalism. There have been numerous studies on the lack of women of color in newsrooms and recent accounts of the barriers they face. Just look at the battle award-winning journalist Brittany Noble faced. There are even more current examples that show how women of color are still discriminated against and forced out. So it’s irresponsible for The Atlantic to run work by someone who makes light of comments the fellows called out (like treating black women with natural hair interchangeably by calling them Jazmin No. 1 and No. 2).

Because our 2018 fellows bravely and urgently called attention to a problem that faces numerous organizations seeking to diversify their ranks — and a challenge our nation is wrestling with as well — our board, which is the most diverse in JAWS history, has made equity and inclusion our top priority because we know it’s the right thing to do.

Our next step as an organization is to hold discussions on race at the regional level and at CAMP 2019. Because here’s the truth: If JAWS, with its 600+ members from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and other prestigious newsrooms and award-winning independent journalists, is to be seen as a truly inclusive organization, we must stop blaming the messengers and start standing up for what is right.

Just as this year’s CAMP motto states: We choose to define ourselves and the future of our organization by facing our past. JAWS is stronger for our work to become a more diverse and inclusive organization.