May 5, 2003

Sadie Jo Smokey left behind her tiny community on the Washoe Reservation in western Nevada in 2000. She wanted to be a journalist.

At 21, she left her community support system. She traded it for a tough business where journalists of color leave about as fast as they arrive.

But Sadie Jo was determined to succeed. She landed internships at the Oakland Tribune, The Seattle Times and the Kansas City Star. Now, at 25, she is the food and drink reporter at the Arizona Republic where she’s been for nearly two years.

She’s happy with her progress, work, and her colleagues. Like many young journalists of color, she possesses talent, curiosity, skill and ambition.

Sometimes that’s not enough.

We’ve all seen young journalists leave this profession. The industry is often perplexed as to why. Instead of asking the same perpetual question, some people decided to look within to provide their own answers.

Sadie Jo became a part of that process in 1999, when she was a University of Nevada-Reno college senior. It was then that she was taken into the UNITY: Journalists of Color Mentor Program. Since then, she has found an extended family of working journalists to help guide her career.

All program participants — scholars and mentors—met twice a year across the country during the past four years. “For me it was always walking into a room—and even though we came from different backgrounds — we were all journalists of color,” said Sadie Jo. “And we treated each other like family. That was always such a nice comforting feeling.”

Quit moping around. You can do this.She also found people who could tell her: “Quit moping around. You can do this.”

She believed them.

The UNITY: Journalists of Color Mentor Program brought together members of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). They set a goal to stem the exodus of people of color from the news industry by focusing on the development of role models.

Today, program success stories abound.

“The biggest problem in reflecting our diverse population in American newsrooms is retention of journalists of color,” said Michael Barrientos, an NAHJ mentor. “In the Mentor Program, I have seen several cases where program scholars were on the edge and stayed their course with the support of their UNITY peers.”

Barrientos is among the mentor role models recruited from each of UNITY’s organizations: NAJA, NABJ, NAHJ, and AAJA. They were matched with college students and those in their first jobs.

About 60 people — 30 mentors, 30 scholars — have been a part of the program, representing print, TV, online, and photography. We had a cross-cultural line up, a pairing of scholars and mentors across journalism organizations. In a few cases, we ended up mentoring within our own organization. Sadie Jo and I, both NAJA members, were matched in 2000.

It’s been incredible journey.

The UNITY mentoring village pooled its collective talent and experience and raised the confidence of many budding journalists.

“This is a tough, often brutal and heartless business, where it is difficult to not feel isolated in a new job, where you are often the least experienced and perhaps only, minority in your newsroom,” said Tricia Schwennesen, an NAHJ member. “There were many times I considered quitting and even more where I felt like a failure who had nothing to offer this business.”

Schwennesen feels her mentor, Rob McDonald of NAJA, helped guide her from a frustrating job to one more attune to her strengths and cultural background. The young woman now serves as an assistant city editor. Her editor describes her reporting and writing as excellent.

…someone must have helped this young woman grow up as a journalist quickly “We hired Tricia about a year ago,” said Deborah W. Fisher, Corpus Christi Caller-Times editor. “It was evident to me early in her work and in her interactions that she understood how to relate in a smart, forward-moving way, even in fast-paced, sometimes conflict-ridden situations that often arise in the pressure cooker that newsrooms often are. I knew she had been involved in a mentorship program, and I thought to myself even then that someone must have helped this young woman grow up as a journalist quickly — much quicker than I ever did.”

Fisher said she later learned of Schwennesen’s previous job experiences. “Some of the early frustrations in her career sounded like an echo I hear and see in our industry among young journalists all the time.”

This time, however, others were there when Schwennesen’s story unfolded. And they were there to guide her through the landmines.

Group nourishment was plentiful.

“There is no fear like the fear a new college graduate feels in the pit of her stomach as she faces the uncertainty of a future in TV news,” said AAJA program scholar Christine Park. “The rejection, the discouragement, and the fierce competition are enough to make one give up before even really trying. At least, that’s how I felt before the UNITY Mentor Program. It… changed my life.”

Park now is a reporter at an ABC-owned station in Fresno, Calif. For mentors such as myself, the program has been equally rewarding. Job pressures aren’t unique to young people. Among my peers, I often returned to my newsroom re-energized after being around people who shared many of own newsroom frustrations.

We all knew we weren’t alone. We became stronger.

“While recent statistics may show a struggle to keep journalists of color in the industry, my passion for journalism has only grown, as well as the desire to encourage more of minorities to join us,” said Victoria Lim, AAJA member.

As we supported each other, we also learned more about one another.

“The Unity Mentor program has helped provide better understanding of other cultures,” said Sandy Louey, AAJA mentor. “In addition to cross-cultural understanding, the program has provided many opportunities for me to learn about other journalism mediums.”

Louey and her assigned scholar, Derrick Henry of NAJA, are among the participants who will continue a professional relationship even as the program ends its initial phase of funding.

Henry, 27, said he’s convinced he wants to remain in journalism. “My experience in the program reaffirms the principle that the best decisions come from having the best information.”

We weren’t a mutually exclusive group, drawing only from the NAJA, AAJA, NAHJ, and NABJ. When Rick Dunham, White House correspondent for Business Week, volunteered to be a mentor, he was welcomed into the UNITY fold. His experience has reinforced his view about the importance of diverse newsrooms.

“I have made it an important part of my role at Business Week,” said Dunham, now a diversity recruiter for McGraw-Hill Companies and an active lobbyist for diversity hiring decisions. As an officer of the National Press Club, he also aims to make diversity and professional development key themes there, too.

The depth of friendships and professional relationships among all the UNITY Mentor Program participants became evident in April. Program participants met in Washington, D.C. during one of our last formal group settings.

Our blessings are many.

We’ve all attended personal growth seminars, professional development courses, round table discussions and executive coaching seminars. We’ve also helped put a new face on newsroom diversity by strengthening the core, the next group of journalists. Perhaps this new generation will be better equipped to navigate in their newsrooms — and remain for the long run.

They certainly know where to find support and guidance.

When I started, a mere four years ago, I didn’t ‘know’ anyone. ” ‘It’s who you know,’ that’s what I always heard back in the days when I was entering the business,” said Glenn Jones, NABJ scholar. “When I started, a mere four years ago, I didn’t ‘know’ anyone. I was the only black male broadcast journalism student in my class when I graduated from Emerson College. I was also the first person in my family to graduate from an institution of higher learning.

“The UNITY Mentor Program changed that immediately. When I was partnered with my mentor Rose Tibayan in 1999, I was instantly connected to her and every person in her newsroom. Not only that, but through the mentor program, I was also instantly connected to dozens of other talented journalists from around the country.”

Mentor programs work. The UNITY mentor program works.

So as the news industry struggles to recruit and retain journalists of color, it seems befitting that NAJA, NABJ, NAHJ, and AAJA members combine their talent and experience to find solutions to bring diverse perspectives to our newsrooms, and to keep them there.

We worked together. We learned. We looked within.

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Jodi Rave reports on Native news for Lee Enterprises, a chain of 45 newspapers.
Jodi Rave

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