SEJ Struggles To Achieve Long-Standing Diversity Aims

March 1, 2015

SEJ News


Upcoming Oklahoma Conference an Opportunity to Reflect Native Presence


Jodi Lee Spotted Bear, executive director of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation’s newspaper and radio station in New Town, ND.
                                 Photo: courtesy Jodi Lee Spotted Bear

When a documentary crew came to the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation in New Town, ND, last fall to report on fracking’s impact at the center of the booming Bakken oil patch, one interviewee was bitterly disappointed.

Jodi Lee Spotted Bear, the executive director of the tribal government’s newspaper and radio station, complained that the crew, while multi-ethnic in makeup, “didn’t know a damn thing about Indian country.” Added Spotted Bear: “It’s so important to get people in there who know what they’re doing.… You need to do your homework.”

For Spotted Bear, and those in the ranks of the Society of Environmental Journalists, diversity in environmental reporting has long been a concern. Over the organization’s 25-year history, its staff continually has asserted a two-pronged approach to inclusive coverage on the beat: fostering increased involvement of journalists from diverse communities, while improving the performance quality of media work in these communities.

“The demand for addressing diversity and practicing more inclusive journalism has been glaring,” notes SEJ’s 2013 Guide to Diversity in Environmental Reporting. “The need is longstanding for greater participation by and coverage of the perspectives of women, racial and ethnic groups, age groups, and people of various orientations, abilities and geographies.”

The organization hopes the diversity concern will have its day in the sun at the upcoming annual conference Oct. 7-11, 2015, in Norman, OK.

Conference Co-Chairs Sarah Terry-Cobo and Nancy Gaarder agree that the event should reflect a clear “sense of place” in a state where 39 tribal governments contribute more than $10.8 billion to the economy and the standard vehicle license plate is emblazoned with “Native America.”

Key players from the Native American community at the conference host University of Oklahoma and from the state and federal government “have invested time and thought in guaranteeing that our tours incorporate Native American concerns,” Gaarder added. “They had done a tremendous amount of work before we even arrived for the site visit.”

As a result, most of the 10 planned conference tours air Native American viewpoints on matters such as food security, land and water rights, water quantity and quality, she said. Native Americans Vicki Monks, Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton and Rebecca Lansberry are among organizers of tour groups.

Lansberry, the membership and communications manager at the Norman-based Native American Journalists Association, or NAJA, has been working with SEJ Annual Conference Director Jay Letto and Membership Chair Kate Sheppard on outreach to involve her organization’s constituents.

Goal to have diversity ‘part of every discussion’

While the conference effort builds on previous SEJ members’ legwork to recruit American Indian members and to beef up coverage of environmental issues both on reservations and in urban areas, it’s by no means the organization’s only diversity initiative.

For instance, Membership Chair Sheppard’s “priority” is working up a list of Latino and other reporters of diverse backgrounds to recruit for membership, she said. And African American environmental journalist Brentin Mock is championing diversity by advising conference organizers on practical ways to counterbalance societally ingrained patterns of status and privilege. “The goal of diversity is not just to bring in people of color to talk about environmental justice, racism or diversity itself,” Mock explained.

“The goal should be to have them a part of every discussion, every panel and every topic, not just those that deal with race.”

One conference tour proposal includes a visit to Oklahoma’s historically black Langston University in Langston, OK. Staff at SEJ met with academic leaders to make sure Langston students have easy access to the annual conference, following up on contact made by SEJ board member Roger Witherspoon, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, or NABJ.

In the process, SEJ also brokered an informal partnership between the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the much smaller Langston. “It’s my hope this will lead to a lasting relationship even after we leave,”said Gaarder.

Calling the State of Oklahoma “itself a living breathing incubator for diversity,” Gaarder added her hope that the 2015 conference will result in fruitful multicultural relationships and new SEJ memberships in the state’s diverse communities. That could lead to more of the same at the 2016 conference, especially in the heavily Asian and Latino communities surrounding the Sacramento, CA, venue.

“If we can make progress this year with Native American and black constituents, then we can demonstrate that it can be done and that would carry on to Sacramento and into the future,” she said.

New Orleans conference prompted hard look at SEJ numbers

Diversity planning for 2015 comes in the wake of mixed results on the topic at the 2014 conference, held in 60 percent black New Orleans.

A quarter of the 16 tours and mini-tours specifically addressed perspectives of diverse communities, including those of the Ninth Ward and the city’s chemical corridor, as well as those of tribal community members on flood retention levees.

In addition, Hispanic and Asian tour leaders and speakers were among presenters. Speakers from African American communities included Beverly Wright, director of the Dillard Deep South Center for Environmental Justice; Nsedu Witherspoon, director of the Children's Environmental Health Network; Colette Pichon Battle, director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy; musician Michael White; former Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, and musician Delfeayo Marsalis.

Given that this was out of 44 panels, plenaries and workshops involving hundreds of participants, however, criticism arose over alleged under-representation of African American and other communities. In a listserv conversation, for instance, SEJ member Tony Barboza, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, cited “lack of diversity in SEJ.”

Conference Chair Mark Schleifstein shouldered the blame for perceived under-representation of different sectors. He noted, however, that a number of potential participants from diverse quarters declined invitations, and added: “We're limited in who we get to talk on our panels by the same diversity problems within the industries we cover.”

Schleifstein also recalled that initial conference organizing meetings drew only a couple of people of color, as did requests to membership for panel leader and tour volunteers. He also reminded critics that SEJ conferences are the result of a “bottom-up” grassroots volunteer membership process: “Where were our members in finding speakers for us?”

That conference experience prompted a hard look at membership numbers by SEJ. Volunteer Tina Casagrand helped SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke and Sheppard compile a rough estimate of the numbers of people of color in the organization.

It was 86, or 7 percent of the membership. By comparison, the 2014 American Society of News Editors Newsroom Census showed about 13 percent of full-time daily newspaper journalists are racial and ethnic minorities, while the Radio Television Digital News Association's annual survey pegged the minority workforce in TV news at 22 percent.

Mock suggested comparing SEJ’s recruitment record with that of other respected institutions and “seeing if they hold up to best practices.”

Parke, meanwhile, has renewed fundraising for conference fellowships to help increase membership diversity. She also suggested surveying members in organizations such as NAJA, NABJ, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Asian American Journalists Association to test interest among their members in learning more about environmental coverage through SEJ.

At the same time, Parke noted that some of SEJ’s best membership building is done by volunteer “welcoming efforts” and personal recruiting, which she called “the most effective thing anyone can do for member outreach and retention, bar none, across the board.”

In fact, she said, volunteerism “is the area that we need to emphasize for future, sustainable progress.”

Diversity closely bound to organization roots

Parke made clear SEJ staff and board members have pursued diversity goals throughout the organization’s quarter-century, maintaining “This is in the organization's DNA.”

The organization launched its diversity initiative in 1991. And at the very first conference that year, Conference Director Letto organized and moderated a panel session on diversity in environmental issues featuring Hispanic, Native American, and black speakers, including then-young Bob Bullard, who has since earned a nickname as the Father of Environmental Justice, and who has returned repeatedly to SEJ conferences.

Diverse leadership is apparent in the organization. SEJ board members of African American, Asian and Latino descent have included Wevonneda Minis, Gary Lee, Steve Curwood, Roger Witherspoon, Brenda Box, Emilia Askari, Adlai Amor, Imelda Abano and Angela Posada-Swafford. Minis, Askari, and Posada-Swafford have all served as conference chairs.

African American and Hispanic staffers have included Jutland Medina, Amy Vaughan Simmons, Randi Ross, Maria Bednarz, and Esteban Romero.

The organization’s track record helped convince the National Science Foundation and Columbia University to fund SEJ with a $150,000 grant as part of a large program to promote diversity in the geosciences from 2002 through 2005.

SEJ has published web-based resources, tip sheets, and other publications of special interest to diversity communities, for example a Spanish-language section on the website and a 2004 series of environmental justice tip sheets by Amy Gahran. And the organization held leadership development retreats in 1998, 2002, and 2006 with travel funding for and attention to recruiting members of color.

From 2008 to 2010, SEJ secured funding to support the establishment of Rempa, the first Mexican and cross-border organization of environmental journalists. It partnered with the Environmental Journalism Network at Internews and with the International Center for Journalists to help Rempa hold a regional SEJ meeting in Mexico and subsequently train journalists on forest resource management coverage in four Mexican cities.

SEJ established a volunteer Diversity Task Force in 2010 (now the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee) to foster greater coverage and understanding of environmental issues that affect minority and other marginalized communities. The associated SEJ-Diversity listserv is open to people both inside and outside the organization. In addition, SEJ provided Spanish translation services to conference goers in 2005 in Austin and 2011 in Miami.

In 2011, SEJ partnered with NAHJ to hold joint events at the SEJ annual conference in Miami. And in 2008, 2014 and again for the coming year, SEJ conference organizers have involved personnel of historically black colleges and universities in planning efforts. It also offered conference travel fellowships to people of color beginning in 1993, but stopped offering them in 2012 when funding dried up.

Funding shortfalls hamper diversity initiatives

Lean funding availability in the years since 2010 has strained the budget, and “money does matter when it comes to sustained program work on diversity,” Parke said.

For instance, she added, diversity fellowships have consistently ranked lowest priority in member surveys about budget cuts. And the organization’s budget struggles since the Great Recession have left no funding available for leadership-building retreats or travel to meetings of other groups, both activities that promoted diversity within SEJ.

These days, Parke said, “It's all about this grassroots organization and more people doing outreach with personal touch.” An example would be revitalizing a languishing Diversity Task Force. Gaarder agrees: “We need people to step up to the plate — not sit back and criticize.”

Members who want to do some of the phone calling and networking needed for the 2015 conference may contact organizers at:, and

Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, an independent agency she established in 1994 with a MacArthur fellowship. She is the once (and future?) SEJ Diversity associate, a founder of the Mexican Environmental Journalists Network, editor of the bilingual newsletter Meloncoyote, Thomson-Reuters Climate AlertNet correspondent, and contributing editor for Health & Environment at the Native Sun News.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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