I'm unsure exactly what made my eyes moisten, suddenly and unexpectedly, at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Detroit back in 1982. I was so new in the business, so unsure of my talents, that any colleague's "You can make it!" speech could have dissolved me.
I couldn't explain to the co-worker who found me near tears. But now I have a theory:
My fellow journalists' faces did me in.
They were so alive. So comfortable. So animated as their owners discussed new ways of piercing the industry attitudes that challenged them, and that had kept their forebears out of mainstream journalism.
Although most of the faces would have been considered "black," they were amazingly diverse.
I felt similarly Wednesday at the Unity convention, the consortium of four journalism associations that has drawn more than 7,000 journalists "of color" to downtown Washington. The Convention Center's hallways and ballrooms were filled with faces: student-fresh and elder-noble faces. Gold and brown and honey and sand and ivory and chocolate-colored faces. Faces that are different -- and yet surprisingly similar.
"It's just a great experience," Julissa Marenco, a general manager at Telemundo in Washington, told me. Marenco's news director persuaded her to attend her first Unity conference.
"It's powerful to come together," Marenco continued. "The name fits perfectly -- we're very much united."
Studying the throng, one might naturally ask: Who knew there were so many? So many newspaper, TV, radio, magazine and interactive journalists united by a word that, considering their numbers, suddenly seems absurd:
There's nothing minor about the energy generated by conventioneers rubbing elbows, swapping war stories, trumpeting their resumes, giving and seeking advice. More than 1,050 participants represent the Asian American Journalists Association; about 2,700 are from NABJ; some 1,200 represent the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; and about 200 are from the Native American Journalists Association.
Also attending are hundreds of freelancers, job-seekers, recruiters and working press members drawn to election-year appearances by President George W. ("I'm not making the NAACP mistake again") Bush, John Kerry and Colin Powell.
Where else can journalists find workshops about how to cover international athletes or Native American life without resorting to stereotype, and about the future of ethnic radio? What other conventions' seminar participants boast such lyrical surnames as Red-Horse, Sreenivasan, Hiroyuki and Ofori?
Still, Unity's palpable "We Are the World" vibe doesn't obscure some attendees' concerns. Beneath the camaraderie, note-comparing and cross-ethnic flirting float some uncomfortable questions:
How many minority journalists will a wary mainstream media embrace? What's this year's color du jour? If your group advances, must mine fall behind?
Such questions seemed validated by a survey released Wednesday by the Unity consortium that showed that 90 percent of the journalists working in the nation's Washington news bureaus are white -- in an America whose citizenry is fewer than 70 percent white. Minority journalists make up less than 12 percent of bureau reporters, while minorities represent more than 30 percent of the U.S. population.
Clearly, too few minority journalists are covering the nation's most news-producing city. So the ethnicities of the small percentage who have these coveted positions seem important.
Which hardly fosters Unity.
"I wasn't a big fan of the first two Unity conventions," admitted NABJ President Herbert Lowe, a reporter at Newsday in New York. "The [traditional] NABJ convention means so much to me -- it's like a family reunion." Seeing so many strangers from unfamiliar groups at "his" convention felt odd.
But working closely with the presidents of the other minority journalist associations this year helped Lowe realize that "we're all definitely going through the same things."
At Unity, minority journalists' voices and power "are multiplied -- you don't get Kerry and Bush and Powell to just NABJ," Lowe continued. Visiting politicos "probably didn't know there were this many journalists of color -- they don't see that many at press conferences or on their campaign planes," he continued. "So they're not getting asked questions that matter to our constituents, our communities."
No wonder many attendees feel how I did back in Detroit -- surprisingly moved. Pablo Bello, a writer for the Spanish-language newspaper El Informador Hispano in Fort Worth, came to Unity looking for a job.
He found inspiration.
"The speakers are very passionate," said Bello, 36, who was a reporter in his native Mexico City 14 years ago when he decided to "give myself one year to learn English and get a journalism job." When he couldn't achieve his goal, Bello decided to work on his English and reporting skills "rather than go back home defeated."
So he feels motivated by photos shown to him by NAHJ's president of the overwhelmingly white White House press corps. He feels "very emotional" when Unity speakers, "some of them immigrants like me, really tell us to go for it."
Unity helped him realize that as minority journalists, "we have strengths, we have qualifications, we have numbers," Bello said.
"We just need a chance to show the mainstream media that we can succeed."
I appreciate Bello's feelings. Yet in the more than two decades since the sight of hundreds of minority journalists moved me to tears, thousands of them have succeeded -- some brilliantly.
Enough have done well that editors and news directors shouldn't have to be reminded -- year after year at conventions such as this one -- why it's so important for the journalists who report the news to be as varied as the population they cover. At some point, it seems, diversity shouldn't be a goal.
It should be a reality.