By Ryon, Sue
The Masthead , Vol. 52, No. 2
Last year, I posted on NCEW's listserv what I believed would be an innocuous message: I was seeking additional participants for the Minority Writers Seminar sponsored by the NCEW Foundation. I asked listserv subscribers to be on the lookout for possible candidates or, if they themselves met the criteria, contact me for applications.
Simple. Innocent. Non-controversial. Right?
Well, as listserv subscribers may recall, I couldn't have been more wrong. What ensued was a heated debate over two of the nation's most divisive issues: race relations and its corollary, affirmative action. I must have had my social blinders on the day I composed that message, because I was totally unprepared for the sometimes-acrimonious discussion that followed.
I'll try to summarize some of what the critics had to say:
* Why wasn't this seminar open to everyone, regardless of skin color or ethnicity?
* Why weren't white women treated as minorities for purposes of this seminar, given that they constitute a protected class?
* Were Portuguese-Americans a minority group? How about Slovenes?
* Why was the NCEW Foundation, ostensibly a nonpartisan organization, appearing to take sides in the great affirmative action debate?
* Why were purportedly "unqualified people" being offered "special privileges"?
I recalled this debate the other day as I was preparing for this year's Minority Writers Seminar, which will have taken place by the time you're reading this. The list-serv exchange reminded me of two things: (1.) Not every NCEW member supports this particular activity, no matter how valuable some of us think it is; and (2.) only a handful of members have been involved with this project and, thus, most have no inkling why it's become such a high priority for the Foundation.
At five years old, the Minority Writers Seminar needs to be demystified and better understood. The idea was born in 1995 when the Foundation's then-president Ed Jones was looking to develop a program that might help attract more journalists of color to opinion writing. Others involved in the planning of the seminar, which debuted in 1996, include NCEW past presidents Susan Albright, Tommy Denton, and me, as well as former NCEW board member Caroline Brewer.
We were particularly fortunate to have the help and support of Joan Armour, whose Nashville firm handles The Masthead, the NCEW newsletter, and all of NCEW's public relations. While several of us were casting about (mostly ineffectively) for possible seminar locations and financial backing, Joan went to The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University with a compelling proposal. The Center signed on, and we began preparing for that first seminar.
More successful than we ever imagined
We've done three others since and, while we've received the occasional minor complaint from participants, the seminar has been far more successful than we ever imagined. …