Sincerely, Leaders of Color: It takes hard work from all sides to build coalition across identities and communities

Building coalitions is tough, awkward work that leads to happier employees and better journalism products for our communities.

A quote from the author, Francisco Vara-Orta, that says, "Living in a multicultural society, it’s critical to realize the importance, power, and necessity of building coalitions across different groups of people. We’ll collapse inward otherwise."

(Background photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

In my role as DBEI Director at Investigative Reporters & Editors, white members and partners earnestly and frequently ask me how they can better engage with people of color, usually because they want to hire more people of color. At the same time, I am also often asked by people of color how to deal with microaggressions and the taxing outcomes of systemic racism in their day-to-day jobs.

Sometimes, I don’t know if the journalism industry fully grasps the power of building coalitions in the news industry — especially amid such a polarized environment right now where arguably we are all tired for one good reason or another. And that makes this work very hard at times, which means people give up and retreat to their comfort zones. But we have to keep that work going.

Like most people of color who are deeply connected to their racial identity, there’s a deep well of experience I can pull from: learning as a little dark-skinned boy how to interact with people in positions of authority — usually white here in Texas — to wrangling with professors, editors, and politicians I encountered as an adult who engaged in racist behavior at times, be it unknowingly or not.

And to not lose perspective, I can easily think of several key mentors who are white who helped me along the way. Now, in hindsight, I realize how we built a strong coalition: They used their power and expertise to help me and not put the onus on me in that power dynamic to just “pull myself up by the bootstraps.” They knew that systemically the deck is stacked against people such as me, a gay Mexican-American who was the first from my family to graduate from college and have a professional career.

What I have learned as I mature is that everyone is truly on a journey and the work we are talking about is a two-way street. I ask myself things like:

  • “Are the white folks I am encountering at the starting line and scared to open themselves up to education, or worse, missteps and mistakes?”
  • Or, “are they further along and earnestly need accountability and guidance when a conflict arises?”

As a person of color, I have realized that my responses over time were usually determined by where I was at that stage of my life and career. When it came to my own sense of agency, I particularly thought about what capital I could burn, what were the power dynamics at play, and what I thought was as fair and compassionate a response as possible.

In really tough times, especially of late, when you are watching your peoples massacred and put in cages and your colleagues expect you to proceed with your day as normal and produce, produce, produce, I have to first be aware of what mood I am in. I know my white allies may also be able to empathize or feel those emotions too — but the direct impact of seeing people with whom you share a racial identity with violently harmed just hits differently because of the too-frequently disheartening outcomes for people of color in this world that we’ve been used to for centuries. White allies, please take note.

So in taking that next step to build — or rebuild — coalition with a white person after a conflict, I have to quickly answer some key questions on my end:

  • How much patience, empathy, and courage do I have so I can help move us both forward together to a better place?
  • At what moments are they taking the lead, or not?
  • Are we both willing to “do the work” moving forward?

In conversations with my peers, both who are of color and who are white, for this column, I gleaned some insights that I hope helps us all build better relationships across racial divides. I have seen how practicing many of these general principles can help build coalitions pertaining to other differences in identity as well. When it comes to defining coalition building, assembling large networks of people is critical. But while that might be a long term goal, to some that may be overwhelming. Instead, let’s first focus on the process starting with immediately building trust and allyship between yourself and others.

Tips for coalition building across differences:

  • Listen first, always. Even if it’s hard. Many people just want to vent or air their anxieties when a problem arises. People also can not control the color of the skin and situation they are born into, and for all of us to understand our interpersonal dynamics, we have to listen to one another first to then know where to go on “the work.”
  • Find common ground. If we were to start every relationship focused on what makes us different, the world would truly be a cold and lonely existence. Once you build those bonds over where you can connect as people, you can then push one another to be more open-minded and less defensive.
  • Respected leaders often look to the rank and file for guidance on building a better workplace culture. That buy-in throughout the organization is critical to meaningful and sustainable change and I promise you it will lead to better outcomes productivity-wise. That benefits everyone and translates into retaining quality staff that produce great journalism. While we should always feel inspired by those in the power structure leading the way on correcting injustice, we should also remember that they may be benefitting from “the way things have always been,” feel obligated to maintain the status quo to maintain order, and can, in their own self-interest, fear what it means for them when changes begin. Still, some of the most sustainable coalition building I’ve witnessed comes from the middle or bottom of who holds the power in an organization.
  • Remember no community is a monolith. People of color are told by white people to “get our own in check” when there are terrorist attacks committed by people or color or racial injustice protests, but that never seems like a two-way street. An example of this would be the racial profiles of the vast majority of the perpetrators of the Jan. 6th insurrection and how we’ve framed that when it comes to race. From my perspective, it’s an unfair and ridiculous expectation to put coalition work on any one person as reflective of representing their entire race, white people included. But especially when you’re often the only person of color in these rooms, you may feel this expectation — from everyone.
    • Also white colleagues, please avoid telling a person of color “you’re the only [Latino, Black person, etc] who has a problem” with whatever problem they are pointing out, especially if it has to do with racism. People in authority often get more upset at who is pointing out problems than the problem itself. That reputation gets around through whisper networks and will repel people you may actually want to attract to your workplace away from your orbit.
  • Work through confirmation bias that arises. This goes both ways. People of color who have had so much trauma with white people in positions of power or influence have advised me that “you will always hit a wall with a white person” when it comes to fully dismantling systemic racism. While at times I have seen that, I also try to remember that white people are not a monolith either and I can’t assume what’s in their mind and heart without listening to their words and seeing how much of that lines up with their actions.
  • Empathy can build bridges but beware of false equivalence. As a white person, do not equate your struggles as a white person with those of color experiencing racism. Of course everyone struggles and that is where empathy comes in. But making such a comparison shows a fundamental lack of understanding of humankind’s history for centuries. Yes, people don’t know what they don’t know, but a visit to the library or Google searches can save relationships and lives. As professionals whose currency comes in facts, it’s critical to check yourself as this approach of equating experiences tends to divide more than help — and often backfires.
  • Reiterate during the coalition building process that inclusion of those historically marginalized/excluded does not mean the exclusion of white people or those from historically privileged backgrounds. Defensiveness can cloud this goal. True inclusion means you work to create an environment where everyone feels like they belong and have a shot at expressing themselves even if at first we don’t all agree. Then the work can really begin.
  • Own mistakes quickly and succinctly. Some of my colleagues say it’s actually more aggravating when someone goes on to make a show of apologizing dramatically, essentially making the situation about themselves. We aren’t necessarily looking for penance or reparations, we’re seeking lessons learned and changed behaviors.
  • Respect safe spaces for the marginalized. Remember when you are in that space as a guest and not from that community to act like it. It wouldn’t be a good look to act like a mess at a party where you don’t know the hosts well, so don’t do the same when given that honor in a safe space. And please also avoid violating that trust by sharing any sensitive information you learned in those sacred spaces with people you know in positions of power who could retaliate against those in vulnerable positions. It happens.

For those who are white and looking to build coalitions at work, I’ll leave it to Jill Geisler, an expert on media leadership at Loyola University of Chicago’s communication school, who I’ve built a mentorship relationship founded on trust, and always has good, candid insights on prickly predicaments.

“I always think in terms of being an aspiring ally — hoping to earn a title that can only be conferred by others — not claimed by me. The byproduct of privilege is blind spots and knowledge gaps. It’s on me to be appreciative, not defensive, if someone points out a blind spot. It’s on me to fill my gaps. Am I listening? Am I learning? Am I demonstrating through my interactions and my work that I’m worthy of the precious trust that someone might extend?”

While the purpose of this column is to hone in on strategies we all can use or be cognizant of in building coalitions among differences in identity, for further reading, there are many resources and training out there to know how to be a better ally, particularly on matters of race.

Living in a multicultural society, it’s critical to realize the importance, power, and necessity of building coalitions across different groups of people. We’ll collapse inward otherwise. In the U.S. specifically, we have always struggled with this - especially among communities of color and white people. The media industry is no exception either, still today.

However, whenever we collectively discuss — usually with pride — what is possible in the industry and in a democracy for the greater good, multiracial coalitions and the importance of white allies are nearly always centered as a key factor in sustainable change for the better.

But if we believe in the philosophy of journalists as afflicting the comfortable, we have to hold each other to that, and at times, put that mirror up to our own actions and attitudes. Then reflect and do something about it.
My resilient optimism on DBEI work comes in seeing how coalitions can change the world and make it better for everyone. When a white colleague “gets it” on being anti-racist, they really do get it and sometimes ironically I have to be the one to say it won’t happen overnight and requires patience and strategy. But the work on both sides is always worth it. It simply just is a great feeling.

See y’all on the journey.

Francisco Vara-Orta
Director of DBEI, Investigative Reporters & Editors

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Emma. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

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  • Francisco Vara-Orta

    Francisco Vara-Orta brings two decades of newsroom experience to his role as IRE’s first director of diversity and inclusion. Vara-Orta joined the IRE staff in February 2019 as a training director, conducting sessions on managing data and investigative reporting for journalists throughout the United States and internationally. He has worked for a variety of online and print publications, including Chalkbeat, Education Week, the San Antonio Express-News, Austin Business Journal, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He earned a master’s degree in investigative/data journalism at the University of Missouri and a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, his hometown and where is now happily based.


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