The Poynter

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Several months ago, I attended a workshop for up-and-coming journalists of color at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, on behalf of my employer, Automattic, the VIP division of which is a regular, enthusiastic supporter and financial sponsor. The VIP team was on their annual Grand Meetup, so they’d asked if I would attend on their behalf. Being a geek of all things journalism, I’m fairly sure I said yes before Steph had even had a chance to finish typing the question in Slack.

Mid-October in St. Pete is lovely. The sun burned bright yellow everyday and closed the curtain every evening with a warm glow. The first early morning I walked down the wide avenue on which Poynter is located, I was struck by how radiant the building appeared in the face of the rising sun. It seemed a good omen to the day.

One evening, the institute hosted a dinner and cocktail hour offsite, featuring the legendary Marty Baron of the Washington Post as the guest of honor. I held back during the meet-and-greet at the end, thinking that I would have the opportunity to chat with him even for just a few minutes the next day at the workshop, but as it turned out he was only in town for that one evening, and I missed my chance. I’d known about him for years, had read articles about him, and of course had seen Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of him in the movie Spotlight, so I was appropriately awestruck even just sitting in the same room with him. I’m geeky enough to have blushed and felt a momentary thrill when one of the executives from the institute, who presented Mr. Baron at the dinner, also thanked my employer and myself for attending and participating. When he sought me out in the small audience and mentioned my full name — pronouncing it correctly! — in his acknowledgments, Mr. Baron nodded and smiled in my direction and I returned the gesture with the goofiest smile on my face.

Mr. Baron’s empty chair at the workshop was right in front of mine!

But the most memorable moment of the week for me was when I took a cab to the institute my last morning. I had brought a couple of big boxes containing mugs and other branded swag for the workshop attendees, so I wasn’t about to hoof it the quarter mile to the building. The hotel concierge kindly called me a cab, and within minutes a tall, gangly man in his late fifties or so bounded out of his car and deftly hauled my boxes into the trunk while I slipped into the front seat.

He had a lively story, one of those classic only-in-Florida stories of men washing up from elsewhere on a Florida beach hoping to find both sunshine and fortune. He found plenty of both, but kept one and not the other. Now he’s driving a cab, but he retained a deep affection for St. Pete and its quirky culture and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

When we arrived at the institute, though, and he’d finished helping me bring my boxes inside the lobby, I pulled out my wallet but he waved his hand in dismissal and shook his head.

“No, no, this one’s on me.”

I stood there in confusion. This man just told me his life story and how he’d come to Florida and built a thriving business, only to lose it all through a series of misfortunes and mistakes, and now he’s driving a cab to earn a living. I was not here to dispense charity but to pay for a service he’d so ably and cheerfully rendered.

He shook his head again, then pointed a sunburnt, slender finger to the building behind me, the one that radiated in the morning sun.

“No, the Poynter does good work. You do God’s work here. I love what you do and I love that they’re here, and it’s an honor just to take you here.”

I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually part of the Poynter, that I’m not even a journalist and am part of a company that sponsors the institute, but he continued to shake his head and wave me away. He walked back to the driver’s side and winked at me before sliding back into the seat and driving away.

In this terrifying era where the powers that be expressly point angry fingers at journalists and call them the enemy; when the president of the United States regularly encourages his supporters to see the media as the opposition, even goading them to verbally abuse them, it was a moment of grace and inspiration.

Does silence always equal consent?

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It’s past midnight now (I’m in Atlanta this week speaking at, and staffing the WordPress.com/VIP/Longreads booth at the AAJA conference.) My colleagues and I stayed up late to enjoy a last, late snack and drinks before we fly off to our respective corners of the country tomorrow, but I’m still wide awake and mulling over the keynote speakers at tonight’s unforgettable gala.

First, Captain Sulu — er, George Takei — spoke. He was interviewed by Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline. They chatted more than I expected about his experiences on the original Star Trek series (how many times has Mr. Takei answered the question of what his favorite Star Trek moment was? Even a lot of non-Trekkies like myself know that it’s the episode where Sulu gets to fence and save Uhura’s life), but mostly they discussed his activism on behalf of the Asian-American and LGBTQ communities. He’s currently promoting his upcoming AMC anthology series, The Terror: Infamy, described as a show that “infuses historical drama with supernatural horror.” Set in World War II, season 2 of the series zeroes in on the story of the Japanese American internment camps and is notable for featuring a large Asian-American cast and senior crew, including showrunner Alexander Woo and director Lily Mariye.

George Takei on stage with Juju Chen.

While a lot of folks know Takei primarily as Star Trek’s Sulu, he’s especially famous in the Asian-American community for his fierce and tireless activism. He helped found the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles; starred in Allegiance, a Broadway musical loosely based on his own experiences at an internment camp; and has used his hugely popular Facebook page (currently at 10 million followers and growing) to share both hilarious memes and disturbing stories about racism, bigotry, homophobia, and hate. He recently published a graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, about that brutal period in early childhood when he and his family were imprisoned by the American government simply for looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Next was Congressman John Lewis, whom I’ve always known as a legendary civil rights leader, and frequent news show guest, but whom I’d never seen or heard speak in person. He radiated wisdom and gravity, and the entire, packed ballroom fell silent each time he spoke. He was interviewed by renowned broadcast journalist Elaine Quijano, and they spoke of his early work as a civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s as well as his thoughts on the current, distressing state of our fractured union. At some point he quietly said, “Silence is consent.”

The last keynote speaker was Maria Ressa, the founder and CEO of Rappler and one of TIME Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, and who is currently being charged by the Duterte administration in the Philippines of cyber libel and tax evasion. Ressa’s case gained considerable worldwide attention earlier last month when it was announced that Amal Clooney has joined Ressa’s defense team.

Maria Ressa

Ressa, never afraid to speak truth to power, is a tiny woman with a big smile and an even bigger well of courage and grace. It’s astounding that this charming, articulate, funny woman standing in the spotlight on stage in this fancy Atlanta hotel ballroom poses such an existential threat to the Duterte government that it will risk international condemnation in order to silence her. It’s also a clear sign that this clumsy, obnoxious, and brutal regional bully and strongman (oh, hell, let’s call him what he is: a dictator), who wields presidential power as if he’s engaged in a dick-sizing contest with fellow bullies and strongmen even within his own country, is making the same mistake as all other bullies and strongmen: underestimating the power of the press in general and this fearless journalist in particular.

And I keep going back to what Congressman Lewis said: “Silence is consent.” All three of these s/heroes have refused to be silent and have let their actions and words drive and inspire change. Is it possible to be silent — neutral, distant, removed, detached — and yet still be counted among those who support important humanitarian causes like freedom of speech, poverty elimination, education for women and girls, voting rights, reproductive rights, prison reform, criminal justice reform, and basic healthcare for all, to name just a few of the issues whose solutions remain elusive? What is enough? What is activism? Does contributing money but not time count? Does contributing time but not money count?

And what does it mean to be a liberal activist? If your particular brand of advocacy means outreach to disaffected and marginalized communities that also happened to have voted for Trump because they believed he was going to be their Messiah and deliver them to the Promised Land of well-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits and middle class comforts, does that count as activism? In an era when even some of the most empathetic liberal activists consider all Trump supporters — no exception — to be racist misogynists at heart, is it possible to imagine an activism that includes compassion and a desire for understanding beyond stereotypes and a simplistic view of a very complicated and human conflict?

I ask because I don’t know the answer. But I’m glad to have the question, and the lives and works of three unforgettable, inspiring and larger-than-life true s/heroes to reflect on as I pursue that answer.