By NICK MEYER, New America Media
DETROIT — While Detroit and its suburbs have been maligned in the national media, the area still ranks near the top when it comes to attracting major national events.
Many local members of the Asian American Journalists Association (www.aaja.org), which also represents Arab Americans, were thrilled to find out that the city was chosen to host the 22nd annual AAJA National Convention from Aug. 10-13, especially after one of the most competitive bidding processes the organization has had.
“We put up a bid and New York put up a bid, but in the end our national board overwhelmingly accepted Detroit,” said event co-chairman Frank Witsil, who is also a web editor at The Detroit Free Press. “It was a competitive bid process; I can tell you it’s not easy to go up against the media capital of the world for an event like this.”
Witsil and the organization have long been advocates of preserving the storytelling aspect of journalism that many feel has been eroding, and for the 2011 convention, the AAJA wanted to focus on stories surrounding the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
While New York is home to Ground Zero, the Detroit area is home to people who were also greatly affected by the attacks, including the discrimination and culture of suspicion surrounding Arab Americans and American Muslims that was created.
“The story of what happened since 9/11 and how Arab Americans work and live is right here in Detroit and Dearborn,” Witsil said. “As journalists we need to tell stories and to create that touch, that human connection and help advocate for justice.”
Asian Americans share a similarly challenging past. Over 100,000 Japanese Americans, most of them American citizens, were rounded up and placed in internment camps at the beginning of World War II. Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans were affected by the wars in their ancestral countries.
Detroit is also the site of the beating death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, in Highland Park. The murder caused public outrage over the lenient sentencing of the two people who killed him: Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz. The men were acquitted of all charges in the federal case and received only three years of probation in the state trial. The killing took place during an intense climate of anti-Asian sentiment directed at the Japanese, who were blamed for taking jobs from American workers.
A rare screening of the 1987 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” by Renee Tajima-Pena and Christine Choy took place Aug. 11 at the Detroit Renaissance Center as part of the convention, which featured more than 50 sessions designed by journalists for journalists, including panel discussions on immigration and its effects on Asian Americans, skills training for journalists, including in high-tech fields, documentary screenings and more.
“We’ve talked about Detroit as being the home of the Arab American movement and it’s also the home of the Asian American movement after the beating death of Vincent Chin,” Witsil said. “The movement really started out of that terrible incident because journalists told our story and a lot of things happened; it galvanized Asian Americans around the country and helped us to think about ourselves not as hyphenated ethnic groups but as one group, Asian Americans.”
Witsil noted that the story and controversy surrounding the attack helped lead to changes in victims’ rights laws regarding hate crimes as well.
Other events of particular interest to the Arab American and Muslim community included two panel discussions on Aug. 12, “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim” and “The 10th Anniversary of 9/11:The Aftermath in the Arab American Community.”
“AAJA is excited to be in the heart of the most concentrated Arab American community in the United States,” said AAJA President Doris Truong. “With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming next month, this is a good time for our members to hear stories from an under-covered segment of society. We are also excited to learn from the rebirth of the auto industry. Just as the Big 3 have had to reinvent, so has journalism. Detroit being a border city also provides us an opportunity to look at issues of immigration.”
The convention was primarily held at the COBO Center in downtown Detroit with events at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center as well. Elite sponsors included the Detroit Media Partnership, The Detroit Free Press, and Detroit News, along with General Motors. The Arab American News, the biggest ethnic media sponsor in the history of the convention, was a diamond sponsor along with Gannett, June and Simon Li, and News Corporation. Platinum sponsors included The New York Times, Southwest Airlines and Toyota.
The Arab American News hosted an opening reception for convention-goers and media on Aug. 10. City of Dearborn officials, community members and publishers of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News joined TAAN to greet the several hundred journalists, editors and publishers from national publications such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and more along with national and local TV anchors and noted authors.
The event began with bus rides from Detroit to Dearborn, during which a special tour route allowed the journalists and other attendees to view parts of Warren Avenue, where Arab American businesses thrive, the Islamic Center of America, and other unique landmarks and areas.
During the bus rides, volunteers from local student organizations paired with AAJA reps to answer questions and inform attendees on the local Arab American community.
“We are happy we’re able to host this reception, thanks to our supporters in this community. It is a great opportunity for journalists to get to know Arab and Muslim Americans first-hand,” said TAAN Publisher Osama Siblani.
They were then dropped off at the reception site, a large outdoor tent behind The National Arab American Museum. Tours of the museum were given. The event concluded with dinner and entertainment across the street from the museum at Adonis Restaurant in Dearborn.
“Our goal is to create new connections. We want people to come away with more understanding and personal relationships upon visiting so they can more fairly and accurately report what’s going on in the world,” Witsil said.
Witsil said the Detroit chapter of AAJA along with The Arab American News and the Arab community had a huge role in drawing the prominent convention to the Detroit area. “We also want to let people know that Arab Americans and journalists of Middle Eastern descent are a part of the organization, and to showcase their talents in a profound way.”
This article originally appeared in the The Arab American News.