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#MeToo

The community is asking SUNY for a chance to sit at the table in selecting a new president. File photo

To translate the #MeToo social media movement into real world action, The Safe Center LI and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, with Suffolk County legislators, business owners, nonprofits and cultural organizations will gather at Stony Brook University Jan. 28 in an effort to build greater support for the safety and empowerment of all women and girls.

“People are so appalled with what others have been getting away with for so long, and what level it’s rising to,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). “What’s important about the #MeToo movement is it’s an attempt at a cultural shift.”

Hahn is leading a roundtable discussion from 10:15 to 11:45 a.m. with Burke and nonprofits for 40 members of town, county and state government. They will share ideas about legislation that can create a safer environment for victims of abuse. It is not open to public or media.

At 12:45 p.m. student leaders will have lunch with Burke to discuss ways to protect university students. From 2 to 3:30 p.m., a public forum will be held in the Student Activities Center, where Burke will be questioned by three kids who have gone through i-tri girls, a free program across six school districts on the East End that empowers girls through the completion of a triathlon. A safe space will be opened from 3:30 to 5 p.m., where Crime Victims Center rape and trauma counselors will be available.

The discussion will lay groundwork for a 10X10X10 initiative, which will gather input from 10 youth-based
organizations like schools or nonprofits; 10 government officials; and 10 Long Island-based companies. It is modeled off British actress and activist Emma Watson’s HeForShe IMPACT 10X10X10 initiative, put in place to galvanize momentum in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The plan is for follow-ups to the event, and a website to pool the resources into one place, and showcase models, ideas and strategies to tackle the issue.

“We want to create models that can be shared and replicated across sectors,” said Cindy Morris, chief operating officer of i-tri girls. “There are people and organizations that are doing this beautifully, powerfully and with impact. We want to focus on education and empowerment, policy and best practices, and possible legislation ideas at all levels.”

An i-tri girl crosses the finish line of the marathon. Photo from i-tri girls

Nonprofits are working toward creating stronger support for females.

L.I. Against Domestic Violence provides a range of services to Long Island adults and children, helping them escape from abusive relationships and build new lives. I-tri girls, a free program, works to raise the self-esteem of middle school-aged girls on the Island’s East End by training them for a triathlon.

“[We need] to bring young girls into this discussion and to recognize that this isn’t just happening to us in our 20s and 30s and 40s, but this is happening to our 10-year-olds and our 12-year-olds, it’s so important,”
said Cindy Morris, chief operating officer of i-tri girls.

Many of the children in the program don’t know how to swim or ride a bike.

“We not only teach them how to set a goal, but we teach them how to work toward a goal,” Morris said. “And when you have done something that you think is impossible once, you are so likely to see yourself capable of doing that [again].”

Bethpage-based The Safe Center LI, Islandia-based Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, and The Suffolk County Crime Victims Center all work to help victims of domestic abuse.

County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said nonprofits are vital in educating young people and women. Many provide educational programs in schools.

“Women and children should not be afraid to speak up,” Anker said. “I think it’s really important presentations start in schools.”

Executive director of LIADV, Colleen Merlo, said in a phone interview local legislators are receptive to receiving advice on taking measures to end domestic and sexual abuse.

“This is the start of what’s going to be a years-long process to try to bring Long Island to a place that really is safe,” Merlo said. “Where men and women can feel safe from sexual assault. It’s going to take more work.”


• L.I. Against Domestic Violence — www.liadv.org / 631-666-7181

• i-tri girls — itrigirls.org / 631-902-3731

• Suffolk County Crime Victims Center — www.parentsformeganslaw.org / 631-689-2672

• The Safe Center LI — www.tscli.org / 516-465-4700

• Victims Information Bureau — www.vibs.org / 631-360-3730

Dan Cignoli, of Coram, found the event invigorating. Photo by Rita J. Egan

While pregnant and riding the subway in New York City, attorney Marjorie Mesidor was grabbed from behind. Despite describing herself as typically abrasive, or as she put it, “the literal bull in the china shop,” in that moment, she froze.

“I became so fearful and so frozen because I wanted to protect my child,” Mesidor said, noting that it was also around the time frequent slashings were being reported in Manhattan. “I’ve thought about that instance more during these #MeToo discussions, and it’s given me a taste of what it feels like to be caught off guard in a moment, and your immediate reaction means everything.”

“There are so many moves made without permission, and it puts us in murky waters and we continue to extend and extend consent.”

— Marjorie Mesidor

The fear that Mesidor — a partner at Phillips & Associates, a law firm that specializes in workplace sexual harassment cases — described is unfortunately common. Women across the world show up for work or ride public transportation or otherwise exist in public knowing their own #MeToo story could unfold at any moment. But like many moved by the worldwide shift in perception created by the movement, the promotion of self-reflection and empowerment in the hopes of amending the culture of objectification is fully underway in the eyes of Mesidor and many other women, especially those elected to serve by the public.

Government officials have shared personal encounters that at times resulted in little to no justice. While noting women’s rights have come a long way in the last century, the women echoed the need for long-term remedies to truly change the culture.

“We are evolving as a society, but it’s going to take leaders to make sure that the attitudes are changing to where they need to be,” said Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who noted the importance of educating the next generation of boys and girls about proper conduct around the opposite sex. “We need to make sure people are held accountable for their actions and behavior, and label what is wrong and what is right — we need educational components available for school districts.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said she is hoping from the movement to see observers of inappropriate sexual conduct empowered to speak out when they see someone being victimized, eliminating the acceptance of things like “locker room talk.” Hahn shared an emotional memory, recalling when a boy grabbed her breasts when she was in fifth grade. She said other students witnessed the incident, but she decided not to speak to a parent or teacher.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) pointed out a bigger problem with Hahn’s story, which included admitting the boy talked about her breasts for months after the incident.

Cindi DeSimone, of Farmingville, aims to teach her twins that both of them are of value. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“She may not say anything, but everyone else around her is watching and not saying anything,” Cartright said. “And then she goes home and says to herself, ‘Well, I guess I’m supposed to let that happen, because everyone else says it happened and no one said anything.’ Are we doing what we need to do to make sure women feel there’s a continued safe space? Because retaliation is very real.”

Mesidor said she thinks a culture fitted around the idea of “going with the flow” when it comes to sexual encounters has contributed to the toxicity.

“When we soften it up and we make it flowery and pretty, we raise boys who don’t know how to recognize consent, who do not ask before leaning in for a kiss,” she said. “There are so many moves made without permission, and it puts us in murky waters and we continue to extend and extend consent. Girls are brought up thinking you should be flirty instead of frigid, not requiring permission for someone to touch or interact with your body. I’m not promoting extremism, that’s certainly not what I’m saying, but we need to recognize the totality of the issue, not only with our laws but with the way we raise our children and what we deem acceptable.”

County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) advocated for teaching self-esteem, especially to young girls. She said being brought up to stick up for herself worked to her benefit when handling her own incidents of sexual harassment. Kennedy said she was in third grade the first time she was forced to experience inappropriate sexual behavior. While riding her bike in Commack, a man wearing an overcoat in the middle of the summer disrobed to unveil his naked body to her. Kennedy said she raced home to tell her mother, who called the police. Then, years later, while working at a supermarket at age 17, the owner grabbed her breasts.

“We need to make sure people are held accountable for their actions and behavior, and label what is wrong and what is right.”

— Sarah Anker

“Even though I’d lose the perfect hours to help me work around school and sports, I called the guy a pervert and I left,” she said. “We need to teach self-esteem. I think it’s because of my personality, or maybe because I went to Catholic school, we were taught everyone’s body is a temple. By not sticking up for yourself, or by posting promiscuous pictures, you’re saying, ‘Please disrespect me.’”

While some may not want to rock the boat or come off as overly sensitive, Mesidor said women need to look within to help progress the cultural shift currently underway, working as allies for other women.

“Everyone should be self-reflecting and ask themselves, ‘How am I potentially contributing to these types of cultures? What am I seeing that I may not be speaking out on? What am I experiencing that I may not be responding to?’” she said. “And we can’t be letting a man think it’s OK to say something offensive to the next person.”

Kennedy is a proponent of making men aware of the things they say, even if a supposed “joke” might be funny to a woman.

“We should be making teachable moments,” she said. “If you find the joke funny, you laugh, but then you make a comment saying many other women would not find that funny.”

Huntington Town Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D) recalled stories her mother told about her days as a stewardess, hearing how she needed to maintain a certain weight to be able to fly, have her legs checked for stubble and nose for powder, and docks to her pay for failures to comply. A common practice associated with bartenders and waitresses, they also were discouraged to wear wedding rings, ensuring to keep alive an air of availability for male customers.

“It all starts with stories — our own personal stories we can look at and say, ‘Yes, that’s what #MeToo is.’ We’ve come very far, but yet we haven’t.”

— Joan Cergol

At 30 years old, Cergol, then working in a law firm, was called into her boss’s office after hours. According to the councilwoman, he asked her to close the door because he had a personal question. Instead of taking a seat in front of him, she sat in a chair closest to the door, and listened to his question about her and her husband’s preferred birth control method, explaining that the intrauterine device his wife was using was resulting in painful sex for him.

“This was my career, this was a boss who could make or break me, but I told him I wasn’t going to have this conversation, I got up and left, and ultimately took it to the managing partner only to find out this man was doing this to many women,” she said. “It all starts with stories — our own personal stories we can look at and say, ‘Yes, that’s what #MeToo is.’ We’ve come very far, but yet we haven’t.”

By opening up and sharing personal stories and working on new legislation, education and training models, Stony Brook resident Cindy Morris, founder of The Benson Agency, which works to expand on the effectiveness and interests of the nonprofit sector, said she hopes women can stay ahead of the news cycle and seize the powerful moment in time.

“This movement is consciousness raising,” she said. “We need to stand up while this is the topic of the day, and to stay standing up when the next news cycle comes around so it doesn’t go away. The whole goal of this is to draw people in, because this moment in history gives us an opportunity. What we do with it is up to us.”

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As 2017 comes to a close, it is not an overstatement to say that this year we have lived through a revolution. And it is a revolution that is just beginning. Millions of women, drawn by the hashtag #MeToo, have come forth to put their experiences with sexual harassment, assault and rape on the record. Some men also have revealed similar heartbreaking stories of sexual predators that altered their lives. It is as if an enormous dam has broken with the gut-wrenching descriptions pouring out unendingly, toppling icons of power like bowling pins. Just as Betty Friedan started the revolution we call the women’s liberation movement, so this avalanche of sordid encounters that began with revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has touched off a revolution but of a much faster pace than the one 50 years or so ago. Social media has helped connect these victims and carry the torch of outrage.

I suppose from the earliest times when men and women have walked the earth, there have been sexual predators. Mostly the predators have been men who were able to exact what they wanted from vulnerable women who needed their protection and support, perhaps for such basics as food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their children. Once women entered the workplace in large numbers, they were often assigned to male supervisors who could advance or block their careers or even take away their jobs.

Those jobs could be in Hollywood, in TV journalism, in large and small offices, in hotels, in politics, in academia, in short anywhere that there might be an imbalance of power leaving one employee vulnerable. What’s different now? The whisper network that warned has become a social network that shames.

Time magazine named the Silence Breakers as 2017 Person of the Year. The hashtag, #MeToo, will go down in history although the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, was not featured on the cover. Instead the group photo comprised actress Ashley Judd, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, Visa lobbyist Adama Iwu, songstress Taylor Swift and Isabel Pascual, a Mexican strawberry picker who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family, according to Time. They might have been anyone on the cover, although the famous attract more attention, from the doctoral candidate at a prestigious university who refused her professor’s advances and consequently was denied her degree, to the housekeeper in a hotel who goes about cleaning the bathtubs but never knows when she might be cornered by a guest or supervisor demanding sexual favors.

The first time I personally knew anyone who had been a sexual victim was in college. A close friend was talking about her affair with a professor and was overheard by another student who was having the same experience. The unlikely encounter and some quick conversation revealed the same professor was bedding both women. In a rage, my friend confronted her lover with the words, “You are sick!”

But was he sick? Or was he just acting out the culture in which he had been raised? As Time magazine wrote, “It wasn’t so long ago that the boss chasing his secretary around the desk was a comic trope, a staple from vaudeville to prime-time sitcoms.” Cultures are all pervasive, and where they are not confronted by conscience or mob outrage, they continue.

On the eve of the holidays, let’s focus on a short but delightful segment from the “PBS News Hour” Tuesday night. Women confide to sometimes feeling taken advantage of financially when bringing cars to be repaired, knowing so little about the way cars work. One woman felt tired of feeling a victim, quit her job as an engineer, went to auto-mechanic school and opened up what appears to be the nation’s first all-female auto-repair shop in California. It seems to be a great success. Best of all, she no longer feels a victim. There is a moral here.

Happy and healthy holidays to you and yours!