MeToo

Laura Ahearn of the Crime Victims Center speaks during a press conference to announce a consortium to tackle sexual violence, flanked by from left District Attorney Tim Sini, Legislature Leslie Kennedy, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Hochul and Legislator DuWayne Gregory. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Leaders from private and public sectors came together April 20 to form a partnership that would make Randy Newman proud.

“You’ve got a friend in me,” was the message from members of the local business world following the creation of the Long Island Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Consortium, an initiative spearheaded by Laura Ahearn, executive director of Suffolk County’s The Crime Victims Center.

The organizations currently partnering with the Crime Victims Center to form the Long Island Sexual Violence and Response Consortium. Photo by Alex Petroski

As a direct result of the #MeToo social media movement turned global awakening, societal response to accusations of sexual misconduct and crime has undergone a swift change, especially in cases in which the accused is of a high-profile. But lawmakers and advocates for the movement have been asking an essential question since the movement ensnared the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar back in 2017: How will men who are not famous perpetrating acts of sexual violence against victims who need their job to survive truly be held accountable? Ahearn’s consortium may serve as a model in answering that question.

“We asked them to just do one thing to help us prevent sexual violence, and we would be satisfied if that one thing was just to be a member of our consortium, because they’re very busy,” Ahearn said of her pitch to business leaders when trying to rally support for the partnership. “We didn’t want to pressure them, and we didn’t want to ask them for money, because every time they hear ‘not-for-profit,’ they’re like ‘money?’ So instead, what we did is we said ‘just do one thing. Just come to our consortium, give us your logo and you’ll be part of what we’re doing to raise awareness.’ There’s a certain amount of credibility that a big company adds to an organization just working to prevent sexual violence.”

The CVC, Ahearn’s organization, is a not-for-profit organization that has been a relentless advocate for victims of all crimes since the late ‘90s. It assists victims of child sex abuse and rape, provides services to victims of violent crime, and assists elderly, disabled and minor victims of all crime. To form the consortium, Ahearn presented a list of options businesses could incorporate into its standard practices, which if adhered to should make workplaces on Long Island safer for vulnerable members of the workforce.

The list of options businesses were asked to pick from and incorporate to become a member included adding a link to the LISVP consortium on businesses’ websites; providing prevention education and victim services materials in new employee orientation; adding prevention messages to receipts provided to customers; creating public service announcements; hosting training sessions aided by the CVC; and many more.

“All the degradation of women in the workplace that has gone on in the shadows throughout our lifetimes … it’s over.”

— Kathleen Hochul

Organizations signed on to be a part of the consortium so far include Stony Brook Medicine, Altice, Northwell Health, AT&T, Verizon, BNB Bank, Catholic Health Services of Long Island, TRITEC Real Estate Company, Uber, Lyft and many more. Ahearn said in most cases, leaders of the private sector institutions signed on to take more than one step on the list, and that only one organization she reached out to declined to join. She said she hopes to add to the current list of about 40 consortium partners.

Local lawmakers from virtually all levels of government also attended the April 20 press conference to announce the consortium in Hauppauge and voice support for the cause.

“All the degradation of women in the workplace that has gone on in the shadows throughout our lifetimes, whether it’s the insidious, quiet comments, innuendoes, or whether it’s the more blatant abuse — touching or physical violence — it’s over,” New York Lieutenant Gov. Kathleen Hochul (D) said.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) also attended the press conference to voice support for the initiative.

“In government we are often focused on what government agencies can do to help a cause, and often we’re shortsighted, and we don’t look beyond the walls of government,” Sini said. “Laura Ahearn doesn’t make that mistake, and it’s crucial.”

Marchers made sure the #MeToo conversation continues on campus.

Student Aleeza Kazmi, one of the approximately 250 marchers at Stony Brook University Feb. 28, said the mission of the event was to show support for survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and to request the university increase preventative measures and provide more assistance for survivors.

Kazmi said it’s important for the university’s administration to respond to the requests, especially with Stony Brook being a HeForShe 10×10×10 IMPACT school. The university is one of 10 schools involved in the UN Women initiative, the United Nations gender equality entity that aims to engage men and boys to encourage the empowerment of women. The student said the university needs to do more for sexual abuse survivors.

“HeForShe is used as a shield and a title and a publicity move for President Stanley and the rest of the administration to say we are here with women, and we support feminism,” Kazmi said.

David Clark, vice president of the student organization Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, said when Kazmi came to the student organization with the idea, he agreed that it was needed on campus.

“She wanted to make sure the #MeToo movement was having a bigger conversation on campus,” Clark said. “And, she had some of her own concerns about Stony Brook, while being a HeForShe IMPACT school, not really talking much as far as official statements and events about #MeToo and sexual harassment.”

Before the march, Kazmi read a poem and statement from Arianna Rodriguez. In February, Rodriguez alleged that SBU swimming and diving coach Janelle Atkinson, who was dismissed from her position, emotionally abused members of the team.

“I challenge you to support your friends and fellow classmates who have been victims of sexual assaults and to help guide them back to normalcy,” Kazmi read from Rodriguez’s statement. “And, I challenge all the survivors of sexual assault to continue living normal lives. I know it’s hard at times, but no one is stronger than you are, and your strength will give you the power to live life to the fullest and persevere. No matter who tells you differently.”

Clark said he was pleased to see so many students and some faculty members, both females and males, in attendance.

“We were pretty certain that there were going to be people who were survivors there, whether they said it or not,” Clark said. “We wanted to make sure that they knew that the student body supports them and that they’re in an environment where they are believed and, whether or not they choose to report, that there’s support for survivors here at Stony Brook.”

FMLA also composed a letter that will be submitted to SBU administrators. At press time nearly 100 student groups and organizations, students, alumni, faculty members and community organizations have signed it.

Clark said among their requests, the signers asked in order to maintain the protections of survivors, that the university keep certain practices in place such as letting both parties appeal the rulings of sexual misconduct hearings and prohibiting cross examination between the accused and accuser during sexual misconduct hearings. Clark said members of FMLA are concerned after the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education made changes to Title IX. Among the rights of students it covers in the educational system, the federal civil rights law ensures students involved in sexual
assault and harassment cases are afforded certain protections.

In the letter the protesters also asked for the university to address the issue of Atkinson and the allegations made against her.

Kazmi, a journalism student in her junior year, said she and Clark met with Jeff Barnett, assistant dean of students, a few days before the rally, and with Cathrine Duffy, associate director of student support, March 2. Kazmi and Clark said they feel university administrators have been receptive to the students and their ideas.

“I feel optimistic that the university is going to be open to working with us,” Kazmi said. “I don’t think the university is against increasing awareness for survivors and preventing future sexual assaults.”

After the rally, LeManuel Lee Bitsóí, chief diversity officer at Stony Brook, released a statement supporting the students.

“It was great to see so many SBU community members participate in the #MeToo rally today,” Bitsóí said. “It illustrates the level of engagement by our students around social justice and equity issues and challenges that all of us face in society.  Our leadership team is inspired by the activism of student leaders and we collectively support them in their efforts.”

Post was updated March 6 to reflect additional comments from David Clark, Aleeza Kazmi and LeManuel Lee Bitsóí.

Suffolk County Legislator Monica Martinez sponsored two bills regarding sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace for county employees. Photo from Suffolk County

All those in favor say #MeToo and #TimesUp. In a unanimous 18-0 vote, county lawmakers passed legislation last week that will set better standards and practices regarding sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace for county employees.

During its Feb. 6 meeting, members of the Suffolk County Legislature pushed forward two bills sponsored by Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).

“My hope with these laws is that we become a safer county, that it gives something to build a foundation on and that people can feel comfortable in the workforce here,” Martinez said. “To me, it was mind-boggling that we didn’t really have anything set in the county, especially being one of the biggest counties and employers, so I’m proud of it and I really thank my colleagues for supporting me.”

“My hope with these laws is that we become a safer county, that it gives something to build a foundation on and that people can feel comfortable in the workforce here.”

— Monica Martinez

The first bill mandates the director of the Office of Labor Relations provide county legislators statistics on “the number, type and disposition of employee disciplinary proceedings” involving sexual harassment or discrimination for 2015, 2016 and 2017 within 90 days; and submits this information by Feb. 28 of each year, starting in 2019. The bill also states that the county attorney must issue a report that contains a list of all sexual harassment and discrimination claims filed against Suffolk County in court, plus the settlement of any litigation claims, for 2015, 2016 and 2017 within 90 days; and, again, submit this annually starting in 2019.

“The way the resolution in the policy is designed is that it would be broken down between county departments and, within each department, the division within that department will have a more concise gathering of data,” Martinez said, adding that names will be redacted from the data to protect the privacy of those involved. “This will really help us hone in on what’s going on and who we need to focus on in each department.”

She added she hopes the bill can help prevent sexual harassment lawsuits and reduce costs for taxpayers in the future.

According to Martinez and the elected officials who co-sponsored and supported the bill — including Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Legislator
Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) — the legislative body as a whole has never been made aware of these kinds of settlements or given insight into how many active complaints there are or the nature of those complaints, until now.

“In the past, if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get it,” Anker said. “But basically, here, we’re not asking, we’re telling them.”

Gregory said this will help make things more transparent.

“This will give us information so that we can fully exercise our oversight function as a policy-making branch of government.”

— DuWayne Gregory

“If we see there are things going on and there’s a pattern, then we have to be sure that the proper training is being provided to the various departments, or [an] individual department,” Gregory said. “This will give us information so that we can fully exercise our oversight function as a policy-making branch of government.”

Hahn agreed, saying that all the women in the legislature are eager to crack down on this issue.

“We want to be sure that our voices are heard,” she said. “When we say ‘me too,’ we are protecting all the women that work for the county and work within the county, and we’re all looking for ways to do more.”

She said there’s no question there have been incidents at the county level.

“There’s clear understanding that there’s a pervasive problem in our society, and a clear recognition that those statistics are important for us to understand,” Hahn said. “The better question now is, do we know how many? Do we know how pervasive this is? Do we know if we need more training or better training?”

The other bill passed will create a county policy in which all employees hired will be given a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet, maintained by the Department of Civil Services and Human Resources and issued by the director of the Office of Labor Relations. All new employees will be required to sign a document acknowledging they have received the pamphlet.

This will inform new employees who to contact if an issue arises and provide accountability.

“We need to get people aware that there is information pertaining to protecting their rights and protecting them from sexual harassment or discrimination, or both,” Anker said. “It’s a proactive measure … we are taking.”

Within the Crime Victims Center, a children’s play therapy area is designed to allow children to play out their trauma with a therapist, and to prepare for court appearances. Photo by Alex Petroski

In a time of changing cultural and societal norms related to the treatment of victims of sexual abuse, Laura Ahearn now has a movement behind her decades-long mission.

The founder of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center, a not-for-profit organization, has been a relentless advocate for victims since the late ‘90s. What started as a small operation running out of her Three Village home advocating for sex offender registration has grown into a three-pronged program that is used as a model by other advocacy groups. The CVC assists victims of child sex abuse and rape, provides  services to victims of violent crime, and assists elderly, disabled and minor victims of all crime. Its mission is now virtually a daily part of the national conversation.

“The #MeToo movement has created an ideal climate for us to call upon legislators to help us change a culture which has minimized sexual harassment.”

— Laura Ahearn

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for organizations like ours that have worked with child sexual abuse and adult victims of sex crimes to be able to open up a dialogue now with a higher volume of a voice with state, local and federal legislators,” Ahearn said after attending a breakfast at Stony Brook University that featured lawmakers from across Long Island and all levels of government. The meeting was part of a daylong event designed to start a conversation about localizing the national #MeToo movement, a social media campaign started by Tarana Burke, a survivor of sexual violence. Burke also attended the SBU event.

“The #MeToo movement has created an ideal climate for us to call upon legislators to help us change a culture which has minimized sexual harassment, and a society or environment whose prevailing social  attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Ahearn said.

The group has a list of legislative goals it would like to advance in 2018, like criminalizing “revenge porn” and advancing the Child Victims Act, a state law that has passed the Assembly but not the Senate, which would extend the time frame for a victim to bring forward allegations against an abuser.

Victim advocacy

Though its actual functions have evolved over the years, advocating for victims remains Ahearn’s and the CVC’s primary objective.

The center, with locations in Ronkonkoma and Patchogue, is a certified rape crisis center.
The group has long provided advocacy for child victims of sexual abuse, and has since added advocacy components for adult rape and adult domestic violence victims. In 2006, the mission shifted to provide support for victims of all violent or hate crimes.

“These are cases that are failing between the cracks and no one was helping them,” said Ahearn said, a New York State licensed attorney and social worker.

“You feel like ‘This is why I’m doing this.’”

— Sally McDonald

Since 2015, the organization has been fed cases from the Suffolk County Police Department and District Attorney’s office through a cloud-based computer software program, allowing the CVC to directly contact innocent victims to begin providing support under the direction of Mike Gunther, CVC’s director of advocacy and victim services. The cloud program has served to streamline a process it had been carrying out since 1999. Ahearn said the CVC has helped to recoup $5.5 million for Suffolk County crime victims from a county fund to cover unexpected costs for innocent victims, as some have health insurance costs or other expenses to cover in the aftermath of a traumatic incident. Currently, the CVC has between 2,500 and 3,000 cases it’s handling, and its founder said the organization is always in need of more case managers.

The group regularly sends advocates Diana Shuffler and Diana Guzman to Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a New York state initiative established to aid victims of human trafficking in every aspect of getting their life back on track, and put legal issues behind them. Prior to the program’s inception, Guzman said victims of human trafficking picked up for other crimes like prostitution were treated like criminals. The CVC even works with the FBI.

Sally McDonald, a certified therapist and victim advocate at the CVC who is passionate about the work  she does, said she has cases with victims ranging from 4 years old to adults in their 60s.

“It’s exciting — it’s so nice to see anybody do well, but especially a child,” she said of seeing someone’s life improve as a result of her work. “You feel like ‘This is why I’m doing this.’”

Ahearn stressed the importance of following up with victims and ensuring his or her traumatic incident is truly behind them.

“Whenever you’re dealing with any kind of violent crime or trauma, unless there are support services, those are individuals that are going to need help,” she said. “If they’re not getting the help they need … those kids whose families were victims of violent crime are going to gravitate toward who they believe is going to protect them, and in those communities that would be the ones that, believe it or not, are the perpetrators.”

“Whenever you’re dealing with any kind of violent crime or trauma, unless there are support services, those are individuals that are going to need help.”

— Laura Ahearn

The Ronkonkoma office features therapy rooms for all ages, including a child therapy room where kids are prepared for what to expect in a court setting, or play out personal trauma using a sandbox, toys or art therapy.

Sex offender monitoring

Megan’s Law gets its name from an incident in the mid-‘90s in which 7-year-old Megan Kanka from New Jersey was lured into a neighbor’s home, sexually assaulted and murdered. The culprit was a twice-convicted sex offender, and after a nationwide lobbying effort, Megan’s Law was passed in 1996 and required all 50 states to release information to the public about known convicted sex offenders.

Ahearn was one of those involved in the lobbying effort, and Parents for Megan’s Law was born. In 2014 the CVC implemented a new monitoring program to keep addresses and other important information about the county’s roughly 1,000 registered sex offenders current. Ahearn’s sex offender monitoring staff is comprised entirely of retired law enforcement officers, who regularly check up on the people on the list face-to-face to ensure their information is accurate and up to date.

The organization also has a Megan’s Law helpline as well as a tip line, should community members want to report anything related to a registered sex offender in their area.

Prevention

When describing the CVC’s prevention arm, Ahearn uses an analogy. Imagine you’re fishing, she says, and three separate times during the day you have to dive in the river to save people who were drowning as they headed downstream. How many times would you have to dive in the water to save a life before heading upstream to see why so many people are falling in the water and nearly drowning?

Led by prevention program manager Kim Malone, the CVC provides workshops for children, teens, parents and adults designed to empower them with knowledge and skills aimed at protecting against sexual abuse and abduction.

The CVC offers workshops for schools and organizations geared toward every age group.

To contact the Crime Victims Center call 631-689-2672 or visit www.parentsformeganslaw.org.

This story was updated Jan. 31 to correct the spelling of Laura Ahearn’s name.

#MeToo social media movement founder Tarana Burke answers questions during a public forum at Stony Brook University. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Long Island men and women are prepared to keep the #MeToo conversation going in their communities after an appearance by the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, at Stony Brook University Jan. 28.

More than 500 people filled the Sidney Gelber Auditorium in the Student Activities Center for #MeToo … #LIToo, a Q&A with Burke led by three young women of i-tri girls, a free program working to raise the self-esteem of middle school-aged girls on the Island’s East End by training them for a triathlon. Abby Roden, Noely Martinez and Maria Chavez posed questions to Burke that covered a range of topics, from how she felt when the #MeToo movement gained momentum, to empowering survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, to showing empathy when a someone shares his or her story.

Burke, a survivor of sexual violence, said it can be difficult to talk about sexual assaults or harassment because he or she feels isolated.

“The idea behind #MeToo being an exchange of empathy is that if you tell me this thing that is already difficult to say, one of the hardest things in your life, and my first response is, ‘Me too,’ that draws you in,” she said. “Regardless of what else is discussed, we have an automatic connection now.”

Giving advice for those who may not be able to say “me too” when a survivor shares a story, Burke said the best thing to do is ask what he or she needs. If the person says nothing, don’t keep asking.

After the #MeToo movement went viral Burke felt crippled. She said she stopped reading comments on her social media posts, even though most responses were thoughtful.

“I had people telling me I was too ugly to get raped, sexually harassed,” Burke said, adding that she is thick-skinned, and didn’t let the comments get to her. “‘You look like a man.’ Just awful, awful things.”

The movement also affects the LGBTQ community — something Burke said is personal for her, as her daughter identifies as queer and gender nonconforming. She said many young people in the LGBTQ community deal with sexual abuse, and it’s important they tell their stories, too.

“Survivors of sexual violence, we’re not victims,” Burke said. “That’s why we call ourselves survivors. We have solutions, we have answers and we have the experience.”

Attendees said the forum was uplifting and meaningful.

“It was very empowering and definitely brought the community together,” said Cassandra Gonzalez, a graduate student at LIU Post. “It just brings awareness to the #MeToo movement.”

Retired teacher Terry Kalb, of Wading River, said Burke is skilled at connecting others through experiences, calling the forum “beyond inspiring.”

“I liked the fact that there was such emphasis on the intersectionality of this issue,” Kalb said. “I think it’s very important that the vast majority of the people who are marginalized with domestic violence issues, sexual harassment issues and sexual violence issues — all people — are afforded a voice. This just can’t be about celebrity issues; it has to be about people who are often powerless to be able to respond. That they be the focus, because that’s where the most damage is done.”

Updated Feb. 1 to add additional quotes from Tarana Burke.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn is among the lawmakers hoping to use the #MeToo moment not only to change culture, but to change laws. File photo

Like a tidal wave slamming into the shore the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, born of high-profile sexual assault and sexual harassment cases becoming public, are decimating decades-old culturally accepted standards regarding behavior in the workplace and otherwise. In an effort to keep up with rapidly shifting societal norms, lawmakers from local town governments all the way up through the federal level are examining existing laws pertaining to workplace sexual misconduct while also crafting new ones to cover potential lapses — in government and the private sector.

Laura Ahearn, an attorney and the executive director of The Crime Victims Center, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of sexual abuse and rape, as well as providing support for victims of violent crimes, said she views the #MeToo movement as a valuable opportunity.

“The #MeToo movement has created an ideal climate for us to call upon legislators to help us change a culture which has minimized sexual harassment and a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she said, adding her organization, which runs the Parents for Megan’s Law website, has many state-level legislative priorities currently in the works.

“Women have been taught to believe that performing sexual favors for their bosses is part of the job.”

— Marjorie Mesidor

While cases of harassment, assault and general sexual misconduct involving prominent men in government and the entertainment industry are resulting in serious consequences, through loss of employment or social pariah status, low-profile offenders, especially from the private sector, are likely avoiding them. Creating concrete ways to punish offenders operating out of the public eye will be a challenge for lawmakers going forward.

According to Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the county passed legislation in December mandating all elected officials and department heads be trained on sexual harassment and assault by the Office of Labor Relations.

The law mandates elected officials and department heads be trained starting 2018, and again every two years. Anker said she’s hoping to amend the law to make it mandated that every new hire be educated once taking a position.

Marjorie Mesidor, a partner at New York City’s Phillips & Associates law firm, which specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases, said she was floored to hear the law was only just put in place.

“Great progress,” she said. “I’m not mocking it, but my stomach is churning.”

Mesidor pointed at state and federal laws that require a complaint to be filed in order for businesses with management-level employees accused of harassment to be legally held liable as a deterrent in justice being achieved for victims. She said when formal complaints are made by employees, cross examination follows that takes on the tone of “slut shaming.” She said that in itself is enough to prevent many women from filing initial complaints, thus harming their harassment cases in the future.

“I’ve seen a trend of cases come into our office of women who are in forced sexual relationships with their bosses over time,” she said. “They’ve been taught to believe that performing sexual favors for their bosses is part of the job.”

“What about someone working in a deli, the restaurant waitress — their jobs, their life depend on that paycheck from the boss who might just be making them uncomfortable … It might be much worse.”

— Kara Hahn

Employees and employers in the private sector are often unaware of their rights and what constitutes harassment that would hold up in court, according to Mesidor. She said New York City Human Rights Law doesn’t require formal complaints, and should be looked to as an example for writing harassment laws.

Bills are currently in committee in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that would amend the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, a law passed to require Congress to follow employment and workplace safety laws applied to the business world. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), if passed, would reform procedures for investigating harassment complaints in Congress and require public announcement of the offender and the dollar amount in the cases where settlements are reached. This week, Newsday reported more than $10 million of taxpayer money has been used to settle 88 sexual harassment, discrimination and other related cases in state government over the last nine years.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she would like to see laws put in place requiring businesses to adopt best practices when it comes to sexual harassment, rather than simply providing legal cover for the ones that do.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) agrees.

“What about someone working in a deli, the restaurant waitress — their jobs, their life depend on that paycheck from the boss who might just be making them uncomfortable,” she said. “It might be much worse.”

In October 2015, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation to prevent harassment in the workplace. The legislation directed the state Department of Labor and Division of Human Rights to make training available to employers to help them develop policies, procedures and their own training to address and eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Cuomo signed legislation “Enough is Enough” that year, which requires all colleges to adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent, a statewide amnesty policy and expanded access to law enforcement.

Participants at the 2017 Women’s March in Port Jeff Station. File photo by Alex Petroski

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Over the course of the last several months, we’ve seen the dominance of men in power being stripped down. The day-to-day climate regarding sexual harassment and misconduct have surely changed, but we need to keep this #MeToo dialogue open.

TBR News Media hosted female local government officials, lawyers and activists at our Setauket office to speak about their feelings regarding the behavior of men, and we thank them for their openness and raw stories, sometimes relating to men of high status.

While high-profile allegations and apologies mount, it’s not the actors, politicians and TV stars with whom we should be most concerned. It’s the people around us. We’ve found most often that it’s just when we share our stories, big or small, that we’re really getting somewhere. Getting people together — especially women in power — we can come up with strategies to enact change. We hope that what’s lasting from this remarkable moment in history is not just the list of famous men left in the rubble, but rather the idea that leveraging power to diminish someone else’s self-worth is a thing of the past.

Hearing the wide array of stories from women who have been elected to lead communities, from being grabbed during a middle-school class to being asked inappropriate questions by a boss, the truth is that these things can happen to anyone. And it’s clearly time for a cultural overhaul.

We hope that a byproduct of this moment is also prevention, which can come in the form of education to ensure our boys don’t grow up to become the sexual abusers of tomorrow. To guarantee that this happens, we would like to see school districts and colleges create stricter rules and hold kids accountable for their actions, whether they’re the star lacrosse player heading to the championship or the valedictorian of their class.

In the process of this shift, we don’t want to run out of steam. An issue so long ingrained in society needs a multipronged approach. With that, women shouldn’t fear sticking up for themselves — think about it not as your job being on the line but your principles on the verge of breaking. While the bad behavior of powerful men is what has created this movement, raising confident girls and creating an environment for them to flourish into strong women is another antidote.

Women are, at last, being heard. But we want to make sure that every woman is heard. The focus should be on the prey and not the predator. Just because your abuser wasn’t famous doesn’t mean your story doesn’t need to be heard. To keep steering the #MeToo ship in the right direction, we will continue to run stories on the development of the issue. If anyone, male or female, would like to share a story, anonymous or not, call 631-751-7744 or email desiree@tbrnewsmedia.com. The only way to get to a better tomorrow is to share the stories of yesterday and today, to heal, to learn from our actions and to create stronger reactions in the hopes of continuing to rip down the abuse of power that has landed us in this mess.

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.”