As a woman survivor of childhood sexual and other violence, and the founder of Safe Communities, I am committed to changing the cultural conditions that allow the sexual violation of children to continue, and survivors to be disbelieved and shamed. But as heavy and challenging as that work is, it is not enough. As a white leader of a nonprofit, its critical I also work to change the cultural norms that allow racism to continue, the most extreme and heart wrenching examples being the killing of unarmed Black people, including children, at the hands of police and extrajudicial groups of white men. And that means living more fully into the complicated intersection of ending sexual violence and racism.
While legislative changes are necessary, and police reform is critical, we simply can’t criminal justice our way out of this. We can’t just get rid of the “bad apples” in policing or the “predators” in churches, schools, organizations and communities. No amount of police reform or mandated reporter or diversity or anti-sexual harassment training will change the fundamental problem. To stop sexual and racial violence, we must change the cultural historical norms that allow them to operate. Problems that are systemic cannot be fixed using the same systems and mindsets that created them.
I have spent decades working with congregations and other organizations trying to change what many call “rape culture” which persists despite some good legislative changes. The sexual violation of children and women (and some men) is embedded in systems of patriarchy where men hold power and privilege. Which is the case across most sectors in this country. A church or workplace culture that makes men – especially white men - most comfortable is normed and their abuse of power over more vulnerable people is routine. What makes it hideous is that people who benefit from patriarchal and white dominant systems inflict death by a thousand cuts on a daily basis to people of color and women who try to assert their own power, and seem oblivious about the harm they do.
Until they kill somebody, and maybe not even then.
I have heard the pain and held healing space to the best of my capacity for Black clergy leaders serving in white dominant culture congregations or judicatories who suffer a near daily stream of racially biased comments, opinions and directives from white people who pride themselves on being “inclusive” because they called a person of color to leadership. That person is fine until they begin to actually assert some leadership and then suddenly, he or she is not “one of us”.
I have heard the pain of young Black leaders in social justice nonprofits that have anti-racism and anti-sexual violence programs who are marginalized and disrespected within these very organizations. For example, a brilliant younger Black man I am trying my best to mentor as he navigates out of a rape crisis center and create his own nonprofit to end sexual violence describes the staff meetings he attends as “sitting at the table with Donald Trump”. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself and as a Black man, he is deemed too sensitive and too passionate about the need to change the racist culture of the organization, whose leaders don’t think they have a problem. They think HE is the problem. Listening to his pain hurts my heart, and I am inspired and amazed at his tenacity and faith as he tries to navigate the dangerous waters and found a new organization based on real justice and liberation.
And I have heard countless women leaders of many colors who have been traumatized by gaslighting, bullying, withdrawal of resources, sexual harassment and more, primarily from white male leaders. I include myself among these women. Often these men are supported by women who align themselves with male power within patriarchal systems as a mean of gaining or holding onto their own. I find this especially heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.
One of the problems is that most organizations, agencies and churches silo issues such as ending child sexual abuse and the gendered inequities that are the fruit of patriarchal structures turn these issues into programs, rather than integrate them into the social norms of their cultures.
This is also a core problem we face in ending racism. Nonprofits, including the faith-based sector, are notorious for claiming they are not racially biased because they tokenize hiring people of color while maintaining a culture that is normative for white people. If people of color or survivors of sexual violence get too noisy or have strong opinions about what needs to change, they are viewed as “not a good cultural fit” and invited or forced to leave. Safety and belonging are conditioned upon not confronting the usually indirect but very painful sexist and racist comments or actions at the staff meeting or the water cooler. This is an endemic cultural problem that will not be solved with new laws or training.
Many of the institutions and organizations I have worked in or with consider themselves progressive or even liberal. Most are led by white, privileged heteronormative men. It is rare to find one who truly understands their privilege and shares their power with women and people of color to actively deconstruct sexist and racist norms. Most of them resist the real cultural change that is demanded if they are to truly be safe spaces for people of color, for women, for children, for survivors.
These leaders will tell you, with a straight and earnest face, that they simply can’t find any qualified people of color for their boards. Nor can they seem to find any strong women who recognize abuse of power when they see it and hold the leaders who harm accountable. Since board members are often recruited from white dominant and business class cultures, they are inclined to believe in hierarchical and power-over systems rooted in a 1950s model of governance.
They will claim to be colorblind and have Black friends - which by itself demonstrates they have no clue about systemic racism. They will raise their voices in public disgust at a Harvey Weinstein but will remain silent about a Brent Cavanagh. Now, many are issuing public statements that “Black Lives Matter”. I’ve got some serious déjà vu as I consider the many public statements about “believing woman” when the roar of the #MeToo movement swept through places of power – until the protests died down, the stories slowed, and the systems began to reset, to go back to the status quo of requiring there be three or ten or twenty women who say they were sexually abused or harassed or assaulted by a powerful man before they become credible.
And maybe not even then.
We need to listen to the youth that have a moral code that drives them to the streets to demand justice on so many fronts where we have failed them.
We need to listen to our children, who have truth to tell us we may not want to hear, given that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually violated before they are 18 years old.
We need to listen to Black leaders. We need to listen to women survivors of sexual and gendered violence. We need to listen to people of color. These are the people we need to lead our organizations, our boards, our communities. It means we have to be willing to shift power to people of color, to survivors of sexual and gendered violence, to youth.
This is a call to all leaders, especially those in the nonprofit, philanthropic, and public service sectors. It does not matter what your mission is. If it is not big enough to include racial justice, gender equity, and stopping sexual violence, you are on the wrong side of history.
I expect most of you will instead stay exactly where you are and, at best, try to program or tokenize your way out of this rather than face into the deep transformative change that is needed. Please prove me wrong!