Cataloguing my battle scars

main.jpgI was getting texts from a married dude in the middle of the night, and not surprisingly, I didn’t even think of going to HR.

I worked for a museum at the time, and the Twin Cities were hosting the major conference for our industry. It was my first full-time professional job, and my museum was hosting an evening event for the conference. During the course of the conference, I met a bunch of people and invited them to our event to be friendly and welcoming. I even gave out my cell number so people could connect and get directions or more information. It didn’t even occur to me that someone would abuse that.

One man from a museum in Greater Minnesota started texting me about the event and the conference, which seemed normal. During the next few days, it became clear that he thought that my friendliness was an invitation to invite me back to his hotel, or talk about how unhappy he was in his marriage, or sext me. I had zero idea what to do beyond 1) be polite but noncommittal, 2) ignore it, or 3) be snarky in my denials. He kept texting for a few weeks after the conference, and then finally stopped after I stopped responding. I never told my boss or my HR department, because it felt like I had to handle it on my own, when in reality I should have been documenting and informing my HR department.

This isn’t even the worst story I have of sexual harassment in my short career. I’ve participated in the whisper network, making sure women at other orgs knew about the creepy guy they’re networking with. I have felt physically terrified that a good friend of mine would suddenly turn violent in an isolated space. The scariest harassment experience I ever had was when a strange man followed me into a secluded elevator at a gala, telling me all the things he’d do to me if I was his wife. This is in addition to the general sexism I’ve seen in my career, like knowing that my presence in a group at a networking event is only amusingly accepted only because the men find me attractive or having to physically drag a chair up to the table so I could participate in the conversation being had by old, white men. And that’s on top of the “regular” sexual assault I’ve experienced in my life.

And you know what’s even more messed up? I feel lucky that’s the extent of my battle scars.

Are nonprofits safe?

To be clear, I think there’s space for people who meet in work settings to engage in consensual romantic behavior. I’ve certainly done my fair share of flirting with people I’ve met through professional settings (hey, you). How do you know it’s ok? It reminds me of something Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “I know it when I see it.”

After last fall’s daily exposure of men who harass and hurt women’s careers, I heard that we should all be in industries with women in charge; people thought that nonprofits were more inoculated from sexual harassment because there are more women in the sector, including as CEOs and Executive Directors. This concept is a “yes, and” for me. Yes, we should have more women in charge at nonprofits. And yet in the nonprofit sector, only 18% of nonprofits with a budget more than $50 million had women as CEOs. And in just the past few weeks, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States resigned after he allegedly sexually harassed three women.

Sexual harassment is about power. One of the biggest power imbalances in the nonprofit sector is around fundraising and major donor relationships. Major gift officers just want to do their job, and sometimes, they’re faced with balancing sexual harassment from a donor and their commitment to raising funds for their organization. Navigating a groping donor shouldn’t be a step in the cultivation cycle.

We all have a duty

By being humans in our society, we all swim in a pool of toxic sexism, racism, ableism, bias, and prejudice, and some of that, invariably, creeps into our own minds. As Dolly Chugh from NYU Stern says, “We’ve all grown up in a culture with media images, news images, conversation, and education. Think of that as a fog that we’ve been breathing our whole life; we’ve never even realized it, what we’ve been taking in.” So what do we do, as people who haven’t committed Harvey Weinstein-level offenses, but fall more on an Aziz Ansari scale? How can we be better?

Being accountable to ourselves and to others is an important step in moving forward in a society in which nearly every women alive has experienced gender-based harassment, violence, and bias. Local Twin Cities rapper Tony the Scribe shared these steps for how to work through when someone is holding you accountable for your actions:


While I’ve experienced violations of my boundaries, personal and professional, I’ve had to face realizing that I’ve violated other’s boundaries as well. In my haste to make jokes and have people think I’m funny, I’ve pushed personal boundaries and ignored an event’s code of conduct of how we treat one another. If I expect more from others, I must also hold myself accountable and expect more from myself. My actions exist on a spectrum that, ultimately, is connected to Harvey Weinstein’s.

To some extent, more women in power will help end sexual harassment in the workplace, including nonprofits. But that’s only true if we facilitate systemic shifts in power within society as a whole. Until power is more equally distributed across all genders, gender-based harassment will continue to go unchecked and violators will not be held accountable, in or outside of the workplace. Ultimately, we need more gender parity in power and decision making across all sectors.

Lately I’ve been digging Dessa’s new single, Fire Drills; one of her lyrics is, “Funny, you don’t know the concessions that you’re making until you catalog em /and by then they’re many and you’re battle-hardened.” In cataloguing my battle scars here, my hope is that another young nonprofit professional won’t have to later.

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