How I learned collective action
Before Anita Hill, Before Nicole Brown Simpson (may she rest in peace and power)
Second semester of my sophomore year at a prestigious arts school. Long, long, ago, 1989 to be exact. About 400 high school kids crammed together, extreme overachievers, many geniuses, and some wily survivors who were way older than their years. I was definitely an overachiever and a wily survivor, and about to become more wily.
It is now something of a matter of public record that a faculty member sexually harassed students. I will never name his name unless I were called upon to do so in a court of law, and it’s been so long now that I trust I will not be. As I have aged (which I plan to stop doing just before I reach fifty but that’s a few months off!) I have become less angry and more understanding. When I hit the age that he was then, 27, I could understand better how lonely and confused he was. I believe he meant no harm. I blame the administration of the school at the time for two things: first, putting the faculty into impossible situations where they were not allowed to have healthy boundaries with students, and were in fact told that it was their job to be “substitute parents,” second, ignoring the situation when it was brought to their attention by a parent, specifically my own very brave, very tough mother. Yay mommy! I am so blessed to have had such a courageous woman as my main role model.
This was back before sexual harassment was talked about. The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas event occurred my senior year, and then they started talking about sexual harassment with us. That was way too late for me.
I was put into awkward situations with this faculty member my sophomore year. So were a lot of other women, I found out later, some many years later.
This had been going on for quite some time by the time the incident I am about to describe occurred. I had realized that this faculty member was a problem, finally cutting through the fog of “Is this really happening?” and was doing my best to protect myself from him. But he had a gift for playing on my fears, and I was very afraid. I was on a huge scholarship and there was no way we could afford to keep me in school there, which was extremely important to me, without my scholarship. I remember when he said to me, “You know your scholarship comes from the theater department, right? And that I’m part of the group that decides on your scholarship?”
I was afraid. But I had gotten used to living in fear. Those of you who were there remember. It got much better later, and I believe it has gotten way better since. Some of the best people in the world eventually took over, and they were committed to making it a safer place for the kids, and for the faculty too. A big thank you to all who worked and continue to work to make it not just a great place to learn an art but a really great place to grow up.
I learned, deep in my soul, that there is strength in numbers. That sometimes you can outsmart someone who has more power. That women can stick together.
On a Saturday afternoon in winter I got a call from this faculty member. He said he wanted me to come to the theater and work on some things. I was a stage manager, kinda the head stage manager of everything, so it would not be unusual for me to work in the theater on things, but this was during what is supposed to be our weekend. We never really took time off at my high school - everyone was always practicing, studying, working, rehearsing, all the time - but it was not a scheduled time for me to come in and work.
Still, you could not turn down a faculty member’s request. Not when he was part of the group that controlled your scholarship.
So I had an idea. It was an idea that, though I had no clue at the time, foreshadowed my entire twenty year career as an organizer and lifelong career as someone who thinks of ways to change the world.
I asked two female friends, also theater majors, to come with me.
We showed up, and I said something the effect of, “I brought help!”
He looked very annoyed, his plan to get me alone thwarted. But how could he complain when there were more willing workers to get the job done?
He never called me to work at the theater on a weekend or non-class time again.
I learned, deep in my soul, that there is strength in numbers. That sometimes you can outsmart someone who has more power. That women can stick together. Unfortunately a lot of the rest of my life involved women not sticking together, but I did manage to lead several thousand women workers to organize unions and win good contracts.
I never forgot the power of us getting together, showing up, and showing that you can’t mess with just one of us. We were like a herd protecting each other from the lions by sticking together. No space between us. Unbreakable if unspoken alliance.
Eventually, through a tragic circumstance, the faculty member was found out and fired. I have no idea what happened to him. I’m glad that at least one and hopefully both of the comrades who went with me to the theater that day is alive and well.
I grew up in what was then the least unionized state in the US, and I didn’t even know what a union was until a few years later when I joined HERE Local 35 as a student dining hall worker at Yale. But that day I learned the meaning of solidarity.