On Burdens II

On September 16th, a deadline had passed. Cami and I gave the Boards of 1Matters.org (known nationally as Veterans Matter) and Toledo Streets Newspaper one month to remove the man who has been harassing women from leadership positions of those organizations for decades. We insisted they announce his removal publicly and the reason why. This was to assure accountability and prevent him from being reinstated as he had been in the past. 1Matters.org responded quickly via email, saying we were not being ignored and they would address our demands well before the deadline. That was the last we heard from them. Toledo Streets Newspaper’s Board Chair emailed to say they had removed him as part of a “no-tolerance policy” and posted their Harassment Policy in their blog several days later. They asked us not to mention their name in any media. As far as we were concerned, these responses were insufficient. Since they did not adhere fully to our requests, we circulated a press release announcing that Ken Leslie, Chief Advocate of 1Matters.org, is the sexual harasser. We called for accountability and consequences for his ongoing abuses of power. At this time, we have been contacted by two regional media outlets. 

This is part II of “On Burdens” which Cami released the night prior to the press release. A series of burdens accompanies every victim in any kind of scenario that requires speaking up against wrongdoing. I learned this as a court advocate for victims of domestic violence. First, endure and survive the abuse. Then, endure and survive the process to seek any kind of satisfactory consequence. I believe they call it, “justice.” I knew that going into this. I’ve been ready for it. And though I like to think I am impervious to things I can see coming… well… I’m not. Cami and I each have unique burdens, but they are closely related. Now that we have gone public, they are new and changing with each passing day.

The Burden of Being Asked to Justify Standing Up: 

“You had better hope this new project of yours doesn’t bump up against your husband’s career.” -my mom 

As if my husband’s work, as a high school art teacher (at the time) and artist, was more important than mine. Was it because so many men are running scared of their own behavior that anyone associated with me would be a target in blanket self-defense? As if his career would somehow be in danger because I was calling out abuse of power. Rather than encourage that abuse of power be called out, I was urged to fear consequences. Not for me, but for him. As if it was still my job to shrink and make room for the success of men, regardless of my own experiences. Recently, that same mom of mine was very pleased that Andrew Cuomo was outed and resigned from being Governor of New York because of allegations of sexual harassment. What would have happened if the women who came forward to stop Andrew Cuomo would have worried that their “project would bump up against their husbands’ careers”? Do we want the change, or don’t we?

The Burden of Undoing the Minimizing:

“Is it really that bad, or is he just an asshole?” -a friend

This was said to me by someone who was most concerned with protecting the wife of our harasser. “I support you, Rachel,” she repeated a few times, meaning that she supported our friendship, our history, the work she has seen me do, and the work we have done together. She supports me. But, she draws the line at actually calling out a known harasser. My harasser. Personally, I have a hard time making the distinction. She was probably not going to say or do anything about this particular thing. And kind of hoped I wouldn’t either. Maybe I would change my mind. A lot of talk about how generations older than us were taught to do things differently and to ‘shut up and take it’ doesn’t sit right with me. Let this be a relief. We aren’t doing it that way anymore. We aren’t teaching our kids to perpetuate the sickening dynamics. How does it stop if we don’t stop it? I would be lying if I said I don’t resent conversation after conversation stating the importance of removing a threat to women and other vulnerable populations. The homeless and Veterans deserve better. This dude is a liability and a disgrace. How does that still require convincing? How is this one man more important than the people he claims to serve? There must be people around him who are already doing the work or are at least capable of taking over in his absence.  

The Burden of Re-Writing the Re-Writing of History:

 “If I thought he was really a predator, I would have warned people.” -a former boss

A local attorney is named in my and another woman’s affidavits. She was the President of the Board of Toledo Streets Newspaper when we were both being harassed. She minimized the behavior then and did very little to protect us. She did not warn others of his behavior. He went on to immediately harass people the minute I left the job I spent the entirety of working on removing him. She and I have talked since, and while she claims to have had a change of heart, she continues to police our language and re-write history. Well, regardless of vocabulary, whether you think the word “predator” is appropriate, you did not warn people. On the contrary. You sent them into his office alone, which set off a series of non-consensual touching and led to visits to the hospital with panic attacks. This woman, after serving up unsolicited edits to my first blog, offered to help us if we needed anything. I declined.

The Burden of Defending our Credibility:

“I wanted to talk to you myself because someone told someone that this is all being fabricated by two wackos.” -a person who works in the same world as our harasser and is annoyed by his arrogance

There is the burden of getting the calls to talk to me in person before someone shows support for us. Loyal friends and fans of our harasser are standing up in his defense and denying our stories. Our credibility is under scrutiny. We knew that would happen. We expect that and worse. We are prepared to let it all roll off our backs. It is still an expenditure of energy. I’ve gotten messages from trolls telling us we are holding a grudge against a man who has brought thousands out of poverty and that we are being dramatic. There have been comments that we are somehow trying to get our hands on the funding of the organizations he leads. It’s all laughable. We laugh. But, it’s also a pain in the ass.  

The Burden of Educating and Fending off Antiquated Ideas:     

“Did you make police reports? Why not?” -a reporter

Actual time was spent alerting a newspaper reporter that making police reports for unwanted hugs and crotch rubs would be ridiculous. We would be made out to look like crazed harpies. Not to mention that the police would likely laugh at us. It would be a giant waste of everyone’s time. Rather than strengthen our “case,” it would probably weaken it. Wouldn’t we be accused of blowing things out of proportion and wouldn’t that destroy our credibility? And anyone who is paying any kind of attention to the world we live in knows that one of the best ways to derail the progress of a reasonable resolution is to involve the police.  

Miscellaneous Burdens:

The burden of wanting to be working on this all the time and still be an active and present mom to a 5-year-old. Taking calls while she’s riding around on her bike and having to walk away from her so she doesn’t overhear conversations about rape and sexual assault.  

The burden of strategizing and making sure we are represented. The burden of wondering why some people are still being so quiet about it. Are they doing any actual soul searching? Are they looking at their relationship with our harasser and wondering whether to sever it? Are they thinking hard about how to do their work without having to collaborate with him? Is it different this time because it has happened to someone they know well? Will it create distance between us? Will there be sifting out while a new community emerges?

The burden of being the people all of the stories are now being delivered to. I wake up in the middle of the night, look at my phone, and learn of more and more women who have been harassed. The details of the stories we are hearing, from women we don’t know, are salacious and disturbing. This, much like domestic violence was for a time, is my life now. We feel pressure to not let this go because now everyone is counting on us. We personally know other women he victimized, and they are going through their own post-traumatic stress as all of this is drudged up. We worry, together, that we will be painted as people who hate Veterans or who would stoop to take resources from the homeless. We wonder if there will actually be change as a result of all of this. We have moments of skepticism. But, ultimately, we know that a quiet army is mobilizing for our cause and this has no choice but to succeed on some level.  

The burden of not being paid to do this work. I’ve had a sour gut for 12 days as I write. A few nights ago, as I sat at my desk reading messages from women who have been harassed by Ken Leslie, my husband asked if I was getting paid to do any of this. I mumbled something about a book, walked out of the room, walked into the bedroom, turned off the light, and went to sleep. I feel guilty for not getting paid. It is taking up so much time and energy. It is affecting our household. Yet, who would pay me? We have Patreon supporters who we are incredibly grateful for, and we absolutely do not take for granted. Their support covers things like printing and postage. If Cami and I split what we make that way, we would each make about $25 per month. We cannot expect the community to fund this. We hope people buy the book we’re writing. But, what else? Am I to survive on justice and drama alone? That doesn’t seem healthy. It’s a burden that my soul decided was ours to take on before I was born. It gives me purpose and energy. It drains me. All of those things at the same time.  

The burden of telling my story over and over. There is always that satisfying moment when the person I tell makes a disgusted face or noise. If it were comedy, that would be the laugh I was going for. It’s the moment they believe me. They express they are there with me. That I’m not alone in thinking this was worth the trouble. But, it’s not comedy. It’s ugly. It’s no fun. As mentioned, Cami and I are writing a book. The “zooming out,” as she calls it, of this process. Looking at it as it happens and from a distance simultaneously. Detached from the outcome in order to tell the story. After this, I’m working on something more light-hearted. I need to. Who’s ready for a sketch comedy series? 

How You Can Help us Take Action ASAP

We need help from anyone reading this blog right now. Veterans Matter is a national program within 1Matters.org, so this is not just a Toledo issue; this is a national issue.

1. Share the press release on Facebook and Twitter, add the hashtag #TimesUpKen, and tag @1Matters.org AND @Veterans Matter – National Homeless Veterans Housing Program. Ask others to do the same.

2. Share the press release with anyone who may be interested in these details, or who may work/collaborate with 1Matters.org, Veterans Matter, or Tent City. 

3. Contact 1Matters/Veterans Matter here (scroll to the bottom for the contact form) and demand that Ken Leslie be removed from the organization entirely. A sample letter you can use is below.

SAMPLE LETTER: To the Board Members of 1Matters.org/Veterans Matter: I support housing and care for homeless Veterans. But I do not stand for keeping someone in leadership who has abused his power in the community as a representative for a very vulnerable population. I demand that Ken Leslie be removed from your organization in all capacities, and that you announce to the community why. We all deserve better.

4. Sign up to receive the On Drowning Rats blog series here: https://forms.gle/YLK419ag8qhw3p5v6.

5. In the name of valuing our work, time, emotional toil, and toll, we humbly request that, if you are in a position to do so, show your support in the form of Patreon contributions. We will: gather and offer resources and publish pieces to distribute throughout the community; establish a system where we see results when we call out our harassers; and create a culture where women need not question our sense of self or existence in spaces we have every right to inhabit. Sign up here to support our mission: https://www.patreon.com/girlpartspp

6. If you’re not in a position to support us financially, you can play a role in advancing this work by forwarding this to a friend and sharing on social media. You can also request to join the private On Drowning Rats Facebook group and engage in additional discussion, share resources, and come up with solutions for accountability.

Thank you for reading!

Rachel E. Richardson is the CEO of Girl Parts Publishing & Productions.