Introductory Remarks Presented by Kathryn Webster
From the Editor: On Friday evening, July 9, 2021, a good bit of the convention agenda was dedicated to survivors and our attempt to create a safe place for all people to flourish in the Federation. The first panel of the evening was chaired by Kathryn Webster, and these are the introductory remarks she made:
Trigger warning: this presentation will be discussing sexual misconduct and abuse. Please take care of yourself, step away as needed, and know that you are not alone.
The founder of the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, asserts: “I don’t want to miss this moment. It is not always going to be on TV. The media is not always going to care about what I have to say about sexual violence. When that goes away, I need you to still care about this. I need you to recognize this is an epidemic, a pandemic that will not go away by just talking. Speeches and hashtags do not make it go away.”
So, we stand here today, vulnerable, authentic, and honest, recognizing that this speech may not bring assurance and healing. It may make you frustrated; it may cause pain because of how raw those feelings are to you in this very moment. It may demonstrate the love and heart and dedication so many are working toward within and out of our organization for the benefit of the blind community. We are here today to be transparent about our work over the past six months as NFB’s Survivor-Led Task Force and the ways in which we recommend our organization proceed.
My name is Kathryn Webster, and joining me on this virtual stage is Daphne Mitchell of New Mexico and Briley O’Connor of Minnesota. In the audience is Cheryl Fields, Marci Carpenter, and Sarah Meyer, the second half of our hearts who have supported each of us during these difficult months. We make up the Survivor-Led Task Force, bringing our diverse experiences, backgrounds, and identities to the table and driving the voice of survivors to center stage as we all are SURVIVORS.
I want to start by sharing some of the work we have done; then I will pass the mic to Briley and Daphne to present our collective recommendations as the transition from this interim task force to the soon established Survivor-Led Group is underway. I want to set the stage by acknowledging important research that shows people with disabilities are three times more likely to experience violent victimization than people without disabilities, and the rates are even higher for women and those with intellectual, psychiatric, or multiple disabilities. This means that this conversation is even more relevant within our community. I also want to amplify the fact that only 13 percent of people with disabilities who have been harmed by sexual misconduct and domestic abuse receive victim services, which further justifies the necessity of the SAFE fund President Riccobono and our national board will be bringing to the convention floor for a vote. I strongly urge support on this necessary and proactive resolution that will only strengthen the trust and help decrease harm for our survivors.
Now to get into our work. On January 1 we were tasked with advising our national leadership and President on survivorship efforts with the sky as the limit. We chose to prioritize three efforts or branches: communications and engagement, procedures and oversight, and training and culture. While these branches each explored and dove into so many topics, I’m going to hit on some of the top highlights.
Communications and engagement is critical to this work being successful and maintained—promoting transparency is the core for building trust. This branch ensured that safety and support conversations around survivors were brought to over fifty chapter meetings and over ten state conventions during the spring months, as well as during chapter presidents’ calls, Washington Seminar, and nearly all open forums of Federation work. We helped build the Code of Conduct FAQ document, created vignettes, which are nuggets of information shared on our resource page at nfb.org/survivors from survivors themselves. This branch also worked on ensuring Spanish translation was a priority; making documents digestible and reader-friendly; pushing announcements and a calendar of events out on the Presidential Releases, leadership notes, listservs, and the list goes on. This group developed blog post entries from survivors, spoke on the Nation’s Blind podcast, and maintained our website page with updates and resources. Of course, we have been maintaining our email account and voicemail box to provide consistent support to survivors, and that is still alive and well for anyone who needs an ear or advice. This branch was the stick to ensuring the work in progress was spread across our community.
Procedures and oversight was fast at work reviewing policies, working with RAINN, and working with the Special Committee. We helped develop the obligation of responsible leaders document that outlines clear expectations our leaders must follow in promoting a no-tolerance environment against Code of Conduct violations. We also helped to improve the notification of expulsion and suspension that allows leaders and select members to be proactively aware of outcomes. We worked to improve the language for report rulings that notify reporting parties. We advised on the expansion of the background check process, youth policies, and other organizational policies. Most prominently, we held three open meetings to gather feedback from the blindness community on the Code of Conduct itself, as well as the procedures, policies, and communications. We also hosted a call with our external investigator, Tonya Bana, to put a strong and honest voice to a name that is working so hard on justice and accountability for survivors. This branch also worked with RAINN on response protocols for leaders and members, which will soon translate into training center response protocols for Code of Conduct violations.
Last but certainly not least, our training and culture branch focused on immediate and long-term training, as well as various ways to ensure our community promoted a culture of informed consent. This involved developing a positive blindness philosophy embedded in our trainings around trauma-informed communication, consent and boundaries, sexual misconduct prevention, bystander intervention, and other difficult topics. We partnered and learned from the Consent Academy and know that is a long-term relationship we are grateful for. We also ensured BELL coordinators, mentors, and volunteers were trained on consent and boundaries, as well as our youth track participants. We developed a post level-set training plan to broaden the education opportunities for members and leaders including topics of unconscious bias, inclusive leadership, consent and boundaries, trauma-informed communications, and sexual misconduct prevention. The initial level set training reached nearly eight hundred leaders who serve on national division boards, affiliate boards, the national board of directors, the 2021 scholarship committee, the NBPCB Board, the national staff, the task force. It also included training center staff, students, and boards. This is just the beginning of a commitment to continuous and consistent training. We worked with the DEI Committee on accountability processes: what that could look like on the individual level and organizationally speaking. A piece of this was developing an evaluation for leaders to take post-training that ensured attendance and digestion of information. As we look ahead, our branch also developed the concept of the survivor-led group that will be established in the coming weeks, created the application, and will conduct interviews to recommend our next co-leads. During national convention, we ensured training was offered nearly every day starting Tuesday and covering topics of psychological first aid, bystander intervention and allyship, consent and boundaries, and empowerment for survivors. We also designated a Zoom room as a safe space for survivors to speak one on one with trauma-informed individuals if they were feeling triggered or have concerns or hesitations this week.
A big piece of this branch work was behind the scenes, working with individuals and state leadership on creating safe and welcoming cultures. These conversations were often the most difficult and rewarding, seeing pained individuals transforming from constant pain to glimpses of healing and hope. It has been and will continue to be our hope for restoring trust and accountability in our organization for all parts of the blindness community as we represent all blind people.
Before we move into our recommendations, I want to voice so much appreciation for our branch volunteers. They spent many hours with us brainstorming and problem-solving—both allies and survivors, members and non-members. Thank you for sharing your perspectives and ideas every week with us. Thank you to the Consent Academy for partnering with us on trainings; and we know this is just the beginning of a long collaboration given your incredible work. Thank you to Bobbi Pompey and Laura Millar for facilitating youth track consent conversations with our little ones this week. For those who volunteered your time to help out with our safe spaces, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. There are so many other thank-yous, but I do want to acknowledge Danielle Montour, George Stern, Tai Tomasi, and Bobbi Pompey for your truth, your stories, and your work on this topic. Beyond the incredible panel we just had with your voices, you each have been instrumental in shaping our vision and direction for the benefit and safety of survivors within this organization. Your perspectives and experiences are invaluable.
I often get asked why I am doing this hard work, particularly as a survivor myself. Shannon Cantan, one of our vocal allies within our organization and a dear friend of mine, shared during a panel earlier today that he had a difficult choice to make. As an ally, should he leave this organization to stand with survivors or stay to be part of the transformational change? When assaulted by a previous state leader in our movement, I had to make a similar but different choice: Do I leave the organization because a leader doubted my truth and instead told me to wear more clothes and stop being a baby, or do I educate them on my own terms and my own time because a single leader or handful of them are not necessarily indicative of an entire organization? I made my choice. That choice isn’t for everyone; and no one should feel the pressure of being involved or leaving. That is your choice, your experience, and your feelings. They are all valid. Either way, there is work to be done, and those leaders who diminish the voices of survivors should not and will not be welcomed into our family, let alone in positions of power.
These six months scratched the surface and accomplished a lot of good, but there is a lifetime ahead of us. We are here to support survivors in all angles coming from all walks of life. Our fifty-four recommendations hopefully provide clarity on our perspectives and thoughts as a task force and shed light on the collective ideas of folks across the blindness community. We’ve broken these recommendations up into seven categories. Keep in mind these will be posted on nfb.org/survivors in the next few weeks so you can see the full breadth. For now, I will hand it over to Briley to dive in.Editor’s Note: When the Board of Directors decides on which recommendations will become policy, we will cover them. Until then, please use the link Kathryn provided to hear this presentation it its entirety.