by Mark Riccobono
"Yesterday and tomorrow meet in this present time, and we are the ones who have the responsibility. Our final climb up the stairs will not be easy, but we must make it. The stakes are too high and the alternatives too terrible to allow it to be otherwise.... We will continue to climb. Our heritage demands it; our faith confirms it; our humanity requires it. Whatever the sacrifice, we will make it. Whatever the price, we will pay it." — Kenneth Jernigan
In the National Federation of the Blind, we have worked to set a high standard in our expectations for ourselves, for each other, and for those around us. While our advocacy and program work is focused on raising expectations among others in the blindness field or the broader society, we also recognize that we cannot require others to do what we are not prepared to do for ourselves. Meeting that internal expectation is complicated when you consider the challenges of bringing together fifty-two diverse local organizations of the blind (our state affiliates), a couple of dozen special interest divisions, and thousands of people into a unified movement. It is made even more complicated because that movement must operate within a broader society with many competing perspectives and priorities. Despite the challenges, our movement has persisted because as blind people we have continued to take responsibility for changing and evolving the movement to meet our expectations. This has sometimes come with great struggle and debate, but it has always resulted in the blind having a stronger sense of ownership in our movement.
During the last year, we have done what was not easy to do, and we have emerged with a commitment to high expectations that is stronger than ever before. Our challenge now is to meet those expectations. Before we do that, we should reflect on the significant journey we have taken—a journey we have taken because our hopes for tomorrow demanded that we examine who we are and how we sustain our togetherness. History will remember that this year was even more significant because we did so during a worldwide pandemic where our togetherness was as fragile as it has ever been as a result of physical distancing and tremendous uncertainty throughout society.
The time has come for me to share my perspective on the journey we have taken in the set of expectations we call the Federation's Code of Conduct. This article only covers the recent efforts. Certainly, the conduct of members and appropriate standards for leaders and affiliates has been a topic of discussion throughout the history of the movement, and I do not attempt to capture that in this article. I feel it is most helpful to tell this story from my perspective, but what you read below is to the credit of hundreds of Federation members. Not every detail of the journey is documented here, and certainly there are many key players who are not named. Most importantly, I want to personally and professionally thank the individuals who have privately and forthrightly shared with me their stories and experiences in order to shape my own thinking. I continue every day to value the faith that you have and continue to place in me every day. Your stories will continue to be carried in my heart as I work on behalf of this organization. Some of you may have even forgotten what you shared with me, but I have not forgotten, even if I was sometimes slow to put it all together in my own mind. Our progress belongs to you, and I am honored to have been part of the journey.
I first became an elected leader in the Federation in 1996 when I was chosen to serve as president of the newly formed Wisconsin Association of Blind Students. My first real opportunity to learn about the expectations for leaders of the organization came at a student seminar held at the national office in the early months of 1997. I understood from that gathering and ones that followed that the organization expected a level of professionalism and caring to be shared among members. This expectation came from years of interaction among members who created these standards: at times through policies, sometimes through the leaders they elected, and at other times through the common unwritten understanding that developed. It was only a year after that when I observed my own affiliate president utilizing the power given to her by the members to limit participation in the organization rather than building up those around her. This was the beginning of my own journey to becoming an affiliate president, where I served for five years before coming to be on staff at our national office. My own leadership experience within the Federation taught me the importance of acting when confronted with difficult circumstances and recognizing the wisdom of the members of the movement.
In 2014 the convention elected me to serve as President of the Federation, and I continue to be humbled and challenged by the honor of representing the many diverse members of this organization. Shortly after my election, Pam Allen, who was serving as our treasurer at the time, reported an incident she had learned about regarding the conduct of another officer of the organization. There was no roadmap for what to do next. The Federation's Constitution gives the board of directors authority to act, but there was no specific written way to guide my response or how I would document that response. Instead, I acted upon my understanding and leadership experience. However, after that challenging experience in the first few months of my presidency, I thought there must be a more systematic means of responding to these situations. At the same time, we had a significant transition of long-time affiliate presidents. While my attention was on working with the new corps of affiliate-level leaders on effectively coordinating work of the movement, I continued to ponder what other structures we needed. From time to time, I would raise the question with other leaders of the organization, and I attempted to educate myself by talking to members about their own experiences. There was still much I would come to understand over the coming years.
In early 2017 I decided that we needed to develop a written document of expectations that we could socialize throughout the Federation. I began plans to pull a group together to start the drafting of such a document based upon leaders who had expressed great interest in the idea in my previous conversations. In the spring of 2017, it became clear that preparations for the national convention were going to prevent substantive progress on this initiative; thus, plans were made to start after the convention with the goal of presenting something to the national board at its fall meeting. However, we already had a stronger awareness that there was more we could do to encourage the appropriate behavior that I had always learned was expected within our movement. When I got up to address the Federation staff who would be participating in the 2017 convention, I specifically asked them to be alert for situations in which sexual misconduct might occur and to intervene as appropriate and certainly to report back if they witnessed anything. This was certainly not bystander training as we would want offered today. It was my own recognition that, in addition to developing responses, we needed to be more effective in our proactive efforts to prevent these situations where we could.
In the fall of 2017, we began drafting a comprehensive document which we later started calling the Code of Conduct. In the process, I continued to try to learn from the individual stories of members within the movement. It was hard to hear about experiences where people felt they were harmed by others in the organization, and I felt very personally responsible in my position as President. The stories I heard were so very different from what I knew about the Federation that it took a lot of emotional energy to sort out what we could do to strengthen our work together.
We did not reach our original deadline of having the Code document ready to be vetted and approved by the board during the time of its meeting in December of 2017. While the board discussed the plans for the Code, it did not approve the original version until January 26, 2018. In that first version of the Code, we encouraged each affiliate to adopt an identical policy at the local level. We also encouraged each elected leader to sign signifying that they agreed to abide by the policy. It quickly became evident that our approach would need some refinement to be effectively implemented.
During 2018 we made members aware of the Code and worked on getting leaders of the organization to understand how to implement it. We also prepared some internal procedures for the way we would handle reports we received at the national level. In addition to discussing it on the Presidential Release and distributing the Code in the Braille Monitor, we invited affiliates to discuss the Code at local meetings. We highlighted and invited feedback on the new Code during the meeting of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors held during the 2018 National Convention. It was not until the fall of 2018 that we received our first report to be investigated at the national level. It is fair to say that, in responding to and internally investigating that matter, we learned a lot. It immediately became clear we needed to do more work on our procedures, and many people involved in the early group of reports we investigated gave honest and invaluable feedback about how to improve our work.
At the fall meeting of the Federation's Board of Directors that took place on November 30 and December 1, 2018, the board reviewed the Code implementation and decided it needed enhancements. The board approved edits to the Code which were dated December 1, 2018. The minutes from that meeting also reflect additional discussion:
The board reviewed a number of other plans for strengthening the organization’s Code of Conduct practices. Best practices are being drafted to assist leaders in conducting Code of Conduct investigations. Once the procedures are developed, they will be reviewed by a third party with expertise in investigations to ensure that they are informed by best practices used by other membership organizations. In addition, an online form will be established as well as a voicemail box so that individuals who believe they have a legitimate grievance under the Code of Conduct have many ways to file a formal complaint. The board expressed the need for continued training of leaders regarding the expectations of the Code of Conduct and its implementation at the local level.
As a result of the board's work to improve implementation of the Code of Conduct, it decided to revise the Code in April of 2019. The most significant policy change at that time was to eliminate the need for affiliates of the Federation to establish their own Codes. The board recognized there were a number of problems with having each affiliate respond to certain reports of misconduct. This change was also consistent with the Federation's longstanding practice that national policies of the organization apply to affiliated local organizations as part of the charter of affiliation with the Federation. Specifically, the board recognized that reports of sexual misconduct required a consistent response and that the national organization was in a better position than state affiliates to provide a clear, consistent, and accountable response to concerns raised by members.
During the summer of 2019, a consultant was hired to review the Federation's Code and related procedures and then to provide recommendations. This was an important step in the board's continued efforts to understand how to implement an effective framework across a diverse volunteer-driven organization. In addition, during the 2019 National Convention several seminars were held to support the values outlined in the Code of Conduct and empower members to help guard against inappropriate behavior. At its meeting in December of 2019, the board of directors discussed recommendations by the external consultant, especially the opportunity to improve internal procedures for investigating reports when they came to the organization. The board set forth plans to make improvements in 2020. Normally that work would have taken place prior to the convention in 2020, but the emergence of the coronavirus in March set that work back many months.
At its virtual meeting on December 4 and 5, 2020, the Board of Directors considered the Code and future improvements to be made. Specifically, the board discussed the need to explore using an external investigator for certain reports of sexual misconduct due to the nature of those concerns. The board also discussed the need for more training to help all leaders and members better meet the standards for our community that were and are articulated in the Code of Conduct. At the meeting, the board adopted edits to the Code with the understanding that more significant changes would come in the next year. None of the members of the board, including myself, recognized how true that would be in the months ahead.
While the board was meeting in December 2020, a series of posts to Facebook began to emerge making allegations about the National Federation of the Blind and our affiliated training centers. On the day following the board meeting, Sunday, December 6, 2020, I pulled together a meeting with the executive directors of the NFB training centers to discuss the emerging allegations. Everyone in that meeting affirmed their commitment to ensuring that our programs are responsive to allegations and as safe as possible. Each of the center directors also agreed to fully cooperate with any investigations by the Federation that might become necessary. During the following week the NFB Board of Directors issued a statement regarding its support for survivors. During that same week one Facebook post called specifically for both Pam Allen and me to resign as officers of the Federation. I immediately sent the post to the other officers of the Federation and noted that both Pam Allen and I would cooperate with any investigation of our past actions the board felt was necessary. The board met at the call of Second Vice President Ron Brown to discuss the allegations. At that meeting, the board decided that it had no evidence to cause it to withdraw its support for Pam Allen or for me in carrying out our duties as officers of the Federation. At that same meeting, the board asked that I write a broader letter to the membership about the allegations. Members of the board agreed that they would review the letter and sign onto it if they supported the contents.
As I considered what I would write to the members of the Federation, I went back to the feelings I described above. It makes me really sad that anyone would be harmed in the course of their participation in the Federation. I also felt a degree of frustration that the efforts we had been putting forward to make improvements had not yet created the sense of safety and action that I was personally committed to overseeing. I thought about my own daughters who have grown up in the Federation and may decide to participate actively in the organization someday. I reflected also on the stories that survivors had shared with me during the preceding years. I knew there was still much more for me to come to understand about the pernicious impacts of sexual misconduct within our society, including our organization. I also felt a degree of guilt for what I understood then but did not understand years before. What could I write that would say in words all that I felt? The result was a combination of what was in my heart and also a set of actions I was committing to lead. Those actions were made easier to commit to by the fact that the board had already made plans for 2021 at its meeting earlier in the month.
In the letter that was the culmination of my heartbreak, soul searching, and the most rational thoughts I could muster, I referred to my own mistakes—a recognition that I was still growing and evolving in my own understanding of these important issues. I have detailed some of that evolution above. This letter of apology was posted to our website on December 16, 2020, and it was supported and signed by all members of the national board. Read the letter at https://nfb.org/blog/open-letter-apology-president-riccobono.
In the time between the NFB board meeting on December 4-5 and the release of the letter on December 16, I had one consistent message for leaders and staff of the organization. I called for everyone to "lean into the situation" in front of us. I had a great deal of uncertainty about what we did not know, but I had a lot of confidence about the journey we had already been heavily invested in during the past four years. When repeatedly asked about the motives of those making and spreading charges of impropriety, I reminded folks that our concentration should be on getting at the truth regardless the source of the allegations.
The board of directors had already put significant time and energy into this journey, and it was time to accelerate our efforts. We began networking through the movement to find out who else might be out there as a potential partner. This was when we first reached out to RAINN, which is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization.
On the afternoon of December 17, 2020, an open letter addressed to "Members of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind and Members of the Board of Directors of the National Blindness Professional Certification Board" was posted to the internet. This letter was signed by forty individuals. The open letter permitted people to sign on in support. This letter was later sent to me via email on December 28, 2020, and it included the name of approximately five hundred people who had signed it. The letter called on the Federation to examine its work and to make substantive changes. It also asked that changes be made at our affiliated training centers. It went on to make similar suggestions regarding the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB). The Federation coordinates with the NBPCB, but as an organization we do not manage or have the ability to directly change the policies of that certifying body. The letter highlighted a number of allegations and referenced broadly the social media posts which were being organized around the hashtag #MarchingTogether. The letter closes by stating, "We are sincerely hopeful for action to be taken by the NFB and NBPCB Boards. We were encouraged that many of our points were acknowledged in the apology released by NFB on December 16, 2020. While we think this an excellent step forward, we insist that it be backed up by survivor-led actions. We thank you for your recognition of these top priorities of blind people today."
It turns out that on the evening of December 17, 2020, we had a previously scheduled meeting for state affiliate and national division presidents to give some Federation updates. At that national meeting via Zoom, I acknowledged the current concerns and pledged our commitment to do the work necessary to strengthen our organization. My personal notes from that call suggest that we did not talk about anything else beyond the #marchingtogether concerns. I acknowledged that some on the call had signed the open letter that was released earlier that day and invited those individuals to be active in the work going forward.
Apparently, there was a Christmas holiday in 2020, but it is mostly a blur for me. I spent much of the final weeks of the year talking with members, our training center leaders, and potential partners in the work we intended to do. During this time I also began putting together the framework for the survivor-led taskforce. That group of six women, including Marci Carpenter, Cheryl Fields, Sarah Meyer, Daphne Mitchell, Briley O'Connor, and Kathryn Webster, did the most significant work of 2021 for the Federation. They ensured that survivors were clearly in the lead in our efforts, and they gave endlessly of their time and energy to bring people into the conversation in a safe and supportive manner. I met with them weekly from January to June, and I cannot express just how important their commitment and thoughtful work has been to making our organization stronger and safer. When you encounter these ladies at Federation meetings, I invite you to thank them for the difference they have made.
On January 4, 2021, I hosted the Presidential Release live, where I announced our partnership with RAINN and the establishment of the survivor-led taskforce. On January 6, 2021, the NFB Board of Directors met to establish a Special Committee to perform an independent investigation of the organization. The board resolution authorizing this action states its purpose to be: ". . .overseeing and directing an internal investigation of allegations of abuse (including sexual misconduct and abuse) by NFB members, participants, or staff at NFB or NFB-affiliated events or facilities, including its affiliated training centers and its state affiliates. . ."
During the meeting the board affirmed our use of an external investigator for all matters involving sexual misconduct. We had identified Tonya Bana as a local investigator we wanted to work with and began onboarding her after the board meeting.
Prior to the meeting of the board, I was interviewed by Justin Wm. Moyer of the Washington Post regarding the allegations and my letter of apology. In the interview the reporter wanted me to make certain commitments about things we planned to do, but I continued to message that we were open to everything. I knew that the board was likely to authorize establishment of a Special Committee when I talked to the reporter, but the board had not yet fully discussed and approved the investigation, so I could not commit to it in the media. During this interview and all media inquiries in 2021 about these matters, we were very clear that we would not talk about the details of specific allegations. We have held this stance to protect information about survivors and to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive information that the organization has about specific matters. The downside to this strategy is that there are a number of stories that circulated in 2021 that the Federation knows not to be accurate from our investigations, but they remain unchallenged. We have consistently heard from survivors that protecting their stories is the right thing to do, so we will continue to maintain that priority going forward.
I set a very aggressive timeline for the work with RAINN, our survivor-led taskforce, and the Special Committee. At the meeting on January 6, I advised the board that our goal was for our work with these three aspects of the initiative to be completed in time for us to fully report to the national convention which, in its role as the supreme authority of the organization, should determine whether the actions taken have been adequate. That timeline turned out to be overly aggressive, although I still believe it was the right goal to set. In particular, the Special Committee determined that it could not adequately complete its work by the time of the national convention.
During the following months, considerable time, energy, and organizational effort were spent on pushing our safety and support initiatives forward. Our survivor-led taskforce was holding multiple meetings each week; the Special Committee was compiling hundreds of documents, generating and receiving correspondence and conducting interviews; and we were making temporary enhancements to our internal Code procedures as we went along. We suspended changes to the Code of Conduct itself until we received recommendations from our stakeholders about specific policy changes the board should consider. However, with the introduction of the external investigator, we had to develop new procedures for processing reports that came to the organization. In early February we made that even more complicated by stating that we would accept a report of an incident regardless of when it happened. Since 2018 the Code had stated a preference for reports of incidents that occurred within the past year. The intent of the board was always for that statement to encourage timely reporting so action could be taken. It was clear that it was perceived differently, and some felt it was an outward attempt to silence reports. We originally lifted the time limitation until August, but the board later extended that through the end of 2021 so that there was adequate time to complete all the improvements that were needed.
During that same time, we provided RAINN with documents so they could give us recommendations on our processes. Concurrently, we planned to do level-setting training with key leaders of the organization. During the first six weeks of the spring, we trained over seven hundred Federationists. Those trained included all members of our affiliate boards, staff, students, and board members of NFB training centers, employees and key contractors of the Federation, national board members, and members of key committees in order to give everyone a common understanding of the factors that impact sexual misconduct. We also performed a community-wide survey to understand the baseline for our efforts going forward. Most significantly, we recognized that we needed a mechanism for capturing feedback from members who cannot access online surveys, so we built an accessible telephone-based survey tool that we can continue to build upon in our future surveys to build the Federation.
We also reviewed and updated our agreements with the NFB training centers and established a memorandum of understanding with the NBPCB to ensure we effectively shared critical information on a regular basis. BLIND Incorporated, the Colorado Center for the Blind, and the Louisiana Center for the Blind are all independent 501(c)(3) organizations with boards of directors which oversee their operations. These centers affiliate with the Federation in a manner similar to state affiliates of the NFB. We revisited the procedures and understandings we have with these training centers to improve our coordination, and we made plans to do this on a more regular basis going forward. I now have a regular monthly meeting with all of the board chairs and executive directors for our affiliated training centers. We received and investigated a number of Code of Conduct reports from past incidents specifically involving individuals associated with our three NFB training centers. Our centers fully participate in all investigations. As of this writing, there are no employees at any of our three training centers who have been the subject of substantiated Code of Conduct reports to the NFB. We can all be proud of the deep commitment to safety and support that these centers have demonstrated. They have all agreed to make improvements and have actively worked to engage students, staff, and other supporters in building upon the work that has been done in the past.
The first quarter of 2021 was extremely packed with the work detailed above. As we entered the first week of April, I realized it was probably time to update the membership on our work. I began to draft an update which was released to the NFB website as an Open Letter on Safety and Support Progress on April 15, 2021. The letter can be found at https://nfb.org/blog/open-letter-safety-and-support-progress. This letter was the first public announcement of the Special Committee. Prior to that time the Special Committee was getting its processes established and collecting background documents. Since the Special Committee was operating independently, we were following their lead as to when we could announce their existence. When I informed the Special Committee of my plans to release an update letter, the timing was right for the announcement of their work. This was one factor leading to the Special Committee needing to extend its timeline as the April announcement caused a significant influx of information that they needed to sort through before concluding their report.
In the months leading up to the 2020 National Convention, the Board of Directors had a number of important items to consider as it waited to receive recommendations. The board reviewed the oversight of youth programs directly managed by the Federation and established a youth program participant policy to articulate the practices already being used at the national office. In addition, the board considered forward leaning things it could do to create better supports among the Federation family. One initiative that came from those discussions was the adoption of a proposal on June 10, 2021, to recommend to the convention that the Survivor Assistance to Facilitate Empowerment (SAFE) Fund be established. That resolution was passed during the 2021 convention, and the board is still finalizing the selection of a third-party administrator to assist with the program.
In late June the board received an interim report from the Special Committee. The board met to consider the report and ultimately decided to release the report publically immediately before the convention. Members of the board had reservations about releasing an interim report without having the whole scope of the committee's findings. It also was concerned that, despite an earlier communication that the Special Committee would not use names in the report, a small number of people were named. However, the board felt that it was in the best interest of the organization to make the information publically available prior to the convention. The April 30, 2021, statement from our Special Committee can be found at: https://nfb.org/programs-services/safety-support/letter-nfb-community-special-committee.
The NFB Board's statement that accompanied the release of the interim report on June 29, 2021, can be found at https://nfb.org/blog/statement-nfb-board-directors-regarding-final-report-special-committee.
During our 2021 national convention held on the Zoom platform, the convention considered presentations from the Special Committee and the Survivor-led Taskforce. We also disclosed to the convention the work that was ahead for the board in improving our Code of Conduct commitments.
Coming out of the convention there was considerable discourse about the constitutionality of the actions being taken by the Board of Directors under the organization's Code of Conduct. These concerns were not raised by the delegates during the convention, but the Board of Directors still met to discuss the concerns raised. As a result, the NFB Board of Directors Statement Regarding NFB's Constitution and Code of Conduct was released on July 24, 2021, and it can be found at: https://nfb.org/index.php/blog/nfb-board-directors-statement-regarding-nfbs-constitution-and-code-conduct.
In short, the NFB Board of Directors believes it is acting within its authority under the organization's constitution in establishing standards and processes for determining behavior that is unbecoming of a Federationist. Despite this, the board has committed to accepting feedback on the constitutional questions and is currently considering whether it has any recommendations to propose to the 2022 convention.
As it relates to the organization's Code of Conduct, the second half of 2021 was spent sorting through the recommendations and solidifying processes that were only temporarily in place. The board had substantial recommendations from the Special Committee, the Survivor-led Taskforce, and RAINN to consider. In addition, we continued to support our affiliated training centers in examining their procedures. We have assisted them in developing stronger response protocols for handling reports of misconduct. In September a meeting of the executive directors and board chairs for each of the centers was held at the national office. This was the first time this group had been together in person in a couple of years. A number of collaborative efforts came out of that meeting that will strengthen the work being done by the outstanding staff at these centers. In the meantime, the national board prepared for the next report of the Special Committee, which was to be delivered in November. In addition, we established a new Blind Survivors Group within the Federation to maintain a specific space for survivors to come together, share resources, and assist in informing the work of the organization.
By the end of October 2021, the NFB Board of Directors had drafted a new revision of the Code. Knowing that the board would meet in early December, we dedicated the month of November to continuing to collect and sort through feedback from the membership about the proposed draft. The participation of members in reviewing and commenting on the draft was impressive. In general, there was widespread support for the draft, but a number of substantive suggestions were received that helped make the document clearer. One of the most significant changes was limiting the general time for reports under the Code of Conduct. The draft stated that any report would be accepted regardless of time, but we clearly heard from the membership that a timeframe was necessary to create healing and stability in the community. The board vigorously debated this at its December meeting but ultimately decided on the five-year standard that had been proposed by the survivor-led taskforce with some important exceptions. The board specifically states this in the Code as an exception, “One example of an exceptional circumstance in which the above time limitation may not apply is a report of sexual misconduct which could be subject to criminal prosecution.” As with the past, the goal is to encourage people to report the information they have into the Code process so we can consider it and track it over time.
At its meeting in early December, the Federation's Board of Directors spent considerable time on the safety and support efforts, actions taken under the Code of Conduct, and forward leaning policies. Those in attendance describe it as one of the hardest board meetings they had ever attended in the Federation. The objective from my point of view was to bring closure to the items that we could reasonably settle before the end of the year. Here is a quick summary of the actions that came out of the meeting.
We reviewed the final report of the Special Committee and voted to publicly release it to the membership. The final report was released with a statement by the board on December 8, 2021, and it can be found online at: https://nfb.org/blog/statement-nfb-board-directors-regarding-final-report-special-committee.
We extensively considered the work of the Special Committee and whether members of the board felt there were unanswered questions that the board needed the committee to investigate. The board voted unanimously to sunset the Special Committee and acknowledge it for having successfully completed its charge. The Special Committee sunset occurred when the final report was released on December 8, 2021.
We discussed in detail the feedback on the draft Code of Conduct, and the board voted on specific changes to appear in the final version. The board decided that an additional meeting to finalize the Code of Conduct after the agreed upon changes were made would be needed. The NFB Board of Directors met on December 19, 2021, and finalized the version of the Code that is effective as of the writing of this article on the fourth of January, 2022. This is the fourth time the Code has been revised. The presentation of the Code online has been enhanced, and it is now available in a variety of formats online. You can visit the Code of Conduct link found on every page of the Federation's website or navigate directly to http://www.nfb.org/codeofconduct.
We finalized initial eligibility criteria for the SAFE Fund consistent with the convention resolution and directed the President to identify a third-party administrator suitable to the confidential administration of this fund.
We established a subcommittee to plan for ongoing training related to supporting the Code of Conduct and building a safer community throughout the Federation.
We reviewed the progress on clearing Code of Conduct complaints that have been backlogged during 2021. As of January 1, 2022, there were still a couple of dozen reports that were received in 2021 and were yet to be fully investigated and acted upon by the organization.
We discussed the role for the new Code of Conduct Committee that is referenced in section XI of the Code of Conduct.
As we open 2022, I have a great deal of pride and confidence in the work we have done. Where I was very uncertain in December 2020, I now believe we have looked as deeply and as honestly as possible at our past and our work and that we have made positive changes for our future. The work above represents nearly one million dollars of unbudgeted expenses by the Federation. However, it was money and time that was well spent. Our policies, procedures, tracking, record keeping, and response systems are all better for the initiatives we have pursued and the actions we have taken. Unlike many organizations that spend money on defending themselves and their past actions, the initiatives and expenditures above are investments in determining the facts, acting on them, and using the learning from these unfortunate experiences to make our organization an even safer and more welcoming community.
What remains left undone is a significant amount of healing in our community. The combined circumstances of a worldwide pandemic, social uneasiness with resolving long-standing injustices, and honestly examining allegations about our organization and many of its leaders has been emotionally draining on the people of our movement. We have the opportunity to make 2022 about renewing our commitments to march together and strengthening the bonds of faith and friendship that make the work of the movement most fulfilling.
In that spirit, let me offer some final and somewhat general comments about the journey I have laid out above.
The journey we have taken with the Code of Conduct has been perplexing to many members of the organization who have not been subject to the misconduct of others or directly witnessed people being harmed. I can relate to this experience since the things I have learned about the harm human beings do to other human beings is so far from my own values and behaviors. This is a form of heartbreak we must endure, for we are about truth, compassion, and helping people be all we can.
We also need to acknowledge the truth that it hurts when we experience people we love exposed for bad behavior, but we hurt even more for those who are the victims of that behavior and feel the greatest obligation to them. The Federation's Code of Conduct is not meant to be punitive. It is to make clear the behavior we expect at Federation activities and to detail what must be done when that behavior falls short of what we expect. We decide what the standard is for our movement, and we have always expected more within the community we have built than the rest of society has expected of us. This means we need to do the right things when people violate the standards we set, even when they are very hard to do.
We have been open and honest about the journey we have been on. In fact, we proactively informed our partners and funders in early January 2021 about the work we were undertaking and about the discussion of these topics in social media. We invited our partners to ask questions and gave them information they requested. Federation leaders have accepted many invitations to talk about these situations publicly and have not avoided the hard questions although, as noted above, we have maintained that we will not discuss the specifics of individual incidents. Most recently, I was invited to address the December meeting of the National Council for State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB) where I detailed to all of the agency leaders the work shared above and our commitments going forward. While I discussed these topics with the convention, I have not written an article for the Braille Monitor on this topic in the past year and you might wonder why. The reason is that I felt that it would not be appropriate to lay everything out from my perspective until the Special Committee did its work and until the Board of Directors considered those findings. I have tried very hard not to interfere or inappropriately influence the work of the Special Committee. I believe that group—Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, Denise Avant, Tim Elder, and Ronza Othman—did an outstanding job sorting through an incredible amount of information. I suspect that even that group of people will be surprised by some of the personal reflections I have shared here as this is the first time I have put everything together in one place.
Our organizational commitment to a meaningful and powerful Code of Conduct did not start in December 2020. Nor should we judge every element of the past by our understanding of today. We have been on a journey which continues into the future. Without doubt, in another five or ten years we will make changes that seem obvious to us at that time that have not been a priority or even understood as important in this moment. We need room in our movement for growth and learning to occur. That is not to say we should go easy on people who do harm, but it is to say that we have an obligation to teach what is appropriate and to help people apologize and overcome mistakes they have made.
The Federation has a lot of power to set appropriately high expectations for behavior, but there are still limits to be recognized. Every allegation we receive should be adequately investigated and should not cause further harm to either survivors or those accused. The conclusions drawn from investigations are shared only with those affected. This means that we have deliberately refrained from addressing questions other than those dealing with the procedures we have developed and follow. While silence can be construed as guilt or confirmation, we regard this as less important than confidentiality and conducting fair and impartial investigations. We have worked diligently to avoid an adversarial process in which disparaging the character of one person may be used to serve the interest of another. Again, silence has been the result, and we have chosen to suffer the consequences that its interpretation may cause rather than violate what are, for us, core principles of fairness to all parties. We have an obligation to take the reasonable steps necessary to inform leaders in the organization when sanctions have been placed on the participation of other individuals, and we will continue to seek the most effective and responsible way to carry out that responsibility. Yet we are not the sexual misconduct jurors for the entire blindness field. Certainly, the Federation has always spoken out against agencies where we learn blind people are being abused. We also need those agencies and their leaders and boards to step up and fulfill their responsibilities. We are prepared to share our practices and the standards we have evolved and use in our organization. We are even prepared to keep known offenders from participating in Federation events. However, we need others in the blindness field to adopt and implement high standards alongside our work.
Much of what I have detailed above feels like a lot of change in a short amount of time to those who have not been working on it day to day. From my perspective, this is good change, necessary change, and change for the sake of building our future together. I invite you to hold that Federation bond of faith tightly with me and to recognize that, although we have been through an unparalleled time of uncertainty, we are emerging stronger for the experience as an organization. Let us remember that marching together we are so much stronger than walking alone; that this movement of blind people and our friends and allies is the most powerful force for raising expectations for the blind in the world. Our work is not finished, but we can feel proud that we have completed an important and necessary milestone in that work. Thank you for continuing to meet the challenge of building the National Federation of the Blind and maintaining a high set of standards for a community which so many of us value as our Federation family.