Learning from the Past and Building for Our Future: A Report from the Federation’s 2021 Special Committee

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: Great.  Thank you, Bennett.  I want to move to learning from the past and building for our future:  A report from the federation's 2021 special committee. I mentioned the special committee, the development of the committee in the presidential report.  This is an unusual undertaking for the organization but the board thought it was the most important thing we could do in terms of understanding the past and helping to shape the future.
We needed to understand and have clear insight into where we can change our processes, based on this information.

Sharon Krevor Weisbaum has been on this stage before.  She's a partner, managing partner.  She's mostly done that type of civil rights legal work for us.  But in this case, she is chairing our special committee.  I'm going to turn this important part of the program over to Sharon Krevor Weisbaum.

Theme from Law & Order 

SHARON KREVOR WEISBAUM: Good evening Mr. President and members of the National Federation of the Blind.  I assume you can hear me.  If not, someone will let me know.


SHARON KREVOR WEISBAUM: Okay.  As the president said, I'm Sharon Krevor Weisbaum and I have had the privilege of speaking to you several years ago at your convention.  I'm here today as chair of the special committee with my three colleagues, members of the committee.  Denise Avant, Ronza Othman and Tim Elder.  Again, as the survivor task force said, we want to give a content warning.  The subject that we're talking to you about tonight involves matters of sexual misconduct.

On January 6, 2021, your national Board of Directors made a bold move to establish a special committee to independently oversee and direct an internal investigation, look at allegations of sexual misconduct by NFB members, participants and staff that may have taken place at NFB affiliated events, at facilities, including the training centers or within state affiliates.
And to look at the adequacy of the NFB and its related organization's response to these allegations.  Our committee    I want everyone to understand    our committee was given complete independence and autonomy to do what the board charged us to do.

The NFB did not interfere with what we did and gave us full access to any documents or information that we asked for.  We retained a law firm to assist us with this investigation.  The name of that firm is Kramon & Graham.  This firm had the type of experience that we needed to accomplish our directive.  Although our work continues, on June 20th, we transmitted our initial interim report to the president.

Our report includes findings and recommendations.  Our report was posted publicly on the NFB website.  I believe on June 30.  And I invite everyone to take the time to read the report.  Our report is based on more than 70 interviews.  The interviews were conducted by the lawyers we retained.  Those lawyers reported their findings to our committee weekly and our committee made recommendations based on those findings.

The interviews involved allegations of sexual misconduct and the responses of the organizations over time.  Many of the interviews concern matters that have come through the NFB's code of conduct.  Some of those interviews involve matters that have not yet been submitted through that process. When we issued our report, 69 complaints of sexual misconduct or responses to such had been transmitted through the code of conduct. Since the issuance of our complaint    I'm sorry, of our report, several additional complaints have been filed.  Our report includes all of the recommendations we have made to date and we will highlight some of those tonight.  Please note and I'll tell but those the NFB has already instituted many of the recommendations that we have given them.  Others, we hope, will be thoughtfully considered and approved by the national board over the next few months.

We anticipate issuing a final report this fall after we finish the interviews and other investigative work that remains on going. As our report states, the blind community represents a broad cross section of society as a whole and thus faces the same challenges that society faces, including the issues of sexual misconduct and the consequences of not adequately addressing it. I want to emphasize that our committee's focus has been and will continue to be to evaluate how the NFB has responded and provide recommendations that will move the NFB forward to make sure that this organization provides a place where all can feel safe and be safe.

Our focus is also on making recommendations that will help to ensure that those who cannot follow the code of conduct rules and expectations are not permitted to remain part of your incredible organization.
I would like to turn to other members of the committee to share some of their thoughts.  I'm going to start first, Denise Avant followed by Tim Elder and Ronza Othman.

DENISE AVANT: I have been an active member of the National Federation of the Blind for 16 years.  I serve on our national board and am the immediate past president of the Illinois affiliate.  I love this organization, all of our members and the work we do to change the lives of blind people and give hope and confidence to so many.

I have seen the difference that our organization makes in the lives of young, blind children.  I have watched parents come to appreciate that they should have the same expectations for their blind child as they do their sighted child.  I have watched as newly blinded adults recognize that a diagnosis of blindness does not mean the end of their hopes and dreams.
Over the past seven months, I have devoted countless hours to the committee's mission which was to find out how leaders responded to past reports of sexual misconduct and how we could prevent or reduce such incidents.

I want to emphasize again that no one, including President Riccobono, in the National Federation of the Blind, interfered in our deliberations or drafting of the report. The NFB to have the continuing respect and trust of blind people, parents of blind children and all of our friends and supporters, we had to proceed with integrity for the NFB to heal and continue forward with changing the lives of the blind.  We had to come to terms with this issue.
Thank you to my fellow committee members, our team of lawyers at Kramon & Graham, the witnesses who came forward and especially the victim-survivors for coming forward and reliving the trauma of sexual misconduct and trusting us with your stories and emotions.

TIM ELDER: Hello, everyone.  My name is Tim Elder, an attorney and the president of the California affiliate.  Prior to my introduction to the federation as a national scholarship finalist in 2006, I had never met another blind person who had anything positive to say about their life in blindness.

This organization has forever changed my life for the better.

My first conventions were filled with laughter and tears.  I spent many late nights in convention hotel rooms with people like Marco and Rosie, Nathaniel whales and many other peers here on Zoom, you all earned my trust and my commitment outside of the formal convention agenda, by opening up and becoming emotionally vulnerable with me.  Professionally, I've been inspired by Dr. Marc Maurer, Scott LaBarre and Dan Goldstein.  I particularly appreciated Dr. Maurer's mentorship in which love was emphasized as a key leadership.  I place my name on the interim report for this committee and continue its work. In getting to know our organizations, I observed certain surprise and quirk that seemed unique to us as a blindness movement.  The world record for the number of people who can physically be squeezed into a hotel elevator is probably held by an NFB convention.  

When I visited the National Center, I was intrigued by the lack of windows in the sleeping rooms and whose idea was it to put several toilets facing each other in one of the bathrooms in the communal sleeping room?  I don't mean to make light of the heavy issues in this report but I'm asking myself and you serious questions about the future of our movements.
How do we, on one hand, raise the bar for a professional and safe environment that welcomes everyone while, on the other hand, still empowering people to honestly express the beautiful mess that is our humanity.

How do we preserve the indispensable trust and vulnerability that's required for building people up, knowing that such vulnerability can be so easily abused by those who act with selfishness and disrespect?  Only by changing and adapting will our federation successfully answer these questions. I know our organization has the capacity to retain its heritage and its traditions while still improving to meet the demands of the modern world.

Just before the pandemic, I had a chance to visit the recently renovated sleeping rooms at the National Center.  I was impressed by a seemingly insignificant detail.  Our national leadership had decided to include windows in those sleeping rooms.  Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.  Electric light, the most efficient policeman.  This report is just another such window established by our national leadership.  While our movement has made great progress for blind people, we'll never achieve true equality unless we have a healthy and effective vehicle for collective action.
We cannot have a healthy and effective vehicle unless all blind people feel welcome and safe at our conventions and within our movement.

From my sincerest heart, I'm here to serve you and work alongside anyone who wants to productively go build the federation, person by person, conversation by conversation, to make this community the most welcome, fair, safe and transparent version of itself we can possibly have.  This illuminating interim report gives me hope that we can be better.  That we will be better so long as love leads us along the way.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve you.

RONZA OTHMAN: My name is Ronza Othman.  I joined the NFB in 2003 as a law student thanks to an affiliate scholarship program.  I'm a member of the national scholarship class of 2006 just like Tim.  I'm a former student division president.  The current president of the Maryland affiliate.  Lawyer's division first vice president and despite all of those titles, my most important title is member.

Working on the special committee has been absolutely the most difficult and yet the most important work I have done in my entire life.  I, myself, am a survivor of trauma inside and outside the NFB.  And yet I love the NFB and I'm grateful for its programs and its people.  Because I've been able to create an independent, productive life.
In addition to being a survivor myself, I've always been a prosecutor of sex crimes and for many years, I volunteered on a survivor sexual assault and suicide crisis hotline.  To you, those of you who are survivors, I hope the work of the special committee is helpful on your journey of healing.  And my greatest hope for you is to find peace and feel safe.  I'm so sorry for what you've experienced.

I hear the pain of survivors and I also hear the pain and love from leaders who want to simultaneous support survivors, shore up our organization so we can proactively prevent trauma and work on our traditional initiatives to ensure independence and equal rights for the blind.  I do not believe these things are mutually exclusive or that one undercuts the other.  Instead, I believe that all are possible and in fact, necessary as we move forward. I love this organization and believe it should and will be the best version of itself.  Thanks to the hard work of so many our greatest strength is our membership and our greatest struggle is that sometimes individuals among us, even those we love, do harm.

But I'm inspired by what I've seen in the last seven months from those who had the courage to come forward to share their stories to those who supported survivors, often reliving their own trauma to do so and those in leadership roles who have created the space, set the priority and implemented real and lasting response and proactive prevention mechanisms to support survivors and prevent others from being harmed.

I'm a proud member of the NFB and I join the special committee because I felt it was my responsibility to help the organization move forward in a way that honors survivors.

SHARON KREVOR WEISBAUM: Although we will not be able to go through all of our report tonight and again, I hope you will take the time to read it.  It is posted on the NFB's website, we wanted to highlight some of the recommendations we've made.

They've already been adopted by the NFB.  I want to just tell you about a few.  One of the most important decisions made in January was to engage a third party investigator to handle code of conduct complaints involving sexual misconduct.  That investigator has now issued 15 decisions and has had complete independence.  In all cases to date, the NFB has adopted the findings of the external investigator and fully endorsed her recommendations.  I see Mr. President has come to the podium.  Is that like the music that   

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: No.  I'm standing up.  Keep going, Sharon.

SHARON KREVOR WEISBAUM: In January '21, the NFB waived the one year period to file complaints of sexual misconduct occurring more than one year before that.  This was a critical recommendation at the time. Our report presents to the board recommendations moving forward regarding the filing of complaints. In February 2021, the NFB adopted a standardized approach to communicating code of conduct decisions with those reporting sexual misconduct and those who have been accused of such. Similarly, the NFB has adopted standardized notifications regarding its decisions to others throughout the NFB who need to assist in implementing these decisions.

The NFB has established a standardized tracking tool to ensure that all aspects of disciplinary actions are followed and ensured that they're maintained. The NFB has already entered into information sharing policies with regard to sexual misconduct with the national blindness professional certification board and between the NFB and its training centers.
The NFB has already adopted a policy that addresses the obligations of responsible federation leaders in addressing the reporting of sexual misconduct. Although not a specific recommendation of our committee, our report notes its support for the NFB's recent adoption of the youth program participant protection policy.

So those are the recommendations that the NFB has already adopted.  My colleagues are going to tell you about some other recommendations that we hope the board will support.

DENISE AVANT: I had recommendations with regard to the code of conduct.  First let me say it is our strong desire to create a safe space for all people in the NFB.  Therefore, sexual misconduct can have no place in our organization.  Since its inception in 2018, the code of conduct has been reviewed and amended a few times.  However, the special committee has proposed a number of changes to the code to make it easier for filing reports and to put transgressors on notice that sexual misconduct has consequences.

I will go over all of the recommendations in the interest of time.  Plus, I would really like our members to go to the website and read the report for yourself.

We recommend that the board use an external investigator to investigate reports of sexual misconduct as this promotes quicker responses to reports, fosters confidence and outcomes, alleviates concerns of favoritism, political concerns and relationship bias.  The code and its investigatory process should be amended to explicitly state that it applies to all affiliates, chapters, divisions, affiliated training centers, events and activities.

The training centers most report all allegations of sexual misconduct through the code process. The code should explicitly state that the failure of anyone of following the code is a code violation in and of itself. The code should make clear that a leader's failure to timely and appropriately respond to a complaint of sexual misconduct is a violation and will be investigated by the external investigator with authority to recommend disciplinary action. You will find that leaders include those at the national affiliate and chapter levels and divisions as well as center directors and center boards.
NFB employees and center employees are also included.

If found by the external investigator to have committed sexual misconduct, that the external investigator be allowed to recommend a permanent expulsion. We also recommend that in the case of a deceased member, if the NFB, through the external investigator, finds that that person committed an action of sexual misconduct, that no awards or scholarships be named after that person or that person should not be elevated in any way.

We have recommended that there be a three year statute of limitations rather than the one year statute of limitations to file a code of conduct report.  As it relates to minors, that three year period will start to run from the time the minor reaches the age of majority.

We do urge, however, that any violation or any report be reported through the code as quickly as possible because memories do fade over time and we want to make sure that there are quick responses.
We're asking that the NFB as of September 1st post that this will go into effect on January 1st of 2022.
We recommended changes and additions to the appeals process to make sure people knew when they could file and that it was fair and heard by three neutral, willing board members, not including the president.
We also called for consistent notifications in all cases to the victim survivor and the respondents about when a probationary period ended.

We did not think that we had the bandwidth to offer this to members only on an as needed basis.  We recommend training including RAINN training for all national leaders as well as periodic training for state presidents and their boards and new presidents within 60 days.  We recommend a communication strategy to use all media to explain to members about the code process.

SPEAKER: There is a recommendation if a person has a pending report about a serious charge, rape, for instance, the respondent would be removed from participating in federation activities pending the outcome of the investigation.
There are many other amendments.  Two final things to say.

We did not find anything inappropriate about structured discovery.  It is a means that has worked over the years when applied appropriately.  However, the training centers and people they hire should realize the power dynamic that goes on, particularly with travel instructors.

As a final note, our state and national conventions and other events are meant to be celebratory but we must respect the boundaries of all of our members, friends and supporters.  Thank you.


TIM ELDER: Thank you, Denise.  Really quick.  Some of the recommendations that    the committee came up with are    go beyond recommendations to the leadership and to the board.  We are an organization of members and we elect our leaders and we vote on our policies.  So there are some recommendations that raise questions or political questions that will require this organization and the membership and the convention of this organization to take action.  Not everything is directed toward leadership.  There are some things that strike at the very heart of our constitutional organization.
I don't want to get into all of the constitutional issues and the language in the report is the best and most accurate language. But there is a situation in which the constitution acknowledges the majority vote or the supermajority vote as the supreme authority.

So what do you do when you have a very popular individual or a very powerful or politically empowered individual who has a disciplinary action imposed on them but then has the political support of a majority of the membership or an affiliate? 
So we're also recommending that there may be some constitutional amendments that are required so that we all, as a community, can agree on the binding and final nature of the discipline that comes out of these code of conduct investigations.

Should they be allowed to rejoin and become an elected leader again and under what conditions should leadership be restricted, prohibited or allowed?  And so those are also some political questions that we may need to look at as an organization.

There are other issues of policy and political items that this report raises and so I hope that everyone here who is a voting member of this organization will consider their responsibility and their commitment to support some of these recommendations as well.

RONZA OTHMAN: With regard to recommendations related to NFB training centers, I first want to say that these are preliminary.  We shared data on the status of complaints but we're by no means finished with our investigation in this area.  We ask that you please hold judgment on what the statistics that we shared mean and how they fit into the overall picture because we don't even know that yet as a committee.

We will assess possible themes and patterns but we won't do that until the complaints are investigate and until we talk to all of the witnesses, receive all of the appropriate and necessary information.  We will follow the evidence but we will not make conclusions until we finished our investigation.  I'll also reiterate the special committee believes in the life changing work of NFB affiliated training centers.  And they are a pillar of the ability of the blind to gain true independence.
We ask that you also hold your judgment on conclusion until the facts are in.  Conclusions others share via rumor, innuendo or even press coverage is not usually accurate and is not fair.  Please give us the time to do our work so you can make value judgments based on facts instead.

The preliminary recommendations we've made regarding training centers are based on best practices.  They fall into three buckets.  Process and protocols, information sharing and reporting and training.  With regard to process and protocols, we recommended that specific response protocols be developed for the training centers.  In fact, the special committee has since been asked and has agreed on working on developing those response protocols.

With regard to information sharing and reporting, we recommended that it be formalized that parents be promptly notified if there are any allegations involving minors.  We understand training centers have committed to doing this.  We also recommended that training centers should formalize a process for sharing information about their employees with other training centers.  The national blindness professional certification board and the NFB concerning allegations of misconduct and results of such investigations.

We understand that information sharing agreements have already been executed between the training centers and the national blindness professional certification board and also with the NFB itself.  And that this has already been implemented as a protocol.  Additionally, we've made recommendations to strengthen the reporting of incidents to appropriate government entities.

With regard to training, we recognize that mandatory reporting rules are complicated and differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  As a result, we recommend that training centers and affiliates as well receive training on what their mandatory reporting requirements are and how to implement them.

We also recommend that training centers provide training to employees, volunteers and apprentices concerning professional boundaries and power dynamics regardless of whether those individuals are working with minors or adults.
We understand that the training centers have already begun implementing these trainings.

We will augment these preliminary recommendations with others as we complete the special committee investigation.  Those will be included in our final report this fall.  In the meantime, please give us the space to do right by survivors and shore up the safety and support infrastructure of the NFB.  We remain committed to doing our utmost to look back on our organization's actions in the past in order to proactively prevent sexual misconduct.

SHARON KREVOR WEISBAUM: Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity to speak.  I think someone is asking where the report is. I'll let you address which page of the website that's on.

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: Thank you to our task force for the work that's being done.  It is important that we've given the convention and the members this information.  I do encourage you to look over these recommendations and have these conversations within our organization.  The members need to decide what we want to do.  As a movement.  I'm sure our communications team will post the link for the special committee report. You can find the board's statement about the report on the voice of the nation's blind blog at NFB.org.

Let's take a moment to reset with a mindfulness fit break.