CONTENT WARNING: The following contains references to sexual misconduct. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline offers free, confidential support, 24/7, at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or at online.rainn.org
We are writing to you as the members of the Special Committee established by the National Federation of the Blind. We believe it is important to update the NFB community about who we are, why we agreed to serve on this committee, and the work we are undertaking.
What We Are Doing
The Board established the Special Committee on January 6, 2021, to oversee and direct an internal investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct by NFB members, participants, or staff at NFB or NFB-affiliated events or facilities, including its affiliated training centers and its state affiliates – as well as the adequacy of the response to such allegations. The Committee is examining all previously adjudicated NFB Code of Conduct complaints involving sexual misconduct and reviewing matters that have not been submitted through the Code of Conduct process but have come to the attention of the Committee. We are examining complaints involving the NFB itself, the three NFB affiliated training centers, as well as NFB affiliates and programs.
The Special Committee will generate a report, which will be made public around the time of the NFB National Convention, with our findings and recommendations. The report will not disclose the identity of transgressors or victims/survivors. The purpose of the Special Committee is to gather a group of experienced individuals and leaders from within the NFB membership who can use our collective understanding of the organization’s history and structure to effectively determine what occurred, assess how NFB officials handled cases of sexual misconduct, determine whether patterns and trends exist that require systemic change, and recommend organizational and policy changes to prevent sexual misconduct cases from occurring in the future. The purpose of the committee is not to take the place of the external investigator, Tonya Baña.
The Committee has already made certain recommendations, which have been implemented and will be discussed in its report. For example, the Committee recommended that the NFB eliminate the one-year filing deadline for Code of Conduct complaints during the pendency of this investigation.
It’s important to underscore that the Board gave the Special Committee full authority and freedom to conduct its investigation. The Special Committee has full access to all internal records, staff, and anything else it deems pertinent. We are confident that we have the autonomy necessary to oversee a thorough and independent investigation.
The Special Committee has engaged the services of Kramon & Graham, a Baltimore-based law firm, to conduct the needed interviews and advise the Committee accordingly. This firm has a well-established reputation and extensive experience conducting independent investigations, including cases involving alleged sexual misconduct. The Special Committee is relying on attorneys from Kramon & Graham to meet with individuals to gather information about alleged misconduct and how cases were handled by the NFB. The information collected by Kramon & Graham will inform the final report of the Special Committee. To be clear, Kramon & Graham was not engaged to defend the NFB against any allegations, and its team reports solely to the Special Committee.
NFB has separately engaged an external investigator, Tonya Baña LLC, to investigate individual cases involving sexual misconduct that have been filed through the NFB Code of Conduct since mid-December 2020. Kramon & Graham and Ms. Baña are not affiliated with one another and serve different roles, and neither has been hired to defend the NFB. Read about NFB's response to these issues.
As this investigation continues, we need your help. We urge you to share information about past experiences of possible misconduct or cases in which NFB policies and procedures were considered ineffective or not followed. To take action, we must hear directly from those who experienced misconduct and those who witnessed it. We cannot act on rumor and innuendo.
That information will help us develop a thoughtful plan to strengthen NFB systems and policies to prevent sexual harassment and misconduct and protect members. Individuals’ personal information will be kept confidential in the internal investigation. We encourage people to share this information through the NFB Code of Conduct complaint process. If for some reason individuals choose not to use that process, please contact Jean Lewis at Kramon Graham at [email protected].
We recognize that some may find it difficult to share their experiences. Please know that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that the investigatory process is grounded in respect for survivors and based on best practices for working with those who have experienced trauma.
Finally, we ask the community’s patience as we conduct this investigation and develop recommendations to prevent sexual misconduct in NFB programs. We urge the community to hold judgment on specific incidents until we complete our investigation and issue our findings. We are deeply concerned about the harm that discussing rumor and innuendo is doing to survivors and want to ensure that they feel safe both in the community and engaging with the investigation.
About the Special Committee
Each of us are members of the NFB with a longstanding commitment to its mission and work. (Please see brief bios about us below.)
We believe in NFB’s work and value the life-changing programs it provides to thousands of blind people. We also understand that this is a pivotal moment for NFB. We must ensure that NFB provides a safe environment to make sure that those who come after us benefit from NFB’s programs. We recognize that we must do a full accounting of where the organization failed in the past before we can change policies and protocols to ensure the safety of all those who engage with the organization in the future.
We are confident that we have the ability and professionalism to oversee this investigation, and we will not hesitate to make difficult recommendations. We believe these recommendations and findings will lead to important new safeguards that will protect the community that each of us has tirelessly served. We will continue our work over the next several weeks and will report to the NFB community around the time of the national convention.
Thank you for allowing us to work on these important issues on behalf of all members of NFB. We hold the safety of all blind people in mind as we advance this important review of our movement.
Ronza Othman (she/her/hers) manages and oversees the staff and work of a Federal agency’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment complaint program, including conducting investigations, implementing a conflict resolution program, providing training, and issuing decisions on the merits of complaints. Ronza previously served as a national subject matter expert and coordinated programs related to integration of post-9/11 communities and countering violent extremism for the Federal government. She also worked for several years in Illinois as a county prosecutor, focusing on sex crimes and domestic violence. As a trauma survivor, she is committed to helping other survivors and has volunteered on a sexual assault and suicide crisis hotline since 2004.
Ronza serves as the President of the NFB of Maryland and as the Chairperson of the NFB Blind Federal Employment Committee, 1st Vice President of the National Association of Blind Lawyers, and a member of the NFB Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Denise Avant (she/her/hers) is an attorney who served for 30 years in the Office of the Cook County Public Defender, working in appellate and post-conviction units. Prior to that, she worked for two years at the Will County Legal Assistance Program, Inc. in Illinois.
She is 1st Vice President of NFB of Illinois and serves on the NFB Board of Directors and the NFB’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. She also serves on the board of the National Association of Blind Lawyers, a division of the NFB. She was recently selected to serve on the Board of Directors of Access Living – Chicago. Denise is also chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Disability Rights.
Tim Elder (he/him/his) is a San Francisco-based civil rights litigator focusing on disability discrimination cases through his firm, the TRE Legal Practice. He has helped secure injunctions against testing entities for their failure to accommodate disabled students, negotiated groundbreaking settlements with publicly traded companies, tried employment discrimination claims before juries and argued before federal trial and appellate courts. He holds leadership positions in the American Bar Association and the National Association of Blind Lawyers, and he actively works to promote diversity within the legal profession.
Tim is President of the NFB of California.
Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum (she/her/hers) is the Managing Partner of Brown Goldstein & Levy, a Baltimore-based law firm. Sharon has represented the NFB and its members for many years. She is a passionate and forceful advocate for individuals with disabilities and their families who confront barriers in education, high-stakes testing, employment, housing, and accessing state and federal services and supports. Sharon has represented a range of entities that provide supports and services to individuals with disabilities.