More on the NFB and #MarchingTogether

In recent days, the following articles have been published concerning the subject of sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind. With apologies to the Washington Post and the Des Moines Register, and in the interest of the blindness community at large, I am circumventing their pay walls by posting the text of both articles here on my blog for your perusal.

From the Washington Post:

Advocacy group for the blind apologizes for allegations of sexual misconduct

Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in an online speech Jan. 4. (National Federation of the Blind)
Justin Wm. Moyer
Jan. 15, 2021 at 8:14 a.m. CST
An organization that lobbies for the rights of blind people has formed a task force and hired an outside consultant after apologizing for allegations of sexual misconduct in its programs, which surfaced in an open letter last month.
The letter was sent to the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, a Louisiana-based organization that certifies instructors for the blind. It includes hundreds of signatures from people the letter describes as “victims, survivors, and witnesses of sexual and psychological abuse at programs, conventions, and blindness rehabilitation centers . . . and their allies and supporters.”
The letter calls for an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations and the institution of new policies by Aug. 31 to prevent misconduct, among other demands. Advocates said they were motivated to come forward amid a movement to shine a light on sexual assault.
“We are writing this open letter to urge action to be taken to reduce and eliminate the widespread instances of emotional/psychological abuse, sexual assault/harassment, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of abuse within these agencies,” the letter said.
In a speech this month, National Federation of the Blind president Mark Riccobono said the organization has partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network “to assist us in furthering a safe, inclusive and welcoming culture free of sexual misconduct.”
RAINN will help the organization create a mandatory sexual misconduct training program and review its code of conduct, Riccobono said, as the federation launches a “survivor-led task force” to “implement a sustainable, positive culture change.”
The National Federation of the Blind is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of blind Americans, according to its website. Founded in 1940, it works to expand blind people’s access to the ballot and paperwork for federal disability benefits, among other initiatives.
Riccobono, who apologized in a Dec. 16 letter for the federation’s handling of sexual misconduct, said in an interview that the organization “wanted to be very aggressive and bring in as many experts as we can.” The task force will not investigate individual complaints, he said, but did not rule out providing financial assistance to those who have endured misconduct.
“The survivors are going to lead this and guide us on this,” he said. “I’m completely open.”
Sarah Meyer, a member of the task force, said the effort would “amplify survivor voices.”
RAINN confirmed the partnership with the federation but declined additional comment.
The National Blindness Professional Certification Board said it is reviewing its code of ethics to ensure the highest standards for professional behavior.
“We have proactively encouraged anyone with knowledge of any professional we certify who may have behaved inappropriately to contact us so that we can gather all relevant information and take the necessary actions,” the board said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring that those we certify conduct themselves both professionally and ethically.”
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Stacy Cervenka, a 40-year-old consultant for a Nebraska state rehabilitation agency who helped to write the letter, said advocates were concerned the National Federation of the Blind “will not address rooting out the many past offenders and those who have covered acts of sexual misconduct for years.” She said she was sexually assaulted at federation events in 2000 and 2008.
“It’s important and necessary to put new systems and policies in place, but there is a lot of distrust,” she said.
Danielle Montour, a 23-year-old assistive technology specialist from Texas who signed the letter, said in an interview with The Washington Post that she was raped in a Boston hotel room in 2012 at a federation-affiliated student seminar when she was 15.
Montour, who was blinded during infancy by the rare cancer bilateral retinoblastoma, said she grew up in New Hampshire with few blind peers. She fought with her parents, who were concerned about her safety, to attend the Boston conference.
“It was my first opportunity to meet an organized group of blind people” in an academic setting, she said. “I was really excited.”
Montour said her assailant was a 19-year-old fellow student who had more functional vision and whom she was asked to mentor during the conference, even though he was older. She said she reported the rape to the federation and to law enforcement in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but nothing was done, and her assailant still attends federation events.
Federation spokesman Chris Danielsen declined to comment on specific allegations. Boston police said they do not release complaints involving victims of sexual assault, while New Hampshire state police, citing privacy concerns, said they could not confirm the existence of the report.
Montour said society views blind people as asexual “cherubs” — people who are routinely touched by strangers who want to help them navigate the world when, often, they need no such help. Partly for this reason, Montour said, the blind community does not get sufficient sex education, particularly about consent.
“We’re taught our bodies are not just our property,” she said. “If that’s how it is in public, imagine how it is when it comes to sex and people aren’t educated.”
Other sexual misconduct allegations were linked to federation training centers, which teach students life skills like Braille, home economics and use of the organization’s signature long white canes, which can improve blind people’s ability to travel without assistance. The centers, which host months-long programs, are known for a strict philosophy that challenges students to become independent.
In an interview, Maria Salazar, 25, who also signed the letter, said she moved from Los Angeles to Littleton, Colo., in 2019 to join a training center. She was born blind, she said, and also has poor hearing in one ear and a kidney problem that has left her on dialysis for seven years. She wanted to improve her mobility and learn to live in her own apartment.
“I can take care of myself at the very least,” she said. “I don’t see blindness as a problem — as a reason not to do something.”
Former students allege decades-old sexual abuse at Maryland private school
At the program’s conclusion she sought to stay in Colorado, where she thought she had a better chance of getting a kidney transplant. She said the training center pressured her to move out of its housing and into an apartment with another student — a middle-aged man who raped her in November, she said.
Salazar reported the incident to police. Littleton police declined to release a report or other details, citing the nature of the complaint.
Riccobono, who attended the Colorado center 21 years ago, said the centers “are committed to protecting blind people.” He added: “The boards of those centers are committed to making sure that the environment is challenging and safe and healthy.”
Now living with her parents in Los Angeles, Salazar said she is waiting for her federal coronavirus stimulus payment to she can return to Colorado.
“Everything is just a disaster, honestly,” she said. “I’m just hoping that something good can happen.”

Justin Wm. Moyer
Justin Wm. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post’s overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015.Follow

End of article.

From the Des Moines Register:

When Katy Olsen was 20, she won her first scholarship to attend a national convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando, Florida.

The opportunity — afforded to students across the country who excel in academics, community involvement and leadership — meant she would be in the running for a college scholarship ranging from $3,000 to $12,000 and a chance to represent Iowa in the nation’s oldest and largest organization serving blind Americans.

But beginning that week in 2016, the Madrid, Iowa, native said she experienced something similar to what many other blind and low-vision women have come forward to say happened after they became involved with the nationwide nonprofit.

It began with a new friend and mentor she’d met the year before becoming increasingly controlling and touchy, making her feel uncomfortable. The longtime member, Jerad Nylin, would become president of Iowa’s affiliate of National Federation of the Blind later that October.

“He constantly reminded me that I would not be at the convention as a finalist if it wasn’t for him, because he was the one who pushed me to apply for it,” said Olsen, who won a $5,000 scholarship that year.

Olsen said she rejected Nylin’s advances and attempts to kiss her at another national federation seminar in Washington, D.C., in 2017. And she tried to avoid him at the federation’s next national convention in Orlando the same year — until Nylin asked her to come to his hotel room one night to meet some new friends.

After they left, she said, Nylin pressured her to stay and assaulted her, “pushing me back, kissing me, trying to put his hand down my pants,” she said.

Other incidents — groping and touching at times when other blind people in their presence couldn’t be aware — would happen at other gatherings over the next two years, she said.

Olsen filed a complaint with the organization in 2018. She also discussed with Iowa federation leaders in 2019 uncomfortable behavior by Michael Harvey, an older federation member and co-worker at the Iowa Department for the Blind, although she did not file a formal complaint. She said he got too close to her and touched her during a department gathering the same year.

Harvey, the subject of other complaints from female employees, was fired in March 2020, state records show.

“But that time in the hotel room was the time I felt the most attacked,” Olsen said.

Nylin, who did not return phone and Facebook messages seeking comment, voluntarily resigned his position as head of the Iowa affiliate in November 2018, after a three-person panel assembled by the national federation investigated Olsen’s formal code-of-conduct complaint.

His membership in the national federation was suspended, and he was told to refrain from contacting Olsen, according to the letter national federation President Mark Riccobono sent to Olsen outlining the panel’s decision.

“He has been advised that if further credible complaints arise, he may be subject to expulsion from the organization if the complaints are verified,” Riccobono wrote.

Olsen, a former University of Iowa student and youth counselor at the Iowa Department for the Blind who now attends college in Ruston, Lousiana, has since learned of numerous recent allegations of sexual misconduct in connection with the National Federation of the Blind, its affiliated training and rehabilitation programs, and its state affiliates, including the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.

Emboldened by the MeToo movement, blind women across the country, who have relied on the federation’s advocacy, funding, programming and services to have more independent lives, have taken to Facebook and Twitter to report their encounters of sexual assault, groping and sexual harassment, using #MarchingTogether.

Amid the disclosures, a group of more than 500 survivors and supporters signed an open letter in December demanding action from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board in Ruston.

The letter said those who have come forward have suffered retaliation, alienation and “serious damage to personal and professional relationships and reputations.”

Stacy Cervenka, a Lincoln, Nebraska, public policy expert for the blind and member of the national federation until 2018, helped circulate the open letter after she said leaders at the national organization, including Riccobono, failed to address widespread reports of problems more than two years ago.

Married to a supervisor at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind, Cervenka became involved after she said a man who had been fired twice for sexual misconduct received promotions despite being reported to the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board.

Since then, Cervenka said, she has collected dozens of stories of rape, groping, harassment and assault from women who attended federation training centers, conventions and other events.

The stories have led to ongoing discussions on social media about how little has changed over a period of decades in an insular community where federation-sponsored conventions, training programs and gatherings are focal points of socialization for young blind and low-vision people.

Members have complained that men have received little training or guidance on sexual behavior, while women have been encouraged to be passive or silent about widespread groping, harassment or even rape. Many have commented on Facebook about the difficulty of trying to expose deeply rooted problems within a member-led organization that so many people rely on. Others have lashed out at those who have spoken up in support of women who have told their stories.

“I honestly thought that things would be handled if victims would just tell leaders and tell training center directors.,” Cervenka wrote on her Facebook page. “… I came to know that leadership at the highest levels of NFB knew that this was a huge problem.”

‘I’m hoping to see justice for survivors’

The widespread allegations also have created a firestorm of controversy for a national advocacy and watchdog nonprofit that has sued universities, retailers, software companies and other organizations for discriminatory practices on behalf of blind and low-vision Americans.

Cervenka said she wants the organization to stop burying accusations from women, weed out abusers who remain in the federation’s ranks and take meaningful steps to stop sexual misconduct.

“I’m hoping to see justice for survivors,” she said. “I’m hoping those who have perpetrated abuse will be relieved of their positions. I’m hoping those in national leadership will face consequences for all the covering up and the silencing.”

Last month, Riccobono wrote a long letter of apology to the federation’s membership, saying he had made many mistakes and accepted responsibility.

“I am profoundly sorry that anyone has been harmed by experiences in our movement,” he wrote. “As a husband, father of three children, and leader who tries to live by a strong set of ethical values, I hurt for the survivors, and I deeply regret that I have made mistakes along the way.”

Riccobono said the campaign to expose sexual misconduct prompted the national federation this month to form a task force of survivors and engage a national anti-sexual violence organization to train its membership and rework its code of conduct. The organization also is working to enhance its reporting practices and training.

But Cervenka, Olsen and other women say the organization and its affiliates continue to retain members who have been accused of sexual assault and other misconduct, including some in leadership roles.

Nylin, who lives in Iowa City, was reinstated at the Iowa affiliate last year after a year’s probation and was invited to serve on a state nominating committee to elect new board members.

Olsen said she never received any notice of his reinstatement. But when she talked with Iowa affiliate president Scott Van Gorp in emails and over Zoom, she said, he told her the national federation was responsible for reinstating Nylin.

That decision was made even though Janae Peterson, a member since high school who currently works at Iowa State University, told the federation that she also was sexually assaulted and harassed by Nylin in the same year as Olsen’s report.

Peterson said she had known Nylin for years and tended to dismiss his questionable behavior until the summer of 2018, when she said he tried to grab her genitals beneath her shorts while the two were at Johnny’s Hall of Fame, a downtown Des Moines sports bar.

Peterson, 31, said she wasn’t aware of Olsen’s complaint until the code of conduct panel contacted her in fall 2018 during its sexual misconduct investigation.

She said the group sent her a letter after hearing about her case and asked her to outline what happened. But she said the outreach seemed very process-driven and lacking in any concern for what had happened to her.

At that point, she said, she decided not to take part in that investigation.

But she said she later contacted state and national leaders about her case, expressing great disappointment at the way they had gone about trying to investigate Nylin.

In a November 2018 letter to Riccobono, she said she had declined to make a written statement because she feared it would be shared with Nylin, as happened in Olsen’s case.

“In the past month, I have learned a lot about our organization’s history regarding sexual misconduct. If we make victims think twice about coming forward by requiring them to write long letters, relive their experiences in writing, and then send that information to the accused, it will send the message to predators that sexual harassment is acceptable, tolerable, and easily dismissed,” she wrote.

Riccobono replied to her in an email, saying he would reflect on what she wrote and “will take the actions that I believe best serve the members of our organization and creating the culture that we want to have in the future. I hope that you might be willing to take a moment to consider that my intention in this process might actually come from a place of love.”

Riccobono declined to comment on any specific sexual misconduct allegation. In a statement to Watchdog, he said:

“The National Federation of the Blind has a zero tolerance for abusive or violent behavior of any kind. Last week we announced a comprehensive program, in addition to our existing Code of Conduct internal review process. This includes an on-going partnership with RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, to assist us in furthering a safe, inclusive, and welcoming culture as part of all our programs and activities, as well as a survivor-led task force to help advise and guide our efforts.”

Peterson has since posted her story on Facebook. She said it makes her angry the federation reinstated Nylin and put him in another leadership committee position in Iowa.

“I was a pretty prominent member, serving on some of the federation’s national boards. So it’s not like I was a nobody,” she said. “No one has invited either (Olsen or me) to be a part of things again, but they will call Jerad.”

Lynn Baillif, a longtime federation member living in Baltimore, said she got involved in the movement because she believes the federation’s scholarship structure has for decades made students vulnerable to more powerful members and mentors who might take advantage.

A former national scholarship committee member, she said students who attend the national convention are beholden to those who mentor them at conventions because those mentors have sway over the size of their college scholarships.

Bailiff, 51, said she experienced an incident similar to what Olsen said happened to her when she was 17, attending a national federation convention.

Bailiff said she also met the man in his hotel room and he told her he would help get her a college scholarship if she slept with him. She refused him.

She said she reported the man, and he was kicked off the federation’s scholarship committee “in a fairly public way.”

So she was flabbergasted when he was later allowed to rejoin the national federation’s scholarship committee in the late-1990s, when she was also a member, she said.

“I was told he had grown out of it, so they had put him back on,” she said.

Riccobono declined to comment on the allegation.

Bailiff said the man she reported — whom she did not want to name publicly — has been working for the national federation on alleged sexual misconduct cases for years.

Emails related to sexual misconduct cases and the federation’s tax filings show he continues to work for the federation.

Two Iowa Department for the Blind workers fired

Those who signed the open letter have demanded the national federation put in place by Aug. 31 clear policies to “swiftly and thoroughly investigate allegations.” They also want to ensure victims don’t lose services or funding or get kicked out of programs after reporting accusations.

They have asked that perpetrators be removed from their jobs at local rehabilitation centers or any leadership posts in the organizations.

Iowa women say they also have reported sexual misconduct to the Iowa Department for the Blind, which often partners with the National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates with programming.

Since August 2019, two department employees who have been accused of sexual misconduct — Harvey and Michael Hoing — have been fired, state records obtained by Watchdog show.

Hoing could not be reached for comment. Reached by phone, Harvey said he would have to call Watchdog back, but did not.

Olsen, now 24, said she discussed Harvey’s behavior with Van Gorp, the current president of the Iowa affiliate of the national federation, telling him she believed Harvey should be monitored because she knew he had been accused of harassing other women as well.

At that point, she said, Van Gorp told her the only way action could be taken was to file another formal code of conduct complaint to the national federation.

“But I had just done that process the year before with (Nylin). That was traumatizing, and I didn’t want to do it again,” she said.

She said she stepped down last fall as second vice president of the state affiliate after Harvey was tapped by a nominating committee to become first vice president last fall.

She said she told Van Gorp she would have to work closely with Harvey, and she did not feel safe.

“But he kept saying the past is in the past, and we have to keep moving forward,” she said. “But that’s not possible when you’ve been through trauma like this.”

Niah Howard, 29, a former Department for the Blind employee who is also a student now at Louisiana Tech University, said she is one of the people who made formal complaints about Harvey’s inappropriate behavior.

She did so in early summer 2019, she said, after participating in blindness immersion training at the Iowa Department for the Blind’s orientation center in Des Moines.

In the complaint to the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, Howard said Harvey, her braille and technology instructor, asked if he could demonstrate how to track a line of braille by touching her shoulders and back during one of her lessons.

“He proceeded to track his fingers across my back. It felt inappropriate to me, but as a new professional in the field, I was not certain of this,” Howard wrote.

She said she later spoke with another instructor in the training center a few weeks later and was told that the behavior was inappropriate.

“I spoke with (Emily Wharton), director of the Iowa Department for the Blind about the incident, and again it was confirmed that this had been inappropriate behavior of an instructor and she encouraged me to report the incident to the Department of Administrative Services.”

Harvey wasn’t removed from his position as president of the Des Moines chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa until it began a formal code of conduct investigation into several complaints in December 2020. He was first vice president of the state affiliate until October.

Wharton, director of Iowa’s Department for the Blind, said: “Unfortunately, our attorney says we are not able to release the reason for Michael Harvey’s termination.”

But Wharton did confirm that Michael Hoing, a summer worker at the department, left the department in 2019 after a state Department of Administrative Services sexual harassment complaint against him was deemed founded.

Wharton said she wished she “could legally say more” about reports of sexual misconduct within the department, but that she could not elaborate on specific reports.

However, she said, all complaints are referred to the Department of Administrative Services and investigated. All of the complaints the department has received involved employees, she said.

“I can tell you we’ve taken complaints very seriously,” she said. “As a rule or as a policy, we do act on them.”

On Jan. 13, Van Gorp sent the following message to all members of the federation’s affiliate in Iowa:

“In light of recent events within the blindness community and discussions surrounding the Code of Conduct, several members throughout the affiliate have approached me and other leaders with questions that I would like to address at this time. The questions have surrounded allegations regarding one specific individual in the affiliate.

“After coordinating with our national president earlier this week, I am sharing the following information in an effort to be as transparent as possible. A grievance has been filed under the Code of Conduct of the National Federation of the Blind against Michael Harvey. This grievance is still going through the Code of Conduct process, and I have not received any additional information. In the meantime, Michael has been advised not to participate in Federation activities while this grievance is pending.

“In addition, you may see stories in media outlets throughout the country and here in Iowa. We are not commenting on any specific individuals or incidents.

“We in the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa stand with survivors and are doing everything we can to prevent incidents from happening to others while ensuring a safe space for survivors’ voices to be heard. We support the efforts of the survivor task force and look forward to the changes that will be implemented by our national organization in partnership with RAINN as well as from recommendations from the task force.

“In the meantime, as President Riccobono alluded to in his Presidential release on January 4, we need to keep moving forward while continuing to deal with these issues in a compassionate and constructive manner. I look forward to seeing where we go from here. Let’s consider where we’ve been, look at where we are now, and continue to look forward to the future to put these issues behind us and make the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa a safe place for all. To borrow the title of a recent newsletter, Federation Forward!”

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at

Willful Blindness

Let’s start with some basic table-setting before we get to the main banquet.

Sexual predation is not a partisan issue. It is not a Republican issue, though the GOP did try to monopolize it in the late ‘90’s. Nor is it a Democrat issue, though the Party of the People has tried to monopolize it since late 2017.

Sexual predation is a criminal issue. If a man has sex with a woman without gaining her consent, that is sexual assault. If a man touches a woman inappropriately, or compels her to render sexual favors to him under the threat of professional or personal penalty, that is sexual harassment. It is black-letter law.

Nor is sexual violence a feminist issue, though some radical elements of the feminist movement might claim otherwise.

The issue concerns everyone. Men will often hear words such as, “Rape,” “Sexual harassment,” or “#MeToo,” and one of three things will usually occur. Either they will dismiss the issue as a, “Women’s issue,” or they will become defensive. They say to themselves, “I wouldn’t rape anyone. I’m not guilty.” Often times, men will decide that it is easier just to shut up, smile and nod. If they speak out, they run the risk of being labeled as insensitive at best, or a rape apologist at worst. Why bother to engage with the topic at all when any struggle you might incur is unwinnable?

There are understandable reasons for these dismissive or defensive reactions from most men, but they are misguided. Sexual predation is a criminal issue that affects everyone. Every man has in his life a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend or a coworker buddy who has likely been a victim of this crime. I can appreciate why many men want to reflexively back away from something they perceive as an emotional minefield, but now is not the time to change the channel. Men can and must be participants in the ongoing battle against this cancerous scourge.

I have been a political conservative since I was old enough to vote. I hold many views consistent with the canons of conservatism, including a traditional tough-on-crime stance. I also believe that victims’ rights are and always have been a core plank in the conservative platform.

I also believe in due process. I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive. Under the Constitution, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. This truth is constrained to our legal system and is often disregarded in the court of public opinion. In my view, this is folly. Americans of all political stripes would do well to carry the principle into every area where sexual predation has crept. They would do well to adhere to the principle on college campuses, in the workplace, in social settings, in the home, and in the National Federation of the Blind.

I came into the NFB 25 years ago. I was attracted by their message of equality and full autonomy for the blind. During my 25 years of involvement, I have served in various leadership roles, including as the president of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, as the Secretary of the Nebraska State Board of Directors, as the NFBNewsline Coordinator in both Nebraska and Colorado, and as a counselor at a summer youth program at the Colorado Center for the Blind. I currently hold no elected office or paid position at the national, state or local level. I give you my bona fides so that you can lend the proper amount of credibility to my following observations and conclusions.

Almost from the beginning of my involvement in the movement, I heard whisperings about certain leaders who had a bad habit of putting their hands where they didn’t belong. Several years after my entrance, I heard a story from a survivor who was and is a close friend and who continues to be a member in good standing. I believed her. Thus began my slow awakening to the reality of a darker side of the Federation. In subsequent years, other women who are also good friends confided in me with their stories of violations they suffered at training centers, conventions, seminars and other official NFB functions. It became clear that sexual predation was not only a latent problem in the Federation, but an open secret.

I believe the survivors who have now come forward in their social media campaign.

Several weeks ago, survivors began to write openly about their experiences at the three NFB training centers (the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, CO, Blind, Incorporated in Minneapolis, MN, and the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Rustin, LA), on various social media platforms. The voices multiplied and gathered, forming an angry undercurrent on social media that grew with the passage of time.

The first inkling I got that something was afoot came on December 8 in the form of a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB), with an attached copy of their code of conduct and grievance process. I thought it odd that they would dispatch the message to the entire NFB network. The picture became clearer three days later on Friday, December 11, when the National Office sent out a communique to all members across all platforms. The message reaffirmed that the NFB stands in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. I think I’m being charitable when I describe the nature of the message as weak tea.

The communique was received by the campaign with skepticism at best, derision at worst. As the weekend progressed, the stories continued to mount in number and detail. The posts ranged from chillingly subtle to shockingly graphic. Many posters chose to keep their abusers anonymous, but some of them named names. The most disturbing aspect of the stories was the fact that some of the accusers had been minors under the care of the NFB at the time of the alleged assaults. It is not a stretch to suspect that the boiler plate response from Baltimore may have actually fueled the spreading fire.

The tactics of the #MarchingTogether movement, as they came to be known, proved effective. Five days after the initial response from Baltimore, on Wednesday, December 16, President Mark Riccobono issued a mass communication to the membership. Its subject line was, “An Open letter of Apology from President Riccobono.” The letter was appropriately conciliatory in its tone. Riccobono handled the subject matter with political deftness, never once criticizing the victims, their tactics or their credibility. He also called for empathy and understanding for those who may be defending the NFB in good faith, while simultaneously employing language that would mollify the social justice elements of the campaign. He seemed genuine in the assumption of ownership of his mistakes and sincere in his regret over the lack of transparency in the leadership’s efforts to combat this pervasive problem. Most significant was the fact that he outlined six concrete steps the Federation intends to take to deal with the problem.

I admit that I was skeptical when I read Riccobono’s words. My view was that the president and the leadership were attempting to cover their hindmost parts in an effort to stem the fiery tide.

Hours after Riccobono issued his apology, the survivors posted their own letter. It was a complex document that seemed as if it had been in the drafting for weeks, so it was likely not a direct response to Riccobono’s apology statement. It came with a list of counter recommendations that took aim, not only at the lax culture and protocols surrounding the perpetration and reporting of sexual assault and harassment, but at the general culture of the NFB training centers.

I seriously considered adding my signature to the letter, but while I stood in awe of the courage of the victims who came forward and signed it, I found certain recommendations to be problematic. In my view, they go beyond the scope of the problem of sexual violence and address areas that would be better served in a separate conversation. Discussions I’ve held with other potential signatories takes us all to the same conclusion. Many people stand in solidarity with the victims, but feel that elements of the letter seem to strike at the very heart of the structured discovery curriculum that distinguishes NFB training centers from other orientation centers for the blind.

This is where matters stood on the week leading up to Christmas, 2020. In a tumultuous year rife with general discontent and mounting anxiety and anger, this is the appropriate capper for our little corner of the world.

After the weekend of December 11, the first-hand accounts of assault by survivors seemed to dwindle to a trickle (at least on my social media feeds.) The subsequent argument mutated to a proxy version of “good Federationists,” versus “Good allies.” The face of the pro-NFB viewpoint, of course, is President Riccobono. The most prominent “good ally,” (and the biggest target) is the apparent founder of the survivors’ campaign, Stacy Cervenka. After his open apology, Riccobono went dark on social media with respect to the issue, though many of his surrogates have continued to defend the president and the organization at large. Meanwhile, Cervenka was readily available in all quarters, vociferously defending herself against mounting criticism.

Sidebar: I have never met either President Riccobono or Stacy Cervenka directly. I have never taken the measure of either on a human level. I have observed both of them from a distance. I had a brief acquaintanceship with Cervenka on Facebook in 2019, but disengaged after I found some of her viewpoints and comments to be problematic.

I have met Marc Maurer, President Emeritus of the NFB, on multiple occasions. I took an instant dislike to him when we first shook hands in 2000. Nothing in the intervening 20 years has altered my view of the man. My opinion (and it is only my opinion) is that the problems we now face are largely a result of his non-responsiveness to them during his 28 years as our president.

I am laying out my biases clearly so that no one will misinterpret or misattribute my words and motives the things I write going forward.

Now that I have given you the background, I will tell you the truth as I see it. In my view, the problems and solutions are very complicated and will not be easily remedied with a quick fix.

The National Federation of the Blind has had this coming. Frankly, we’ve had it coming for decades.

Given the nature and structure of our leadership, it is easy to see how predators and predatory behavior can flourish. The organization functions under the guise of a Democracy, complete with elections on the national, state and local levels. It’s true that local and state competitions are usually fair and open, with multiple candidates being allowed to run if they so choose.

The story is entirely different on the national stage. In my 20 years of attending and streaming national conventions, I have never witnessed an election in which a national officer or board member was opposed by another candidate in an open contest. In theory, the convention body elects the national board. In actual practice, the general body is a rubber stamp for the nominating committee, who is appointed by the state affiliates and who in turn selects the national president. It has always been implicitly but firmly understood that the current president will hand-pick his successor, and that said successor will ascend to the presidency unquestioned and unencumbered with no electoral challenge or protest from the general membership. In other words, Marc Maurer and Mark Riccobono were not elected to the presidency. They were appointed. The election was mere window dressing. If you are unfamiliar with the NFB and if this strikes you as a system that bears a resemblance to that of a monarchy, you aren’t far wrong.

The NFB has been the largest, strongest and most influential movement in the blindness community since its inception in 1940. There are sound reasons for this. We are well organized, we have a respectable treasury and, as a movement, we are driven by our philosophical convictions. The top-down nature of the movement insures that we are quickly motivated and easily mobilized when necessary. When it comes to blindness, the NFB has had a positive and undeniable impact on legislation, rehabilitation policies, the culture and in the legal arena. Aside from our home page, one need only google us to find long lists of our accomplishments on behalf of the blind.

The down side of this autocratic-leaning form of governance is the systematic minimization and, in some cases, outright smothering of reformation efforts. It is indeed true that it Is useful in squelching those who possess genuine mal intent toward the NFB and our goals, but it is equally poisonous when members with legitimate grievances, such as survivors of assault, attempt to petition the leadership for a redress of those grievances.

Some critics of the survivor campaign are faulting them for posting their stories on social media. I catch a whiff of victim-blaming in these criticisms, but more to the point, social media was the obvious avenue for this campaign to take after years of being denied a proper and fair hearing. It is inexcusable that Riccobono and company did not foresee something like this when they first implemented the Code of Conduct in 2018 in the wake of #MeToo. Social media gives survivors what they never had before; a platform on which to speak without fear of being suppressed or controlled and the ability of their supporters to instantly share their stories with the entire world.

I can’t say for certain that Marc Maurer knew about wide-spread sexual predation and covered it up during his 28 years as president, but frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Based on what I’ve experienced of the man, I can easily envision him justifying the squashing of complaints of indecent behavior by powerful members in leadership roles in the name of the greater good. I attended a leadership seminar at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore on Labor Day weekend, 2001. Maurer was overt in his desire to “use” budding leaders such as myself for the cause in any manner he saw fit. This is a man who used Ramona Walhof to speak in glowing terms of his willingness to be in absentia during the birth of his first child in order that he might fight for the cause in court. Some of his audience found him inspiring, but he made my skin crawl. It is not difficult to imagine him turning a willfully blind eye to the complaints of those whom he might find to be inconvenient to the advancement of the righteous and necessary cause of the organized blind.

There is only one real way to bring about a cultural change from the top down. I believe the solution is term limits for all national and state board members. This includes the members of the board of directors for all three of our training centers. I believe that all members interested in substantive internal reform should begin to investigate the process of amending the national and all state constitutions.

My friends will chuckle when they read this. They will remember how I used to argue against term limits. We’ll just say that I have evolved on the question. Our current situation in our state and on the national level demands reform. I believe that elected leadership in perpetuity breeds complacency, willful blindness and a rigidity of thought under the notion that the old ways always work. I’m speaking of the people mired in board culture, not the underpinning philosophy that guides our movement. I believe that term limits for elected leaders at the upper levels will force current leaders to do a better job of recruiting and grooming upcoming members for leadership roles. It will also insure that those who are providing safe harbor for predatory behavior through nepotism and cronyism cannot wield intractable power.

I know that term limits are not a perfect answer, but I believe that at this point in time, they are the best answer for our current difficulties.

As for President Riccobono, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being. All matters of justice and willful blindness aside, he inherited this problem. Yes, he has mishandled the crisis thus far, but he appears to have taken ownership of the issue. Whether this is through a genuine concern for the victims, or out of political reaction from social media shaming, he deserves the opportunity to implement real and lasting change. In spite of his tardiness, if he has not adopted clear, demonstrable reform measures through a transparent process by the time of convention in July of 2021, he should step down.

Heads must roll.

I’m not talking about the French Revolution here. There is no benefit to beheading an innocent seamstress. My assertion is informed by political pragmatism, not blood lust. I want to see justice for the survivors and real, substantive change in the Federation, but justice and retribution do not have to be synonymous.

The hard fact of it is that people will not have real confidence that the leadership is serious about fundamental change until someone who seems untouchable is publicly excised from power and permanently expelled from the organization. In my years of service, I’ve heard the same half-dozen names come up over and over again. Some of these names have been prominent in the movement since the ‘70’s. If the NFB is serious about investigating claims, they will unearth these serial offenders and excise them from the movement and turn them over to the criminal justice system. If the membership in general and the survivors in particular see this happen, it will go a long way toward establishing the credibility that is necessary to facilitate the healing process.

I’ve been watching certain members of the NFB elite power class preen and posture on social media. They are saying all the right things, their verbiage dripping with woke sincerity designed to soothe and disarm. Deep down, they are frauds. In fact, they are part of the problem. I’m not speaking in extremist terms here. I believe that this is rank opportunism. I believe that many of them have been active enablers of the current situation. I think these people know who the serial predators are and have either actively or passively covered it up, thereby allowing them to find new victims. I’m not in favor of a witch hunt by any means, but I genuinely believe that these leaders need to be pushed back from positions of prominence if the evidence warrants it. Term limits would go a long way in solving this problem.

The numerous stories on social media do indeed show a clear pattern of predation at all three of our training centers. These stories alone should warrant investigations into the directors of those centers. If the investigators can demonstrate that any or all of the directors knowingly perpetuated a climate in which predators could seek out victims, they should be terminated and expelled from the NFB. If they are cleared, they should go on about their important work with a clean slate.

In recent days, a campaign of direct accusation and whispered innuendo has been mounted against Stacy Cervenka on social media. Some are questioning her motives, her methods and her exact role in the campaign of the survivors. I too am dubious of her motives and her tactics, particularly her personal conduct on social media. As a former member of the NFB for nearly two decades, Cervenka should have anticipated and been prepared for such attacks and criticisms when she first undertook this fight.

However, whatever I, or the leadership, may think of Cervenka and her overt and covert objectives, the stark fact is that the leadership invited such repercussions when they chose to ignore this growing blight. Sexual misconduct has been in our societal consciousness since the 1970’s. Even if you accept that the problem could not be properly handled due to a smothering blanket of cultural autocracy, you cannot avoid the pivot point of the code of conduct. Once that was implemented, the Federation as a whole validated the fact that sexual predation is a real and troublesome phenomenon in all aspects of our culture.

When you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.

One charge leveled against Cervenka runs, “Why doesn’t she stop attacking us and come to the table? Help us implement the positive change we all want.” Experience teaches me that this charge has a sinister tint to it. It is more likely that some leaders would draw Cervenka back into the fold by giving her the illusion of influence in hopes of seeking a way to effectively neutralize her. There are members of leadership who might even view her words and deeds as a declaration of war upon the Federation.

Moreover, according to screen shots of texts and Emails posted to Cervenka’s Facebook page, she tried to raise this issue two years ago when she contacted President Riccobono about these matters in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Riccobono responded with a combination of saccharine platitudes and hurt feelings.

Aside from the odd fact that Riccobono did not immediately try to engage in a constructive dialogue with her, he should’ve foreseen the fact that Cervenka, or someone like her, would eventually mount this sort of campaign. The crisis the leadership now faces was mostly avoidable. Yes, sooner or later, this kind of thing would have become public, but the NFB might have been better able to control the spread of the wildfire if they had gotten out ahead of it earlier. Now, Cervenka and the survivors hold the stronger hand and Riccobono and the leadership appear to be reactive in the seeking of solutions, rather than proactive.

Despite the leadership’s desperate need to control the situation, there is only one group that will decide how much power Cervenka holds. It is not the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind. It is not observers with a vested interest like myself. It is the victims. Thus far, Cervenka has proven to be their ally and an effective advocate. Her efforts to create a network for survivors to begin the healing process is particularly laudable. They, and only they, will have to decide what role she will play going forward.

For everything, there is a consequence.

When I was a youth counselor at the Colorado Center for the Blind in the summer of 2014, I tried to impart one important lesson to my students. Every decision has consequences.

Compare and contrast that to a lesson that Marc Maurer tried to teach me as I sat in front of his desk with 30 other young and hopeful NFB leaders, just 10 days before the tragedy of 9/11. As I chomped away on Peanut M N M’s like Pac-Man going after Power Pellatts, Maurer asked all of us to rank the five most important things that leaders in the NFB should accomplish. After he delivered the assignment, he bounced a coin on his massive desk and said, “Mrs. Walhof, I’ll bet you a quarter that none of them get it.”

We all wrote down our answers and read them later. They ranged from the usual; fundraising, membership recruitment, fundraising, insuring philosophical solidity, fundraising, legislative impact, legal victories in court and fundraising.

After we were finished, he collected his quarter from Mrs. Walhof and said, “The most important mission in the Federation is the selection and grooming of the next president of the movement.”

That tells you all you need to know about NFB culture at the highest levels. We are an organization that places a good deal of emphasis on leadership. I understand why this happens. I do believe in the ‘great man’ view of history. Riccobono leveled up in 2018 when he dedicated his annual banquet speech to the contributions of women to the Federation. If there’s one thing that NFB leaders know how to do, it is deliver a good speech. The response of the survivors campaign has proven that pandering woke lip service is no longer enough.

Leaders in the organization will find no shortage of praise and celebration once they come to power. If they pay proper homage to our core philosophy, engage in the quotidian drudgery of fundraising, membership recruitment and pounding the halls of their state capital, and if they proffer respect to the state and national leadership, they will find a path to greater glory.

I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable. Yet, when serious problems come to light as has happened now, the leadership must also bear the consequences of their actions and inactions. If the Federation rises upon the shoulders of its leaders, then it must also fall upon the actions and inactions of its leaders.

I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of a ‘burn it down’ approach. The NFB has done a great deal of good in its 80 years of existence. We can still continue to stand at the forefront of the advancement of the blind in society. But the time has come for an open and honest dialogue about the plague of sexual violence within our ranks and how to best combat it. That dialogue and subsequent change cannot occur without meaningful alterations to our top-down style of leadership.

I am an unapologetic defender of the structured discovery model of training for the blind. I firmly believe that our three centers are monuments to the words and intangible beliefs of the Federation put into tangible action. The blindness community would be worse off if our training centers do not remain as a viable option for blind people. As is so often the case, the flaws in the centers do not rest with the philosophy, but with the people in charge.

I also want to clarify that, as a conservative, I am opposed to much of the platform of the social justice movement. I believe that many of their viewpoints and strategies veer too close to fascism for my taste. It is far easier to detect injustice than it is to develop and implement viable solutions that result in true equity.

I will grudgingly acknowledge the irony that, while I am skeptical of the social justice movement, this topic would not have been pushed into the open without their dogmatic relentlessness. I also acknowledge the deep irony that, if we were to replace our current form of leadership in the NFB with the principles of social justice, we would ultimately be replacing one form of repressive governance with another.

I do not believe that silence is complicity. That is an absolutist slogan designed to force people into a binary choice while ignoring nuance and gray areas. Yes, sexual violence is an uncomfortable topic. With its emergence into the limelight, we all need to feel a little bit uncomfortable as we grapple with it. But certain elements of the “Social Justice Warrior” crowd will use this discomfort more as a blunt force cudgel rather than as an instrument of education and persuasion. This represents a serious error in strategic judgment and emotional temperament. If you want to implement real and lasting change, you cannot do so while alienating a vast swath of those whom you hope to persuade.

Castigating the leadership is one thing, but the general membership is another matter. I understand why many members have stayed silent over the years with regard to this issue. Many may have felt ill equipped to properly deal with the facts. Others may have been apathetic or unaware of the problem. A great number of members probably knew about the issue but stayed silent out of fear for their own personal or professional wellbeing.

Whatever the case, the truth is now out in the open. As members, we have the choice of either perpetuating the problem by continuing to sweep it under the rug, or grappling with our discomfort together in hopes of bringing about a positive and productive resolution for the survivors.

Honestly, this was the toughest essay I’ve ever had to write. It has forced me to stand in front of a metaphoric mirror and take a hard look at myself and my past actions. I am mindful of the fact that I may have hurt some of you with the words that I have written here. I have many friends who are Federationists and who are true believers in our cause. If you are reading this and are pained by it, I would respectfully ask you to compare your feelings to those of the victims who have gone unheeded for these many years. If your first instinct is to downplay the problem or to adopt a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality, I would implore you to consider the fact that our president has already acknowledged that the problem of systemic sexual predation exists and that our leadership has done too little to rectify it. There is no real question as to the nature and scope of the problem. The only question that remains now is, what can we do about it as we go forward?

This takes me back to where I started; the survivors.

I see the word, “empathy,” used a lot when having discussions of this nature. I am suspicious when this word is employed. I believe that its current day ubiquity has dulled its meaning. As a man who has never experienced full-blown sexual assault, it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I feel empathy for those who have undergone it. When I read the words written on social media from authors whom I don’t know, my heart hurts for them, but I can’t walk in their shoes.

That said, God bless you for your courage. Whatever happens, I hope you keep up the good fight. You won’t have an easy road ahead of you. This is an issue that cuts to the bone. Battle lines will be drawn, friendships will be lost, charges and countercharges will be leveled and lives will be drastically altered. Some will be your allies, others with ulterior motives will claim to be your allies and still others will attack you openly. I can’t know the future, but whatever happens, I pray that you can muster the strength to stay the course until you see the change wrought that you are fighting for.

While I can’t feel empathy for the survivors whom I don’t know, I do feel genuine compassion for my close friends who have been victimized. When the tide broke on social media, I spent a good deal of time on phone calls with friends who are trauma survivors. They are the reasons why I take this issue seriously and why I am choosing to break my silence. Whatever happens in the coming months and years, I want all survivors of sexual assault to know that I hear you and I support your calls to be heard.

To all of you predators out there who think you’ve gotten away with it, sleep with one eye open. When you wake up every morning, ask yourselves, is today the day?

Now that we’ve ingested our banquet entree, here’s your meager sliver of cheesecake. It is intended for everyone invested in the current debate. There is no intoxicant more potent than raw, unbridled power. Just ask the Republican Party.

Happy New Year.

Now, let’s go repair the Federation.