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.

Author: Ryan Osentowski

My name is Ryan Osentowski. I am a conservative blind guy going through life using the structured discovery method. I currently work as the Station Manager at a radio reading service for the blind. My passions include politics, writing, cigars, old-time radio, quality TV shows and movies, food, music, reading, clocks, swimming and tbd. I hope you will enjoy what you find here. If you don't...try it with a strong dose of alcohol.