It’s been a few months since I’ve written about the issue of sexual misconduct in the NFB. I think it’s fair to say that the Federation has taken control of the narrative at this point. While the #MarchingTogether movement appears to have gone silent, the NFB leadership has conducted trainings in partnership with RAINN to raise awareness amongst chapter and affiliate leaders across the country. They have created a task force to deal with the issue and have appointed a special committee that will bring recommendations for systemic change in the culture.
Yesterday, I spoke with an attorney concerning issues I have been aware of in the past involving sexual misconduct within the leadership of the Federation. It was a difficult conversation and I must confess that it has left me shaken and shrouded in melancholy.
At one point, one of the two attorneys with whom I spoke asked me a very thought-provoking question. Given the fact that sexual abuse exists within all cultures and within all institutions populated by humans, is there anything that differentiates the blindness community from other institutions such as the church, the government or private corporations.
The larger question is, why do so many blind people who are actively or passively aware of sexual misconduct within their own community choose to stay silent on the matter? And when they do speak of the issue, why do they speak in whispers?
I’ve been dwelling upon this question for some months now and I firmly believe that the answer is, desperation.
If you read my previous entry, “Willful Blindness,” you know that the National Federation of the Blind has been a major power player within the blindness community since its inception in 1940. We have had a seat at the table in all major arenas; rehabilitation, vending, technology and legislation. Whether you have been a member, an opponent or a neutral bystander, if you are a blind person, you cannot deny the significant and largely positive impact that the NFB has had upon society over the past five decades. Even if you don’t care for our approach, you cannot quibble with the results.
The leadership is well aware of this fact. Those who have persevered to the ultimate corridors of power in the upper levels of the organization understand the stakes. It is within that framework of understanding that they have gaged acceptable levels of human collateral damage that come with the price of success.
But more to the point, the NFB has also been a primary creator of employment. We hire blind people at our national headquarters in Baltimore, at our three training centers in Colorado, Minnesota and Louisiana and at our numerous vending locations in the Business Enterprise Program throughout the country. We hire personnel to staff offices and positions in many of our state affiliates, we network with state rehab agencies friendly to the Federation philosophy and we have even made inroads into the government and private sectors with mainstream corporations, non-profits and government offices. Such examples include Target, Amazon and the Department of Labor.
For most blind people in western civilization, jobs are the ultimate in coveted currency. Many of us are raised to believe that we can compete on terms of equality for those jobs, but the reality is quite different. If you are blind, you know that many jobs are simply not open to you. Societal awareness and technological advancement have not yet afforded the opportunity for me to work as a police officer, a professional football player, a brain surgeon, a veterinarian, a restaurant server, a bank teller and scores of other occupations.
Many leaders in the NFB realize this plain fact despite their public rhetoric. As I told the lawyer today, “If you should lose your job at your law firm tomorrow, you could go work at a Wendy’s, a Best Buy or as an Uber driver if you’re desperate enough. Blind people don’t have that luxury.”
Every time a blind person fills out a job application, he/she has the big question at the back of their mind. Will I have the right tools to perform my work tasks successfully? Translated, this means, will the technology required be accessible to a non-visual worker? If the applicant should be fortunate enough to score an interview, another big question is raised. When should I disclose the fact that I am blind? None of these issues confront a sighted person, or even a visually impaired person with a large amount of vision, when they apply for a job. Even if you are successful in your job, you might not be able to rightfully advance due to simple issues of inaccessibility to the technology necessary to do your job effectively. Or you may be happy in your job, but suddenly find yourself unable to complete basic tasks which you have been doing for a long time due to a sudden upgrade in technology. This is the ever-shifting obstacle course that constantly confronts the blind working class in this country.
Those in power in the NFB understand this basic truth. They understand the power of positive networking. Those who are loyal to the cause are rewarded with career and monetary advancement. When you exist in a culture that emphasizes scholastic and professional achievement as the means to shatter societal barriers, the ultimate liberation comes in the graduation from government benefits to earned income. And that loyalty also comes with an unspoken understanding that those who are loyal will look the other way, and maybe even assist in the cover-up of criminal acts. I don’t paint all of the leadership with this broad brush, but there are vampires in positions of power who know full well that they have a legion of subordinates at their professional mercy.
I have more than a little empathy for people in this precarious position. I have worked for the NFB in various jobs, and I have worked for bosses who were sympathetic to the NFB. I have worked in the mainstream world and known what it’s like to be the blind outsider at a company of mostly sighted people. And I have been unemployed, waking up each day without the basic structure of a job to solidify my daily routine. I understand the disincentive to work, collecting a government paycheck. And I understand the fulfillment of depositing a paycheck into the bank that I earned with my own hands. I think it’s fair to say that I appreciate the occupational situation for the blind from every angle.
I have worked in jobs with a toxic atmosphere. I know what it’s like to come in every morning under a cloud of anxiety, asking myself, is today my last day? I have sat alone in my work area and seethed with nuclear rage, wanting so badly to go tell my boss to fuck off before storming out the front door. I have even been tempted to quit a job and go on Food Stamps. Note the title of this blog and soak up the irony of that statement. But then what? If I quit a job in righteous anger, how does it affect my resume? How do I just go out and get another job as a blind man? This is the sword that the NFB power structure holds at the neck of many of the silent members who are too intimidated to speak out against things they know to be wrong.
Never underestimate the power of a hard-earned paycheck. When Stacy Cervenka does interviews with the press and speaks of professional retaliation against the signatories of the open letter, I believe her. Cervenka started a movement, and much like the entrenched forces that went after Kenneth Jernigan in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, counter forces are determined to hit the vocal members of #MarchingTogether where they live and make them regret speaking out.
But there is another side to this. In my previous entry, I said that I stand firmly against the absolutist notion that silence is complicity. This is a blunt force club intended to coerce those on the sidelines into taking a stance. Naturally, if that stance should be in opposition to those who cry out for justice, then they are a part of the problem, not the solution. The paradox of this position is that those at the forefront of the #MarchingTogether movement who have adopted these social justice tactics are also fully aware of the terrible quandary that faces the majority of the blind membership of the NFB. When they raise the cry of, “Silence is violence,” they either thoughtlessly downplay or callously disregard the plight of many of those who stand in subordination to the leadership. They conveniently ignore the fact that, while principles and high-sounding battle cries on social media are all well and good, even a modest stand on the right side of an issue might mean the difference between a weekly paycheck and a monthly social security check. In its own way, this inflexible stance is every bit as poisonous and pernicious as the behavior of the elitist NFB power structure who seeks to suppress their open critics.
I know a good number of people who were and are in positions of leadership within the NFB. Most of them are good, honest people. Some are even victims of sexual violence. They want to make a difference, but they fear for their financial and professional security. If people on either side of the issue cannot understand the nuance that accompanies this gray area, then they have surrendered too much of themselves to their cause of choice.
I am sorry to say that I have been aware of sexual misconduct and have not done my part to root it out. I have paid for my lack of principle. I will continue to take the consequences. All I can do now is to stand up and try to speak the truth in order that future students at our training centers and members of our movement can go forth in relative safety.
My preceding thoughts on this issue serve as an explanation, not an excuse. Everyone inevitably faces his/her moment of truth. I faced my own personal and professional test and I failed. But the situation on the ground has changed drastically in the past 20 years. The #MarchingTogether movement has forced the NFB to acknowledge systemic problems in the ranks of its culture. Everyone is now well aware of the problem. Going forward, many people will be forced to take a stand. In the meantime, the leadership appears to be taking substantive steps toward meaningful change. Only time will tell whether or not they are truly in earnest.