On Feb. 2, the Associated Press reported that Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, will publish a memoir. Slated to come out in 2019, her work aims to “provide survivors across the spectrum of sexual abuse a road map for healing that helps them understand that the ‘me too’ movement is more about triumph than trauma and that our wounds, though they may never fully heal, can also be the key to our survival.” Time magazine named Burke and other activists as Person of the Year for 2017 for breaking the silence surrounding sexual harassment.
It’s no secret why a graduate student like me at one point might decide against reporting an incident of sexual harassment. I feared losing access to gainful employment in a highly competitive industry. I lacked faith in a reporting process that demands an intense amount of emotional sacrifice. In the fashion of patron-client ties, I felt beholden to the committees that have power over my teaching load, my pay and the direction of my early career.
On April 11, 2016, Erin Bennett, a graduate student in the department of comparative literature, and I stood in front of Dwinelle Hall to hold a press conference. That morning, we lodged an administrative complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing against the University of California for mishandling of sexual harassment perpetrated by a faculty member. We discovered the slow and opaque policies for investigating claims — processes that are disproportionately stacked against students seeking institutional transparency and timely disciplinary sanctions.
Less than six months after the press conference, Erin and I were served a defamation lawsuit initiated by the faculty member.
The act of reporting is a courageous move on its own. Yet no one should have to experience how morally discouraging the entire campus reporting process was. When asked to recount events of sexual misconduct over and over in front of administrators, faculty and attorneys, I questioned the merit of my efforts. I grieved the loss of time. It took more than two years after I filed my first complaint with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination for the campus to finalize a decision regarding the faculty member’s employment. The faculty member was dismissed from the campus in May 2017. His defamation suit, however, is ongoing.
What seemed like a war of attrition also seemed like yet another systematic roadblock to receiving an education in an inclusive environment. I wonder what my experience at Berkeley would be like if I were a heterosexual white cisgender male graduate student. I have wondered this many times in the past three years. When I’ve raised this curiosity with faculty mentors, they have insisted that I focus on the situated intellectual position I bring to the academy as a second-generation Philippine immigrant from Los Angeles and as a child of parents who left a country besieged by a dictator. They do not deny, however, that the institutional experience is intrinsically different.
The fascinating thing about trauma is how accurately the body remembers. My experience of harassment halted any physical momentum I had then as a second-year graduate student. But it was the campus that brought me to my knees.
At this very moment, the fight to expose cultures of sexual harassment and to reform systems of reporting is a triumph, as Burke observes. The fight will not be won through individual acts of martyrdom, catchy hashtags or lawsuits alone. From my experience at Berkeley, the fight is the collective work of individuals and organizations stepping in where the institution has failed.
Tyann Sorrell, Nicole Hemenway, Jolisa Wilfong, Eva Hagberg Fisher, Joanna Ong and the many anonymous complainants at Berkeley demonstrate unflinching resolve to fight. We are supported by undergraduate students, who have organized symposiums in the past several years to articulate more clearly the intersections behind this kind of oppression.
We are assisted by legal teams, such as the Oakland Law Collaborative and the First Amendment Project, that provide services to those of us unable to finance legal representation in the face of frivolous lawsuits. We collaborate with community organizations, such as GABRIELA SF, so we never assume this fight is exclusive to Berkeley, to universities, to the academy.
We stand by graduate students in the UC Student-Workers Union and the College of Environmental Design, who have organized rallies, crafted demand letters and taken on this problem as theirs. We are heard by faculty mentors, who have used their positions of institutional power to demand answers where answers were due.
Surviving this Herculean fight has been and always will be collective.
I write this op-ed an ocean away from the Berkeley campus. As I recollect my experiences over the past three years, my breathing shallows. A familiar arm pain resurfaces. I am reminded of how quickly my body responds to traumatic wounds. Wounds that, as Burke rightly points out, may never fully heal.
In January 2017, my graduate adviser, South and Southeast Asian studies professor Jeffrey Hadler, passed away after a brief battle with cancer. He was the definition of an advocate. His own politics on gender and race shifted as he witnessed my experience. Toward the end of my last official office hour visit with him, I remarked, “We’ll come out as better humans at the end of all this.” To which he replied: “Probably not. But at least we’ll be standing on the right side of history.”
I still believe him.