One of the things that attracted me to this organization was the passion of the Board, and the compassion of the staff and volunteers for the survivors of sexual assault, and for its nationally known counseling model, its work of advocacy, outreach and education. The organization served all persons, not women alone, and all ages. I was invited to join as one of the first wave of “diversity” recruits to a board that had never before even considered a male Director in its three decades of service to the community of sexual assault and rape survivors.
During the recruitment process and throughout the Board orientation, I remained impressed with the sheer immensity of the mission, the conceptualization of which would have required the radical mindset of a determined and visionary group of founders. It was a call to arms, and a seemingly withering challenge on the face of it, perhaps the largest social mission I’d ever encountered in a relatively small nonprofit, “To empower people to create a world safe from sexual violence and oppression.”
Yet, there I stood, before the senior leadership, having presented a scenario that, in my mind, mirrored the organizational vision, but a scenario that was being rejected out of hand by those commissioned to carry out the mission.
I queried, “Does everyone feel this way? Anyone else?”
Gloria glared intently around the room to manage the responses. A few muffled but emphatic affirmatives uttered, no one even hinted at a different point of view.
“Gloria,” I said, tentatively probing at the apparent alpha dog, “Help me understand what it is that makes the scenario unrealistic in your eyes.” I carefully avoided echoing her use of ‘ridiculous’ even as I felt the carpet beneath me turning into eggshells.
“As long as there are men, there will be rape,” she snapped, evoking a huzzah that seemed to resonate through the floor of the small room. “We can’t even entertain that kind of nonsense. Its delusional.”
“But Gloria, even as you’re saying that, I’m looking at the lapel button on your sweater. WIAR has printed thousands, and distributed them all over the region.” She didn’t so much as glance down at the large bold red letters on white background, knowing full well what it said. “END RAPE NOW,” mirroring the organization’s Sexual Assault Hotline Number, 1-877-END-RAPE.
“It’s a great slogan — but that’s all. Its for morale, rallying the organization around a concept.”
“Gloria, you’re saying you don’t believe rape can or will ever end?”
“How can you even ask that, Rob? You know men better than I do. You tell us. Can you honestly give us anything in your experience that makes you believe it’s at all possible?”
My unequivocal answer instantly rose to my mind’s surface, and it stunned even me. I had never articulated it before, nor had I ever thought through the logical consequences of my belief, particularly as it related to this organization. Until that moment, my untested assumption was that these women – and in fact, most women — shared my belief, or at least seriously entertained the hope of an end to rape.
As deliberate as I could make it look, I put the marker down on the ledge of the easel, moved away from the flip chart and onto one of the Queen Anne chairs nearest Gloria, back against one wall of the homelike conference room, buying time as I thought through how to respond…and how not to respond. The scenario and the reaction to it had surfaced an issue that no one was prepared to discuss, least of all the facilitator, but one I felt compelled to pursue as a board member. The values statement assignment was clearly finished for the evening, so it seemed. I looked Bridgette’s way for permission to veer off course, and got her slight but approving nod. She wasn’t going to save me.
Where my next question came from I still don’t know, but I felt myself sinking into the deafeningly crackling eggshells as it formed. Looking past a stern-faced Gloria to the full room, it emerged. “Which do you think is the worse crime, a rape, or a lynching?”
Gloria broke their stunned silence with a retort. “You can’t compare the two! One is a crime of prejudice and hatred, the other is a crime of power and oppression.”
“I’ll concede for now that there may be differences in the drivers, Gloria, though it could be argued that those distinctions are more subtle than substantive. That said, both crimes were still being committed in America when this organization was founded. Today, one is not.”
“But blacks are still killed and discriminated against out of prejudice and hatred. That hasn’t stopped.”
“No, it hasn’t, and women are likewise killed and discriminated against for the same reasons. But, Gloria, the specific crime of rope lynching saw its last official victim in 1981.”
I chose not to press the group for an answer on the matter of relative gravity or magnitude, asking instead, “How many in this room are familiar with the work of Ida B. Wells?” To my surprise, every hand went up, and none of them black.
“If we measure just from her work starting in the 1890s, it took about 90 years for the crime of lynching to disappear from the crime stats in America, about a full century, and slightly longer counting from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Could the same thing be done with the crime of rape?” And would it take a century to accomplish?
© Robert D. Jones 2013, All Rights Reserved
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