For a long time after I left my abuser, the range of responses from friends and family included, among other things: (1) surprise, because they had no idea anything was going on; (2) incredulity, because since they never saw or knew anything was going on they wanted me to give definitive and explicit (and often triggering) proof of what happened; (3) blaming, because they questioned whether I did anything to cause the abuse; and (4) shaming, because they thought I should have left sooner than I did.
I am reliving those experiences right now.
For those of you who have yet to make the connection, racism is a form of abuse: living and working in racist environments is akin to having to live and work with your abuser, day in and day out. And for those of you who may find this hard to believe, I have been working for and with an abuser for the last two and a half years.
On February 28th, 2017, I was asked to a meeting with my direct supervisor, the General Secretary (GenSec) of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), and the financial Controller, who at the time was taking on some of the office’s human resources functions. Our previous Human Resources Coordinator position had been laid down while the organization’s leadership examined new ways to fulfill PYM’s shifting needs.
In this meeting, the GenSec informed me that PYM was undergoing some organizational restructuring: some positions were going to be eliminated, one was going to be reduced, and that mine was the one that was going to be reduced. She stated effective April 1st, 2017, the Executive Assistant position would be reduced to 60% time and be solely responsible for supporting the GenSec. All my other administrative responsibilities would be redistributed to other staff, and the Office Assistant would no longer be reporting to me. My position would also therefore be reduced to a lower pay band, from Band 3 to Band 2 (effectively reducing my hourly pay rate to less than what I made when I first started at PYM three years ago).
I’ve since done additional calculations: the decrease in time combined with the decrease in pay rate means that I will be losing 45% of my income; annualized, I will now be at 55% time when compared to my previous earnings.
The GenSec then made a second proposal, stating that out of care for me, she could also offer me the option of a severance package that would give me some time to transition away from PYM while I look for other work. The offer was for six months paid leave, plus benefits, plus up to six months uncontested unemployment compensation. The GenSec and Controller asked me to indicate my interest in the severance package within the next three days (by Friday, March 3rd). Neither the new position’s details nor the severance offer were given to me in writing. Only upon my emailing to ask about caveats and restrictions was I told that all terms would be explained in context and in writing the following Monday.
However, by that Friday, I declined the severance package, in writing and via email to the GenSec and the Controller, not wanting to be tied to restrictive legal conditions impeding my rights.
I did not receive a response that day.
A few hours later, an all-staff email was sent by the GenSec stating that the staffing changes she expected to share that day would instead be shared on Monday. In another directional change, the staffing changes were instead shared with staff on Saturday afternoon, then published to the PYM website and Facebook.
I did not receive a response to my declination email until the middle of the following week.
In the February 28th meeting, the GenSec informed me that should I choose the position reduction, I should consider the 28th as a thirty-day notice before the changes took effect. Since then, I have found out there is no such time requirement in Pennsylvania. However, February 28th does have one other date-related significance though: it is exactly one day past the 300-day time limit since the last, major abusive tirade I endured from the GenSec.
And of special note: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) grants Pennsylvanians working in businesses with 15 or more employees, 300 days to file a complaint.
February 28th, 2017 was Day 301.
Here are the facts of the day.
- It is May 3rd, 2016
- My workload is very full with multiple daily and upcoming projects due in the coming weeks.
- The GenSec emails me about another project she wants done also within the coming weeks.
- I respond via email to ask her if we could talk about it, suggesting that perhaps another department could take it on.
- The GenSec does not respond.
- Later that day, I verbally ask the GenSec about it in her office.
- The GenSec starts to get visibly angry; her face is red and her words are loud and aggressive.
- I try to assert my point but I am triggered, panicky, intimidated and scared as this is not the first time she has reacted this way toward me.
- The GenSec continues to get even more visibly and verbally angry.
- I try reasoning with the GenSec; that does not work.
- I try placating the GenSec; that eventually works.
- I leave the GenSec’s office scared and triggered; I cry in the bathroom.
- Later I document everything in writing as best as I could remember from the incident and email it to the GenSec.
- I document during the PYM workday so I won’t forget details like I have for the other abusive incidents that I did not write down.
- The other times were always when I was alone with the GenSec and behind closed doors; I would often forget details in the days after.
- I tell the GenSec that what happened was abusive.
- I am still placating the GenSec in my email.
- I ask the GenSec to give some attention to the Problem Woman of Color handout I attached.
- I tell the GenSec that what happened is based in racism, and give her one example of how.
- I tell the GenSec that I hoped her reading my email would impact how she treated me going forward.
All the above can be corroborated in writing.
- The GenSec responds via email.
- The second last sentence in her brief email reads: “My second takeaway continues to be gratitude for your finding a way to be compassionate in the midst of the storm I created yesterday.”
Days 3 through 300
In the intervening days, there were many ups and downs, perhaps, in all honesty, more downs than ups. I constantly felt like I was walking on eggshells, constantly in the no-mans-land of trying to assert myself and being scared shitless.
Later that May, we had an all-staff anti-racism retreat where many painful truths were revealed. The GenSec and I, on the strong urging from our anti-racism training facilitators, attended a dyad intensive to break the cycle of abuse. I had hope that the intensive was successful in creating new positive patterns between the GenSec and me. At summer sessions, Jennie and I co-facilitated our workshop at Annual Sessions.
In the fall, and as staff, all of us recommitted ourselves to the anti-racism work. The work was very difficult: there were many times nothing moved forward because the GenSec, as the primary decision maker, took significant time making a decision or acting on something. Micro/macro-aggressions toward me (and other people of color on staff) continued to happen; some I asserted myself on, and some I did not bother because I was too exhausted.
Trump became president.
By the end of 2016, I was completely worn out physically and mentally, and felt I was near collapse. I took immediate time off and depleted my already low sick/vacation time to almost zero (my paid time-off bank was already low because of the last two years of health consequences I had been increasingly dealing with because of workplace/institutional racism).
By January 2017, I spoke to the GenSec about how unsafe and unsupported I felt doing anti-racism work within the PYM office, and reiterated, as I had done on several previous occasions, the health burdens I was shouldering.
By February 2017, I started to feel increasingly uncomfortable at work, as if something was increasingly ‘off’ in the professional relationship between the GenSec and me. I sent an email to the Clerk of the Yearly Meeting, the GenSec and the financial Controller/acting HR staff-person, to ask for a mediated discussion about our professional working relationship, and because there were several things about which I felt aggrieved, including questions around improper wage underpayments for 2014 Sessions, and health insurance cost/burden disparity. I felt I was well within my staff rights per the Staff Personnel Manual to ask for a mediation.
No one responded until eight days later, on February 23rd.
In the response I received, my assertions were shut down and among the things I was told: “Although this response may not be what you wanted to see, we do ask that you accept it and help us move forward with the important work of PYM.”
I was not offered the option of a mediation.
On Friday, February 24th, I was physically sick from all the stress: migraine, panic attacks, stomach pain. I left work early and went home. I don’t know why, but something told me to check the EEOC website, and it was there I saw the 300-day time deadline. I frantically calculated the days from the last tirade from Christie, knowing that was the incident of most significance. It was day 297. I pushed myself to go back downtown to the EEOC office, out of fear that I may have miscalculated and that Monday would be too late, and I completed a complaint questionnaire. I returned on Monday, February 27th, to complete my intake interview; Day 300.
After Day 301
I continue to be under enormous amounts of stress. The health conditions I incurred over these last 2+ years continue to be aggravated. Sleep evades me or can be sporadic at night. Stomach pain comes and goes. As do panic attack symptoms. As does crying. I see a therapist every Wednesday.
I have a core group of warrior women supporting and protecting me. Members from my meeting and our meeting clerk have offered support. Various f/Friends have offered support and comforting words. But invariably, I am forced to go through iterations of surprise-incredulity-blaming-shaming. Most people don’t even realize they are doing it.
Surprise: I am shocked this has been happening. I had no idea this was going on. Everything between you two looked/looks fine. That is a classic response by both the abuser and the target: the abuser plays nice to escape public scrutiny especially if s/he has had a previously egregious incident; the target is compliant out of fear of not wanting to anger the abuser. In addition, the target feels responsible for protecting the abuser’s image in the public’s eye, which is especially compounded by others demanding the same- ‘you should be always support the GenSec in public.’
Incredulity: What kinds of things happened? Can you give me specific examples? Are you sure those were microaggressions? How do you know that was racist? I don’t even know where to begin with this one (even though most of this post was a “proof” post). Just trust and understand that people of color know when something is racist… and if you are white, your constant asking for proof is likely coming from racist conditioning to disbelieve people of color.
Blaming: Are you sure you didn’t do anything to cause this? What was your work performance like? This can also be compounded if the abuser is manipulating others by telling them the target is the problem-maker, or a ‘difficult’ person whom they have to put up with. For the record, because I know some of you already asked this in your head: my work performance has been great. I have never been reprimanded for work performance in any way; if anything, I have several pieces of written evidence thanking and commending me for my work. My work is done well, usually early, and accurately.
Shaming: This one is especially complicated because I have not left the abusive situation. Loving, well-meaning friends often ask now: Why don’t you just consider taking the severance offer and leaving so you don’t have to deal with any of this? I feel the sting of it every time it is asked, even though I know they don’t mean it that way. I know they care and are deeply worried about my health and safety. Why wouldn’t I just take the severance and leave the obviously hostile environment? I would have at least six months to figure out new, next steps, right?
Yes, but no.
When I left my abuser over a decade ago now, I gave up a lot to escape with my life and to keep my sons safe. I had to rebuild my life almost from scratch, working my way up as best I could as a single parent without a college degree, in a world that often demands tertiary-level credentials regardless of your years of experience. Rebuilding your life under those circumstances is mercilessly hard work, and even now, I am still way behind the curve.
Why should I, as a highly skilled, competent and intelligent employee, appreciated by many of my colleagues and community, respectful, helpful, loving, genuine… be the one who must rebuild again? Why should I be the one who receives a mere six months to “transition to new work.” I (and my sons) lose out on being fully vested in PYM’s pension, which would have happened at the five-year mark. I lose out on working with some of the most compassionate and thoughtful colleagues I have ever had the privilege of working with. I lose out on a previously-enjoyable, service-led place to work, with great benefits.
I lose out on even more things tangible and intangible.
Not because I did anything wrong, but because I tried to do things with truth and with integrity.
At work, I have already packed up almost all my personal effects, knowing that any day could be my last day. If I’m given short notice, I want to be able to leave carrying my remaining things in one bag. I recognize the abuse-survivor in that type of planning.
In another space, I talk about the likelihood that in the coming weeks/months, the adversarial responses—especially to deny/blame/retaliate/target—will intensify against me, especially in legal ways. I know this to be true, as PYM hires lawyers for the GenSec to defend against my EEOC complaint. I am immensely worried about what will come my way from those actions. In no small part, I imagine writing and publishing this will get me terminated… and I lose everything anyway.
But I write all of this regardless, because I have nothing to hide, because I can’t live this lie anymore, because I am telling verifiable truth.
… and because I want to be free.
I hope you do recognize the truth in my words, and I hope in them you can see further evidence for the call to action that was first sounded at the end of PYM’s Annual Sessions 2015:
“What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?”
If you want to learn a little more about the psychology behind racism and trauma, specifically the effects of microaggressions, here is one link you can check out: The Link Between Racism and PTSD.
Edit: I had been in communication with the Clerk of PYM, asking about mediation options as part of a possible grievance process, as early as May 2016, and following the May 3rd, 2016 incident between the GenSec and me. Because we were heading into the all-staff anti-racism retreat the following week, I decided to wait (and felt I needed to wait). Then I placed hope in the subsequently, proposed dyad intensive. In the months following, even as things started to deteriorate, I kept trying to hold on to that hope… until I just could not anymore. But this time, in February 2017, my request for mediation was not allowed to move forward.
Edit#2 Regarding salary disparity and salary audit: In early 2016, I began advocating for myself around the concern that my job description was not comprehensively reflective of my actual work, minimizing major areas where I had responsibility, and omitting some areas, such as the supervision of a direct report. Unlike other PYM positions, my year-long direct supervision of an employee did not merit inclusion in my job description, nor additional compensation. (It is then strange to me that removal of a direct report is now being used as one reason for salary reduction.) Later in 2016, I also started advocating for my direct report (the office assistant), asking for an increase in her compensation, because it appeared to me that upon examination of PYM’s salary bands that she was being underpaid. In addition, I raised concern about whether all PYM employees of color were being underpaid, or being originally hired at the lowest end of our respective salary bands, and if that was being done disparately in comparison to white employees. I strongly advocated for a salary audit. As revealed by the announced staffing changes, the GenSec discusses the salary adjustments but neglects to mention that the staff person constantly advocating for these adjustments, was the staff person whose salary was cut by 45%.