As one of only two women on the City Council in Newark, I have been following the growing #MeToo movement with great interest.
I am thrilled that so many women finally feel comfortable enough to come forward and tell their story of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful men.
At the same time, I am also disheartened that so few of those coming forward have been women of color. Whether it be Hollywood actresses, high-profile broadcasters and news personalities, or corporate executives, the vast majority of the victims portrayed in the media have been well-to-do white women.
I can certainly sympathize with any woman who has been the victim of sexual harassment, but I am especially concerned about women like those I represent in the Central Ward of Newark. As an elected representative, I feel it’s my obligation to give a voice to the voiceless.
I am speaking for countless women who have never appeared in a movie or on television or worked in corporate suite.
The women I represent work in government buildings, police and fire departments, schools, hospitals, fast food restaurants, retail stores and non-profit organizations. And they too are the victims of sexual harassment just as much, if not more, than movie stars and corporate executives. But they have been in the shadows of the #MeToo movement.
The reason is that so many of women of color who are at the bottom of the economic ladder don’t have options. If they lose one job, the next may be hard to find. The men who control these jobs know this and use it to their advantage.
About a year ago, a city employee complained to me that she was being sexually harassed by another employee. I accompanied her to file a complaint with the state Division of Civil Rights. In order to complete her file, the employee was told she needed to supply evidence of the harassment. In this case, a transcript of her text messages was needed. However, the cell phone was in an aunt’s name and she needed her aunt’s permission to get the transcript.
But the aunt, also an employee of the city, refused to give permission. The aunt feared losing her own job with the city for helping her niece. “You aren’t the first woman to have to provide sexual favors for your job and you won’t be the last,” the aunt told her niece.
This attitude is pervasive in our community and further victimizes women who are brave enough to come forward.
When Dannisha Clyburn alleged that she was sexually harassed by an employee and a relative of an elected official, she received support and love from women and men of the greater Newark community but was also viciously attacked, and received threats to do bodily harm to her.
“So depressed right now,” she wrote three days after posting a video on her Facebook page, where she made the accusations. “I see why people are afraid to say anything. The phone calls, inboxes, texts, threats, people calling you a liar asking why you didn’t say anything sooner.”
As Oprah Winfrey said during her speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award on the Golden Globes Sunday night, “For too long women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak the truth to the power of those [brutally powerful] men. But their time is up.”
Indeed, their time is up. A new day is on the horizon in Newark. I’m sponsoring legislation to make sexual harassment illegal in Newark. Yes, believe it or not, in 2018, we do not have a law on the books that actually makes sexual harassment illegal in our city government.
My legislation would also prohibit the city from covering up sexual harassment by making it illegal to enter into confidentiality agreements when settling sexual harassment claims, whether they are processed in the City’s Legal Department or immediately sent to an outside law firm that is contracted to do any legal work for the city.
In addition, my legislation calls for the creation of a five-member independent task force to be proposedby the mayor with the consent of the members of the City Council to investigate sexual harassment allegations brought by city employees.
I hope these small changes will make it easier for city employees to come forward and tell their stories. But I also share in Oprah Winfrey’s dream that there will come to a day when nobody will ever have to say #MeToo again.
Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins is a councilwoman representing Newark’s Central Ward.