I was feeling anything but safe, but I was sitting at the kid’s table at my Mom’s church with my daughters, using watercolors on construction paper, painting the word “SAFE.”
My cell phone started receiving text messages from my boss, Marco Gonzalez.
We had recently met with Irene McCormack. Donna Frye sent her our way, and we heard from her firsthand how terrible the working environment was with then-Mayor Bob Filner; how he was verbally and physically sexually harassing her and others on San Diego City staff.
After meeting with Irene, Marco, Donna, and Cory Briggs called for Filner’s resignation. He responded with a vague video apology. We all knew it was his desperate, Tom Shepard PR-team-attempt to avoid accountability and continue forward with no change to protect the women in the Mayor’s office and broader community.
Irene then decided she would allow her name to be used, but despite her respect and credibility among local media, Marco knew the naysayers would immediately attempt to discredit her.
I went out in the quiet church parking lot to speak with Marco. His voice was full of grief and urgency, saying Irene needed others, even anonymously, to share their stories of Filner’s harassment to bolster her account. “It’s completely up to you, Sara. But Irene needs you.”
I definitely didn’t feel safe.
I went home from church, closed myself in, and, trembling, began typing my account that would be read aloud the next day.
Following the press event, my summer was spent with echoes of Donna Frye’s voice in my head: “…jamming his tongue down her throat…” and fears that national media crews would find me out, intercept my kids walking home from school, and heavy with deep shame that I ever got myself into the situation. Ashamed that I thought I could be an effective political and environmental activist on my own merits.
It was the first time I had stepped out from under the umbrella of my workplace, volunteering for a candidate, co-hosting a fundraiser, meeting with him for coffee post-election (supposedly to discuss the Pure Water project and transit and wondering if he was going to offer me a job (which I would decline)). In the short months following, it became clear he was just trying to get laid. I felt like a fool, and I didn’t want to anger him and threaten our clients with City business, so I tried to tactfully back away from his flirtations.
The last time I saw him in person was at a fundraiser, I think for New Leaders Council. He quickly trapped me beside him in the crowded bar by wrapping his arm around me, aggressively yanking my body next to his, and said to someone near us: “She’s a liar. She’s a pretty little liar, but she’s a liar.” I awkwardly laughed, maneuvered away without saying anything, and found my friends.
I felt so stupid to think I could navigate engaging with a clever, dirty old man who was charming on the one hand, was shaking up City norms, but who was clearly sizing up every woman he encountered for her vulnerabilities. Donna rejected my internal narrative, replacing it with: The only one to blame for Bob Filner’s actions is Bob Filner.
But I didn’t actually SEE it as true until yesterday. I have been carrying shame all these years that I could have risked my boss’s work with the City.
This personal history is why I have a quick tendency to believe people who have complaints of sexual harassment against powerful business leaders and elected officials. I witnessed it. I experienced it. For months after the initial allegations against Filner became known, I spoke to several women who would not go public about their encounters, but who wanted to call and thank Marco for his strong voice.
The four of them: Donna, Marco, Irene, and Cory – they were a force field protecting dozens of women who did not dare face public scorn and ridicule by telling their stories of victimization by Filner. It took a toll on them.
I realized later that I spent those months with full-blown PTSD, nightmares, fretful sleep, and raw nerves. I would review every latest news update, glued to my phone, terrified my name would end up in print, scared that I would be discredited because some Filner loyalists were making up crazy conspiracy theories about Marco’s involvement, and they would say I was making up my claims or that I deserved Filner’s aggressive attempts.
This weekend’s Roosevelt Dinner was amazing. Women bonded together to raise unified voices calling for internal accountability within the Party. Nora E. Vargas used her awards acceptance speech to powerfully and unequivocally call for reform. Several of us wore buttons and stickers declaring we would no longer be silent on issues of sexual harassment.
I came home last night and cried my eyes out in grief.
After carrying doubt and shame that my first efforts to engage in local politics and policy on my own could have jeopardized my boss’s relationship with the City, yesterday I realized: I was capable of holding policy conversations back then.
My voice advocating for smart environmental and justice-related goals had merit.
But one of the most powerful men in San Diego at the time sexualized me and tried to make me think my compliance would make or break policy issues.
I was terrified. It spilled into every aspect of my life.
I want better for the beautiful, brilliant, full-of-ideas-and-passion women coming up in the ranks behind me. Those who are SO equipped to make change. And the gay men in our community who are similarly accosted by powerful gay Dem men: they should not be hindered nor made to feel unsafe.
Something I have stuffed deep inside is pushing forward, and maybe it’s because I was wearing a button that said: “I Will Not Be Quiet.”
I was distributing buttons and stickers with the same message prior to and during the event.
I offered one to Brett Fisher. With her was Lori Saldana, who challenged, “Sara, why aren’t you offering one to me?”
I replied: “Lori, do you WANT one?”
She retorted: “Why WOULDN’T I?”
I reluctantly gave her a sticker. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. She smirked at me and put it on.
In the unspoken split-second exchanges, I knew what was happening.
It was like so many times abusive men have asked for concessions ranging from the seemingly innocuous, “Hey! Why don’t you smile? You look so much better when you smile” to other manipulative microaggressions that clearly elicit responses beyond consent.
I felt like shit. But thought: Why did it matter to HER to put me on the spot? Clearly what we are doing matters, even though she is siding with a man who my friends have told me sexually harassed, accosted, wrongfully terminated, and retaliated against them when they didn’t comply with his unprofessional demands. Even though she has said more than twenty survivors of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful San Diego men are “politicizing” their claims.
Whatever. She knows the actions we are taking to create change she only talks about is also politically appropriate for her as a candidate to seemingly support.
What we are doing is indeed powerful.
During Nora E. Vargas’s awards acceptance speech, saying how too little has changed since her initial Democratic party activism the year Anita Hill told her story, saying we must work together to make this change at long last, I cried.
As Nora spoke, and through my several conversations with brilliant women and men throughout the evening, the reality sunk in:
It was never my fault.
I should have been able to advocate for policy I cared about while feeling safe, and being safe from unwanted touching.
I did not jeopardize my boss’s political capital, nor our clients’ interests, because the Mayor was attempting to extract sex.
That wasn’t my fault.
This is why we are doing this. Thank you all for standing alongside me. I love you, and our movement.