What CASS Means to Me Part 2: We Can Make a Difference

In my last post I described how I became part of CASS — mainly as a supporter of RightRides. For the first two years, I mainly was learning about street harassment and learning how to be a board member. Then, in the summer of 2011, I found a way to put my advocacy and organizing skills to work to launch what would grow into a multi-year campaign to end harassment on DC’s public transit system.

That summer, we at CASS identified a disturbing new trend with harassment on Metro. We had previously heard about the pervasive sexual harassment on Metro by other passengers and brought our concerns to WMATA’s leadership, but to no avail. Now, we were hearing about Metro employees such as bus drivers who were harassing passengers. We again tried to get a response from Metro but again were unsuccessful. I mentioned that WMATA was having its performance oversight hearing in March of 2012 and that we could bring these issues before DC Council.

We continued to get no response from Metro, and we prepared to assemble a group to testify before DC Council at WMATA’s Performance Oversight Hearing. It was not easy. I worked with then board member Holly Kearl and our unpaid ED and founder, Chai Shenoy, to prepare for the hearing. We sent out one email blast, but we couldn’t find anyone else to testify. We talked to many people personally, and while we knew folks who had been harassed on the metro system, we couldn’t get anyone to share their stories.

And I understand it. Sharing such a personal and traumatic experience can be incredibly difficult. But we also got a strong vibe that a lot of folks believed that nothing was going to change. Here is a comment from our old Holla Back DC! blog from a post about a Metro bus driver encouraging sexual harassment:

Good luck getting action taken on this situation. Since WMATA is involved, and almost assuredly the driver is a member of the union, I highly doubt anything will happen. It is sickening, but to my mind the only way you’ll get WMATA to do anything is to ……. contact the press. – Jaded

Still, we refused to give up. We sent out another email blast to recruit more witnesses to testify. We also prepared for the possibility that it would just be the three of us. Chai would give data and anecdotal evidence from our blog as well as sharing her personal experience with sexual harassment on Metro. Holly would discuss what had been done on metro systems globally to show that PSA campaigns and training employees could make a difference. I would testify about my sister being groped on Metro and my experience as a bystander witnessing harassment on Metro. We were ready to make it work.

About a week before the hearing, something truly wonderful happened. Three women came forward to testify about their experiences on Metro (one more witness prepared written testimony), and they backed up the reports we’d received on our blog. One person testified about being sexually assaulted on Metro and then having Metro employees laugh at her when she tried to report it; another person testified about being harassed by a Metro bus driver; and another testified about seeing public masturbation.

Even with these powerful testimonies, we didn’t know if we could move WMATA to make changes.

With support from DC Council and local media outlets that covered the issue, our team was welcomed to the first meeting with WMATA where they agreed to pursue all of our recommendations: a PSA campaign, training for all their employees, and an online portal where people could report incidents of public sexual harassment and assault on their system.

Now, four years later, we are working with WMATA on a new campaign to encourage bystanders to get involved in reporting, and we even worked together this year with WMATA and Stop Street Harassment to conduct the most comprehensive study of sexual harassment on public transit of any U.S. city.

I have found that with some of us who do social justice work, there comes a point where there is a temptation to give up. Many of us come to this work with the intention of changing the world – of making a difference. Yet, there is always going to be evil in the world. There are always going to be systems working against the good. When I led the fight against adult literacy cuts, many folks were pretty beaten by the indifference they encountered from city leaders. It took some convincing for some of them to fight back. Similarly, as described above, some of us didn’t think that Metro was going to do anything about the sexual harassment on its system. But we fought anyway.

What I learned from this experience, what CASS taught me, is that we have to believe. We have to have faith that what we do is worth doing even when it looks like things aren’t working. We have to refuse the temptation to be cynical and bitter. I am not naive, but I am not cynical either. We might not be able to completely change the world, but we can make a difference. I believe in CASS. I believe that we can make this city safer.

We already have.

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