Rebekah Kirkman

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‘We Are Not Voiceless,’ on display at Waller Gallery, draws connections between the politically active and the everyman

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Credit: Joaquín Esteban Jutt

Teenagerish handwritten quotes from Huey P. Newton, Mae Jemison, Desmond Tutu and other well-known visionaries and activists decorate the walls of Waller Gallery among artist Joaquín Esteban Jutt’s prints, drawings, sculpture and screen-based pieces. The quotes peel back some of the layers in the artist’s work, showcasing points of inspiration, sketches and preliminary process snapshots along with finished pieces. But more urgently, “We Are Not Voiceless,” the gallery’s third show in its Barclay space, places highly visible political figures and activists next to the everyman: the person scrunched up across from you, asleep in his subway seat.

Aayesha Aijaz, community organizer

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Community organizer Aayesha Aijaz. Photo courtesy of Aayesha Aijaz.

Aayesha Aijaz started teaching at the age of 14 in an all-girls Islamic center and says that she “always had a positive working environment.”

Shortly after turning 18, she “entered the ‘real world’ workforce” and much of its attendant ugliness.

“As a restaurant hostess,” Aijaz says, “I experienced multiple customers, sometimes once but more often than not repeating customers, insinuate the same thing: Money in exchange for attention.” Some asked her to deliver food to their car, promising “large sums of cash.” Others asked for company as they sat down to eat, and when she refused she said they would act confused. “This happened so frequently that I chalked it up to a restaurant hostess workplace hazard,” Aijaz says. “After being followed to my car multiple times, I decided the restaurant business wasn’t for me.”

She moved on to tutoring at a local place. “I truly believed that in an academic setting people would be less demanding of my body,” she says. “It did lessen the frequency of harassment on a daily basis but it still happened.”

Students—mostly ones who were older men—asked for her number, and when she declined, they would insist it was for needing “further tutorial services,” she says. Some students would call the center to find out when Aijaz would be there. Another would sit outside of the office and stare at her. “The same student ended up following me to class and would wait by my car when I got out around 8 p.m. in the winter time,” Aijaz says. “A different student who was persistent on the idea of us studying together, slapped down a tightly wrapped bundle of 50’s and asked me to come over to study. I walked out.”

“After multiple incidents of blackmailing and stalking, I started to ponder my discomfort with the way we as a community are conditioned to handle harassment or assault,” Aijaz says. “The first question anyone would ask me at work when I would tell them something disturbing is, ‘Do you want to file a report?’ This sometimes meant including the police and I was not comfortable with that. So what is the alternative?”
This thinking led her to consider community accountability, and what the process could look like. With her group Strvnge Encounters, Aijaz creates spaces for healing and has hosted community accountability workshops. She has also worked with the collective Baltimore Community Accountability Project, which supports survivors and others interested in accountability processes.

Aijaz stresses the importance of “trusting the process,” and admits that the process is often highly complicated. She has yet to see an example of community accountability, in the context of intimate partner violence or sexual assault, actually work.

Many open-ended questions abound in these workshops: What does it look like when the process is actually finished? Is it possible for us to really accept the perpetrator back into the community without judgment? Is it fair to ask survivors to accept that person back?

The other thing, Aijaz notes, is the often-frustrating but simple fact that change takes time; it takes far more than a few meetings for a person to grasp the ways they’ve abused their power. “It takes a long time for that person themselves to recondition themselves, to truthfully recondition themselves—they can pretend to—but it’s going to take a lot of years,” she says.

The ultimate goal is to reckon with abuse from different angles: There are the individual examples of abuse, which often have links to larger structural, societal problems. “You’re trying to stop it but you’re also trying to uproot it,” Aijaz says. “I think if people got together and did the work and put in the time, and men put in the time to have their own group sessions or just talk to other people. I never see two dudes sitting in a coffee shop talking about this—ever!”

Accountability can (and arguably should) start hyper-locally, too. Aijaz recounts a recent trip to India, where her cousins—boys in their late teens and early 20s—were asking her about the organizing that she does. One of the boys asked his sister to get up and get some water, and Aijaz told him that he could get it himself; he was right next to the fridge. Those little things matter. “Within 15 days I saw their mindset changing a little bit, and being more aware of what they were doing,” she says. “They”re not changing completely—as long as they were conscious of what they were doing, that’s a big change.”

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Abbey Parrish, curator, creative strategist and former service industry worker

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Curator and creative strategist Abbey Parrish. Photo by Kelvin Bulluck.

Abbey Parrish has worked in the food service industry off and on since she was 16. She has an array of stories about on-the-job harassment: There was the time, while she was working at a restaurant when she was in college, when a delivery driver told her in detail about how he wanted to “eat out of” her belly button; or, before that, while working at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks, a regular customer one day called her his “Tinkerbell” and “little princess”—listing “all these weird sexual fetishes of this little thing that he wanted to take advantage of,” she says.

Another time at the aforementioned restaurant, a customer came in to order a drink. “I turned around and he started talking about my ass, and it was super disgusting and degrading,” she says.

Her male co-worker and manager were both standing nearby. “He looked at both and was like, ‘Yeah man, right?’ And gave them the moment to even just disagree… [but] both of them were like, Yeah, and one hundred percent agreed.”

“It’s the worst feeling,” she says, “where it’s just like everyone is against me and I have to keep my guard up all the time.”

For the most part, though, Parrish says she was happy in these jobs despite the harassment—and she’s quick to point out various complexities of these power dynamics within those environments: One summer, while hostessing at a restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side, she overheard some bar patrons next door describing in detail some vile things they wanted to do to her body, which deeply upset her, so she told her manager. He, incidentally, “had a huge crush” on her, she says; he protected her, got angry, and went next door and flipped a few tables. “Everyone was really nice to me at that bar” after that, she says.

Sometime later, though, she and her manager hooked up after a night out. “I was into him so it wasn’t bad, but he took advantage of his position,” she says, adding that he was much older. “Older men who are in positions of power don’t get that even if it’s consensual it’s exploitative, ‘cuz even though I was into him I couldn’t say no. I would be really uncomfortable and really in a not good position if I turned him down.”

Few women can simply quit their jobs over sexual harassment—this is a huge problem in the service and hospitality industries, which are often staffed by women and people of color, poor people and people who exist at any of those intersections.

Another problem Parrish has observed in that environment is that even asking a manager for a raise or a small promotion often seemed fruitless—despite her and her various coworkers putting up with customers and other coworkers’ dehumanizing actions.

“For the amount of time and energy these managers and employers take putting pressure on us and sexualizing us and focusing on our physical attributes, none of it is spent on pushing us intellectually, or even paying attention to our intellect—just sexualizing it,” she says. “If you know a few facts they’ll be like, ‘Oh she’s smart, she’s hot,’ that’ll be it.”

There was a constant undertone of men not taking her or her ambition seriously because they were too focused on her appearance and how she presents herself. It was akin to how she felt in college—when she started making huge paintings about “awkward sexual encounters” the more it seemed like male peers hit on her. “I’m just trying to be with the big boys here with big paintings,” she says.

“I want you to recognize me as an intellectual.”

Some of the harassment she has experienced—whether in the service industry, gallery settings, or project management positions—has informed her thinking on what a fair work environment should look like for herself and others. When she co-ran Platform Gallery with Lydia Pettit (who’s also my friend), their collaborations with artists were built upon standards of “caring about people and seeing the value in everyone.”

Parrish thinks that putting more women in charge could help some work environments change for the better—but the solution is not that simple when the problems of power and punishment are so complicated.

“The problem for a lot of these women is we don’t have a safe space to talk about this without it coming back and biting us in the butt,” she says.

She dreams of a work environment with better infrastructure—where victims of harassment can feel safe coming forward, and be met with openness. “I think a lot of people are on the defense, especially within job scenarios,” she says, “which is why it’s such a toxic environment for talking and being open about it.”

“We’re all just people,” she says. “People want to be treated with general respect. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

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Brittany Oliver, founding director of Not Without Black Women

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Not Without Black Woman founder Brittany Oliver. Photo by Jennifer Bishop.

Brittany Oliver remembers the first time she felt unsafe as a young woman in public. A college student, she was riding the bus, when a man came and sat right next to her despite plenty of empty seats all around. He kept asking her what her name was. She didn’t respond. “And so he said, ‘You can’t talk? You can’t speak?’” she recalls. “And I just froze.”

He kept pushing until she got up and moved closer to the bus driver, so she could be near another person in case he tried anything else. “It made me feel like riding the bus wasn’t for me, wasn’t something that I could do,” she says.

There were other incidents, too—in fact, she lists them: “men felt like it was okay to invade my personal space, constantly pestering me…calling out slurs, calling me bitch if I didn’t respond”—that got her thinking about the behaviors women are subjected to in public.

“The problem with street harassment is it’s involved in a cycle where if it’s okay on the street, then this kind of behavior is also happening behind closed doors, in workspaces, in [activist] movement spaces,” Oliver says. “It’s all connected, it’s all linked. And it all perpetuates rape culture.”

In college, Oliver got involved with feminist organizing and activism, and eventually became the co-director of Hollaback! Baltimore, a chapter of the national organization that fights street harassment.

Last summer, Oliver founded Not Without Black Women (NWBW), which she describes as both a social and political movement that amplifies the voices of black women and girls.

Healing and its multifarious forms are folded into NWBW’s ethos. Black women are expected to be “knee deep in the work” of dismantling oppression without pause, Oliver says. “We’re not supposed to put ourselves first; we have to put family first, men first, kids first.”

Oliver says the work she does heals her. Mentoring girls every week at the Crispus Attucks Recreation Center in Baltimore’s Madison Park neighborhood, Oliver and her volunteers play games, dance and eat snacks with the girls. She wants to build up trust with the girls, who range in age from 9 to 15, so that they can also have conversations about consent and rape culture. “It’s very sensitive,” she adds. “They’re not having these conversations at home with their parents.”

A common thread in Oliver’s organizing has been uprooting the stigma of sexual violence within black communities. “I’ve had men of my own race say, ‘That’s not an issue, that’s a white women’s issue,’” Oliver says.

African-American women experience sexual violence at a rate 35 percent higher than that of white women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The statistical likelihood of sexual violence increases for those who are poor, transgender and/or who struggle with mental illness. “Rape and sexual assault date all the way back to slavery,” Oliver says. “We’re still grappling with that trauma.”

That civil rights activist Tarana Burke, a now-prominent figure who was credited with starting the #MeToo movement (before it became a hashtag) 10 years ago, is a black woman could help upset the thinking that black women are invulnerable to these issues.

“Despite its challenges I’m glad [#MeToo] happened because it gave women an opportunity to really come out about their experiences,” Oliver says. “Black women and women of color have been talking about these types of issues for decades and it takes a lot longer for society to take our issues seriously.”

She continues: “We do a disservice to ourselves and to our communities and society as a whole when we don’t recognize the intersections” of being both black and a woman, for example.

“When you have men of color, black men who have perpetuated sexual violence, the response is it’s not their fault, we’re being too hard on them, the system is oppressive and all this other stuff,” Oliver continues. “I understand where it comes from. That’s still not an excuse to not address these issues in our own communities. You can’t call for accountability and then also not want to have that same accountability amongst each other.”

It can be dangerous for women to come forward about their abuse without community support. “Black women don’t report, we don’t come forward because we’re worried about what will happen to us when we do,” Oliver says.

Fighting back is going to require tough conversations and seeing the “humanity in each other,” Oliver says. And part of recognizing that humanity is meeting people where they are. “People have different understandings about how systems work, especially how they work to oppress us,” she says. “What I like to do is just start at the beginning and just talk about the basics: How do sexism and racism intersect with each other? What are the consequences of us not addressing these issues?”

That’s why she keeps moving forward and working with other black women. As women, “our leadership style is just very different,” she says. “I don’t want power over anyone—I want power with people.”

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Trae Harris, actor and performance artist, and Shannon Wallace, photographer

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Performance artist and writer Trae Harris. Photo courtesy of Trae Harris.

Trae Harris, an actor and performance artist, hasn’t experienced the “casting couch” phenomenon herself within the film and TV industry. “However, I’ve always had women in positions of power within the industry try to tell me that was a necessary part of me getting to where I needed to be,” she says.

Harris wears oversize, baggy clothing intentionally, she says. But those women would advise, “Make sure you wear your padded bra, make sure you wear your leggings and high heels and always have your makeup done, your hair done in a certain way.”

To get ahead in that business, “it’s almost mandatory that you have to hyper-sexualize yourself, even if that’s not what the role requires,” Harris says. “I’ve gotten auditions for roles that specifically said ‘androgynous identity/persona/aesthetic,’ whatever, and I walk into the place and bitches got their titties all the way to up here, super made-up, and I’m looking at myself and questioning if I’m looking OK.”

She describes herself as typically “super secure” in her self-image and her skill set, but those pressures made her doubt herself. Harris, who was raised in Baltimore but has worked a lot in New York, believes that she has not gotten certain roles because she stayed true to herself and wasn’t willing to bow to those expectations.

Shannon Wallace, an artist who works closely with the communities and people she photographs, says men sometimes seem confounded by her androgynous style and identity as a queer person. When she’s out in public or out photographing people and someone says something to her, she often turns it into a “teaching moment.”

Photographer Shannon Wallace. Photo courtesy of Shannon Wallace.

Once when Wallace was at Lexington Market, a man came up to her—she’d taken a photo of him before but she didn’t know him. They chatted briefly and then he asked her rather pointedly about her sexual preferences. She assured him that she’s not into men; she prefers women.

“He said this to me: ‘Damn, it’s a shame because I know you got a gushy pussy from the back, and a camel toe,’” she says. “And so I looked at him like, ‘You like camel toe? Ew!’ Because I don’t take this shit seriously. I try to make a joke out of it. I try to not take it personal because I think it’s like—you don’t know any better. And I just feel like most men don’t give a f— for real… I’m like yo, I told you my sexual preference and what I was into and what I wasn’t into very vividly and you still decided to say those things to me. I said that’s a part of sexual violence. You can’t do that type of shit.”

The man went on about women wearing “little skirts,” so Wallace interjected: “A woman’s not supposed to wear something because you can’t control yourself? Because you don’t have any f—-n’ decency or respect? She’s supposed to look through her closet and think about you today?”

Wallace has experienced men challenging her sexuality or otherwise trying to assert dominance over her. “There’s this challenge or competition thing that happens,” she says. “I think about all the women that are speaking up now and how this male dominance and sexual violence is so intertwined. All these men just want power. They want power over you, your decisions, they want to tell you what to do and make you feel like that they matter more, and what they say goes. And I’m just not with that shit.”

Much of this male dominance and toxic masculinity can be traced back to how we were raised—all of the seemingly small but overall constricting ways we reinforce gender roles and “normative” behavior.

Recently, Harris was coloring with one of her cousins’ sons, and he told her that his favorite color was pink. “And then his father shot a look at him, and then he said, ‘I mean it’s blue.’”

“I was so shook,” Harris continues. “We have to stop gendering clothing, we have to stop gendering toys and colors. Hella dudes wear pink. Cam’ron had—”

“Pink Polos never hurt the Roc!” Wallace interjects.

“Yo! Cam wore a pink mink coat for a whole summer,” Harris says. “We gotta stop with those little teeny things. They make a difference.”

Hearing so many women speak up more publicly about sexual harassment and assault has been a bit of a shock, Wallace says. But it helps to look back at her own community and know that she’s not alone. “It’s this kind of congregation that we make through our experiences and being survivors,” she says.

“I think it’s important for us to speak out but there’s so much pressure to not speak out,” Wallace continues, noting that speaking out as a black woman compounds the complexity. “We are told to not speak out because we don’t want to contribute to another black man being in jail… ‘Liberation is based on race and not sex’—shit like that.”

But that conversation has been going on for years, Harris adds.

“Black men talking about walking out of the house: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get killed by the police or what,’ and I’m like, I feel you bruh, but you’re not walking out of your house thinking about being killed by the police, killed by another black person or getting raped,” Harris says.

Wallace says she’s hopeful about the paradigm shifting but she’s “not banking on it”—the conversations need to move toward actual accountability.

And speaking about these issues—and all of their complexities—is only one step. The media has focused on power and celebrity in Hollywood but there are still people it hasn’t reached. “If you’re about that life and you’re interested in this, speak out for all the women who really just f—-n’ can’t because they really don’t have access,” Harris says.

Nothing will change unless the systems—capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy—that oppress most people (people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, poor people) break down. These systems were not created for people who can be seen as “an other,” Harris says, and therefore the systems will not work for those people. “We need to come into agreement about that. This does not work for the vast majority of us; break it the f— down. Time to change and evolve. That’s the only way we gonna get free.”

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#MeToo in Baltimore: Local women talk workplace harassment, abuse, and accountability

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Click the image above to go to the profile.

“I do have the long view. And what I'm now beginning to think is sexual harassment seems to come and go in the public consciousness in waves,” Lin Farley, who popularized the term “sexual harassment” in 1975, told NPR last November, amid the #MeToo movement and the ongoing rush of stories about workplace sexual abuse and harassment.

There were several landmark cases in the 1970s and ‘80s—including the first sexual harassment case to go to the Supreme Court, with Mechelle Vinson’s lawsuit against her former employer, Meritor Savings Bank. In the suit, Vinson, a bank teller, alleged that her supervisor had raped her several times, and through persistent coercion, sexual harassment and abuse he had created a “hostile work environment.” She had “yielded [to him] out of fear for her job,” according to the The New York Times reporting on the case in 1986.

Through Vinson’s case, the Supreme Court affirmed that sexual harassment is an illegal form of sex discrimination, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Catherine MacKinnon, whose 1979 legal argument “Sexual Harassment of Working Women” helped shape later policies, wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed that simply making something illegal doesn’t make it stop. But the #MeToo movement, she wrote, has been able to accomplish something else. “Structural misogyny, along with sexualized racism and class inequalities, is being publicly and pervasively challenged by women’s voices. The difference is, power is paying attention.”

So there was the wave of the 1970s, Farley noted on NPR, and then Anita Hill’s testimony in the early ‘90s about Clarence Thomas’ repeated sexual harassment. “And then now we have this wave with the whole Roger Ailes and O’Reilly and Weinstein,” Farley said. “We do see something different, I think, this time. And that is the reason that we’re seeing this whole upsurge of activity—is because of a harasser, not a victim.”

It is true that over the past several months, there has been much more attention on the harassers in many of these high-profile cases: often rich, white, celebrity men were losing their jobs, and we knew the details of their horrible behavior. But on the ground, at the same time, it felt like survivors were doing all of the work. That morning in October when #MeToo started to take over all of my social media feeds, I felt a lot at once—support and solidarity with those choosing to share their stories, and anger at the expectation that it was up to survivors to share our stories with the public, in the hopes that those with power to change it would finally hear it and change their behaviors.

There are still so many people who simply can’t share their stories because it is not safe for them to do so, or they’re contractually obligated to remain silent, or there was no one to hear them or no promise of change.

But a critical mass demands attention, demands consequences. So what follows here is a series of conversations with women in Baltimore who come from various backgrounds and different industries. They talk about the intolerable behaviors they’ve experienced, often at the hands of men. What their stories demonstrate is that while workplaces may be rife with harassment and abuse, the forces that harm us are not confined to our checkout lines or cubicle walls. They follow us out the door and onto the street, into our homes.

These stories also press on some of the finer points of the movement, calling for individual, structural, and political change: Our workplaces are structured to abet harassment. Sexual abuse is dismissed and stigmatized in more marginalized communities. How people present themselves or their sexuality doesn’t give anyone license to mistreat or disrespect them. How are we supposed to deal with abusers and harassers—what can accountability look like?

Lin’s “waves” metaphor is apt—it has been several months now of reckoning, but also decades, and also centuries. As the frequency increases, whom have we not yet reached?

All entries by Rebekah Kirkman except where noted.

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