Social Justice

#WhyIMarch

Today Donald Trump is being sworn in as president of the United States. Tomorrow, over a million people will march in protest at more than 600 events across the world. The biggest march will be in Washington D.C. I’ll be walking in solidarity in the march in Astoria, Oregon.

Why am I marching? Because the election of this man is not an occasion for celebration, and I will not be silent about it. We have evidence from our country’s intelligence agencies that his campaign was helped by Russia. That is alarming. I’m also concerned about those in Congress who support him, who are hellbent on dismantling the ACA and leaving millions of Americans without health insurance. I’m frustrated about the deep-seated racism and sexism that worked to promote a bigot to the highest office in our country.

I’m troubled by prominent right-wing Christians (Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, to name two) who seem to believe Trump was God’s choice for the job. As they seek to blur the lines between church and state, they seem to have lost sight of the basic Christian tenets of showing compassion and loving one’s neighbors.

Pat Robertson dismissed Trump’s bragging about sexual assault as “macho” talk. But how can a man who touches women against their will be a suitable leader and role model? Trump has given us plenty of evidence of his sexist language and behavior—how can we simply dismiss that? How does that kind of disrespect align with Christian values?

Franklin Graham not only continued to support Trump after his bragging incident, but he has a history of making statements against Islamic people. The irony is he runs an international charity meant to help people, regardless of their faith. I’m not saying Samaritan’s Purse hasn’t done good in this world—I’m sure it has—but I question some of its practices under Graham’s leadership. Before the election, he used his charity to tour the country in a flag-emblazoned bus and distribute political materials. Why is a religious charity entwined with politics? Why was money, donated to that charity for the purpose of helping the poor around the globe, used to promote Trump? I’m sure Graham would deny that, and say his materials were balanced equally between Trump and Clinton, and simply meant to educate voters. But I read his materials and there was a clear bias toward Trump, given the language used and the discussion on issues such as abortion and LGBTQIA rights. Now Graham has a role in the inauguration. I guess his loyalty to Trump has been rewarded.

This is why people hate Christians. I’m a Christian, and I can see that. I get it. And I welcome the criticism of my faith. We need that kind of feedback if we are to do better. We’ve got to stop telling people how to live their lives, and start loving them. Our actions need to speak louder than our words.

I’m not saying all Christians are alike. The faith has a spectrum, from conservatives to liberals. We have extremists and progressives. There are a lot of different kinds of churches. But in this election year, the voices of right-wing evangelicals have been the loudest. While there are those of us who vehemently disagree with their ideology, I believe we too are accountable for their actions because we know better. We know what Christianity is supposed to be, and we have to do better. I grieve the fact that collectively, we are pushing people away from faith because of our own interests, giving them cause to hate Christ. I can see that we are failing people, that we’ve pushed our identity and philosophy so far into politics that we’ve broken our government, rendering it dysfunctional. This election is evidence that our government is no longer representing the will of the people. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state for this reason.

I believe in freedom of religion, but I also recognize that this freedom applies to everyone, not just me. I don’t get to push my faith on other people. That’s a good thing, because it means no one else can force me to follow their belief system either. Freedom of religion in practice requires a willingness to respect people of other faiths (and to respect the right to not believe at all). It means I don’t get to infiltrate the government and then make laws based on my faith that disrupt other people’s lives. Freedom of religion is meant to promote equality. It’s not meant to promote one religion over others, even if that religion happens to be my own.

Before the election, a dear friend shared a video from YouTube with me. The premise was someone had prophesied that Trump would unite America—that he was God’s chosen one come to save us—a messiah. I think her intention in sharing this was well-meaning. I believe she honestly wanted to know what I thought.

I was surprised she shared it with me, because I’d made no secret of my opinion that Trump was anti-Christ. Perhaps not the anti-Christ, but certainly opposite of the teachings and example of Jesus. I do think one part of that prophecy has come true, however. Trump is uniting us—just not the way the so-called prophet might have expected.

So tomorrow we march. I’m marching to represent my faith, because loving my neighbors is one of the most important things I can do, particularly in times like these. Love is stronger than fear. I’m marching for women’s rights. I’m marching for people who aren’t white, or heterosexual, or Christian, because I believe they should be valued and included equally in our society. I’m marching because Trump’s woefully unqualified cabinet picks will dismantle things I care about: education, access to healthcare, the environment, and so much more.

I’m marching for my two children, so they know what it means to stand up for what you believe in and to have empathy for others. And my sons and my husband are marching with me, because they too understand and value these things. They know the world can be better, but we have to rise up together and change it ourselves. We are the resistance.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Majority Rules

In high school, I took a class in civics. There I learned a number of life lessons—some intended, some not so much. For one of our class projects, our teacher told us we were forming a new country on an island. As a class, we would have to decide which laws would govern us.

He split us into small groups, instructing us to brainstorm rules for our new society. Then we’d share our ideas with the entire class and vote on which ones would become law. My group came up with some basics—sensible ground rules common to most civilizations: don’t kill, don’t steal, respect other people’s property. When we were asked to report back to the class, most of the rules discussed were meant to protect the island’s citizens and mirrored the types of laws we have in the United States.

One group of boys came up with a different rule, however. They decided that whenever a girl was on her period, she would be banished to a hut on the far side of the island so no one would have to deal with her being “on the rag.” (I am not making this up.)

As you might imagine, the girls in the class had a problem with this. Not only was the notion crass, it was blatantly sexist and demeaning, which we quickly pointed out. Although we were vocal about our objection to this proposed law, the other boys in class laughed and joined in, agreeing that the rule was a good idea. (Apparently it never occurred to them that offending every girl in the room might mean they’d never get a date for prom. I can’t speak for my female classmates, but it occurred to me, and I vowed I’d never date any of those guys. Life lesson number one: life is too short to date jerks.)

There was only one boy in class who treated us with respect and was brave enough to stand up for us. He said the rule was unfair and tried to get the other guys to stop being sexist. I can only imagine the grief he got later for his troubles, but I felt gratitude for his courage and disgust that no other guy in the room stood with him.

I thought our instructor would come to our defense, turning a negative situation into a teachable moment by speaking about equality. He didn’t. Instead, he put the matter to a vote. “Majority rules,” he said.

This only exacerbated the situation because there were more boys than girls in the class. Even with our one male ally, the motion passed easily and became law.

While I understand that the teacher was trying to provide a lesson on democracy, I learned something different. I learned that a majority vote can create both good laws and unjust laws. A majority vote doesn’t mean all citizens are treated equally. Laws can be used to discriminate against vulnerable populations. I also learned that you can’t always count on adults to do the right thing. Sometimes you have to advocate for yourself. Sometimes you have to gain allies to support your cause and then fight to make better laws.

 

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Harassed

This week Donald Trump made a comment to USA Today that if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed in the workplace, he hoped she would find a different company or career. The problem with this, as victim advocates quickly asserted, is many workers can’t just quit their jobs if they are harassed at work. They don’t have the financial resources to be without work, and it takes time to find a new position. Having a gap between jobs or a history of changing jobs can penalize job seekers. In addition, finding a new career can be expensive if you have to get more training or certifications. Most of us don’t have a wealthy father who can simply carve out a position for us in the family business, should we decide to leave our current positions.

And here’s the other thing: why should a victim of sexual harassment have to leave their job? Companies have a responsibility to protect workers and take action when employees encounter a hostile workplace.

Trump’s son, Eric, came to his father’s defense, stating that his sister is a “strong, powerful woman” who wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to harassment. This is a disservice to anyone who has experienced harassment because it places blame on victims, suggesting they “allowed” themselves to be harassed. Sexual harassment is not the victim’s fault. It’s about a predator feeling entitled to another person’s time, space, and body. Harassment can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not. It doesn’t matter what you wear to work. It doesn’t even matter what gender you are, because yes, males can also be victims of sexual harassment. Because men are “supposed” to be physically stronger than the person who harassed them, they may be more hesitant to come forward.

I know both men and women who have been harassed, and it has not been easy for any of them to speak about their experiences. There’s a great deal of shame. Victims tend to blame themselves, wondering what they could have done differently. They worry that reporting will get them fired, and sometimes it does. It’s not legal to fire somebody for reporting harassment, but it happens. You could take your employer to court over it…if you had the money for legal fees.

Even if you do everything you’re “supposed” to do—even if you dress professionally and set boundaries—you can still receive unwanted comments or touching, and employers don’t always do what they’re required to do to help you. Unfortunately, I know this all too well. Here’s my story.

The summer after my first year of college, I took a retail job in a shoe store. I was nineteen.

I knew not to hitchhike or get in a car with a stranger, and I knew the best way to deal with catcalling was to ignore it and keep walking. I knew to check my backseat before driving at night, to make sure nobody was hiding there. I knew not to stay out too late, and to lock the door to my apartment when I got home. I knew that if I followed all these rules, I’d be okay.

I was utterly unequipped to deal with harassment at work.

Work is supposed to be safe. You do your job and you get paid. You dress modestly. You don’t cause waves with your co-workers and you show your boss respect. You are polite to everyone, especially customers. Because the customer is always right.

Except sometimes the customer is wrong.

My duties in the store were to unpack shipments of new shoes, place them on shelves and in displays, assist customers, ring up purchases, and, at closing time, straighten shelves and then mop and vacuum the store. The store was located at the end of a strip mall, with windows across the front and one of the sides of the store. As a joke, I called it the fishbowl, because it felt like anyone in the parking lot could see everything going on in the store.

I felt safe there at first, even when we experienced a series of shoplifting incidents. Nobody was threatened or hurt—the thieves would simply grab a pair of shoes and take off. The boss instructed us not to run after shoplifters, but to report the incident to her.

Then a man started coming to the store. He wasn’t much older than me. The first time he came, he asked for my assistance as he chose a pair of shoes from the shelf. As I helped him, he asked me out. Flustered, I told him, “No thanks, I have a boyfriend.”

He started coming in more frequently. He would buy shoes and come in the next day to return them. After a while, he didn’t even buy shoes in his size. Once he bought a pair of children’s shoes. I knew he wasn’t going to wear those, and I seriously doubted he bought them for someone else. He returned that pair as well.

Each time he came in, he asked me out. Even though I told him no repeatedly, he persisted. He would follow me around the store, trying to touch my arms, my shoulders, whatever he could get away with. I stopped being polite. When I saw him coming, I would immediately make myself busy, talking with other customers, surrounding myself with people so he couldn’t corner me at the back of the store. He’d try talking to me and I’d walk away, quick to engage with the next customer. Sometimes I couldn’t walk away, because I was working the register. He’d stand there staring as I rang up other people’s purchases.

I told my boyfriend about the man harassing me, and I told my parents. But what could they do? They suggested I quit, but I needed the money for college, and there wasn’t time to get another job before school started. They told me to report the guy to my boss. I did. It didn’t help.

When I told my boss about the man, she brushed off my concerns. She said, “Well, I guess you can work in the back when he comes in.” That was it. So, the next time the man came to the store, I identified him to my boss and went to work in the back, unpacking a shipment. As I stood there, taking shoes out of boxes, I realized I couldn’t hide in the back of the store each time the guy came in. If I did, I’d lose my job. More than that, I felt shame for hiding. I felt like a coward.

Truth is, I was frightened. Each night I closed up shop, I had a co-worker watch as I got into my car. I’d quickly run across the parking lot, check the back seat, jump inside, and lock my doors. Then, as I’d drove home, I’d watch to make sure no one was following me. I’d hurry into my studio apartment where I lived alone, lock my door, and set up an electric alarm my boyfriend bought for the door. Anybody who tried to come in while it was armed would be treated to a blaring earful. I slept with a can of pepper spray on my nightstand, a baseball bat beside my bed, and a carving knife between the mattress and box springs—all within reach if I woke to find him breaking in and didn’t have time to call the police. I didn’t sleep much, but I was ready to defend myself. Terrified and paranoid, but ready.

The harassment finally stopped, but not because anything I did made it stop. It didn’t stop because my company stepped up to protect me, because they didn’t. I don’t know why I never called the cops. The person I am now would have, but at the time I was just a scared kid. I guess I was afraid of going over my boss’s head. Since she hadn’t helped me, maybe the police wouldn’t either.

The last night I saw this man at the store, he came in to ask me out once again, and as always, I told him no and walked away to help other customers. He left, only to return after we’d closed down the register and locked the doors.

I was mopping the front of the store when he walked up to the glass in front of me. He knocked on the window, trying to get my attention. I saw him and immediately looked away, pretending I didn’t see him. I mopped the floor, refusing to look at him even though I could feel him staring at me.

He stayed there the entire time I mopped. I finished the job and took the mop and bucket to the back of the store to empty it. When I came back out to vacuum, he was gone.

I was frightened he’d come back when I tried to leave the store, that maybe he was waiting for me in his car. With the lights on in the store, I couldn’t see much of the dark parking lot. I felt more vulnerable than ever in the fishbowl, knowing he could see me, but I couldn’t see him.

Thankfully, I only saw him one other time. He was hanging out with a group of guys in front of the student union at my college. School had started and I quit my job at the shoe store to focus on academics. When I spotted him, I walked away as quickly as I could so he didn’t see me. The realization that he attended the same university filled me with dread, but our paths never crossed again. The next summer, I took a different job.

It’s not easy for me to share this with you. I still wonder what I should have done differently. But I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because the more we share about our experiences, the more empowered other people will feel to speak up. And I do want people to feel empowered. I never want anyone to feel as scared, vulnerable, and helpless as I felt. I never want anyone to feel like they weren’t “strong enough” or they “allowed” themselves to be harmed. Maybe if we keep speaking about these experiences, we can change perceptions about what it means to be victimized and how we can hold employers and aggressors accountable.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016