Speaking Truth to Power: 3 Lessons from Anita Hill

I had the pleasure recently of hearing Anita Hill speak at the NEHRA Diversity dinner. I was struck by her candor, courage and the insights that she shared with us. I took away three key messages from her talk: Speak truth to power, humanize the victims of sexual harassment and to create long term change, we need to make structural changes in society and in our workplaces.

Speaking Truth to Power with Courage
While I knew about Ms. Hill’s role in testifying before Congress in 1991 about sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas hearings for his appointment to the Supreme Court, I did not know the backstory behind her historic appearance.  Like Rosa Parks a generation before her, Ms. Hill’s activism was not done by chance, but was a conscious choice of hers to speak truth to power. As she shared, she had a secure job, a strong network of friends and family and with her older siblings having attended segregated schools until Brown vs. Board of Education, she understood the power of a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. While she was one of many, she was the one who could step up and speak without fear of losing everything.  She said she was “not cowed” by those who didn’t want her to testify. As she explained, courage is not the absence of fear, but action in the face of fear.  Her courage to provide a public image about sexual harassment is a lesson that is still reverberating in today’s society and it helped to set the stage for the #MeToo movement.  

Humanizing the Victims
The fact that the media plays a huge role in how we view people is no surprise and as Ms. Hill explained, it is only in the past few months that we have started to humanize the victims of sexual harassment in addition to the perpetrators. Think about how many times you have heard “he was an upstanding member of the community, a family man…..” Now stop and think about how many times you have heard the same humanizing details about a victim? Striking isn’t it?  If we are to mobilize people to impact change, than we must humanize the victims too.

Structural Change is Required
Harassment reports are seen as individual events, but in reality they are conducted within a structure and culture that allows them to be perpetrated Ms. Hill explained.  It takes mere seconds to instantly think of recent news headlines of situations where companies paid out hush money and who protected those doing the harassing because “they were too important” until public opinion and/or the loss of revenue out weighed the person and they were removed.   As structures change, Ms. Hill pointed out that it is important that due process exists for all parties involved. Otherwise, whatever decision is rendered might be reversed.

The lessons of speaking truth to power, humanizing the victims and seeking structural change are all lessons that can be applied across many situations. In today’s world where we seek to create more inclusive workplaces, here are three actions we can all do to put these lessons into action:

1.     Speak up when you hear comments, jokes and put downs – not matter how small they are. As a professor of mine in grad school said – silence is complicity.

2.     Without sharing confidential details, humanize the victims. Make sure that people know about the impact of what has happened on a personal level. Has the person lost their job for reporting this? Are they being bullied by co-workers? If the victim is being penalized, seek to take action to help them.

3.     Structure change starts with each one of us. While it sounds big, in reality, our workplace cultures are just the compilation of the millions of small interactions that happen in the workplace every day. Focus on making small changes like speaking up about comments, having your own version of an inclusion rider that ensures diverse representatives on committees and projects and listening respectfully to others will all have a long term impact in helping to change your organizational culture.

At the beginning of the dinner, all of us who have been impacted by sexual harassment were asked to stand. With two thirds of the room standing, it was a stark reminder to us all that this is wide spread issue that will require all of us to make a difference. Please join with me in speaking truth to power, humanizing the victims and to helping to create structural change. In the process, we will create inclusive and respectful workplaces that allow employees to thrive and that helps us all.

Kari Heistad speaks on Driving Diversity Panel as part of HUBWeek 2017