My Sexual Harassment Failure as a Leader

The #metoo phenomenon has exposed personal failures across the political, entertainment and business world.  I’d like to share my related failure as a school leader – but bear with me while I do a little bragging first.

In thirteen years running a school, I have made it a rule never to comment on someone’s appearance.  I have steered clear of any comments that might be taken as suggestive and of off-color humor in the workplace.

Why?  As actress and activist Alyssa Milano pointed out on Twitter, there is a straight line between harassment and the more generally condemned violations like rape.  My parents taught me at a young age that rape was wrong and gravely serious before I knew anything about sex. Later, encounters both professional and personal with trusting, open-hearted women (partly as a consequence of working elementary education where women generally hold the expertise) taught me about that straight line.

As a supervisor, I don’t know what anyone thinks when I speak, but I know how they might think.

“You look great today.” (“Why isn’t he commenting on my teaching?  Am I just a pretty face to him?”)

“You’ve lost weight!” (“Did he think something was wrong with me? Does he still think that?”)

“That sweater looks great on you.” (“Please don’t be undressing me with his eyes.”)

“I love your makeup.” (“Does he want something from me?  What am I supposed to say?”)

“That skirt really brings out your eyes.” (“Gross.”)

I believe every person in a position of authority should think this way.

An added factor in my profession is the need to model for young people how to use language to empower, rather than paint into a gender-role corner, those of all gender identities.  In order to defy a culture that wants to objectify them, young girls in particular deserve to grow up judging themselves on the content of their character and not on their subjective appearance.  Armed with that orientation, they can work on overcoming the actions of people who stand in the way of their goals or objectify them.

OK, let’s talk about my failure.  Of course, there are many from which to choose, but on this topic, for someone wielding power setting an example is not enough.  My no-comment approach has been, for the most part, thoughtless.  To be a more effective leader, I have to take purposeful action that helps the community meet common goals, but also bring others along.  I haven’t prompted our school to update our policy on sexual harassment in many years, despite changes in state law and I can’t remember the last time we held a workshop on the subject for our employees and regularly contracted service providers.

I’m going to fix those problems, and the courage of the people joining in the #metoo movement is a direct challenge to do so. I don’t feel ashamed admitting to you that I haven’t taken these simple steps that every employer should take, because I know that leadership also involves learning, and I am confident that with my steadfast focus on my work, I won’t repeat my past mistakes.

Everyone deserves to have that confidence, but it’s only going to happen if we both show and tell it to each other and to the next generation.

About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
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