In April of 2016, I began the work to initiate two Transformative Justice (TJ) processes to engage my former partner and former employer, respectively, for harms they perpetrated against me beginning in 2011. Both my former partner and employer are long-term stakeholders in the cooperative movement – which served as the political and social backdrop for what has transpired. Throughout the past 18 months, nine other people served in leadership roles to steward these two processes through lots of ups and downs.
For those unaware, Transformative Justice is a type of accountability process that creates “a system of community-based justice grounded in the humanity – not the brokenness – of its members and in our creative capacity to transform and heal from living in a violent and imbalanced society […I]nstead of turning to the State.”1 There are different ways to define and design TJ. While it has some core tenets that I’ve seen to hold steady across various practices (e.g. it is dialogue-based), it really is a dynamic model that can be adapted to each circumstance for which it is engaged. For my circumstances, I borrowed a lot of framing from the models presented in the zine “What About the Rapists” (whence the quote above is pulled), which meant that I, together with peers, coordinated a support group for me and separate accountability/care groups for both my former partner and employer that endeavored to achieve a set of deliverables. These groups communicated with one another via liaisons – I did not have direct communication about the process with either of those entities who harmed me as part of the process. The reasons for this are many – ranging from protecting me from further harm, as well as tempering the power I have over those who harmed me.
To guide you in moving through this update, it is broken down into the following sections:
- Summary of Events,
- Impact of Events,
- Status of Processes, and
There are endnotes indicated throughout the document, which provide context or additional information for some statements.
SUMMARY OF EVENTS
I’ll provide here a relatively brief summary of the injustices that occurred and caused me (and others) so much harm. Please be aware there are some mentions of assault and abuse as part of this retelling. Please share responsibly.
In 2011, I was hired and began work as the Executive Director of NASCO. My predecessor, Tom Pierson, stepped down to serve in a subordinate role in the organization. Within the first two weeks of my full-time employment with NASCO, I was sexually assaulted by Tom. This was a very confusing experience – I was incredibly enamored with Tom, at the time. As it sometimes happens with assault and abuse, this began a romantic relationship between the two of us which ultimately lasted 5 years. The relationship was, in varying degrees, sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive.
During the early days of my employment, Tom was openly insubordinate and disrespectful of me in a professional capacity. Paired with emotional manipulation and abuse outside the workplace, I was never willing or able to fire him, which I knew I needed and wanted to do both as a leader in the organization and for my own wellbeing. Tom had an open history of inappropriate conduct while with NASCO – incidents and behavior recorded in past staff reviews, reported by other staff members to the Board, and apparent in how the organization had changed under his tenure. Despite all these things, Tom remained a powerful stakeholder in the organization. Once I was in the ED role, Tom denied me the leadership and authority I needed to be successful – openly undermining me, gatekeeping relationships, not handing over the financial records, etc. During the first several months of my tenure in the position, the Personnel Committee (my supervisor) never once checked in with me, provided direct feedback, or supported me, despite organizational policies requiring such work. I reached out to three different Board members during that period for support in different ways, with no meaningful results.
Outside of the workplace, in the early days of our relationship – many of the same thoughts ran through my head on an almost daily basis – “the things he is doing and saying are not okay, I should not be treated this way, I need to leave.” His practices of manipulation, coercion, and control began immediately, including leveraging our relationship over my employment. When I expressed concern about hiding our relationship from our employer (on his recommendation), he told me if I disclosed, “everyone would hate me,” and that I “only got the job because of him.” I felt terribly alone and was terrified of losing both my job and losing Tom, as I had come to believe that I was nothing without him.
I ultimately connected with Tom’s former partner, kiran nigam, in March of 2012. Through ongoing conversation with her, I was ultimately able to name that, in the first weeks of my employment with NASCO, Tom had raped me when I was both drunk and had just broken my wrist. I struggled for a long time (and still somewhat struggle) to refer to what Tom did that night as rape for lots of reasons — I was sexually attracted to him. I didn’t want Tom, a person I cared for, to be a “rapist;” I have seen that labeling someone as a “rapist” in our culture today labels them as disposable. I am frustrated by the fact our conversations about sexual violence are so binary, that it is “rape” or “not-rape,” when most sexual violence happens somewhere in between the two extremes of enthusiastic consensual sex and violent assault by strangers. Finally, if I admitted to myself that Tom raped me, I knew it would mean that I had allowed someone to hurt me. I also knew I would be expected to disavow and lose him.
During the course of our conversations, I also related to kiran how Tom’s behavior in the workplace had gotten worse — calling me a “bitch” in front of other staff, storming out of the office, not coming into work, not doing work I requested, etc. So, with her support, I empowered a member of the Board to submit a grievance on my behalf (I was uncomfortable doing so on my own) against Tom, outlining instances of his mistreatment and bad behavior both in and out of the workplace. At this time, I was also empowered and prepared to leave the relationship. The Board responded to the grievance by suspending both Tom and I with legalistic “staff memos” in which we were informed that we were locked out of our email, not to contact each other or any NASCO stakeholders, and instructed to standby for further instructions. During this rather harrowing two-week period, I suffered a great deal of emotional distress and was without sufficient support. I spiraled, capitulated to the Board by adopting a subservient and submissive tone, essentially begging for my job back. I ended up turning to Tom for support, while simultaneously coaching him to resign – which he did. The two remaining staff members were told very little about what was transpiring, as the Board’s Executive Committee adopted a secretive and defensive stance. Throughout this part of the process, I kept feeling as though the implicit offer was that, in order to be a worthy victim, I had to vilify Tom. This person was my main support in life, and I had so much compassion for pain he’d experienced in his life – I couldn’t bring myself to be a party to Tom’s ruination, it didn’t feel safe, truthful, or ethical. NASCO’s response disempowered me from leaving my abusive relationship with Tom, which I remained in for another 4 years.
I was ultimately reinstated to my position, and Tom negotiated a resignation contract that called for confidentiality around the grievance process, as well as granting him four months of paid time off for a “sabbatical” for which he would have been eligible that month. I was sent a letter instructing me to delete all emails, documents, or other records having anything to do with Tom or the grievance process. The framing for my reinstatement was a long, scolding, and somewhat vague letter saying I “put the organization at risk” and exhibited “unprofessional behavior,” while outlining how I must step up in order to be moved out of a probationary status. I replied to the letter asking for clarification of the unclear points, and never received a response. Some of the basic commitments the Board and Personnel Committee made in the letter (e.g. meeting with me to discuss the process) were never upheld.
During those summer months of 2012, I experienced some of the darkest times of my life – I became incredibly depressed, was beginning to experience PTSD and C-PTSD symptoms (e.g. emotional breakdowns lasting days), and the physical abuse with Tom reached its peak. My work performance during this time understandably decreased – I was in no shape to work. Also during this time, the efforts to collectivize the NASCO staff were piled on top of everything else. It is inadequately reported within the NASCO community that the collectivization and unionization of staff was in direct response to the poor treatment of all remaining staff during their handling of the grievance against Tom. To compound the pain during this time, the NASCO Board also rejected our unionization after leading us to believe they would accept it. That Board meeting was humiliating for me; when they announced their rejection I burst into tears and wound up on the floor of a back porch sobbing and shaking. In some ways, the collectivization process had, for me, become a proxy for NASCO assuaging the harm it perpetrated through its response to the grievance. The union was finally accepted – but only after I was pushed out of the organization.
I took two weeks off in late August of 2012 – my first break since the NASCO shenanigans began. I came back to work for a few days and then was called into a meeting with 24 hours notice during which I was fired. I sobbed openly and begged to be allowed to resign. I had wanted to resign back in April, but felt I had to stay so as not to further destabilize the organization after Tom’s departure – one of my two remaining coworkers had told me they were also going to quit if I left. I was refused my request to retroactively resign until someone internal advocated on my behalf. I was given one month’s severance and told my health insurance would expire at the end of that month. Ultimately, my job was renamed and given – without a candidate search – to one of the people who led my firing.
My relationship with Tom continued to atrophy during this time. We had begun seeing a couple’s therapist. She broke oath to ask me to leave the relationship because she felt I was unsafe – we stopped seeing her. I became incredibly isolated — my friends and family didn’t know how to handle maintaining a relationship with me and Tom while they knew he was abusing me, so I cut them off.
Despite how humiliating it is, I feel compelled to share just a sampling of the range of kinds of harmful occurrences in our relationship because, first, based on my observations of others in my position, I don’t think people will believe me without doing so, and second, I hope my vulnerability will empower others to know and take action when they are being treated similarly.
On one instance, Tom abruptly stopped our car on a city street and dragged me out of it to shake and yell at me. Subsequently, he tried to wrestle me down and subdue me when I was crying in response to the abuse, but stopped when a person approached us. Earlier in the relationship, sexual mistreatment was used to “redeem” me after arguments. While we were monogamous and I was pregnant, he got on a plane to go on vacation with a former partner days before my scheduled abortion (I ended up miscarrying). During the course of our relationship, I became suicidal – I was sent to the ER by a therapist during one of these instances in the weeks immediately following my firing, but ultimately wasn’t able to be admitted because my NASCO-provided health insurance had expired the day prior.
I left Tom in the summer of 2016 after obtaining Medicaid and going to therapy three hours a week for one and a half years. Thanks, Obama – really.
IMPACTS OF EVENTS
My life, my career, my sense of self, and my community were decimated by Tom’s abuse and the inability of NASCO to keep me safe in the workplace. These harms continue to reverberate through my life – I experience ostracization in the cooperative movement given that others have controlled and manipulated the narrative of my pain, I suffer relapses and triggers that make it hard for me to maintain relationships, and I am generally overwhelmed by the tremendous losses and damages incurred that I am still in the process of grieving as of the time of this writing in 2017.
In some ways, I feel as if a movement and community to which I dedicated over a decade of work failed me. Cooperation defined my identity and gave me purpose, despite some disillusionment and disappointment. Tom isn’t the only man whose bad behavior is holding back our collective work – I’m on email threads and text chains that comprise our very own cooperative movement “whisper network.”
In part, it has taken me nearly five years to come to terms with all this because I have a lot of compassion for those that harmed me. I know Tom has his own past trauma and shit he was responding to and dealing with (not well, obviously) in the course of his life. I know that a lot of those within NASCO, despite professing values that would indicate otherwise, didn’t know what the fuck to do when confronted with the situation.
All that said and all that standing, I am still pissed. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Persons called to [justice and healing] work typically feel relentless sensations of broken-heartedness about the state of the world, but also carry an unshakable and inspired hope for humankind. There may be anger as well. The seemingly contradictory but powerful forces of the broken heart commingled with hope are the enduring underpinnings for effecting ongoing and positive change.” I also need to “get my ‘Fuck Yous’ off.”
Fuck you, Tom Pierson. Fuck you, NASCO. Fuck you, 2012 NASCO Super Secret Executive Committee. Fuck you, EH. Fuck you, ER. Fuck you, Morgan Crawford. Fuck you, Danny Spitzberg. Fuck you to all those who support abusive men in power because it’s easier than doing something about it. Fuck all of you who think I’m weak for having the tremendous capacity to care for those that harm me. And, fuck you, people and entities in the cooperative movement that are just trying to get theirs and not transform the world to make it better for everyone.²
STATUS OF PROCESSES
At present, in November 2017, both processes have reached a place at which the ten of us no longer feel the need to actively steward the work that was initiated. My former employer – the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) – has technically met all of the steps asked of them. Perhaps as a result of this statement and perhaps not, my former partner, Tom Pierson, has expended more effort on the process in the last ten days than he did throughout the entire past year. You can read here the listing of deliverables requested of NASCO and Tom, alongside annotations as to progress made on each item.
These efforts and recent progress don’t mean the work is complete. The tone and content of NASCO’s public statement acknowledging the harm perpetrated, which is the centerpiece of our work with NASCO over the past year, does leave something to be desired. If Tom’s progress is enduring, I will be thrilled, but I am frankly distrustful. He is aware NASCO is issuing a public statement this week, which suggests he might be motivated by a desire to do some preemptive damage control rather than a genuine compulsion to repair. His sudden burst of progress almost dissuaded me from sharing this statement, but I am persisting in its authoring and distribution because my truth and healing should be able to stand out in the open if he is really willing and able to do the work.
While these efforts have supported me in developing an ever-increasing sense of calm and relief, I must admit that I am somewhat disappointed I have yet to and may never experience a “moment of success” with these processes. I have not experienced anything close to a breakthrough. To further unseat the utility of expectations in justice and healing work like this, I did not expect to want to share my story so intimately with anyone when I first designed the processes. It was only within the last couple months that I began to seriously entertain the thought of speaking about all this on my own behalf.
I ask for anyone hearing my story and my anger to have compassion for and be gentle with all those involved – even those for whom I’ve reserved “fuck yous.” We are all dealing with our own struggles, and we don’t always do right by each other. In using my power and speaking about my experiences, I am not seeking for additional harm to be perpetrated. I am pursuing healing and justice, which are some of the foundational motivations for my work in the world.
My brilliant and dear friend, Ruby Levine, recently said, “Rapists need role models.” I wholeheartedly agree. I will continue to reflect on, learn from, and share visibly about this process in order to contribute to the collection of efforts modeling how to bring about justice and healing from immense harm. I’ve suffered a lot in the last five+ years, and part of what makes my pain and loss easier to accept and move through is the hope that my experiences can be of use to our collective work of building better worlds.
I’ve heard other TJ practitioners say “the process takes the time it takes.” And, while Tom’s process continues and NASCO still has more internal work to do, I and the people who have continually shown up for me and borne the burden of this work are going to rest. We continue to invite Tom, NASCO, and the larger cooperative community to do the work that needs to be done to both get to a shared space of justice, as well as to ensure the cooperative movement fully reflects the values and principles it professes.
I hope and plan for our collective success. Godspeed.
“Sean capaces siempre de sentir, en lo más hondo, cualquier injusticia realizada contra cualquiera, en cualquier parte del mundo. Es la cualidad más linda del revolucionario” // “Above all, always be capable of feeling most deeply any injustice committed against anyone in the world. That is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.” Ernesto “Che” Guevara
In cooperation & care – Emily Alice
- Much (not all!) of our national leadership is captured by those who believe cooperation is a “kinder and gentler form of capitalism” or are neoliberals in sheep’s clothing. Even some of the more woke, “celebrity” stakeholders in the movement struggle more than many are willing to admit with living their values. I’ve been told by funders and elders that they can’t support the work my peers and I have done because it is too “political” or too focused on “social justice.”