We’ve Got Some Work to Do

It’s important that we start conversations about changing the culture of sexual harassment and discrimination in politics, state capitols and our larger communities with an acknowledgement of the courage of so many women who have chosen to speak up and speak out. In recent days, that courage has been demonstrated by many friends, colleagues and women I admire across the state of Illinois. Whether through the online #MeToo campaign, the recent open letter authored and signed by many women involved in Illinois politics, or the willingness of so many to tell their stories publicly to the press, these acts of bravery are bending our country’s moral arc more toward justice every day.

I also want to acknowledge the women who have not to spoken out in a public forum, but have their own stories of sexual harassment and assault. It is each and every woman’s personal decision whether or not to share their own experiences. But it’s important that men don’t interpret a decision to keep personal stories private as evidence that those stories don’t exist — or shift the burden to create change onto women by compelling them to come forward.

Too often, conversations that require a frank and truthful acknowledgement of fault, humility and a sense of personal responsibility fall victim to the political rhetoric of our present times. I’ve been inspired by the women who chose to speak up with blunt force about the culture they experienced in Springfield and in Illinois politics to offer as honest and introspective of a response as I can. I think it’s important as a candidate for governor, but more importantly as a man who wants to be a real ally, to offer respect in the face of such courage and honesty.

As men, we’ve got some work to do.

It starts with this — looking the women in the eye who come forward and testify about a culture of harassment and abuse and saying three words: “I believe you.” Far too often, this doesn’t happen — yet it must if we want real change in workplace culture.

So let me say it now: To the women who have spoken up in recent days, to the women who have spoken up in past years, to the women who may choose to never speak up but carry the burden of their own stories privately — I believe you.

I also know that if we are going to dismantle the “boys’ clubs” that so often permeate not just in politics and political environments, but across all fields and industries, it’s going to require a willingness in men to own our privilege, accept responsibility, and call out bad behavior by other men whenever and wherever we witness it, whether there are women present or not.

Women should not be forced to accept sexual harassment as the price of admission to a life and career in the political world. They should not have to endure unwanted touching, innuendo, and propositioning from men in positions of power. They should not be told, either expressly or implicitly, that they should keep quiet about the abuse they experience. They should not be shamed into silence and made to feel they did something to deserve it, or that they can’t take a joke. And they should not face retaliation if they choose to speak up.

This is unacceptable. It cannot go on like this, and it’s up to us to stop it.

I’ve tried, in my own life, to speak up when I see harassment occurring. But I want to acknowledge that there are probably situations and instances where I could have done more. I think that’s an acknowledgment that all men need to make. It’s only by looking in the mirror and being brutally honest with ourselves that things are going to get better.

Until we change the culture, not just of allowing overt instances of sexual harassment, but the more casual conversations where women are objectified and made to feel inferior in what is dismissively referred to by some as “locker room talk,” things are not going to get better. No more “rolling with it” — preferring to let the moment pass rather than rock the boat and call out the behavior.

When we don’t call out the behavior for what it is — sexual harassment or assault — we put women in danger. The truth is that jokes or statements that objectify women are not jokes at all. They normalize unwanted sexual advances and reinforce rape culture. It’s not just in poor taste to degrade women with this behavior. It is dangerous.

To end the pervasive culture of sexual harassment, it can no longer be the norm that men look the other way. It only ends when men actively participate in ending it. Here are several things we have to do to start:

When men witness other men engaging in this behavior, we must interrupt it, name it, and cut it off.
We must believe women and support them when they describe instances where they have been harassed or assaulted, and we must take those reports seriously and investigate them.

As for Springfield, the capitol is not a club house. It is a place where democracy and the free exchange of ideas should thrive. As long as women are being demeaned, harassed, and assaulted as the price of entry into Illinois politics, we, as a state and as a democracy, are failing. We must take steps to address these issues in our state capitols:

We must make sure women are elected, appointed and hired in all levels of government to break up the culture of “boys’ clubs.”
We must enact formal sexual harassment and interruption training for lobbyists, elected officials, and staff and establish a culture of accountability.

In the end, it’s all of our responsibility to change the culture to one where women are treated with dignity and respect. It will be uncomfortable, and it will require an ongoing effort even when the news moves on. But I’m inspired by the women who have persisted for so many years — who quietly kept going in the face of such adversity, who never allowed those who would demean them to diminish them, and who are now fighting so bravely for a better future.

The burden and opportunity to create change falls significantly on me and on other men. It is our responsibility to make it better. I accept that responsibility and will carry it out in the days, weeks and years ahead — and as your next governor in Springfield.