Beyond Firing: How do we create community-wide accountability for sexual harassment in our movements?
This past spring, as part of the fightback against white supremacy and the Trump regime, Enlace, the organization where I work, was asked to co-sponsor a rally. Usually, this would have been an easy decision. Dozens of organizations we collaborate with had co-sponsored, and the “United Against Hate” message was timely and unifying. But when I saw Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario on the list of anchor organizations I was confronted, once again, by the experience of sexual harassment I had as a younger organizer. Once again, I was thrown back into the exhausting and frustrating process of pushing for accountability for somebody who had harmed me and others, when our movement does not yet have the tools to hold this accountability process in collective.
Francisco Lopez has recently emerged as one of the core leaders of Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario. From about 2010–2013, I worked as an organizer on immigrant rights issues for the Rural Organizing Project, in close collaboration with Francisco Lopez, who was then the more powerful and significantly older Executive Director of Causa. In early 2013, Francisco Lopez began making unwanted sexual advances towards me, which became weekly over the course of several months. What started with Francisco coming on to me intensely one night, and me turning him down repeatedly, became phone calls, emails, pulling me aside at events, telling me stories about his sexual history, and offering me a significant salary increase if I would work for him. When I asked him to stop over email, documenting the exchange, he attempted to publicly diminish me while continuing the advances.
I felt many of the things that people in my position feel — isolation, shame, anger. I felt disillusioned with our movement spaces. As a young woman, harassment was not new to me, but I felt especially pained and naïve to have expected something different in the movement. I considered going into a different line of work.
But the truth was that I liked the work, and believed in it. I just didn’t want to work with Francisco Lopez. At this time, Ramon Ramirez was serving as both President of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), a Causa sister organization dedicated to organizing farmworkers, and as the board chair of Causa. I observed Ramon’s leadership style over time. Entering a room, he would greet everybody, including young women with minor leadership roles, with respect. He would ask about family. He promoted women in his organization, spoke about their accomplishments, and stepped back to make space for women in public speaking or leadership roles. He talked frequently and publicly about the importance of advancing women and LGBTQ leadership, and about his own commitment as a cis-gender male to unlearning sexism and homophobia.
I trusted Ramon Ramirez and so one day, mentioned Francisco Lopez’s behavior to him. Ramon was livid, but told me it wasn’t the first time he had heard stories like what I was sharing, but that nobody had wanted to come forward yet. I told Ramon that I was open to talking with other people who had experiences similar to mine with Francisco Lopez. Some time after that conversation, Ramon connected me with 3 other women who each had their own stories about Francisco’s sexual harassment.
The 3 other women were Andrea Williams (then Miller) and Robin Wright, at that time former Causa staff (Andrea now serves as Executive Director of Causa), and Meg Heaton, then the staff attorney at Causa. In our group of 4, we shared our stories and recognized patterns in Francisco Lopez’s behavior going back many years. My feelings of shame and self-doubt fell away as I learned about Francisco pressuring other women in similar, sometimes identical ways to what I had experienced. Collectively, we had experienced Francisco Lopez kissing and attempting to kiss, harassment of supervised employees and student interns, offering permanent employment and a larger salary during the period in which harassment was occurring, and pressuring to share a bed and/or hotel room while on professional travel. Over several weeks of talks, we broke our isolation, and it began to feel both possible and necessary to come forward together about our experiences.
Now, as part of a group of 4 women who had experienced similar behavior from Francisco Lopez, we brought written testimonies of our experiences to the Board, and soon after, Francisco quietly resigned his position. We did not go to the press or call him out publicly for reasons that were valid at the time. Meg Heaton was still working at the organization and bearing extreme stress as a result of the situation. We were also just a couple of days before May Day. We did not want to damage the reputation of Causa, the immigrant & Latinx community, or provide any more fodder to white supremacist organizations who are consistently on the offensive in our state.
In the end, Francisco Lopez left, rumors circulated, Causa held discussions about gender justice — which continue today — hired a new Executive Director, and we each moved on with our respective work. Francisco has never contacted us again.
In the end, this is a textbook “success.” Justice served, and the perpetrator cast out.
Except that in the case of Francisco Lopez, as in all cases, people do not simply disappear. Francisco has emerged now in Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario, which has collaborations with several other organizations. I continue to feel unsettled. I do not regret our actions towards accountability at Causa, but continue to ask “what’s next?” Something more is required than the “throw-away” approach. I believe our wider movement community is capable of holding a process of accountability where we 1) protect community members when the potential for harm from specific people exists, and 2) hold open a door to a transformative healing process, including people on both sides of the harm.
We need to scale up accountability to the community level
Over the past several years, I and other impacted women and allies have used different strategies to leverage our networks and build accountability. I offer these up with hopes that they can be of use to others in similar situations, and can build towards accountability processes that mirror our values.
The first step that we took towards a community accountability process was in 2015. Francisco Lopez emerged in organizing spaces, and we had learned in confidential conversations with several women that his behavior of sexual harassment may have continued. We drafted a letter, signed by the four women who came forward about their experiences, describing the behavior we had experienced. We felt vulnerable, since this was the first time our names were made public, and asked our allies to also draft a letter signed by a number of non-profit directors and other community leaders. We circulated these “open letters” privately, but widely, through our networks. At the time, we felt that reaching out to the press could harm the movement as a whole, and we hoped that by one-on-one outreach we could create a critical mass of people that could act to promote women’s safety. A copy of the letter from us is available here.
After circulating the letters, we received a number of calls from people seeking more information about Francisco. One person ran a University internship placement program, and had seen some red flags, but was grateful to have additional information to back up her intuition. Others were working on projects with Francisco and were unsure about whether to continue.
Different people took different actions based on our letter. Some organizations stopped working with Francisco, others placed restrictions on his ability to access women one-on-one in their organization, others continued working with Francisco the same as they had before.
Our intention was to provide information that could help to alert and protect future women who may have been at risk of experiencing the same thing we experienced. This was a partial success.
For a time it seemed that Francisco’s work in our field lessened, and that people were mostly taking precautions when working with him, though he did have a small core group that continued to align with him. Even though our names were now known to Francisco, none of the original four women were contacted by him or a proxy or ever received any form of acknowledgement or apology on Francisco’s part. We had perhaps succeeded at limiting his reach and ability to continue the behavior, yet there was no sign that his behavior would change, and no push to enter into an accountability process.
Now in 2017, Francisco Lopez and Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario have again started to become more visible in organizing spaces and in the press. Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario has some shared turf with both Enlace and Cause, where me and Andrea work, making our jobs stressful and putting our dignity on the line as potential ally organizations side with either us or Voz Hispana.
I am contacted on a regular basis by organizations seeking information, to know more details, to ask whether and how they should collaborate with Francisco Lopez and Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario. While I deeply appreciate when people reach out, every single one of these conversations is emotionally draining and takes time away from the important work that I love. I have to newly share our letters, hope that they get into the right hands, and direct well-meaning people about what appropriate action to take.
I am not the only one who is drained emotionally — the other women impacted, former board member allies like Ramon Ramirez and others are also sinking energy and resources into this process. This extra load takes away from our work, work that is strategic, that is accountable to our communities, that is focused on changing the balance of power for marginalized communities and building frontline leadership. Our work is important, yet we find ourselves again and again engaging in a one-by-one process of educating and organizing around Francisco Lopez.
I long for some larger systems of accountability and guidelines about what is acceptable in our movement spaces, and what the consequences are for those who choose not to live by our core values. I long for the ability to collectively hold those systems, for accountability to be a muscle that is practiced and strengthened over time by all of us.
When I received the invitation to co-sponsor the United Against Hate rally, I decided this time to honor my experience and the safety of other women in the movement, and open the conversation a bit wider. Even after four years, it felt like a risk. As a cis-gender woman I have been raised both in and out of movement spaces to put up with harassment, abuse, and to diminish myself in the face of male needs and ego. To begin to do otherwise is both liberating and frightening. I have pushed past these barriers because I believe the safety and leadership of women, trans, and gender non-conforming people is important. It is one of the key pieces that we need for our movements to be truly liberatory. Not only is it wrong for us to be harmed so constantly, but it is limiting our ability to grow towards our wildest visions of the future we need and deserve.
With this in mind, I sent the following email to the rally organizer:
One lesson I have learned as an organizer is that there are no shortcuts, and sometimes we have to slow down in order to get things right, even when the realities we are facing are urgent and terrifying. To me this is called movement building. I hope to be engaged in a long future of movement building with you.
That said, Enlace will not be able to endorse the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally at this point. Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario is one of the primary “hosts” listed on the Facebook page. Voz Hispana is an organization led by Francisco Lopez.
Several years ago, Francisco left his job as Executive Director of Causa after multiple women brought complaints demonstrating a pattern of years of physical and verbal harassment by Francisco towards women within the organization and supporters of the organization, including staff and interns that he supervised. I was one of those women.
To my knowledge Francisco has yet to be accountable to his behavior. I am not aware of any attempt by Francisco to acknowledge his actions, the impact of his actions, or make amends with the women impacted. This is concerning to myself and a number of movement leaders who have chosen not to work with him and organizations he represents. Since several years have passed, I believe this information must not be widely known, which is why I am sharing it now.
If we are going to build movements capable of winning, we have to win for all of us. This means fighting white supremacy, racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism and economic oppression in all of their forms, even and especially when it means we have to look in the mirror. It means holding ourselves and each other accountable.
I hope that an accountability process will sometime be possible for Francisco, and that he may be willing to enter into that process. Until then, it is not possible for me to endorse collaboration with him and organizations he represents. If Voz Hispana were to leave the space, or if Francisco were to leave Voz Hispana, I would vote yes wholeheartedly to participating.
I hope that you all will hear this information with the seriousness that it deserves, and join me in a commitment to make our movement spaces safe and free from repeats of the oppression we face each day in our daily lives. It will not be done in a day, but every day we have the opportunity to do better.
The response from rally organizers was swift and appreciated. At a rally organizing meeting, my letter was read and another impacted woman offered a first-hand account of her experiences with Francisco Lopez. The rally coalition voted to suspend participation by Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario until an accountability process were undertaken. The rally organizers sent the following letter:
It was brought to our attention that charges of sexual harassment have been leveled against the leader of your organization, Francisco Lopez. A few of the organizations endorsing this event and individuals involved in the planning are directly affected by this and asked that your group be removed as a co-sponsor due to repeated failed efforts to initiate an accountability process with Voz Hispana for Francisco Lopez. The issue of removing Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario as a co-sponsoring organization was proposed to a planning meeting which included over 40 representatives of the various endorsing organization last night. The group voted unanimously to remove Voz Hispana as a co-sponsor due to the serious nature of the charges and to our group’s commitment to the safety and rights of women in our social justice community.
Many in attendance recognized the important work that Voz Hispana does in this community and expressed the hope of working with Voz Hispana in the future if this issue was adequately addressed.
We had now gone from quietly circulating our letter, to constant 1-on-1s about Francisco Lopez, to engaging a coalition of over 40 organizations in our sector, to moving dozens of organizations to stop working with Voz Hispana until an accountability process had taken place.
The rally organizers had an action plan guided by their principles, they consulted with myself and the other woman, but did not place the burden of action on us. This is a clear example of what happens when allies step up WITH people impacted by harassment, and I hope other organizations will be able to take these bold steps in the future.
Our organizations, coalitions, and movement spaces need both protocol and the will to take action in cases of sexual harassment and accountability.
The response of the United Against Hate rally organizers in my experience was the exception, not the rule. More commonly, I am called on personally to guide and hold our movement accountable over and over. Partners call me asking should they work with Voz Hispana? Can they sponsor something that Voz Hispana is also sponsoring? Should they work with groups aligned with Voz Hispana?
It is exhausting to carry the weight of navigating the situation. What lightens this weight is when people and organizations have a shared sense of what is acceptable, and what constitutes accountability.
I am relieved at the ways people who harass are increasingly being publicly discussed and held accountable, which often means removed from positions of power. What we need to start talking about is that each organization does not exist in isolation, and that whether or not people who are harassing are on our payroll, they are our responsibility. We need community accountability.
If you are thinking, “yes, I want to be part of that solution” and wondering how, here are some guidelines. If you are somebody who knows me and the situation with Francisco Lopez, please take these to heart. You can still call me, but I hope that the call will be to share the steps you are taking towards accountability, rather than to ask me what to do.
- Start by believing us, allying with us. We are not the problem because we came forward with information about Francisco Lopez’s behavior. Francisco Lopez’s behavior and lack of recognition or restitution is the problem. Support those who have gone through harassment. Do the right thing, even when politics or positioning pressure you to do otherwise.
- Organizationally, come up with a protocol for how/if to work with people who have harassed and assaulted others in the movement. Decide not to help expand the visibility, leadership, and reach of people who are known to be harming other people and to be unaccountable.
- When you hear a rumor about harassment or assault, make it your job to approach the people who have committed harm or their organizations directly. Ask them what happened. Ask them what they are doing about it.
- Make it your job to approach people that you see working with people who have committed harm or their organizations when there is a history of harassment or assault. Describe your protocol to them and encourage them to develop one as well.
- Be public about the protocol and decisions you have made, even involving specific individuals
- Be like Ramon Ramirez, particularly if you are a cis-male ally. Promote and lift up the leadership of women, trans and gender non-conforming people. Talk about your commitment to dismantling sexism and homophobia when speaking publicly. Build a culture of respect for women, trans, and gender non-conforming people and all marginalized people.
- If you are a funder or have access to funding, bring resources into the field of community-wide accountability and dismantling heteropatriarchy. Do not fund organizations that have unresolved allegations of harassment. When situations are unclear or messy, default to siding those who are marginalized.
Path back — What is the transformative solution?
I have mentioned accountability frequently, so what do I mean? Accountability includes naming the behavior and impact of our actions, an apology, and specific steps towards reconciliation or restitution.
I believe in the ability of people to grow and change. I have been harmed and have harmed people in the past, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. None of us are perfect. Also, while my priority has been to protect myself and others, I also appreciate the complexity of Francisco Lopez’s personal history. I know that hurt people hurt people and that Francisco Lopez has his own painful history, harmful patterns, his own demons to unpack, but also his own strengths. I believe in a path back. I believe accountability can be a step towards greater wholeness, personally and as a movement. The project of building towards collective liberation is too important and too difficult to permanently cut people out when they make mistakes. We can’t afford it.
There are many models for accountability, all of which rely on somebody like Francisco Lopez entering into an uncomfortable process. Restorative justice and transformative justice offer models. Here and here are good resources to explore.
Firing and excluding people who harass mirrors the approach of the criminal justice system. We want to throw them out. And yes, today, that may be the best blunt instrument that we have to increase safety in our communities. I believe it is almost always a step in the right direction. Still, I am troubled by the lack of options we have for exercising accountability.
I believe there is a path we can begin to walk towards building strong communities where sexual harassment and assault are simply not tolerated. I believe our movement is broad enough to offer a path back for those who violate our ethics, and are ready to be held accountable. To develop this muscle, we need to start being more honest with ourselves and in public about the way that harm is being done, and the way that we are or aren’t responding. We need to develop the capacity to struggle with each other, and be committed to learning this new skill movement-wide.
At the end of the day, people do not simply disappear. My work as a prison abolitionist has taught me that as much as we try to “throw away” people — to the prison industrial complex, through deportation, through violence — people do not simply “go away” when it is convenient or desired by somebody that we do. Further, when somebody is “outside” — unaccountable, invisible, not a part of — there is very little possibility of reconciliation, transformation, or healing.
Yet while I am hungry for a path back for those who do harm, it is also not the burden of people harmed to continue to cover for, reach out, and hope for accountability for the people who have harmed them. Covering for Francisco Lopez by remaining publicly silent about what he chose to do to me in 2013 has been a heavy burden that I am done carrying. Pushing for accountability, alone or in small numbers, with my own dignity at stake, has been another burden.
This article calls on each of you, readers, to help me to carry this weight. Will you accept my invitation?
Note to the press: We are not seeking press regarding this story, but Ramon Ramirez will be taking any press calls at email@example.com or 503–989–0073.