#MeToo on the Hill | Op-Ed from a friend of NVRDC

A friend of NVRDC opened up publicly in recent weeks about her past experience with abuse and sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. Her experience illustrates a struggle we see in many different forms, between individuals affected by violence and abuse and the institutions reluctant to make waves by standing up for them.

NVRDC’s mission is grounded in the ideal of survivor-defined justice, but unfortunately, that almost never means delivering to clients the exact outcome they desire or that their cases deserve. Often, the avenues for the justice they seek do not exist, or are cut off by roadblocks. Often, survivor-defined justice means pushing with all our might in the client’s chosen direction, and hoping to see the needle move incrementally. Until we have fomented a lasting cultural shift and secured a profound change in the institutional response to abuse, survivor’s options will remain unjustly constrained, and abusers will continue to evade accountability.

Anna’s story is a powerful call for institutional reform within the very entity creating the laws of the country. Please read it and consider how we can work together to extend survivors the options, the resources, and the backing they need to reach a more just outcome.

Editor's Note: We intended to share only an excerpt of Anna's article with our followers, but found it too difficult to trim down. Her piece in its entirety, posted below, is worthy of reading, reflection, and action. If you'd like to see the original article in the Opinions section of The Washington Post, it can be found here.

I’m sharing my #MeToo story because
Congress is broken, and we have to fix it

By Anna | May 7

The Capitol dome is shown before sunrise in Washington. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The Capitol dome is shown before sunrise in Washington. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The halls of Congress are filled with wide-eyed young people who are excited and honored to serve in that exalted place. Once I was one of them, but that’s not the story I am compelled to share now. Instead, mine is a story of workplace abuse that affected every part of who I was.

And of the institution that let it happen.

Throughout 2014, while I was working on Capitol Hill for Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), I was berated, punched and sexually harassed by Esty’s then-chief of staff, Tony Baker, whom I had dated before he became my boss. I kept quiet about this abuse at the time, worried about retaliation and concerned for the career of the congresswoman I had idolized since joining her first campaign.

On May 5, 2016, more than a year after I’d left Esty’s office, the reality of this abuse took hold in a new way. Baker called me more than 50 times, threatening to find and kill me. Upon learning what happened — both on that night and in 2014 — Esty kept Baker on her staff for months, putting her staff and my life at risk. She now acknowledges her response was poor.

In the days and months that followed, what it meant to be scared was redefined. I went to the police and obtained a year-long protective order, but beyond my immediate fear and profound disappointment came a slow, painful acknowledgment of all that had come before.

There was the escalating anger. The public humiliation. The professional and personal berating. The assault. The panic attacks I learned to expect. The threats to keep me silent that worked every time. All of this altered my self-perception and chipped away at my self-worth. I was confronted with the nagging, excruciating belief that maybe some part of me deserved it.

Looking back, what strikes me about this abuse was my inability to fully understand it. I remember turning off the House WiFi on my phone in 2014, crying on the bathroom floor, desperately searching for someplace to go for help. There was no good option. I was trapped.

Mine was a narrative that didn’t yet exist. No one talked about this; there was no language to define it. I questioned the extent to which it was happening at all.

As a 24-year-old in my first professional job, I mistook survival for complicity and suffering for weakness. I accommodated and rationalized to minimize and de-escalate. I made excuses, forgave and tried to forget. So this pattern continued, ingraining in my mind the role I played in my own abuse. For more than a year, I checked behind the shower curtain and locked my bedroom door every night.

Then, everything changed.

Survivors came forward with their own stories, and the national conversation shifted with the rise of #MeToo. Suddenly, my story was validated and legitimized. Suddenly, people in power were held to account.

Suddenly, there was something I could do to help prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else.

I was done being a victim. I was done being afraid to walk to my car.

I am sharing my story now because there is a problem in Congress, and something must be done.

It has been about three months since the House passed #MeToo legislation to reform how cases of harassment are handled on Capitol Hill. The bill would revise the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, addressing hurdles that block victims from holding abusers accountable and shining needed light on secret settlements, among other provisions. But similar legislation sits idly in the Senate, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unwilling to bring it to the floor for a vote. This is shameful and unconscionable.

Congress must pass this bill. And then reform must go further.

The employment contracts and nondisclosure agreements required by some congressional offices upon hiring should never be allowed to prevent a staffer from protecting himself or herself. There should be no time limits on when a complaint can be filed. The proposed Office of Employee Advocacymust be required to disclose the limits of the counsel it provides, including any guidance on civil action. And the impartiality of advocates assigned by the office to guide staffers through this process must be ensured.

When problems arise, congressional staffers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not isolated and ignored by the members they trust and the institution they work for.

I write today with urgency, determination and boundless hope for the promise of this moment. That these stories — and my story — will embolden those who continue to endure, and prompt those who lead to act. That moral fortitude will prevail over systemic flaws, fear and intimidation. And that a commitment to decency in Congress is upheld, in the end, by the better angels of our nature.