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for people who care about the West

It’s too soon for #MeToo apathy

The hard work on reforming federal agencies rife with harassment is just beginning.

 

Lyndsey Gilpin is the editor of Southerly, a newsletter covering environmental and cultural issues of the American South. She’s a former High Country News editorial fellow and conducted our Legacy of Harassment investigation into sexual misconduct and discrimination within the National Park Service.


Before the #MeToo movement took off on social media, before it was common knowledge that members of the Trump administration — including the president himself — had been accused of sexual misconduct, before male media moguls, Hollywood actors and executives, an Olympic coach, comedians, editors, professors, business leaders and others were ousted or called out for similar accusations, I spent a year investigating sexual harassment in the National Park Service. I talked to dozens of women about their experiences. Almost every one told me she feared things would never change — that if she spoke up, she’d risk her career, her reputation, her ambitions, all for nothing.

Each time, I promised I would do everything in my power as a journalist to hold the people and institutions that perpetuate this culture accountable.

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That was over a year ago. Since then, the national discourse about sexual harassment has shifted. People are more confident about sharing their stories, making the subject less taboo. The movement is spurring conversations about what harassment is and how power dynamics play out in the workplace. More revelations about my own focus — the widespread, systemic sexual harassment and gender discrimination in our nation’s public-land agencies — have surfaced.

But I’ve started to notice that the shock is wearing off. Many of the comments, online and in real life, have become nonchalant, almost bored: It’s everywhere. It happens. That’s the way it’s always been.

Each time I see the shrugs or hear the comments, I wonder if those women are starting to think they were right all along, that nothing will really change. And that’s unacceptable.

Almost 5 million people participated in the Women's March in 2017, and following the #metoo movement, activists have sought even more social change.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

To know that these problems exist everywhere — in every industry, in schools and factories, on streets and in Ubers, at parties and conferences — is infuriating. Yet despite our indignation and exhaustion, we cannot abandon our responsibility: Not only do we have to call out problems and share our stories, we have to figure out how to make sure what happened to us never happens again.

That’s a massive feat, especially in government agencies founded on a machismo culture like the Interior Department. To address sexual harassment and gender dynamics means fundamentally changing how the agencies work, from top offices in D.C. to remote corners of the American West.

The first step is removing those who perpetuate a culture of harassment. There’s some evidence this is happening: Last year, Yosemite Park Superintendent Don Neubacher retired after allegations of gender discrimination surfaced. Grand Canyon’s superintendent retired as well, following an Interior Department investigation that found systemic harassment in the park. And in early March, following a PBS Newshour investigation of sexual misconduct in the Forest Service, Chief Tony Tooke resigned, and longtime senior official Vicki Christiansen replaced him as interim director.

But the problem is bigger than just a few top-level employees. In 2017, following multiple similar findings in parks across the country, the Park Service surveyed half of its 22,000 employees about sexual harassment and concluded that one in 10 had experienced some form of it in the previous year.

That makes the next step — changing the systems that fail repeatedly and the culture that allows harassment to occur — even harder. Stopping sexual misconduct requires Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his entire department — plus leaders of each agency within it — to revamp the reporting process in order to prevent complaints from getting lost in the cracks. They must actually enforce zero-tolerance policies instead of transferring those accused to other parks, ensure harassment training is taken seriously, and hire more women, people of color and LGBTQ people to prove their dedication to equality. Park and forest managers have to use independent investigators and be transparent about the process. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission needs to better track complaints and re-evaluate how harassment is defined. Every day, each ranger, supervisor, superintendent and law enforcement officer has to confront this culture, which has persisted since the agencies were founded.

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The same goes for the rest of us. Each day, we all have to work to not only understand what abuse looks like, but how to actually, physically, legally stop it. That starts with listening to women. I don’t know where it ends, but I am certain we’ll never find out if we say we’ve already done enough.

Taking a breather to digest these painful stories, reflect on our own journeys and relationships, and come to terms with the work ahead — that makes sense. Throwing our hands in the air, giving up because it hurts, does not. If people in dangerous situations — a lone female scientist rafting down the Colorado River, a young firefighter on her first hotshot crew, a migrant worker on a farm in the Central Valley — are brave enough to speak out, we should be brave enough to hold those who fail to protect them accountable.

At the very least, we owe them our attention.


High Country News is conducting an ongoing investigation into instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender discrimination in public land agencies, and how agency officials handle these complaints.

If you are a federal public land current or former employee who has experienced sexual harassment, please consider contacting us privately through this tip form: