People call me “brave” for speaking on the record about my “Me Too” story which spanned over a decade of my career. Truth is, I wasn’t brave. I was prepared.
After I anonymously shared my story with Shine Squad two years ago, a major media organization wanted to publish my story. They reached through to Shine Squad (who protected my identity) to contact me. The reporter said I could stay anonymous. It was well before the #metoo movement hit its stride.
Absolutely not. Hard pass. Nope. The fear of being revealed, of repercussions, of being known as a victim, the fear of losing myself in victimhood and cruel reactions… it overpowered me. Frankly, the fear of being labeled a “whiney little bitch,” by those in my field terrified me. It would be the end of what had already been a difficult road. The road of quiet suffering was fifteen years long. Shine Squad passed along my anonymized response of “No, thanks” to the news organization. With that, I went back to my life, one in which I would not give voice to the personal and professional challenges I faced.
How I became involved in the Huff Post story
Fast forward two years, as I was starting new nonprofit venture and applying for new jobs, an acquaintance asked to put me in touch with Molly Redden, who was interested in doing a story on Clay Johnson. Was I the author of the Shine Squad piece and could I talk? I vibrated with fear. Coincidentally, I was about to get on a flight for meetings to the very city Molly was based in. Would I meet with her? A series of expletives quietly left my mouth as I considered the question. “Every time I start something new,” I thought, “This thing comes back to haunt me.” Maybe it was time to stop running from the haunting.
By the time I’d arrived in the Big Apple, I’d sent off a couple urgent texts to close friends in public relations and journalism. Could they give me advice on how to approach this? I was so scared and not sure if I should respond. On calls with Monica Guzman (a journalist and co-founder of Seattle’s The Evergrey, and also one of my bridesmaids) and Sara Kiesler (a profoundly strategic political communicator and former journalist who I like to go out to vegan happy hour with), we talked about my options.
On a call from my hotel room in New York City, Sara read my anonymous Shine Squad post. With gasps and several “oh, Sarah, I’m so sorry,” she shared, “You know, I always wondered what happened to Knowledge As Power. Why you closed it.” Then we talked about what questions I should ask Molly, questions I should ask myself, if I decided to meet with her.
In a New York City hotel over my breakfast of an Impossible Burger, I lobbed questions at Molly, a petite brunette in a gauzy polka-dot blouse. What was her intent with this story? How many people had she talked with already? What was her professional background? What did she suspect would be the story’s angle? Prior to meeting Molly, I queried friends who’d worked at the same news organizations as her. What was her reputation? Did she leave under good terms? In person, as in reputation, Molly seemed to be a skilled-yet-sensitive straight-shooter. She was focused on the career impacts of victims who had been impacted by the same person over a number of years and industries. As I ate the last of my strangely meaty vegetarian burger, I found it interesting that she was focusing on the number of women and men who were complicit in passing him between their campaign and social change organizations. Before we parted, I remember thinking that she reminded me of an old-school reporter with strong journalistic principles, unlike her modern click-bait peers.
The next day, with HuffPo editors’ and Molly’s agreement to keep my identity protected to the best of her ability and to keep all notes air-gapped, I told Molly my related experiences, perceptions, assumptions. I shared how it had impacted me as a 24-year-old campaign volunteer/staffer and as a techie-nonprofit entrepreneur in my late 20’s and early 30’s. How most women in leadership, involved in my experience, were actually shockingly cold to what had happened. That I wrestled with the ethics of coming forward — would this story just be one that further demoralized our faith in humanity, in social change? Or would it spur change?
Beneath a professional veneer, Molly looked horrified by my story. At times, my eyes welled up, emotions surfaced as I recalled what I had experienced. How I thought I’d found a safe group apartment filled with people I respected, to stay at in Burlington while volunteering my way to a campaign job. How I told him “no” and nobody come to my rescue. That memory, of holding him off me while pinned to the bed, is still visceral for me. I shared my experience reporting it to the Dean Campaign, and how, much later, I asked a friend at Sunlight to quietly have my back while I was participating in an important “open gov” leaders meeting Sunlight Foundation convened with about 30 thought leaders in a large conference room for two days. I had just wanted one person to have my back in a room for two days. I didn’t want to be seated near him. I didn’t want to talk with him. But that simple request to one person at Sunlight would go on to wreck my reputation and career. As I shared what happened, I could almost feel the weight of other people’s actions piling on top of what he had done. “Oh shit,” I realized. “The weight of all of them has been here this whole time.”
As the interview went on, I shared that I had been told by another woman — who I wouldn’t come to know until well after I’d reported to the campaign what had happened to me — that she had alleged she had been raped by him. Molly’s mouth dropped. While I mentioned the other alleged assault (without naming the victim) I mentioned that I had been told by her that there were more victims than just she and I. What I knew of those allegations haunted me.
Nearly two months elapsed between talking on background with Molly and when I went on the record. In the meantime, I got ready for whatever might come my way. At the wise advice of Deanna Zandt of Shine Squad, I applied to the TIMES UP Legal Defense Fund for legal assistance. I soon heard back from their skilled and responsive coordinator who identified me as a high-priority case. They provided contact information for three lawyers I could speak with about pro-bono legal support. A couple weeks later, the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund reached out about public relations assistance, too. When I received the emails, I could feel myself shrinking. This all felt too real. Maybe my story wouldn’t even be needed and all this would blow over? Maybe… nothing would happen? I could just go back? I left the emails unresponded to.
Just in case my identity became known, I reached out to another contact of Deanna’s, Matt Mitchell, hiring Matt for his help to secure my social media, information, technology, and implement security strategies which would help me weather if my identity was ever exposed. Matt was incredibly kind and helpful. I learned a lot from him and recommend him highly. We talked about “swatting” and, out of an overabundance of precaution (and hearing a terrible story about a “me too” woman’s mother being swatted), I went to police departments where I or a close family member had properties in their jurisdictions. (Note to Seattle Police Department: your precincts are actually terrible at taking a “don’t swat until you ask questions” note for your address database). The smaller the jurisdiction, the easier they were to work with. They were sad someone would need this help, but glad I notified them. One of the sheriffs even knew my family name and remembered my late father, who had been the sheriff’s real estate agent. Small towns, folks, are way better at closing ranks for one of their own.
Until 10 days before the story went live, I did not once consider coming forward on the record.
So, what changed? How did I get so brave? I didn’t. I got prepared. I got a team. I readied myself for a myriad of possibilities and consequences. Being a #MeToo story isn’t about being brave — -it’s about feeling a responsibility to the truth and to victims who cannot speak out. I was also ready to be rid of the weight this experience — and all who piled on who I was attacked by — to cast the weight off me once and for all.
When Molly called me, shocked and relieved, to say that Clay had willingly gone on the record, I didn’t know what to think. She read me his quotes and asked me if I would respond. He seemed to admit to much of his behaviors. Molly asked, “So, with him admitting much of this, do you feel safer going on the record?”
I knew no other woman who had had experiences like mine was in a place in her life where she felt safe in going on the record. They’d all spoken on background. I’d gotten (some) of my shit together for this story. I could reach back to TIME’S UP. I couldn’t let his be the only voice and let theirs be silent. Most of all, I couldn’t take this weight on me anymore.
I was gonna need a bigger team. I still wasn’t sure if I could go on the record. I emailed TIME’S UP that, yes, I’d need help. I called through the three TIMES UP Legal Defense Fund lawyers suggested to me. One of the three turned out to be part of an incredibly powerful team of lawyers headed by Alison Stein at Jenner Block LLC, who generously donated (very expensive) staff hours on my behalf. Stein is whip-smart and her team was responsive and skilled. The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund put me in contact with a PR team at Prichard Communications. Mac Prichard understood the context of my story immediately and with Jenna Cerruti at Prichard, they quickly walked me through clarifying questions I should ask Molly before going into an on-the-record interview.
Sidebar — the costs of coming forward
I should pause here to say that as this team was coming together, there were financial costs of doing so. Not mentioning this would be unfair to others contemplating coming forward with their own stories. While I was generously donated legal and public relations advising through the incredible help of TIMES UP Legal Defense Fund, many of the things I felt I needed for my own safety, security, and knowledge came at a real cost.
All this wasn’t coming at the best of times for me. I’d been through a challenging Fall and Winter, where I’d paused my work as a consultant to help my family care for my mom in hospice. She passed in early December. Most of Winter was spent helping my brother sort through various tasks with my mom’s estate (made more complicated by a heater and a roof breaking down on the small building I’d suddenly inherited) and me plodding through the long process of trying to find new clients and work. Through my husband’s help and a little inheritance from my mom’s estate, I was paying off bills from the Fall and investing time and money in whatever could get me a new job.
When Molly came to interview me, I knew I would need advice on security and privacy, but I had no sense of the other costs that would come along. I paid for help like Matt’s on security and privacy consultation (worth every penny) and related tools and resources to help me (and family members) keep secure. I backed off of job applications and promoting my consultancy because I didn’t know what to expect after the story broke; what if it broke or my name was outed when I was trying to interview for work? How would an employer take it? Navigating that seemed overwhelming.
I realize that in many ways, I’m very lucky to have had the community of support (and frankly, a husband with a good job) during all of this. At the same time, I worried throughout this whole process about scraping bottom or adding debt to our household. I called my brother days before I knew the story would publish. Could he push through whatever bit remained of my part of mom’s estate? I might have to disappear for several days until I knew how the story had been received. Based on hearing about blowback/media attention towards other MeToo women, I didn’t feel safe staying at home or with family (one outcome of the security work was finding out how all of us are in online databases which share where our likely home address, and the homes of our relatives are and that trolls use them). When the transfer arrived a fews days after the story broke, I cried with relief and felt like I should call to thank my mother for protecting me, but I couldn’t.
Making the Decision
The afternoon before I was supposed to interview with Molly, I sought out the paid advising David Goodenough’s (real name) office to ask for his sage advice. I’d used his council on other career concerns a couple of times over the years. He runs the Goodenough Company and splits his time between career therapy (a real and valuable thing) and advising corporations, nonprofits, and governments on how to deal with problematic staff. In Seattle, the most successful people I know recommend him when a friend is trying to make a big decision about their career or fix a sticky problem at work. He’s been asked to interview and assess a spectrum of problematic personalities in the workplace. I trusted his gut on this. Ultimately, we walked through of all the reasons not to go on the record. It was lengthy. But the shorter list of why it seemed important to me to go on the record was weightier. His council was invaluable.
The next morning, with two last-minute advisory phone calls, I took a deep breath and interviewed with Molly.
The following day was arguably the hardest, as Molly read back quotes from Clay and Ellen Miller (who only after I went on the record chose to comment), each quote was like taking a punch to the gut. I listened quietly as tears streamed down my face. I gulped water as to not say something off the cuff. And I told Molly I’d have to get back to her. My response, within the hour the story went live the next day was, “Their statements do not match my interactions with them.”
Post-bravery in an undisclosed location
The story published. I read it and was horrified at how many other people’s stories there were. Then I packed up a bag. With air miles, I took a one-way flight out of Seattle. I had a new cell phone number and had shut down the old one. I had already shut down most of my social media. I didn’t know how people or the media would react, so, I went to a place I felt secure and nobody knew me.
Alone in an apartment that only my husband, lawyer, and brother knew I was at, I split my days with “self care” at the apartment’s gym and a nearby beach. Failing to have eaten much for three days, I bought groceries and reminded myself to eat. I read reactions online. There was, for me, a previously unimaginable amount condemnation for what he had done. Support for the “brave women” who had come forward (for a long time, I think people didn’t use my name out of sensitivity to me but it felt a little anonymizing) was humbling and comforting. At the same time, I was worried about the solutions being offered in response to the article. Most solutions were already in place but ignored on the Dean Campaign. None of the solutions would have prevented what happened to me as a result of Sunlight’s callousness.
A week after the story published, I hopped on another flight, this one to DC. I stayed at a friend’s place and began to engage with leaders in my industry. I realized that I wanted two things to come of all of this:
1) That the social change community implement nuanced and effective solutions to preventing the kind of behaviors described in the Huff Post article. 2) That victims like me weren’t just the topic of conversation, that we were leading the conversation. Our knowledge of where our industry fails makes for a detailed map of our poor systems and practices.
The last couple of weeks have been filled with meetings and discussions with so many amazing people who, like me, are focused on how we make sure these kind of problems are avoided and mitigated in the future. I am thankful to all who are engaging in our industry’s problem-solving.
It is with heartfelt gratitude that I want thank all of you who provided me the knowledge, preparation, support, and solidarity which helped me come forward. And while he doesn’t like me to mention him, my husband is this rock who supports me, whatever my decisions. And to the founders of Shine Squad who provided me the first place to tell my story, thank you. Sabrina Hersi Issa, Deanna Zandt, Jeanne Brooks, and Tracy Van Slyke, thank you for you vision and leadership on Shine Squad. To all who I’ve mentioned here, you were the “squad” who helped me brave one of the scariest decisions of my life. Thank you.
And, to the women who were impacted by Clay and those who enabled him, I know you’re just as strong as me and I fully support you living your life and sharing your story however you see fit. I hope me coming forward took some of the “weight” off you too. I am sorry my words fell on indifferent ears years before. It haunts me that many incidents could have been prevented if those in leadership had listened or acted. Most of all, I am deeply saddened that other women in leadership accepted terrible behavior and endangered those who worked for them.
As a bit of a postscript, I want to thank Erie Meyer, who also went on the record for the story. We met after the story published. Her energy, brilliance, support, and keen instincts are a thing to behold. I am honored to know her.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for being a more supportive community of people than I could’ve imagined two, 10, and 15 years ago. This has been quite a journey, from fearful and maligned victim to supported, seen, and vocal survivor. Thank you.
Sarah Schacht is a consultant on open government and civic technology strategy, specializing in building revenue models for clients who work with governments. She’s an author on topics ranging from open government, to civic engagement, to her viral post on high-value, low-cost wedding planning. A two-time E. Coli survivor, she successfully advocated for posted restaurant inspection scores in King County, Washington and developed the 2.0 of the LIVES restaurant inspection data standard. When not working with clients or advocating for better workplace practices in the social change sector, she surfs, gardens, and participates in Seattle-area community organizations. She serves as an informatics committee member for the National Environmental Health organization.