Note: The recent spate of sexual harassment stories in the media have triggered unpleasant memories for me. I write this from a position of privilege as a white male, but I hope that my story will will help others avoid such situations – and give others the power to speak up when they see it.
Sadly, this story isn’t about all the amazing things I learned while at CC, nor about the wonderful people I have made connections with all around the world as a result of the internship. This is a story about an internship from hell. This is a story about the non-profit tech space that is not immune to toxic power dynamics. This is a story about how terrible interns can be treated, and how poorly sexual harassment complaints can be handled by leadership in the open community.
“You are an industrious young man, aren’t you,” he said with a smirk on his face. I was a volunteer at the first Open Knowledge Festival (OKfest) in Helsinki in 2012, fresh out of grad school and hoping to land a job or internship working in nonprofit tech. I’d been inspired by a course focusing on free and open source software (FOSS) earlier in the year, and after some volunteering with Mozilla on their Open Badges project, I was willing to go the extra mile to find my place in the space.
Heck, I was so desperate I’d even left Hawaii and moved to the Silicon Valley. Yeah, I did that.
This chance encounter with a member of the small team at Creative Commons (he was wearing the iconic CC shirt) was just what I needed. Call it luck, happenstance, or whatever you wish, my apartment in Mountain View, California was less than three miles from the CC headquarters office. After returning to the US after OKfest, I met some more of the CC team who lived in the Bay Area, and I was in. I was an intern. With a graduate degree. It’s not worth mentioning how little money I made, but the rent would be paid and ham-and-cheese sandwiches were part of the daily routine.
My supervisor was working on a new grant-funded project to examine legal and technical barriers to data sharing in the sciences…part of the larger umbrella we call “open science”.
One officemate at CC dressed with a sort of eccentricity that called attention to herself, but that wasn’t an invitation to talk about her body. She wore fun shoes and bright patterns, like many people do. “What do you think of today’s stockings, eh?” my supervisor said as soon as we were alone on our side of the horseshoe-shaped office. I can’t remember what my response to him was, but I do remember how wrong it felt to be feeding into his sexualization of my colleague at work. Was this typical behavior? Was this just how things went in professional offices? This was week one in the office. It got worse.
“Hmm…those pants fit you very well, Billy. You do dress well. Can you give me style advice, show me how to be ‘cool’?”. Now I was the target. Weekly, if not daily, my supervisor would make comments about my clothing, my fitness, and my charm. Some I could easily brush off, but others were followed by long stares that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My desk was positioned so that he could always “keep an eye on me,” but I began to question what that actually meant.
Remember, I was new, and had six months to prove that I was worth keeping on as part of the team at CC. Having little opportunity to work directly with the other staff, I assumed that any job prospect within the company would rely entirely on my supervisor. So I took it, brushed it off, packed it away, and only vented to my friends about it. It got to the point where my closest friends would joke about how my supervisor was “working on me” and that I might be propositioned at some point. I usually laughed nervously and changed the topic.
While critiquing my work, he would often make references to his genitals. News and events in the open science space would be forwarded to me, often with an inappropriate jest wrapped around it. This person was the jokester in the office that everyone actually feared. Nobody wanted to be the focus of his ridicule. He once made a joke about adult diapers in room full of lawyers, policy folks, and technologists. Most people laughed nervously. Nobody called him out on it.
When it came time (after six months) for CC to decide whether or not to keep me on, my supervisor spoke out against me. The reason I know this is because after I was hired (yay!), he took me to lunch and told me just that. Over a cold sandwich and a cup of soup, he told me that he tried to block my hiring. What. The. Fuck. He had spent half a year badgering, pestering, and harassing me. Then he tried to make me go away.
Flash forward to Buenos Aires, Argentina for the 2013 CC Summit. This (then) bi-annual gathering of CC advocates and intellectual property activists was the chance to get valuable face time with affiliates that were part of our global network. Collaborations abound! We all felt the love!
My supervisor must have really wanted to feel the love, because he showed up, drunk, to an informal dinner gathering of about a dozen CC staff members and affiliates. His attention focused on one young woman in particular.
“If you don’t get drunk, how do you expect to get laid here?” he slurred. My face went blank. He was propositioning a woman he had only just met and who was an important part of an active affiliate group. I looked across the table at her, our eyes locked for a moment, and I tried with all my might to apologize, telepathically. I was weak. I should have told him to shut the fuck up. I should have told him to leave. I didn’t.
To summarize, this person sexually harassed me, other colleagues in the office, and a member of our affiliate network. These were only the instances I personally witnessed. But my story doesn’t end here, because I eventually did complain to the organization.
When the new (current as of 2017) CEO took over at CC, there were many changes. The goal was sustainability for the organization, which meant refocusing and reprioritizing each staff member’s work. At this point I had transitioned from the science and data initiative at CC to the CC education team. My previous supervisor had no power over me, but he still took every opportunity to cut me down in front of my colleagues. At a certain point I did say fuck it, and I filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with HR.
It took more than a week for our HR manager to inform him that a sexual harassment complaint had been filed. The HR manager was intimidated by him, and she was expected to deliver the news to him in person. Every day that passed from the time I filed the complaint was stressful for me. What would he do when he found out I was the one who complained? How would he retaliate? What new horror would this person introduce into my life?
After a few weeks, the HR manager and the CEO called a virtual meeting with me. They informed me that my former supervisor had been told of the complaint, and that he denied none of my accusations. And he was sorry.
That’s it? That’s all? Well, yes, there would be nothing more done about it.
A few weeks later, the CEO “exited” more than a third of the full-time staff at CC, including me. My former supervisor had a grant extending a few months longer, so he was let go once the grant funds expired. Nothing else was done about it. He’s still out there. I doubt anything has changed.
We don’t participate in open communities because we’re trying to get laid. We don’t do it so we can sexualize our colleagues. We do it because we know that contributing to the greater good is something meaningful. My own participation in the community has been altered both by my experience with sexual harassment, and by the poor handling of the situation by the company.
So what’s the point? Why am I writing this? If I had intended to pursue damages after my complaint, I would have done it then (and have since signed a legal document that would not allow such a move). What I want is for more people to stand up to this kind of behavior. It is unacceptable. It is disgusting. It undermines the aims and intentions of good people when we all tolerate sexual harassment, and the open community is not immune. It drives away talented people who want nothing more than to help push things forward.
So I ask you: Have you been the victim? Have you witnessed others being the target of such harassment? What did you do about it? Were you stronger than me? It’s time to speak up. Our silence about such things will only grow the list of people who this happens to. It’s time to recognize that even in the open community, this happens. It’s time to wake up.