What do you do when someone uninvitingly invades your personal space with their presence or with their words? For many both women and even men, it is a feeling that unstraps you emotionally and psychologically, leaving a person wondering ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘Was it something I said to allow this form of harassment or abuse?’

PHOTO: Mary L. Datcher/The Chicago Defender

As children, we have been taught to trend thin with precaution against strangers. Today, we still teach our children to yell ‘Stranger, danger!’ when they are in fear of someone attempting take them against their will. But how do we teach our kids as they transition into adulthood to speak up and let your voice be heard?

One of the main reasons is most cases of sexual harassment and assault in the work environment come from individuals, we’re familiar with—a co-worker, a supervisor or a client.

The latest wave of women and men stepping forward from the Harvey Weinstein fallout has flipped the script on a culture that has become embedded in many industries across the board. The California Legislative General Assembly opened Pandora’s box of public wrongdoing which triggered multiple boxes becoming unhinged including the open letter by a female staffer accusing House chamber leader of sexual harassment who has since resigned his leadership role.

The Me Too movement started 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, a Black woman who wanted to let others know of her experience of sexual assault to can create a safe place of discussion and prevention. So, when actress Amber Anderson, one of 79 alleged victims of Weinstein used, the #MeToo hashtag—it sparked the fuel to many victims standing on the platform of solidarity–‘what do I have to lose?’

In Springfield, it was only a matter of time when the match would light under someone’s bottom, exposing a behavior that has become all too familiar in the political realm. What was uncovered was 27 complaints filed by people who had experienced some form of on-the-job harassment or inappropriate behavior. All 27 complaints laid dormant for almost two years without an Inspector General. An office which investigates complaints involving State legislators and ethical practices—it’s also a position which is monitored by the General Assembly.

Within the last two weeks, there have been immediate steps to prevent another public scandal revolving around inappropriate behavior among government staffers, public officials and lobbyists.

Last week’s bill status of HB4148 which approves a special hotline in place for complaints and HR0687 which creates the Task Force on Sexual Discrimination and Harassment.

Senator Heather Sterns

Senator Heather Sterns (D-Chicago) says, “The legislation items that passed didn’t apply in the State Employee and Ethics Act. There was no discussion at all on sexual harassment as being something that should be or not something we should be participating in having a policy rather than a requirement which in this case is included in the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act,” said Sterns. “So, the law we passed, assuming Gov. Rauner signs it is would make that a requirement.”

Sterns says this would include sexual harassment training but doesn’t feel it’s sufficient enough regarding how serious these allegations are from the complaints.

“We know there’s a lot of sexual harassment but not much is being reported and it’s hard to think you’re going to report when the structure that is set up to report is that you’re reporting it to an entity that reports to the legislators which may be the one you’re having the problem with,” she says.

The apprehension is real for women who are working as a subcontractor for an agency or the few who own their own lobbyist agency to step forward and those are state administrators.

Knowing how difficult the decision is to encourage more people to step out, Senator Sterns adds. “I’ve certainly felt there is a lot of apprehension around it. You have real power dynamics going on and there are a lot of staffers and lobbyists who are concerned if they go forward. It could harm their ability to move up or get their legislation passed if they’re making a complaint.”

Senator Toi Hutchinson

Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights) joins Senator Sterns along with other women in the Senate. “At the time, sexual harassment was not an express violation of the code. Which means that any of the 27 complaints probably don’t say sexual harassment. There are some other ethics complaints or if they did, it wasn’t ‘harassment claim’.” Hutchinson says because of these complaints were filed prior to the law passed, the new Inspector General wouldn’t be able to take action.

Filling the Inspector General’s role was a challenge in itself.

“The inability for the state to move in any direction and the political gridlock on top of it. You’ve got to have both parties agree and they had three people who were asked that all turned it down. The political breakup of the commission on who that would be,” she explains.  “There are no active complaints, meaning there are no active complaints until someone investigates it. If there is no one to investigate it then there’s no active complaints. I think all of that ‘ridiculousness’ contributes to a big old perfect storm,” says Hutchinson.

As the president of the National Conference of State Legislators which is a bipartisan organization comprised of legislators from 50 states including both Democrats and Republican members, Senator Hutchinson understands this is an ongoing problem in other legislatives houses. She says, part of her role is to listen and collaborate with her colleagues across the aisle to find a solution to the rising complaints of sexual harassment. Outside of California and Illinois; similar open complaints have included Oregon, Florida, South Dakota, Massachusetts and Wyoming.

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