This author’s powerful essay about sexual harassment is part of a valuable conversation.

Author Bonnie Nadzam spent years not talking publicly about the sexual harassment and assault she experienced in graduate school.

As is common among survivors of sexual abuse, Nadzam felt shame and regret that kept her quiet. What’s more, the men she reports harassed her were well-known authors and her professors — men with significant influence over her career as a writer.

Talking openly about her experiences, though, is exactly what Nadzam chose to do in a recent essay published online.


Bonnie Nadzam. Photo by Jeremy Chignell, used with permission.

In it, Nadzam not only details the specifics of her experiences with harassment and assault by two separate men at two separate universities in two separate degree programs, she also makes clear her reason for sharing her story now, which has nothing to do with forgiveness or revenge. Instead, it has to do with shedding a light on something so often kept in the dark:

"These are men who abused and disrespected me, who took advantage of their positions to exploit me, in institutions of higher learning where their gender and power let them control the narrative ... and where they were allowed to respond to my own resistance with dismissiveness. I wish to feel free to share my experience in the hopes that it will protect someone else from having to be debased through the same exploitative humiliations. And perhaps most of all, I’m sharing because some of you have similar stories eating you alive."

As Nadzam quickly learned, she was right.

Nadzam’s story is not an isolated incident in the literary world. Far from it.

Just weeks after Nadzam’s essay was published, a follow-up post appeared in which 11 other women, also writers, discussed similar instances of sexual harassment they either witnessed or experienced firsthand.

Writer and critic Roxane Gay shared that Nadzam’s essay reminded her of “all the stories I’ve heard about men in the literary community over the years ... who proposition women at book parties and readings and conferences, who offer ‘mentorship’ by way of seduction, who commit a range of sexual assaults and who are rarely named publicly because everyone is, understandably, too scared of the repercussions to their careers and their personal lives and their peace of mind.”

Author Roxane Gay. Image via AP.

Poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell commented on the pervasiveness of the issue: “If you gather a handful of women together and one of them speaks of abuse at the hands of mentor, boss, or partner, it is like opening a tap. The stories come out slowly at first but with an increasing pressure that floods the room. Most women have at least one of these stories.”

And author Porochista Khakpour echoed Nadzam’s sentiment that stories like this need to be brought out of hiding: “As hard as it is, we need to share these stories and we need to put them out there. If not for ourselves, for the women who inherit all this from us.”

Beyond the public responses from these other writers, Nadzam received an outpouring of messages and emails from women who had similar experiences.

Nadzam says what struck her most about these responses was "the repeated description of each person’s physical experience while reaching out." The women wrote of shaking hands and pounding hearts, even when writing about abuse that happened years and years ago, showing the lasting and detrimental effects sexual harassment and assault can have.

Of course, it’s not just the literary industry where this happens.

Image via iStock.

According to a 2015 study by Cosmopolitan, 1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed at work. And instances of sexual harassment and assault happen in a variety of industries.

In October 2016, actress Rose McGowan shared on Twitter her experience being raped by a powerful Hollywood executive. And earlier this year, Susan J. Fowler wrote a blog post detailing her multiple experiences with sexual harassment during the year she worked as an engineer at Uber — a move that’s helping to expose the darkest side of a pervasive sexist culture affecting women in STEM fields.

Sadly, it makes sense that these incidents are occurring in workplaces and institutions of higher education where power structures are so keenly defined.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are about power. Students are beholden to instructors and mentors for guidance and education. Employees depend on supervisors and managers for performance reviews and raises.

These power dynamics automatically put one person in a more disadvantageous position and allows exploitation to, at times, go unchecked. We see examples of it from celebrities, politicians, and even the current president of the United States.

But women can challenge that power dynamic by refusing to remain silent. Just like Nadzam did.

A victim’s silence is one of the greatest powers a perpetrator can have. But the more vocal survivors of harassment and assault become, the more that power dynamic shifts, which is why women like Nadzam and so many others — women brave enough to make their stories known — are so very important.

As Nadzam said in her original essay:

"What I really want to say is that all of these things happened to me, that none of it was okay, that I didn’t deserve any of it, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of. … We know that men, especially those in positions of power, try to hurt, tame and control what they fear, and cannot or will not try to understand. … If ever there was a time to disregard those who won’t believe our stories, now is the time to speak very plainly about the behavior of those men who assume we’ll be swept away by their poetry, or politics, before we understand what’s happened."
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On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

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Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

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Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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