It’s something of an understatement to say that the past year has been filled with surprising and often disturbing news out of Washington D.C. The sheer volume of it all has been deafening and trblingly desensitizing. There are days when I feel like I just need to turn it off, because my mind and my heart simply can’t hold all the complexities, all the disappointments, all the brazen social, cultural, and legal transgressions by our elected officials.
But on Sept 27th, I was riveted to the television. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee served as a potent reminder that in times of social upheaval - when the temptation to throw up our hands and give up is often at its strongest - acts of true leadership have the power to influence the road ahead.
Dr. Ford does not hold a position of formal authority in American society. She is not an elected official. But on Sept 27th, she exercised real leadership. And if we care to, there is quite a bit we can learn from her example. Here are five insights, five ‘aha!’ moments, I had after taking the past week to process and reflect upon her actions.
(note that all the quotes that follow are Dr. Ford’s unless otherwise noted)
1. Leadership is Choice. Often the Most Difficult One.
“As the hearing date got closer, I struggled with a terrible choice: do I share the facts with the Senate and put myself and my family in the public spotlight, or do I preserve our privacy and allow the Senate to make its decision without knowing the full truth of his past behaviors?”
Dr. Ford’s choice was an intensely personal one, and one she was intensely aware of and thoughtful about. She could have chosen not to say anything. Instead, she spoke up. She could have chosen to remain anonymous. Instead, she put her name on the line. She could have chosen not testify. Instead, she stepped up.
Leadership is an activity. A verb. A Choice. That is always available no matter where we stand in the hierarchy of organizations, communities or even societies. We cannot predict when we will be called to lead, but when the call comes, it is up to us to decide if and how we will answer it.
2. Leadership Often Comes With Loss. Purpose Can Turn Loss into Sacrifice.
“Apart from the assault itself, these last couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life. I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world… my greatest fears have been realized — and the reality has been far worse than what I expected. My family and I have been the target of constant harassment and death threats. I have been called the most vile and hateful names imaginable. These messages, while far fewer than the expressions of support, have been terrifying to receive and have rocked me to my core… I am here today not because I want to be… I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
The choice to testify required tremendous personal losses for Dr. Ford. It impacted her mental health. It impacted her safety and the safety of her family. It risked her reputation and her professional livelihood.
But she stepped up anyway. Why?
“It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell you the truth. My motivation in coming forward was to provide the facts about how Mr. Kavanaugh’s actions have damaged my life so that you can take that into serious consideration as you make your decision about how to proceed.”
In her mind, the stakes were too high to remain quiet. She put herself on the line because she believes that a democracy is only as democratic as its institutions, and that it is the duty of every citizen to speak the truth when those institutions risk failing us. If our democracy is going to install a person to the most powerful court in the land, then we need to know as much of the truth as possible before that decision gets made. That higher purposes allowed her to turn her own losses into sacrifices.
3. Real Leadership Builds On What Came Before
“Testifying has helped me understand that one individual's behavior and actions make a difference. That my actions are important to people other than myself… I did what my conscience told me to do, and you can't fail if you do that.” - Professor Anita Hill
Twenty-six years ago, almost to the day, professor of law Anita Hill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee to publicly testify that she had been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas. In some ways, Dr. Ford’s testimony felt like deja vu. A solitary woman testifying before a panel comprised primarily of older white men.
But in 1991, she stood even more alone. There was no larger movement surrounding her actions and she had to bear the additional burden of proof that comes with her social identity as a woman of color.
Today, Ms. Hill is a professor of social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University, and she is a leading national figure in the #metoo movement. Her bravery planted seeds that are bearing ripe fruit today. And while it remains to be seen whether or not Judge Kavanaugh will be installed to the Supreme Court, there is no denying that Dr. Blasey Ford stood on Professor Hill’s metaphorical shoulders when she delivered her own testimony last week.
4. Real Leadership Inspires More Leadership
“Bravery is contagious. Indeed, that’s a driving force behind the #MeToo movement. And you sharing your story is going to have a lasting, positive impact on so many survivors in our country. We owe you a debt of gratitude for that, Doctor.” - Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
One of the most nail-biting aspects of this whole process is the razor-thin margin of votes that separate Kavanaugh from a seat on the Supreme Court. Assuming all Democrats vote ‘No,’ it will take only two ‘No’ votes from Republicans to stop his nomination. On September 28, 2018, in Portland, Maine, the day after Dr. Ford’s testimony, at least 200 protestors gathered across the street from Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) office to urge the senator to vote ‘No’. Collins is one of the pivotal Republican senators whose vote could truly sway this decision because - despite the fact that she votes along party lines more than ninety-percent of the time - she is still undecided.
Additionally, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) - who released a statement saying he would vote ‘Yes’ for Kavanaugh after the testimony - was confronted by two protestors - Maria Achila and Maria Gallagher - who made a scathing, emotional critique of the implications of that ‘Yes’ vote. A short time later, he played an instrumental role in getting the judiciary committee to delay vote in the full Senate by a week, which will allow the FBI to investigate allegations of sexual assault against the nominee.
“Thousands of people who have had their lives dramatically altered by sexual violence have reached out to share their own experiences with me and have thanked me for coming forward.”
These protesters showed up because of Dr. Ford’s testimony. And they, in turn, put their time and energy and voices on the line to exercise their own leadership. While it’s not yet clear how these protests will influence the senators’ votes, there is absolutely no doubt that the senators are listening, and many people feel mobilized to act.
5. Real Leadership Confronts Us With Deeper Issues
“The issue of sexual harassment is not the end of it. There are other issues - political issues, gender issues - that people need to be educated about.” - Professor Anita Hill
The deeper challenge that Dr. Ford (and Professor Hill and the entire #metoo movement) is helping our country confront is not whether Kavanaugh will get a seat on the supreme court. This is about much more than any single individual. The real challenge is the distribution of power and privilege mainly held by white (heterosexual) men - and the way this power and privilege has been consciously and subconsciously protected and abused through a wide variety of actions, from discrete locker room talk to overt sexual assault.
That is what the #metoo movement is about.
That is what the Women's’ March on Washington was about.
And that is what Dr. Ford’s testimony is surfacing yet again.
All of these actions disrupt the status quo. They force us to pay attention. To make a decision about where we stand. And, inevitably, they make the people who have benefited the most from the status quo most uncomfortable.
Real leadership can come from any quarter, regardless of what role or position someone holds. I’m grateful to people like Dr. Blasey Ford for serving as a living reminder of that fact.
We all can make the choice to have these harder conversations in our families, communities and workplaces irrespective of our roles or positions. And it is essential. Because the challenge is too big any one person to take on alone. More leadership is needed.
Michael Koehler, Washington, DC.