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Petaluma women add voice to harassment discussion

While facilitating self-defense and assertiveness classes for women and girls, Petaluma’s Helen Grieco asks participants to raise their hands if they’ve ever experienced sexual harassment or violence. In her 25 years of teaching 10,000 women, there has never been an instance where a woman has not raised a hand.

After surviving a childhood where her father repeatedly beat her mother and spending a good part of her adult life dodging sexual violence and unwanted advances, the 63-year-old is not surprised. Since overcoming a struggle with substance abuse sparked by her perilous past, she’s dedicated her life to empowering women through counseling and other programs.

Like other Petaluma women’s advocates, she hopes the recent outpouring of sexual harassment allegations lodged against powerful men in government, entertainment, media and other industries will facilitate meaningful change. Though Grieco says sexual harassment has been an unwelcome reality for women for decades, the public has turned focus to the issue after allegations that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein raped and harassed women opened the floodgates for a plethora of reports across all industries and a #MeToo social media campaign for women to share their experiences.

“When someone powerful is willing to expose their experience, it makes it easier for us all to say ‘me, too,’” said Grieco, who works for the nonprofit political watchdog group Common Cause and founded Dear Gwendolyn Academy to teach women and girls critical skills. “It takes one person to change the world, that’s absolutely true. It takes a person like Rosa Parks sitting on a bus and saying ‘I’m not moving.’ This is another wave in the women’s movement to stand up for safety, health and equality.”

While the national conversation on harassment intensifies, the issue is one women also experience closer to home, said Petaluma employment lawyer Rebecca Kagin. Though the details of most cases are confidential, she’s represented women in the local restaurant, casino and fitness industries. Often, she said women are frightened of the implications of outing those who have harassed them.

“I think people are very intimidated to reach out, most people don’t speak up because they need to make a living, feed their children and people need to keep a roof over their heads … It’s swept under the rug at all levels of employment,” said Kagin.

In one case, a woman sued Petaluma’s 101 Casino, now Parkwest Casino Sonoma, for violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and wrongful termination after alleged sexual harassment, lewd conduct and intimidation from a male superior from 2005 to 2012. She was awarded $2 million, three quarters of that in punitive damages. A judge later halved that portion of the award to $750,000.

Kagin, who has practiced law for 13 years, has also experienced harassment and bullying from male colleagues. About a decade ago, an unnamed male lawyer often targeted her, making pointed comments about her gender and fertility. She filed a complaint, which she said was later substantiated, but the man remained in his job and progressed in his legal career. She’s since launched her own practice, a decision in part driven by those negative experiences.

“It is an indication of what women face, what we come up against and the distractions we face when we’re just trying to do our jobs,” she said. “We want to be recognized for our years of education, our passion to our career, and not just because we’re a woman with female body parts. That’s all people see sometimes.”

The issue is a systemic one, Kagin said, and change will take a commitment from leadership.

“People at the top, people in power need to invest in better training and education and when these reports are taken seriously, when warranted, these perpetrators need to be fired,” she said.

Accusations of abuse at state and federal governments also abound. Nearly 200 women signed a letter decrying a culture of flagrant sexual misconduct in the California’s capital, alleging that male lawmakers inappropriately touched them, while other men threatened them. It also condemned an inept human resources system, the New York Times reported.

In Petaluma’s city hall, training on harassment and sexual harassment prevention is provided per state requirements, Director of Human Resources Amy Reeve said. New supervisors are trained within six months, and receive training again every two years at minimum, she said.

In the last decade, three allegations of “impropriety” involving gender or sexual misconduct were filed by employees, City Manager John Brown said. While two were confidential personnel matters with no settlements involved, the most high-profile was a lawsuit filed by the city’s second-ever female firefighter, Andrea Waters.

Waters allegedly faced a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination during the six years she worked at the Petaluma Fire Department. The suit was settled last year for $1.25 million, the largest settlement the city has reached in an employee-related case since at least 2005. The department has since outlined plans to renovate bathroom and sleeping facilities at two of its fire stations to accommodate a more diverse workforce.

While sexual harassment is rampant at a professional level, Kathy Schmidt, co-president of Petaluma’s chapter of the American Association of University Women and a local realtor, said it’s critical to educate youth about the issue.

“People coming forward now are shedding light on something that others might not have even been aware of ... Over the years, we didn’t talk about it with men because most of the time the abusers were men,” she said. “Not always, but most of the time, and so it stayed in women’s groups and girls just trying to teach you to defend yourself. I believe it all starts in the schools, even at the youngest level.”

Meanwhile, Grieco plans to hone in on her work with young women, and will continue her fight for change.

“It takes a consciousness, first of all, you need to know right from wrong,” she said. “We have to train locally and make sure schools take it up and we have concrete policies on the job. We need to make sure in all professional and nontraditional areas, when women are making these claims, things are being taken seriously.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)