Monday, April 30, 2018

Soul Searching In A World of Sexual Abuse

It's been a long time since I've written anything. To be honest, I haven't known what to write because inspiration has been hard to come by. It seemed to me after the presidential election of 2016, a massive women's march, #Metoo, mass shootings, take a knee, and basic mothering...the marching arts needed to take a back seat. I've been busy, though. After the last election I knew I needed to get involved. I needed to fight for what I believed in and I needed to fight for women. With advocacy comes soul searching...a lot of soul searching. What do I believe in? How can I fight for those beliefs? How can I use my voice for the betterment of those things I hold close to my heart? The reality is that I've been speaking out for years and trying to bring awareness to issues related to women and children. I've been screaming at the top of my lungs about women in the marching arts being offered more prominent roles and creating better awareness for accountability in our own programs and at the national level.

However, I didn't go far enough. I should have been more direct and more blunt on how I felt about the sexual abuse and sexual assaults that have been whispered about for years in the marching arts. I have been working professionally in youth based mental health for over two decades and know the absolute damage that sexual abuse does to children. I knew. We as an activity have been whispering for years. I use to wonder who would be the first to speak out and who would be the first to fall. Your head is buried in the sand if this has never crossed your mind. This year there seemed to be a dark cloud hanging around the conversations at WGI. The world championships happened just one week after the scandal involving George Hopkins and the Cadets and of course, that was probably the biggest topic discussed with cocktail in hand and after the annual hugs from friends we hadn't seen in a year. People told stories. We sat in each others rooms listening as old friends mentioned "rumors" from when they marched drum corps and winter guard. The phrase, "I wonder who will be next," was frequently stated less as a question and more as an absolute. Three people mentioned to me instructors that had fondled them in showers, groomed them for sexual relations, and threatened them with leadership positions in their corps or guard. I have received three different emails from victims since January from people asking for my advice, which I always just say, "I'm not a lawyer, just someone who cares about ending this culture of silence." I advise the best way I can, with a note of apology that I can't do more.

It was as if the veil had been lifted on fear. There were no more jokes. There were no more innuendos. Many of us went back in our own minds and wondered what we missed and what we knew...or what we had heard. Personally, I have gone back and questioned every single moment of my guard career from my high school, drum corps, and teaching years. I have looked back with regret of my teaching style back in the 90's. I cringe when I think about the whispered abuses that occurred when I marched. Things I heard, but couldn't prove. I'm not even sure what I would have done if I could have proved it. We never ever spoke about the fact that adults cannot have sex with minors! We never discussed sexual assault between members. No one ever talked about it. We still have trouble talking about it.

I think the season of 2018 and even the marching band season of 2017, will be the year we say that the world found us. We realized that we weren't this cute little activity that is immune from the ills of the world anymore. One day, we'll look back and see that we spent decades exploring the world through the themes of our shows...always looking out. 2017/2018 will be the year that we had to look within. If you think about it, the marching arts was impacted by the Take A Knee movement as stories of kids in marching bands took knees during the National Anthem at local football games. The Contest of Champions; a long time state championship in Tennessee was cancelled due to a Nazi rally in the same city as the competition. In February, a school shooting stopped us all in our tracks and then to close out the year, the #MeToo movement found us. It would have been silly to think it wouldn't find us, because we are not immune. We are not so special that the world can't find us. I mean, if we are too big to not avoid copyright law, then of course sexual abuse and assault would find us. It has literally found just about everyone else in the world. When you create rock stars without checks and balances, then yes...the world will surely find us.

So what do we do now? We ask ourselves one simple question.  How can I make sure no one else is harmed through unchecked power and control?

We speak out.

We demand that anyone we work with, anyone who works for any organization that serves youth in the pageantry arts, and all gatekeepers of the activity create checks and balances that allow for safe reporting of abuse.

We demand that staff who are fired from programs for abuse...stay fired from all programs and to do that, we become diligent at checking references.

We demand that ALL staff, judges, and volunteers are background checked before walking on any school property for rehearsals and shows.

We demand dialog that goes beyond the "who" of creativity.

We bring bring back the idea of conferences and conventions where we discuss recognizing abuse, proper teaching techniques, and creating safe rehearsal environments.

Finally, we create a culture where excellence is not just a phrase we use on the back of a judging sheet to describe the creative and technical process, but a word to describe how our programs are run and taught. If I've learned anything in my profession working in the industry of youth services for 25 years, is that not everyone is in it for the kids. Often times people are in it for ego. Many are in it for money and when you put those two together unchecked, well that's a recipe for abuse. Just look at all the recent scandals of top sports and youth organizations. Keep looking, because in this new world of #Metoo, we are going to see more and if we don't start addressing this now in an open and honest way, then we might not have an activity to protect as schools will refuse use of their facilities and parents refuse to allow participation. We aren't immune.

We change the culture and we start now.