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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fwd: PORTERVILLE: Advocate says sexual harassment is widespread

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Advocate says sexual harassment is widespread

2012-08-08 08:40:29

Lesa Donnelly is no stranger to the way things work for women in the Forest Service. From her perspective, white men end up in the positions of power, and those women who manage to do so as well do so only by playing the game. 

Donnelly knows, she said, because for 24 years she worked in an administrative capacity for the U.S. Forest Service and during that time, she was sexually harassed. Now, she works to help other women as a civil rights advocate, taking on cases of people who have been sexually harassed and discriminated against, cases like Alicia Dabney, 30, a fire fighter that was recently fired from the Forest Service.

"I've been doing this advocacy for almost 20 years," Donnelly said. "And Alicia's case is one of the most egregious that I have seen."

Dabney, 30, who was assigned to the Springville Work Station, stands out, Donnelly said, not just because of the seriousness of her case, but because Dabney herself is so vocal.

"Alicia is an anomaly. Most of the women sit there and take it because they need the job. They are single mothers, they have children to feed. They need the health benefits," Donnelly said. "I have women tell me 'I am not going to file a complaint because my child is ill and if I lose my health benefits, my child could die.' That is holding women hostage."

Donnelly has fought this fight for herself. In 1995, she led a class action lawsuit representing 6,000 women with sexual harassment complaints against the Forest Service, which is a part of the Department of Agriculture. Though this case was settled in favor of the complainants, things have not changed for women in the Forest Service, she claims. Donnelly said women are treated horribly, complaints are filed, and the agency does its best to ignore the problem or discredit the person making the complaint. Donnelly said that in the case of Alicia Dabney, the agency has done both.

Dabney has tried to contact Kevin Elliot, the current Sequoia National Forest supervisor, but has been unable to speak with him on any of the issues. Donnelly is not surprised, as Elliot has been a part of mediation cadres that Donnelly has tried to settle with in past mediations.

"I have never settled a case with him," she said. She added the Sequoia National Forest region is either one of, or the worst region in terms of the amount of complaints.

"He (Elliot) has a lot of discrimination complaints on that forest from women and minorities," Donnelly said, adding that Dabney's experiences fall under both categories, as she comes from Comanche roots, grew up on the Tule Reservation, and is married, with children. "They have treated American Indians abominably."

National Problem

Not that the problem is just local: Donnelly has received calls from women all over the state, from Angeles National Forest to around Redding, alleging everything from sexual harassment and assault to sex discrimination. Donnelly is aware of at least 100 complaints from California alone, filed about the Forest Service to the Equal Employment Opportunity Board.

"Region 5, which is all of California, has the highest number of EEO complaints in the nation," Donnelly said.

Donnelly said that the Forest Service also has the highest number of complaints of any of the USDA agencies, and that the number that have actually been made is nothing compared to the incidents which go unreported, out of fear of retaliation. Donnelly says that there are witnesses that could speak for Dabney, but are afraid to because of "the chilling effect."

Many of the problems Dabney has faced, Donnelly said, are forms of retaliation because of an initial complaint she made in 2010 while she was still an apprentice studying at the Wildland Fire Academy at McClellan Air Force Base, and because Dabney has continued to be "very vocal" since then. That complaint was investigated in the fall of 2011, and Dabney was dismissed from the academy shortly after. Donnelly says that since then, the Forest Service has acted out of a desire to keep the problem secret, so the agency will avoid being taken to court.

"Sexual harassment is against the law. That's one thing that the agency gets nervous about, because the courts are harder on them with sexual harassment then they are for mere discrimination," Donnelly said. "It is harder to prove that you discriminated against me because I am black or Hispanic. Sexual harassment is easier to prove when you have evidence. They are supposed to take it more seriously. Unfortunately they took it seriously by retaliating against her (Dabney) and trying to discredit her."

Discrediting Dabney is better in the long run, Donnelly said, because the alternative would be to actually resolve the problem, which would cost the agency far more than it costs to lose a single person.

Because of a system of favoritism and nepotism, Donnelly explained, the Forest Service maintains misogynistic, macho culture, where new employees "think and act" just like the men who hired them. "They are going to have to remove a lot of these guys, and they (the agency) don't want to do that," Donnelly said. "So ... dealing with this problem is to get rid of her (Dabney)."

Donnelly said that locally, the Forest Service has taken things a step farther, by no longer being an equal opportunity employer.

"They are not going to have women on that crew ever again," Donnelly said of Dabney's crew. "That's discriminatory. There are other crews on this forest that they have not hired women on. Because they can't stop the men from harassing the women, they won't hire women on the crews."

Both Dabney and Donnelly attest that the attitude is instilled in the fire crews as early as their apprenticeships. Donnelly compares the culture to a fraternity, and she and Dabney said they have seen incidents that are very much like frat-boy behavior. 

Donnelly wants to make it clear that every time a woman in the agency is terminated, it affects everyone. Donnelly has used just about every connection she has to raise awareness, internationally, especially amongst officials in Washington D.C., on the issue, using Dabney's story. Donnelly has contacted civil rights activities, like Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the woman who inspired the No FEAR Act (Dabney was given a No Fear Award in June) and USDA Coalition of Minority Employees president Lawrence Lucas. She's even found a way to try somewhat bypass the Office of Communications, and send e-mails directly to the White House in the hopes that the president or his administration will stand up and act.

"One thing he (the president) needs to be focusing on is keeping these women and minority employees working in an agency, so they are not going off on welfare," Donnelly said. In a time when people are already losing jobs, and are suffering emotionally because of money problems, Donnelly feels its important for those who are employed to continue to be that way. 

"She wants to work," Donnelly said of Dabney. "They have taken her out of a good job and are trying to make her an unemployed person, using the tax-based systems instead of putting money out into the community. When they let someone off, it hurts everyone in the community."

Donnelly's case in 1995 was settled, but the agency did not fully comply with the terms of the settlement, forcing Donnelly to take the Forest Service back to court with a motion of contempt, and then later, another lawsuit nearly a decade later. A press release announcing the 2004 lawsuit, on the www.agcoalition.org website, quotes Donnelly as saying that regardless of the court's rulings, women in the forest service continued to be sexually harassed. I

"This is 2012, how can people believe this." Donnelly exclaimed. "You'd think we'd be farther (as a society) than this."

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