In this wild, historic, sea change moment for women’s rights – marked by the global #MeToo and Time’s Up movements – a very small Brooklyn-based legal center is working to give voice to low-income, disempowered victims of workplace sexual harassment. The women we don’t hear speaking up in the news. The women who don’t have movie credits or extra letters behind their names. The women who might be most afraid to speak up, and could have more than anyone to lose. Janitors, restaurant workers, undocumented immigrants.
The Gender Equality Law Center (GELC), which focuses on workplace discrimination against women and the LGBT community, is working right now to strengthen and grow a hotline they created for precisely those women who may feel most powerless. In fact, GELC just raised over $10,000 as part of an ioby campaign to that end.
Power in this moment
“The Me Too movement was started by a lot of powerful, well-positioned women,” explains GELC staff attorney Lauren Betters. “That doesn’t make coming forward easier for them, but in terms of financial resources it makes it easier. They have legal resources, they have the cultural competency of litigation and what that might look like. They’re often better educated and have access to knowing their rights. And they have power – particularly A-list celebrities or partners at big firms. They have more power than farm workers or restaurant workers or janitorial workers. So we wanted to bring this conversation to those people that are disempowered from coming forward.”
[Testimonial from one of GELC’s clients.]
The goal, says Betters, is to get word out about the hotline – a rare, free legal resource – as well as to expand GELC’s capacity to provide ongoing legal aid to more of the people who come to them via the hotline, rather than referring them out to bigger organizations.
“It is not safe for a lot of women to come forward,” explains Betters. “We know that that is a reality for a lot of people. And we would never push somebody to come forward with allegations of abuse or harassment if it’s not safe for them to do so. All we want to do is exist as a source of empowerment for those women when they’re are ready to, so that they know they’ll be supported and heard and that we will fight for them and with them. And that we believe them. That even if they don’t have power at work, they can have power in this moment and in this movement.”
[GELC Founder Allegra Fishel speaking to local community members as part of a civil rights task force in Brooklyn.]
The life-changing power of speaking your truth
Betters’ passion for her work was born, at least in part, in her upbringing. Her mother and hero, a single parent who raised two daughters on a waitress’ salary, by example instilled in her a desire to work for and with women. “My interest and passion,” says Betters, “has always centered around empowering women, and eradicating violence against women. I envision a world where women are on an equal playing field, and have equal opportunities to men. I went to law school with that in mind. Particularly helping women navigate a legal world that is very foreign and inaccessible at times. I wanted to be in a position where I could help other women succeed and not be impeded by these institutions that are historically built up against them.”
When Betters thinks of her work with GELC, a group of clients come to mind – women of color who are fighting harassment by an employer, and who have never felt heard by a lawyer, not to mention a white lawyer. “These women are grateful to have a place where they can go and be heard, where economic status is not a barrier to receiving legal services,” says Betters. “Each time we meet they are just grateful to speak with a lawyer who is supportive of their case and validating of their experiences. To know that there are people out there who take sexual harassment seriously, even though they face abuses of power in their workplace. To have the space to tell their story means a lot to these women. They are not motivated by money, fame or attention. They seek to make the workplace safe and free of sexual harassment and assault. They want to ensure that not a single other woman has to be humiliated, harassed, or assaulted by those in positions of power.”
[GELC Attorney Lauren Betters giving testimony to NYC Council Members in support of a bill on gender equality.]
In terms of the larger social movement building right now, Betters has a particular passion for the phrase Time’s Up. “I love Time’s Up,” she says, “because it is a statement and a call to action. It speaks so perfectly to ‘you’ve had your time, your centuries of subjugation of women. We’re done now. We’re taking our power back. And we have realized that we have so much power as a collective movement.’ For a long time we have had to justify harassment by saying ‘well, if I complain about this, I know that I’m going to lose my shift, or the kitchen is going to start sending my food out slower than everyone else’s, which impacts my livelihood.”
Well, not if you’ve got GELC or other legal resources in your corner, to hear your story, to believe you, and to fight for your rights – every step of the way. Not if you’re not alone. Not anymore.