Highly Sensitive People Saw The Insurrection Coming: You Can Still Listen To Us

About 15-20% of the population has a character trait that has been called many names by researchers but is commonly known as sensory processing sensitivity or high sensitivity.  I am a therapist in private practice, I see many highly sensitive clients and I am a highly sensitive person myself.  Those of us who are wired that way see many things clearly but tend not to shout our knowledge from the rooftops.  We tend to have our hands full taking care of the tendency for our nervous systems to become overwhelmed by stimulation.  Neither do we enjoy a great deal of attention so it is difficult for many of us to act as advocates and invite overstimulation.  Nevertheless, we tend to see situations of injustice – and the nature of them – very clearly.  It is not an overstatement to say that every single highly sensitive client I have, imagined Trumpś refusal to leave office, in vivid detail, literally the day Trump was elected.  We knew it was coming.  This uprising of the bullies. 

It is thought that highly sensitive people evolved to be able to detect subtle differences for the protection of the species.  We are not made of magic, although the soothsayers of yore may have borne similar genetics.  We know things because our nervous systems are wired for us to take in an extraordinary amount of information from the environment and process it intuitively, rather than analytically.  Over the past four years, we have talked among ourselves with astonishment that others can not see what we do.  To us it was all so obvious.  But alas, 80% of the population does not function the way we do.  The majority of humans can tune out many red flags. 

High sensitivity exists on a spectrum, like all ways of being human.  Some are so sensitive that with too little support they simply could not withstand the cruelties of this world. Sadly, too many take themselves out of it.  Others are genetically less sensitive, but have been made more sensitive by experiencing and surviving trauma.  Many survivors of abuse, racism and trauma – even those who are less sensitive – could see what Trump was bringing.  They, having lived the cycle of abuse, have read ahead in the proverbial book and know the ending.  

Abusers like Trump have a playbook.  And it is not so unpredictable as them making the shocking choice again and again to keep using that playbook.  It is more like a reflex.  A lifestyle.  When a human being has made a habit of lying, frightening people, dehumanizing humans and insisting on their own wants over the needs of others, they rarely just divert course.  This is not rocket science.  This is the knowledge in the bones of sensitive people, written here for you in plain speak.  A leopard never loses itś spots, as my mother – my sensitive matriarch forebear – used to tell me. 

Trump is what early abuse and neglect can do to those who are on the far other end of the spectrum.  The highly insensitive.  Research shows that sociopaths have very little activity in the emotion centers of the brain, while empaths (another word for the highly sensitive) have extraordinary amounts.  Do not tremble at the word sociopath, as if it such a rare occurrence as you think.  The sensitive people would have you know, they are walking among us.  They are perhaps up to 7% of the population.  They do not care about what you want.  What you need.  What they want is the only thing that matters. 

The sociopaths find friends in those who have been harmed by abusers and who – in that situation – sided with the aggressor.  I will be generous and assume that there are perhaps a few supporters of Trump who retain some ability to empathize with those being harmed by his rhetoric and actions.  Who are not full blown sociopaths.  But you see,  in a survival situation there are two choices:  find an ally who is safe or side with the aggressor.  This latter choice – as was undoubtedly the experience of so many of the insurrectionists in their youth – leaves a mark on the brain that is like those leopardś spots.  Let me be clear with my message – no one should waste time trying to change it.  They will side with the aggressor henceforth, as a habit. 

Here is the message from the sensitives to anyone who cares:  If you care, find others who care.  Ask people – straight up, regardless of their political affiliation – if they care.  When you find them, care together about all those who need it, boldly, loudly, persistently.  Take care of where we live committedly.  Protect anyone being harmed with bold, decisive action to stop the violence, the hurting.  That muscular response is love in action.  Love is the only thing that can stop hate. We must open our hearts.  We must love hard. 

The minute a bully took power we knew.  Siding with the aggressor was going to happen on a grand scale.  We are not surprised. A bully uprising was inevitable.  

The question though upon which rests nothing less than the safety of our home and planet, upon which rests the safety of our citizens to live just lives, upon which rests the future of our children  is this. 

Will we open our hearts?  

And will we, all of us who care, 

Will we have the guts to love hard enough? 

Go to www.openyourheartlovehard.com for more about love as a bold choice.

Black Women are Leading White Women Toward a True American Feminism

On Saturday evening, before Joe Biden spoke of having been elected president, Kamala Harris took the stage to set the tone for the night.  Eyes sparkling and voice steady she showed us what it looks like for a woman to break a barrier.  But white women should take note:  It is a Black woman who has been elected, for the first time, to the second highest office of the land.  Harris lifted her voice and she told America what it so desperately needs to hear – Black women are the backbone of our democracy. 

One only has to listen to the five podcasts of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 project to understand what Harris means.  Black women have struggled and organized and persisted, over and over, through the history of this country.  The founding fathers of this country never actually believed that men were created equal and they never included women.  It is Black people and especially Black women, who have over and again led us to better and more for this country. 

Let us appreciate some of the many exemplars of this phenomenon.

Harriet Tubman was tired of living in bondage.  So she succeeded in the all but impossible act of escaping from slavery. But Tubman did not just free herself.  She went back into harm’s way again and again to make so many others free.  

Sojourner Truth, a tireless abolitionist, famously spoke at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention of 1851 and delivered the speech entitled, “Aint I a Woman?”  In it, she challenged white women feminists – many of whom were openly racist –  to acknowledge Black women in their struggles for rights.  

The women of the Atlanta Washerwoman strike of 1881, many of whom were formerly enslaved, were so fiercely dedicated to being paid fairly that they organized every one of the Black washerwomen in Atlanta – their already poor families going hungry in the pursuit of justice – and effectively denied white Atlanta it’s feeling of entitlement to cheap labor by drying up laundry services until they were given decent pay.  

Ida B Wells, a journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement lived from 1862-1931.  She risked her own life by documenting lynchings as a journalist.  She founded the NAACP.  She stood up to white feminists who sought to leave Black women out of the suffrage movement.  

Rosa Parks didn’t just kick off the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus.  Parks was a fiercely committed desegregationist.  She worked tirelessly until her old age for civil rights. 

Ruby Bridges was six when she alone desegregated her New Orleans school.  As she walked in to take her rightful place as a student, she was spat upon and greeted by white protesters holding a Black doll in a coffin.  But it was Lucille Bridges, her mother, who let her do it.  Her mother, who had a gun pulled on her by a white man as she led her child inside.  Lucille Bridges who said, “You just have to be strong and pray.”  

Fannie Lou Hamer organized tirelessly for Civil Rights, firing up the Black community by saying to a church full of the faithful that “God is not going to put it in your lap.”  It was Hamer who traveled with Malcolm X, sharing her experience of trying to register to vote in the South, withstanding great violence and threat by white people, who said first in a speech in Harlem and again at the 1964 Democratic National Convention , “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  

In 2012, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors and Opal Tometti were sick and tired of mourning Black men and boys killed by police.  They were tired of mourning Black women murdered too: women such as Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson.  So they wrote #Black Lives Matter on social media and made a call to action.  Today, a Pew Research center poll showed that the majority of Americans show support for the movement.  

Stacey Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018 and may very well have won.  The white Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, happened to be her opponent, and he was in charge of certifying the election.  He refused to count any absentee ballots and oversaw widespread voter suppression.  With the votes counted she lost by 55,000 votes, so she was denied the seat.  But she didn’t concede and she didn’t back down.  She turned to organizing Black voters in Georgia and now she has won the state for Joe Biden to be the next President of the United States.  She could be credited with turning Georgia from red to blue for the first time in history. 

The list goes on but one last person – whose name is withheld – exemplifies the way Black women fight for future generations.  A Black woman in Tulsa Oklahoma, 105 years old, is leading a group of people seeking legal reparations for the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.   This woman still has flashbacks of seeing Black bodies lining the streets in a historical event that white America is only beginning to register.  She may never in this life, see the fruits of her labor.  But as Layla Saad might say, she is a “good ancestor.” 

How do we, white women, process this information?  How do we take our place in history and recognize that we have so much to learn from these women?  That we always have?  

As white women, we are guilty of talking about the needs and accomplishments of women without recognizing the distinct experiences of women of color.  And when you are a woman whose life experience is also marred not just by sexism, but by racism as well, you are suffering more.  There actually is, truly, a hierarchy of suffering.  Black womenś  suffering – and how they have handled it – has much to teach us. 

I often feel that, as a survivor of abuse by white males, I can relate to the feelings of pain and struggle that I hear Black people talk about.  But make no mistake, I have never had to walk out of my house feeling fairly certain that I will be thought of, by some stranger that day, as less than human.  Feeling that not only am I in danger at the hands of men, but I am also in danger at the hands of women.  That there are many people in the world, white people, who wish me harm. 

Black women in America live that every day. They could respond giving up. And it is only human to think that many may do.  Yet, what I see in so many Black women, again and again is courage.  


Black women deserve our deepest gratitude for demonstrating courageous resistance against all odds.  And for pointing out to us that we white women have a certain kind of work to do in the struggle for justice.  Many of us perpetuate our own racism but we most often allow racism and sexism to rage where we could resist.   Our resistance has special power because we are, actually, very close to those most likely to be oppressors.  White men hold much more power to harm than they are fully aware of.  We, as the ones so often next to them, can influence them more than any other group can.  While we might be frightened of them, we do not have to fall silent.  We can persist with insisting that the white men in our lives listen.  

White women can insist that white men listen to us, but not only to us.  To Black people, Indigenous people, Latino people, Asian and South Asian people.  We can insist white men listen to the pain and injustice of the consistent economic disenfranchisement, to the racist police brutality, to the indignity of being denied anything because of skin or hair or tone or language.  

Most importantly though, we can stop acting like we white women are innocent of racism because we experience sexism.  As white women, we are not strangers to dehumanization.  We know that our bodies are thought of as objects, either of sexual gratification or exploited labor.  We learn that our voices must be quieter, more soothing, less angry – or we will be denied jobs and advantages.  We carry the fear that we will be attacked or killed because we know that so many of us are.  

But we are also white.  And with that we carry the ability to harm.  To put down.  To silence.  To criticize at great cost.  To deny rights and privileges.  To lie about.  To frighten.  To look away while others harm. Too many of us are so bold in our defense of our own rights that we are unable to admit to the ways we interfere with the rights of others.  

Black women are telling us that we too – white women – are hurting them.  And like white men, we also do not fully face the power to harm that we possess.  Like the white men that we should seek to enlighten, we should allow ourselves to be enlightened.  Black women are speaking their truth. Telling us what they need from us. And we only have to be willing to accept it. 

It takes courage to open our hearts to the pain we have been part of inflicting.  It takes courage to see the ways we tone police, judge harshly, value white women’s voices over other women’s voices, overlook women of color, insist on our points of view, refuse to understand what they’re saying, refuse to apologize, compromise or cede the floor.  It takes courage to humbly acknowledge the ways we support and even promote the racism that rages through all the systems that support us.  

Will we dig deep and find the courage to see the ways we leave Black women out of our conversations about feminism?  Will we step back and receive while Black women teach us a new American definition of feminism?  

In this extraordinary moment, here is a way we can honor Kamala Harris’ achievement as the first Black, South-Asian and Multiracial Woman Vice-President elect.  Here is a way we can honor the achievements of all our Black American heroines throughout history.  The way is to look – as women – not just at our shared victimhood, but at our oppressor/victim relationship.  It is time to look at the whole picture of our humanity, strengths and weaknesses, and grow.   

God and Goddess Bless America.  

Courage to Liberate

Human beings are complex.  They bear the ability to both oppress and be victimized.  People tend, however, to spend more time occupying one of those identities – or supporting one of those identities –  than another.  We are at a moment in history when victims of oppression – especially those who have suffered bodily harm by those with an intent to violate – often stand up for themselves publicly.  Some in our human community, take a stand and support them.  

Others act as “strong men” who not only commit the violations, but who oppose others’ right to speak their truths about harm.  By doing so, they continue to oppress.  Some in our human community, take a stand and support them.  

Looking at these two camps, many like to believe they are able to maintain neutrality.   Be spectators, make verbal judgements, as if their actions or inactions don’t have power to affect others. But in situations of injustice, Bishop Desmond Tutu reminded us, there is no neutrality.  Taking a position of neutrality is in fact, choosing to give power to the aggressor. 

On days when I feel that I am becoming whole and wise for speaking aloud my truth, these are the days I am most endangered.  For truth-telling is the crime most quickly punished.  It is called a crime by those who dislike what is contained within it.  And what is truth anyway, but a subjective perspective?  My truth is mine.  And it may not be yours. 

Bodily violation is concrete, anything but subjective.  It either happens or it doesn’t.  It either happened or it didn’t.  But when the tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  Well, who knows.  But then that tree is then lying there.  And we can chart a path back to see it, uprooted.  Inert and still.  Evidence in itself of the event. 

Bodies, unlike trees, keep moving.  Despite everything.  Violated or not they continue on, breathing, thinking, feeling, acting.  Leaving the scene.  All too often, they bear no evidence of the harm they have suffered.  That they continue to suffer.  There is only the memory in the victim.  And the truth that can be told. 

The oppressor will not tell the truth about what they did.  Only ever so rarely and then, only when the oppression was almost accidental.   When the oppressor happens to feel remorse.  Intentional oppression however, is more common.  The oppressor is a seeker of comfort. The rush of power is needed. It is everything. The person who was violated and their experience is an inconvenience to be dealt with but hardly a concern.  Thus, the act must be kept secret to maintain the rush of power.  The trace of its existence must be like a track covered, by deflection, gaslighting, tone-policing, character defamation and any number of tactics that keep listeners from believing the memory told. 

When the victim tells, most often, listeners do not want to believe the memory told.  The memories of victimization cause instant disbelief in almost all those who hear them.  And seconds before the disbelief, beneath the awareness of the listener, is the disgust.  The disgust that it might be true.  Disgust is an emotion that makes us turn away.  A rotten egg makes us physically recoil.  Rarely do we turn toward it and sit in the discomfort.  It is not how we are wired. 

If we are going to resist the knee-jerk disbelief and believe the teller, we have to sit in the discomfort.  We have to feel the smell of the rotten egg.  We have to allow it to penetrate our defenses.  We have to accept its existence.  Most of us won’t.  Most of us will throw that egg in the trash. 

So given the discomfort of it all, why should we ever believe the teller?  Because if we don’t, the tellers are alone.  They live surrounded by the stench of that egg.  And the oppressors go on – actively or energetically.  Filling the emotional holes in their psyches with those small and large rushes of power.  Their approach to life having been allowed for one more day.  The stench of that egg is stronger for the teller, for the victim, than any listener can imagine.  And it is possible, by letting them know that you smell it too, to release them from that prison.

If a victim trusts you with their truth, if they find a courage you’ve never imagined to break the code of silence and tell you about what happened – if all that happens and then you turn away?  You are as good as watching them in their prison.  You hold the key in your hand and you refuse to use it.  You wrinkle your nose or resent them for the discomfort they have caused you and you walk back to your sweet-smelling life.  And you are banking that you will never need from them, what they need from you.  

Your tellers, like all tellers, may have to find their liberators in strangers.  Strangers who have been through the flames of victimization.  Who admit to the powerlessness of it.   Because those strangers aren’t afraid any longer of a rotten egg.  They’ll go into the prison.  And together they’ll find a way out.

The Medicine in the Trees

“There’s an owl in our back tree.  I couldn’t see it but I heard it,”  my husband said, coming in from having taken out the trash.  I reached for the respirator he’d been wearing.  The one I bought to wear to Black Lives Matter protests this Summer to defend myself against the President of the United States’ contract security guards.  The ones paid to brutalize us for lifting our voices in pursuit of justice for all Americans. 

Outside on the porch, properly protected from what today the world air quality index called the worst air quality in the world, I looked up at the 150 foot spruce silhouetted against the evening sky.   Then I heard it.  All day I hadn’t seen a leaf stir or heard a bird.  Every plant stood flat and still, working overtime to take the carbon monoxide from our eerily orange Portland air.  The air that hangs over these ancestral lands of the Clackamas people.  Now, as strange as the lack of birdsong all day, is the sound of this large bird of prey.  Am I imaging the sound to be plaintive?  Behind my closed eyes now, I see her habitat burning behind her.  Her wingspan wide.  Her flight path uncertain.  Her pace faster than she is liable to fly. 

Before thought is the action.  I open my palms and open my chest.  I connect to her.  “Welcome, owl spirit,”  I whisper.  “I feel your loss with you.”  I think of the one million acres of habitat that have burned, in Oregon alone, these past three days.   She knows nothing of Oregon.  She knows nothing of California and Washington and British Columbia.  She knows the land.  And she has a right to feel as unsafe here as anywhere right now.  Because so  many humans – so many American humans – do not know the land. 

She is not alone.  Humans are unsafe from each other.  The fire in Southern Oregon, that wiped out my brother and sister-in-law’s old neighborhood was arson.  A man did that.  A man who just wanted to, did that. And the actions of so many before him made the land so dry that it went up like a tinderbox.   The now and the many choices that came before him.   History didn’t happen.  It’s happening. 

My heart breaks open with the pain of the losses around us.  So many homes, so many lives, so many dreams lost in a blink.  And the owl and I stand and take it in.  I open my heart to the pain.  To her sound.  It feels like all I can do.  

This moment has been coming.  That’s what I think when I’m putting on my respirator.  When I’m joking about when the “locusts” are due to arrive.  When my kids are calling this hazardous air, stay-indoors order “next level quarantine” and they’re asking me if it’s time to bust out the industrial sized pancake mix from the “apocalypse food” tub in the shed.  ‘Yup, it’s time’, I think.  The future is here and I’m not even anxious.  

What I am, is changed.  I think of the mirage I lived in during the Obama years.  The making of hay while the sun shone.  The belief that it could only get better from here.  The hope was blinding.  It was sticky and addictive.  I wanted it so bad.  And I had it.  So what did I have to fight for?  

The fight was always being deferred.  It was always going to be this bad.  And we knew it.  But we couldn’t face it.  So I think while I stand and take it in.  Me and the owl.  Facing it.  

Octavia Butler wrote prescient novels about this time.  She described what happens when we praise greed, when we love things more than people.  There is death.  There is destruction.  There is great loss.  Those who die, die.  They’re not feeling the loss.  It is those left living who feel it.  The suffering.  Alleviated only by connection with loving others.  With our Beloved Community, as described to us by Dr. Martin Luther King.  Dr. King and so many brave Black leaders have reached out their hands for generations to offer the good news.  About how liberation is possible for all of us if we take the great, beautiful leap into trust and belonging.  

And today I feel the truth as clear as day.  We will belong to each other or we will die.  It is that simple.  

While I was writing this I wondered about the concept of spirit animals.  About what the owl might mean for those who feel her.  I am accustomed to instant answers and google couldn’t tell me enough about the people who walked these lands for many, many generations.  I don’t know what the owl meant to the Clackamas.  To the Cowlitz.  To the Kalapuya.  I found though that among many Native tribes of this continent, seeing or hearing an owl is believed to be a bad omen, often signaling serious illness or death to come. Especially when an owl is found hanging about the home instead of the woods.

I hear her omen.  It is only validation of what we know.  The death is here.  The illness is here.  And it has been here since the first white colonist arrived to these shores, prepared to take life to have things.  They took, and denied it.  And took, and denied it.  And we whose ancestors claim far away lands, we whose ancestors chose to come, so devoid have we been of true understanding, we have played out the script of that deception all along.

The owl is believed, not just to be a harbinger of pain, but also to have powerful medicine.  The owl is believed to see behind masks of deceit.  So I welcomed her to our home.  I embraced her.  I am prepared to let down the mask, stand in the pain and feel it all.  The shame, the grief, the rage.  It is my deepest dream to bring many of the most fearful to that place with me.  So that we may stand and feel it all together.  And in doing so, in looking straight into the trauma, the pain will burn us clean of the fear.   It is a risk to look.  To feel.  But if we can, we just might finally belong to each other, to the land and to our futures.  

White men: Will You Fight?

I am a white, straight, cis-gender, upper-middle class woman.  I march with Moms United for Black Lives.  We are in the fight of our lives.  All of us.  Whether we know it or not.  

By day 70, Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests have begun to resemble what they haven’t been.  And what the police have been calling them all along.  Riots. They are not riots actually.  They are protests resembling riots.  Because the protestors know, when only one-hundred Portlanders will come out to support you, when those thousands who cared enough to come downtown now sit in their homes telling themselves it’s over because the Feds have gone home, a dumpster fire means their protest makes the news.  And if it doesn’t make the news, white America rolls over and goes back to sleep while Black people continue to get brutalized by police. 

White people only ever cared about the Feds being here.  It scared them to see those thugs in tactical gear harming white moms.  Now that the Feds have ceased to arrest people off the street, into vans without due process, I hear the white people breathing their sighs of relief and talking about unity and love.  I hear their exasperated complaints.   “What are they still protesting?  It’s been 70 days.  The feds are gone now. What do they even want?”  

They want you to defund the police.  Take a great deal of their power away.  That’s what this is about.  That’s what this has always been about.  Because Black Lives Matter.  How many times must it be said?  My frustration makes my body feel like it wants to turn inside out.  Repeating myself and having it fall on deaf ears.  And then I try to imagine the frustration my Black friends feel.  My body starts to resist.  To say no, don’t think about that.  Keep it light.  If you go much further into that feeling, it will hurt you.  Just thinking about how it must feel to Black people threatens to hurt me.  What in God’s name is it doing to them? 

I know that so many white people will never know a Black person. Love a Black person. So at the risk of paraphrasing inaccurately, I’m going to share with you that this is what I feel like I’m hearing my Black sisters say. 

The systems of power act deaf to my voice.  No matter how loudly I yell, it never gets through to that white man mayor with his blonde hair and  his icy eyes and his insistence that he’s a good guy.  He stands there and says he’s listening but that he doesn’t quite yet understand.  Over and over.  As if we speak different languages. But we don’t.  He understands me.  He wants something that he isn’t saying.  That he can’t say because it would be to admit that he values his life over mine.  As long as he does what the really violent white ones want, as long as he lets them have their power their way, his babies will be safe.  He will be safe.  So what do I do with my rage?  This “good” guy could fight alongside us.  But instead he lets my babies be killed with impunity.  

As a white woman, I have lied to myself all my life.  Lying to yourself is easy.  It’s comfortable.  Underneath my “I don’t understand” is this belief.  Something about what they’re telling me is not about them being unsafe.  It’s about their being Black.  I hear the quiet voice I’ve been taught, telling me that this racism thing is their thing.  It’s their lot.  I live in a sea of white people believing it’s their lot.  That there is a secret thing about Black people that makes them more susceptible to being harmed.  And that I couldn’t possibly relate.  

Not one white person with any kind of deep power is admitting that aloud.  

When I don’t lie, I am chilled to the bone with the truth.  It could happen to any one of us.  Black Americans are lifting their voices for us too.  They are gracing us with the most important truth we could ever hear and we’re going to sit on our couches and lie to ourselves.  Maybe feel a little bad for ourselves that we haven’t had a break from the kids in months due to quarantine.  We’ll have intellectual conversations about Black Lives Matter and wave some flags and pontificate on what’s going to happen and who will be elected in the city council race.  And we will continue to believe that our whiteness will protect us.  As if it’s the God given right that white America has always proclaimed it to be.  

But our whiteness isn’t what protects us.  It’s our complicity that protects us.  This is how it works.   

Trump comes with his thugs who sneakily arrest people, are unidentifiable so there is no way to hold them accountable, who have arms and can subdue or take anyone if they want to.  

They come and test things out.  

They are able to take some people but they give them back.  Because they want to.

But they don’t have to.  See that?  I didn’t have to.

They have already come for the immigrants.  There are babies in cages.   There are babies missing. 

But there are so many others who are not complicit.  They only have to go door to door to find them.  Ask neighbors.  Look at yard signs.  Check public records for names that sound “different.”  And then they go with their arms and “take them in for questioning.”   They could terrorize every Black person in America by taking their neighbors.   But they could also terrorize every Mom in a yellow shirt who stood up against the Feds.  They have pictures.  They have technology. 

Then they might just want to play around.  To see how far they could go.  So they come for anyone LGBTQIA.  Anyone who has ever typed the word “antifa.”  They just have to look at Facebook.  There are so many indicators when you’re not complicit with the system. 

Voting records work.  How about just taking in some white women democratic voters.  Why not?  Especially the Pantsuit Nation ones.  They’re really fun when they get groped.  And why couldn’t a little groping happen during arrest?  There is nothing stopping them. 

There is one group that is pretty unlikely to be taken in for questioning.  White men.  Less likely to protest, to make changes that benefit women and children and Black and Indigenous and People of Color when they have the chance, to buck the systems of police, to stand up to the Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups.  They are the most complicit.  

So, white men.  Have you noticed that most of the people with almost all of the money look like you?  Have you noticed that most of the people with almost all of the lawmaking power look like you?  With most of the law enforcement power?  With most of the terrorizing power – the shootings, the threats against the innocent.  Have you noticed they look like you?  

They have the money and power.  They’ll do what they have to,  to keep it.  And, progressive white man – they’ve given you a membership card to their club. Even if you didn’t ask for it. 

You don’t want us to notice this, but you haven’t said no.  You haven’t burned their card in their faces.  You just tuck it away in a drawer in case you need it.  They give you some of the spoils.  Loans and access to housing and better jobs and physical safety.  Again, you didn’t ask, but those things are nice so you may as well tuck it away in a drawer.  Just in case.  

I wonder what you will do if they come for your wives, who are in that Black Lives Matter Facebook group that you notice but don’t participate in.  I wonder what you’ll do when they come for your kids who are raging in the streets because their young, uncompromised minds see the truth.  I wonder if you’ll be left all alone with your other white men.  Or if you’ll decide that you’re more than your color.  Than your gender. 

I wonder if you’ll fight.  I’m waiting. 

White Legislators: Tune In To Black Communities

And now let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled protest news to give you – The systems that continue to oppress people of color.  Back to you, Ned. 

Thanks, Jim.  Last night while well-intentioned white people were getting tear gassed in front of Portland’s courthouse, a great number of Oregon’s state legislators slept in their beds, also white and completely unaffected personally by the goings-on downtown.  For most of them, they hadn’t had a friendship with a Black person in their whole lives.  So the stories of brutality seem, well, just a little overblown, don’t they? 

That’s right, Ned.  This is all a play for them put on by some dramatic lefties.  Meanwhile beautiful, 18 year old, college-bound Shai India Harris was shot dead in Portland, in broad daylight, not two weeks ago.  The family thinks they know who the killer is but he hasn’t been apprehended by Portland Police.   Why  not, Jim? 

Why not, indeed Ned.  Could it be that the police put a greater priority on fighting those exercising their rights to free speech than doing the dangerous police work they claim to do  when it is on behalf of Black people?  But let’s think about what those white legislators would say.  “Those neighborhoods – you know how they are.  They’re full of crime.”  It’s hard for them to understand, Jim.  In 2016 white family wealth was found to be seven times greater than Black family wealth.  As white people, they are twice as likely to be employed and feed their families – oh, and not just that – but to have more than enough.  Io buy new cars, and spend thousands of dollars keeping their lawn green in 90 degree heat.   

Well, and Ned, the police patrol their neighborhoods to keep them from  having to hear the actual voice of – see the actual face of -a person of color.  Anywhere on their streets.  So really, how could they care?

True, Jim.  How could they care?  Did you know that Oregon has commissions on equity to inform legislators about what oppressed communities need?  That those commissions are served on by professionals who volunteer to advise white legislators?  Who ask them to care about the needs of people who are Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, Black and Women.  These groups are suffering from poverty, racist and sexist hate crimes, less opportunity – Oh wait.  This is the part where their eyes glaze over.  Do you think if we trotted children in front of their faces they might wake up?  

Well, Ned, I’d like to think so.  But those children would be Brown.  Do you think their eyes would glaze over then?  Studies show that white people assume Brown children to be older and more culpable than white children.  But surely those white legislators have hearts?  

Hard to say, Jim.  Ibram X. Kendi author of “How To Be an Anti-racist” says that racism is not about hate.  It’s about self-interest.  The hate – arguably thoughts like “their neighborhoods are just crime-ridden” – has been bred into our white-dominated culture to justify the self-interest.  Because there is a lot in it for white people to keep things just the way they are.  Jim, it’s scary to think about having to give up something you already have.  And sharing resources means you do actually have to give something up.  

So what are they going to give up?  

Well, Ned, the answer to that seems pretty clear.  Unless those white legislators start to feel saddened, disgusted, driven to make things better for the suffering masses –  folks who identify as everything other than white –  then the answer to what those powerful folks will be willing to give up?  

Nothing, Jim.  Nothing. 

Now, on to a picture of those lawns!  Aren’t they just impossibly green? 

An Open Letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on the Chronic Trauma of Racism

Dear Mayor Wheeler, 

My name is Bridget Geraghty.  I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Portland specializing in trauma therapy.  My husband, Jeremy Barnicle, is the Executive Director of Ecotrust.  We have two children – ten year old twins – born here in Oregon.  They love the rain and our trees and our city’s purported kindness.  We are White. 

In 2017 I sat across the table from you at a Transition Projects fundraiser with former Police Chief Michael Marshman to my right – two White men holding a lot of power over the people of this city.  Hearing you chat at the table, talking about the problems of homelessness, I feel like I saw your humanity up close that night.  Today, as a trauma therapist, looking at the public health crisis of racism, I ask you to consider what that humanity within you will lead you to do about it. 

You have a very difficult job on your hands.  In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless irreplaceable people, your constituents are marching in the streets.  White people are marching behind the leadership of Black people, every night, demanding justice.  The leaders lead with transparency and accountability and their sharp focus is on human rights. They are saying ‘We will not stop marching until we get relief from the chronic trauma of racism.’  You should believe them. 

They mean it.

I am White.  To be White is to be conscripted as a foot soldier for White America’s racist rules from birth.  I am listening and learning who I’ve been. I’m learning to put down my weapons. So many of the things I’m about to say to you, have been revealed to me by Black leaders who are bravely telling us the truth of what’s going on.    So I will continue to march with Black leaders – in a pandemic –  for as long as it takes.  Because the pandemic of American racism is 401 years old and we all need it to stop. 

I hope you are listening – really, privately listening –  to Black people who are not already part of the Black power structure in Portland.  Racism’s rules  tell us that one Black person must speak for all Black people.  That rule doesn’t apply to White people so it’s wrong.  So please, check your racism. With all due respect to your dedicated colleagues, if a Black colleague agrees with you it means one person has agreed with you.   You cannot stop listening. The listening is just beginning.   

Your current plans for responding to the needs of the Black community are far too small.  They may make you feel better but they are a slap in the faces of all the families who are dying from racist policing, racist workplaces, racist allocations of funds.  Let’s be clear.  Too many White people are guiding those decisions.  

The leaders I have been listening to have convinced me that nothing short of an overhaul is necessary.  All cannabis taxes divested from police – no more rewards for the war on drugs they carried out to fill the prisons.  Fifty million dollars taken from the police budget and poured into services to dismantle the effects of racism in the Black community.  Cancel the police union contract.  USE YOUR VOICE to advocate for the things you can’t just unilaterally decide to do.  White privilege is yours, man.  More than most.  You have so much power just by opening your mouth.  

Fifteen years ago I worked as a therapist with mostly Black boys, at Pioneer School, PPS alternative school.  Those kids were referred to as ‘behaviorally challenged.’  Do you know what that place really was?  A place where teachers sent the boys who were bursting with the pain – the gracefully restrained anger – of their disrespected community.  I cried at home every night and I will forever see their beautiful faces in my mind.  I am sick to my core to think how many of them may be doing unpaid labor in a prison right now while white men continue to hold most of the cards.  

Your police fill those prisons.  They steal those boys off the street.  For petty and small alleged crimes that Measure 11 supports.  I can never unsee a 13 year-old boy client of mine brought into court in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.  By contrast, my friend Demetria Hester told me yesterday how White Nationalist murderer Jeremy Christian was not even ordered shackled by the white judge during his trial.  Then he lunged at Hester in the courtroom.  Do we need more to see how sick this system is?  How White people act like even Black children are inherently dangerous?  How White people let dangerous White people roam free?  How White America believes Black people are sub-human with no supporting evidence except our racist thoughts? 

As a White man, you can no longer make race an intellectual exercise and pass from this earth someday with your conscience intact.  How many mothers have been denied the chance to be with their babies in their last moments?  How many children – children –  have had to be with only White men who hate them as they take their last breaths?  Hate them.  And they do.  Because they fear them. And White men don’t get to acknowledge fear.  

That is the White man’s sickness.  Never show – never feel – fear.  Please, acknowledge your fear.  We are all afraid.  We are afraid that we have supported a system that has lied and lied and lied.  It has denied us the magic of loving Black people.  Black lives are beautiful.  Black bodies are valuable.  Black bodies house Black minds and they are brilliant.  When Black people eat, we all eat. What about believing the Black community about what it needs?   We stand a chance of moving forward out of love instead of fear and perhaps healing some of racism’s pain.  

We’ve given the White police, the White Nationalists scaring people with their guns, the White Suburban cocktail party racists with their worries about crime – all of our attention.  We’ve tried it their way.  Isn’t it time we gave credence to the needs of Black taxpayers?  The ones who pay and pay and then have to spend their money back into White-owned businesses so they never stand a chance at equity?  We say,  “Wait.”  In God’s name I ask you, Wait?  For what?  More murder?  More suffering? 

If it is true that Black people deserve exactly what White people have, then look hard at what you have.  And every day do radical things to make Black lives as comfortable as White lives.  Because anything less is you saying Black people deserve this.  That is the racism inside every White mind in America.  Look at it within you.  

Mayor Wheeler, there are no good cops in a racist system.  The best ones operate in a workplace infected with the virus of hate.  

Mayor Wheeler, are there any good mayors in a racist system?  Perhaps the only way you free your soul, Sir, is to upend the system.  I believe it is the only thing history will judge you kindly for having done.  

I will pray for your open heart and mind, 

Bridget Geraghty, LCSW

Trauma-proofing Yourself

For days, I’ve had this itchy feeling.  I’ve heard of people who can smell rain coming.  Well, that’s me – except I can smell trauma coming. 

It’s probably explainable.  We take in an extraordinary amount of data with what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘system 2’, which is the system in our brains we like to call the ‘gut feeling’ or intuition.  Intuition takes tiny thousands – maybe millions – of morsels of information – the expressions on faces, the behavior patterns of those around us, scents, our own feelings, the situation at hand, compares them to information already in the data bank, past outcomes from similar experiences, and spits out an expectation of an outcome.  

So here is what my system 2 is telling me.  A new phase of this collective experience has already begun, but we have about two weeks before it hits us hard.  The losses – and the feelings – are about to get real. 

In 1998, I went to live in Bosnia because I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to live in a place that had experienced war.  I can now. And since then I have seen our country, to the extent that we can infer anything about Americans as a cohesive group, with different eyes. We are, in a word, a little ‘soft’.  It’s not true of all communities in the United States.  Some, like undocumented Americans and black families who suffer police violence, have developed strong skills for coping with untenable situations.  What I mean by ‘soft’ is that so many of us – especially middle and upper class white Americans – haven’t been inoculated with enough of the experiences that might toughen up a person just a bit, to help that person steer through tragedy, grab wisdom on the way, and come out the other side without haven’t latched on to a case of raging PTSD. 

Mental health gets affected by difficult experiences.  Many who are suffering make art, write stories, grow closer to their families – there are silver linings.  But a portion of the population will suffer too much. Much like Coronavirus, they won’t have a mild case. What is worrying me – what is giving me that itchy feeling – is that I fear another parallel of the Coronavirus – that our mental health needs will way outstrip the resources of the mental health treatment available.  I’m talking about for you and me, our kids – everyone you know. 

And it’s somewhat preventable. 

There is a book by Peter Levine called Trauma-proofing Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy &  Resilience..  In it he talks about how the nature of trauma is this:  being overwhelmed by a scary situation you didn’t expect.  And the feelings get stuck. 

Americans, by and large, do not expect tragedy. 

We expect low unemployment rates and thousands of movies at the touch of a finger and an LOL surprise doll at my doorstep within 24 hours.  

So, I’m left in the difficult position of wanting to prepare you for tragedy.  I want to march you toward the tragedy just a little bit – though I know you’d rather avoid it – because I want everyone I can help to avoid a raging case of PTSD (trust me – the prevention is worth a pound of cure.) 

Here goes: 

What you are scared of, is scaring you for a reason.  Because Covid-19 could happen to you or someone you know and it could be life threatening.  Your brain is telling you to prepare – that’s why you’re feeling so anxious. So stop running to the next television show, indoor activity or homeschool plan and just sit with that.  For just a minute. Right now. Just breathe. 

OK – notice where you feel that fear.  It might be a churning in your gut, an elephant on your chest, a tightness in every muscle.  Just notice. That. Right now.  

Acknowledge it.  Say hi. Say, “OK feeling, Hi, I see you.”  Just do it. What do you have to lose? 

You may then notice another feeling come up.  Because underneath fear is usually sadness. Before you can get to the sadness, you may be mad at that fear for bothering you.  For not going away because you want it to.  Or just mad at the situation. Just notice all of it. And start to think of a place in your house where you can go and cry.  Or scream into a pillow. Or pound your fists on the bed. Because if you feel the need to, at all, you need to. You need to get it out of your body.  Because you’ve lost a lot already. And you need to practice how to let that move through you. You want to get good at it. 

Next week you might lose more.  Even hearing about a friend losing someone they love creates a feeling of loss in an empathic person.  You. So let those tears flow whenever they want to come for whatever rhyme or reason they come – or no reason at all.  And really, if you have the courage, let them flow with your people. With the ones you love. The tears will stop. When they need to stop. 

It is so great that you’re keeping your kids busy with fun activities.  So keep weaving those in. But leave space for the crying. This is their moment in history too.  Don’t think they don’t feel it. They’re like radio towers picking up the frequencies of the emotions around them.  And if they start throwing tantrums – even the big kids – slow down, sit down and say, “How’s this all going for you? Because it’s a lot for everybody.”  

Great.  OK. That’s how you avoid overwhelm.  By letting the feelings move through frequently so there isn’t a backup. 

Here is how you keep yourself from being surprised by the coming wave of feelings.  You accept that they are going to happen. You don’t overblow the threat but you don’t underestimate it either.  Play with that. Try to find that middle place of knowing it will be a lot and knowing that you can’t know exactly what it will be like.  Accept that it will hurt. And that’s OK. You’ve experienced hurt before and you’re still here.  

There is a second thing that Peter Levine talks about which is really important to consider if you are to steer away from trauma.  The meaning you make about it really matters.

There is a lot of beautiful meaning being made right now.  “We’re all in this together” is one of them. “We’ll get through this”, is another.  So, keep those, but watch yourself for other meaning you might be making that doesn’t serve you.  Like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” Because actually, yes you can. You can believe it.  You don’t want to, but you can. It’s really, really intense – maybe more intensely emotional than you’ve ever experienced –  and you need to lean on whomever you can to support you while you get through it. Even if it’s through a screen. 

Here are some other meanings you might try to apply: 

You can’t always get what you want.  But you just might get what you need.  And that’s actually enough. (Didn’t someone say something like that once?)

You’re being called to try a new way of relating to yourself and your feelings.  You can be the kind, supportive partner, parent, friend to yourself, that you have always needed.   One who stops, listens all along the way and doesn’t try to fix it. There is nothing to fix. All your feelings make sense.  You can make it through all these feelings. 

When you come out the other side, you may feel like your life is very precious and you may feel driven to do purposeful things to help others and the planet.  

And here is my personal favorite: 

You stand on the shoulders of giants.  People around the world and over time have come through disasters, with wisdom and love intact in their minds and primary in their hearts.  You have all the tools they had, right inside you.  

So take it one slow step at a time.  One felt moment at a time. This too, one way or another, shall pass. 


Special thanks to Emilia Robinson for drawing my attention to the white privilege I wrote from in the previous version of this article.  

Let’s Do Social Distancing – With Human Connection

Social distancing, has quickly become a household term.  As a therapist, every time I hear it, I think of how important it is that we slow the pace of Covid-19 infection.  Then I think of the mental health implications of social distancing. Reading the news every day, I see dozens of headlines about the effects of Covid-19 but precious little about mental health is ever mentioned.  Why, in 2020, are we still primarily reacting to one obvious health concern without seeing the complex health context within which that concern rests? Could this be a moment to consider health as a more complex experience? 

Two things concern me about social distancing.  When you’re ensconced in a loving family, it seems clearly prudent.  Maybe even nice. But if distancing means one is home alone, that distancing quickly becomes isolation.  And isolation becomes loneliness. 

Loneliness feels awful, but it doesn’t just feel awful. It suppresses immune function.  In a 2015 interview with NPR, Steve Cole, genomics researcher at UCLA pointed out that, because evolutionarily we relied on each other for survival, the brains of human beings read loneliness as a mortal threat. The article said, “norepinephrine cascades through the body and starts shutting down immune functions like viral defense, while ramping up the production of white blood cells…this surge in these pro-inflammatory white blood cells…(which are) highly adapted to defend against wounds, (happens) at the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.”


At the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.


So, we just might avoid Covid-19, but if we don’t – if a germ gets past our plan to avoid them -, our immune systems may not be primed to fight it.  And we can avoid this by keeping social distancing from becoming social isolation. 

The second is that by social distancing without a plan for how to prevent the spread into mass isolation, we might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  From one life-threatening health concern, to another. Because in addition to suppressing our immune systems, isolation causes depression. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  In 2018, 48,344 Americans died. So, while we are taking crucial steps to protect against the spread of this virus, we are flirting with the possibility of more deaths by suicide with no public conversation about it at all

Everyone I talk to right now is astonished at the levels of fear we are living with.  Between the stock market tanking, the president dithering, the neighbors discriminating against coughs and nationalities, it is quite the wild ride. But I also see a beautiful humbleness.  I see people concerned about elderly and the already infirm. I see people laughing at the sheer unthinkableness of it all. There is community. There is – despite the social distancing – connection.  If you’ve ever been through a hurricane or an earthquake, you recognize what is happening. It’s what happens when there is a weather event. We talk about our experiences. We lean on each other. 

Of course, we should follow the recommendations of the WHO, the CDC and state and local officials.  But also, the best parts of ourselves need to come out of hiding in the face of this pandemic. We can be afraid but at this point, it’s not helping us to stay healthy so perhaps we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  When we are afraid, our fight or flight response is online and our ability to think creatively is off. And creative thinking is just what we’re going to need here if we’re going to not just survive, but thrive. 

This morning I woke to the news that our governor, Kate Brown, had banned gatherings of 250 or more.  Our school system followed suit and shut down all non-essential gatherings. For my family, this meant one thing.  My 4th grade daughter, who had been working harder than ever in her life for two and a half months, would not get to perform in front of an audience in her school play that night.  It was devastating to her – and to the other 70 kids desperate to show what they had learned to do. Covid-19 had hit home.

The community could have just said, “woe is me” and left it at that.  But they did something else. First, they felt their sadness for some hours and accepted it.  None of that, “it could have been worse” or “we shouldn’t think of ourselves, we should think of protecting people’s health.”  Because grief will find its way out and the opportunity to perform in front of a packed house is a loss. Then by midday, they sprung into creative thinking.  Before the end of the day they had hatched a plan for the kids to perform the play the next day, to an empty theater, with a videographer. It won’t be the same.  But it will be a way for the kids to connect with their families around their hard work. A way for the grandmothers who have to stay home to see those kids shine.  It will be a way to lessen the pain of distance. It is something.  

We need lots of somethings.  Video helps us connect now more than ever.  Let’s use it with people we would normally see.  So what if it feels a little goofy? Senior centers are cancelling all their activities.  Hollywood Senior Center is asking people to make phone calls; have kids make cards. Call your local senior center and connect – it helps you and them.  The vagus nerve which controls our emotional resiliency is toned by humming or singing. Turn up the music and sing – call your elderly parents and sing together.  Imagine this: every time we wash our hands – we make it a point to connect – to remind someone that, just like eating and sleeping, we need to have a human interaction every day. 

Do you think I’m doing this for my health?  Yes.

How Mercy Corps can make amends

On Tuesday, The Oregonian outlined allegations made by Tania Culver Humphrey of serial childhood sexual abuse by her father, Ellsworth Culver.  The abuse is alleged to have begun when Humphrey was a preschooler and continued through high school. Culver was one of the co-founders of the global humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps.

My name is Bridget Geraghty.  I am a clinical social worker in private practice in Portland, Oregon.  I treat mainly trauma, and have a specialty in treating childhood sexual abuse.  In 1999-2000 I worked for Mercy Corps in Bosnia. At that time, Ells Culver was still alive and representing the organization.

From 2005-2016, my husband, Jeremy Barnicle, worked in a number of leadership roles at Mercy Corps.  For eleven years, Mercy Corps was central to our lives. We have many dear friends who are part of the Mercy Corps community.  Our family has been deeply moved by Humphrey’s disclosures and our hearts go out to her and her family. As a mental health professional with a Mercy Corps connection, I would like to share my perspective on ways Mercy Corps might attend to the opportunity they are being offered.

It is my belief that the vast majority of Mercy Corps staff work in humanitarian aid because they are true humanitarians.  Mercy Corps has helped millions of people around the world and I personally know people who have risked their lives on a daily basis to bring support to vulnerable populations.  As an expert in treatment of childhood sexual abuse and a person with knowledge of predatory behavior however, I know that a humanitarian aid agency – like a church or a school – would be attractive to a predator looking for access to children and a “beyond reproach” reputation to cover his behavior.  According to the outline Humphrey offers, she was being abused for several years before Mercy Corps was founded. By all appearances, Ells Culver – a very sick man – was masquerading as a humanitarian among truly dedicated people. 

I watched the Oregonian’s video piece Thursday evening.  It contained compelling descriptions of events, and many corroborating stories by the brave women – and her ally husband – who supported her.  The piece was largely about how actively she sought help and how little she was helped by certain men in leadership at Mercy Corps. But why would people be so unlikely to help? 

It is in the nature of human beings to recoil from disgusting behavior.  There is little that is more disgusting than the idea of a father consistently preying upon his tiny daughter to satisfy his insatiable compulsion.  Although I am an unflagging advocate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse – as I believe they are the most heroic among us – I am ashamed to admit that I too noticed myself looking for places where Humphrey’s story might be exaggerated.  It was like a reflex. The fact is no one wants to believe it could be true. As a therapist, I spent four years teaching non-offending parents of child survivors how to avoid their children being “offended” again. I met mothers whose partners had left physical evidence of abusing their children and those parents still refused to believe it happened.  I can tell you that it is astonishing what people will turn a blind eye to in order to avoid that level of disgust. It is quite possible that we human beings simply do not have the adequate brain wiring to cope with the feelings such a devastating truth could bring. 

Although it is incredibly rare for allegations of childhood sexual abuse to be found to be untrue, they are almost always discounted or disbelieved by some stakeholders.  And thus the victim is left further victimized. Unlike most stories of childhood sexual abuse, these allegations against Ells Culver have been corroborated beyond doubt. It seems that those at Mercy Corps who were given the chance to listen and use their power to bring some consequences to Culver or some reparations to Humphrey simply did not wish to hear.  They chose to let this woman suffer from a lack of support than to take on suffering the unknown consequences of facing the problem. 

If you haven’t experienced being sexually abused by someone you trusted when you were too vulnerable to protect yourself, then you cannot understand the impact.  In order to help you understand, I would say this. However bad you think it feels, it is way, way worse. Imagine the most shame you have ever felt. The most terror.  The most confusion. The most revulsion. The most sadness. The most rage. Imagine feeling treated like an object that someone might just throw away on a whim. It is worse than all of those combined.  So at any point, when a victim of such abuse finds the strength to keep themselves alive, much less come forward with their story, they deserve our deepest of gratitude. They are, perhaps, the truth tellers who will set us free.

Some of the Mercy Corps men described by Humphrey were cruel.  Telling a survivor that “it’s not what happens to you it’s what you do with it” is cruel.  I was deeply saddened however to hear of the bystander behavior of some of the other men accused in Humphrey’s story.  Bystanding is not a neutral stance. Desmond Tutu told us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I know some of these men personally.  I know they believe themselves to be good people.  Some of them are surely experiencing a dark night of the soul over this.  As I consider that, I think about how, in my work, I bear witness to the darkest of thoughts and feelings.  And consistently, I see this: The darkest hour is just before dawn. But, mark my words, you’ll only see dawn if your eyes are open.

It is a grave mistake to behave – as Mercy Corps’ representatives did – as if Ells Culver’s sins were confined to his home.  The Oregonian’s piece includes an account of a friend of Tania’s finding graphic pornographic photos of brown girl children in Culver’s desk drawer.  We know from research on offenders that it is the nature of predatory behavior that it will be practiced whenever the chance is available. No one wants to grapple with the probability that he practiced his sickness anytime he had the chance and while “helping” in the field he was also helping himself to vulnerable children. As a sexual predator, whom we know, at a minimum, stood photographed with his hands on the shoulders of refugee children, his very presence could have felt predatory.  His intention, his glances, possible leering or groping. These alone can be damaging because of how deeply confusing they are. Mercy Corps has – all along – had a responsibility to the children it calls beneficiaries, to make sure they are safe.

Tania explains how watching her father go off to foreign countries – where he “enjoyed having his picture taken with the children,” while coming home and raping her, made Mercy Corps, throughout her childhood, appear to be this powerful entity that was complicit in her abuse. Mercy Corps grew during that time, in part, due to Culver’s actively growing the organization. 

Culver, like most offenders, duped a lot of people.  But “I didn’t know”, “I couldn’t be sure” or “It happened before my time” are thin excuses.  We all need look at where our power to do the right thing lives, and use it. I believe I am using mine by writing this letter.  I was glad to read today that Mercy Corps staff used their power by demanding change in the way the organization is managed. Shortly afterwards, Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, resigned.  Neal is a friend and a person whose commitment to the organization I have admired greatly. I feel deeply for him as I see him revisiting how to use his own power. I also see that he has chosen to make way for change to come and I applaud him for doing so. 

Humphrey came forward because she knows she deserves to be believed.  She kept herself alive and continued to speak until she was heard. So many victims cannot bear the silence and the complicity of others in keeping their abuse secret that they take their own lives.  As Neal Keny-Guyer said recently, Mercy Corps failed her. But she did not fail in bringing the story into the light.

It can feel like there is no way good enough to respond to Mercy Corps’ role in this tragedy.  There is so much that Mercy Corps can do though to face the ugly parts of its history and honor the sacrifice of Tania Humphrey.  It is up to her to heal – and she is doing a beautiful job. But it is up to Mercy Corps to acknowledge the fullness of what is alleged here and its own role in keeping a survivor from experiencing a necessary step in her healing by being believed. 

Here are a few ways Mercy Corps might consider honoring Tania.    

  •     Mercy Corps could consider paying Tania reparations. At the minimum, the full cost of her therapeutic interventions over the years should be tallied and paid to her.


  •     Mercy Corps should ask Tania Humphrey if there are specific measures she would like to see taken and consider them carefully. 


  •     Mercy Corps should consider conducting a full independent investigation, in the field, of the programs that were visited by Ells Culver from 1981-2004, where he would have had access to children.  Female beneficiaries, that could be located and who were children then, could be invited to share any concerns they had about their interactions with Culver.  This would be done with the utmost consideration for the beneficiaries, holding the goal in mind that they be offered the chance to tell their stories, receive, at the minimum a formal apology and culturally-appropriate mental health treatment for any traumatic experiences uncovered.


  •     Mercy Corps could spearhead an initiative – in collaboration with other organizations already working in this area – to research the nature of sexual predation as an illness and support identification and early treatment of offenders.  Childhood sexual abuse as a public health problem is common, deeply damaging and extremely misunderstood.  Research and treatment of pedophilia and predatory behavior is sorely under resourced around the world. Much more understanding is needed if true progress in prevention and treatment are to happen.


  •     Exploitation thrives in environments that privilege one group above others. Mercy Corps should make a plan for gender and racial equity on the board and in leadership with a goal of 50% women and people of color by 2025.


  •     Mercy Corps should hire an external consultant to assess the ways that Mercy Corps’ culture may be operating under a paradigm of colonial white, male privilege that values judgment over emotion, secrecy over transparency and hierarchy over diversity. 


  •     Mercy Corps could support treatment for survivors on a multitude of levels, but initially by offering free meeting space to support groups and conferences for survivors of abuse and for treatment providers in its beautiful public meeting space.


  •     The shame belongs to the offenders, not the victims.  Mercy Corps could hold an annual art showcase for survivors of sexual abuse at the Mercy Corps Action Center to invite survivors to come out of the shadows and into the light. 



  •     Finally, anything that had been named after Ells Culver should be renamed after Tania Humphrey.  Tania Humphrey’s resiliency in the face of adversity most closely reflects the spirit of Mercy Corps’ beneficiaries.  She is the true hero here and should be treated as such.


It is my strongest hope that Mercy Corps – and all of us – can grow from Humphrey’s demonstration of bravery, perseverance and honesty.  She has done a powerful thing for survivors everywhere. Let us take this moment of darkness to consider what she has also done for all of us.  She has reminded us that the right thing to do is often the very hardest thing to do and that often –  we need to do it anyway.  Let us become better community members, friends, parents and leaders by following her example.