Looking around Baker Hall, I couldn’t help but notice the diverse array of faces in the sea of people filling the auditorium to maximum capacity. A white elderly couple sits to my right, relieved to finally have a break after waiting in line for almost two hours. To my left, a Black woman proclaims she left work early for the sole purpose of ensuring she’d have a seat. Mothers walk in with their young daughters. Families walk in with teenage sons. Some adults come in alone. Women and men seem to hold an equal number of seats. Lehigh students are peppered throughout the crowd, as are Lehigh professors.
White. Black. Brown. Woman. Man. Neither. Young. Old. All.
All of us with the same question: how did we get it so wrong…again?
A hush took spread over the crowd as Dahlia Hylton, Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Stephanie Powell Watts, Director of Lehigh’s Creative Writing program, took to the stage to introduce the speaker that had brought us together. The lecture, titled “From Social Movement to Social Impact: Putting an End to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” was sponsored by both the The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Celebration Committee and the Lehigh Notation Series. That silence was interrupted by a roaring standing ovation when we saw the speaker emerge from the left stage wing.
Anita Hill took her place at the podium, and many of us were still clearly in disbelief that we were even in the same room as her. I know I was.
Hill became a national figure in 1991 after she came forward with sexual harassment allegations towards her once-boss, then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She delivered her testimony to an overwhelming white, male Senate Judiciary Committee, enduring eight hours at a time under the scrutiny of the cameras broadcasting her words across the United States. The hearing lasted for three days, and Hill lost with a 48-52 vote, the narrowest victory in over a century.
In the nearlythirty years that have passed since her testimony, many of us have wondered how we could’ve done her, and all victims of sexual harassment and violence, such an injustice. And, many of us are astounded that the echoes of Hill’s testimony didn’t have more of an impact during the recent testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Dr. Ford came forward with sexual assault allegations towards then-nominted Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While her testimony was received by a slightly more diverseCommittee (there were women present), the end result was still the same. Kavanaugh was confirmed by a vote of 50-48, and Dr. Ford’s life would be forever changed.
Hill felt as though she’d been jolted back to 1991–she couldn’t believe that history was repeating itself. She was honest about her disappointment; she thought we’d been moving forward towards a society in which movements like #MeToo meant something to people. She thought we understood that women were entitled to a life without violence, that women should be heard. But, she wasn’t hopeless. She implored us to embrace Dr. King’s vision of a shared destiny: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
Hill cited two threats to achieving this vision: our own history of denial and erasure of gender violence, and our tendency to repeat our mistakes. The things we care about, we collect information about–it took until the Obama administration for any substantial effort to be made to address sexual assault on college campuses. Hill quickly dismissed the myth that the perpetrator of gender violence is a scary stranger that emerges from a dark alley; it’s most often the person we know, and even sometimes love. Hill chastised the system for allowing victims to be silenced, for allowing them to feel as though they can never fully share their story.
And we have to ask why? Why do we do these things to hurt survivors?
In Hill’s eyes, it’s simple. We repeat mistakes because we want to maintain the status quo. We employ denial because change makes us uncomfortable. Hill was not shy in holding back her criticism of the current administration. She noted how the Trump administration got rid of the page regarding LGBTQ+ issues on the White House website. Also now missing is the data collected on sexual assault.
What we care about, we collect information about.
It would be easy to expect Hill to be cynical as a result of all the injustices she’s seen since her hearing in 1991, but she remarkably isn’t. She remarked on an instance in which students at Brandeis, where she’s a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies, protested for the cause of a more inclusive campus environment. Their passion and their community moved her, and she’s confident in our generation’s ability to incite change. Looking around the packed auditorium, she was filled with hope.
“We are here today because we care.”
She implored us to go forward, to bring change into our organizations and lead them in a new direction. Hill provided us with a path into the future. As a society, we have to learn that justice shouldn’t be rationed. The degree of your voice shouldn’t be determined by the degree that you hold. We have to create a space where all victims can safely come forward. We have to engage more men in the movement and give them a platform to speak. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable. If the Kavanaugh hearing didn’t make her retreat, then neither can we.
She reminded us that we are the change, but we have to do the change, too.
Hill reflected on the amount of times she’s been asked if she would do it again, given the chance to go back to 1991. Her answer? Yes. She’s embraced her role as a “catalyst”—it’s time we all do the same.