Open Letter on Safety and Support Progress

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Open Letter on Safety and Support Progress

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Content warning: This article mentions instances of abuse and sexual misconduct. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline offers free, confidential support, 24/7, at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or at online.rainn.org.

Dear Federation Family:

On December 16, 2020, I wrote to you about the pain of Federation members, former members, and other people within our blindness community. This letter is a follow up to that communication and part of my accountability to you as your President. 

In this letter, as with the work we have been undertaking since December, I will not address specific allegations. We will focus instead on the steps we are taking to ensure our movement is as safe as possible for everyone. It is also my hope that it clarifies misinformation circulating about our work and our intentions, as well as the depth of our efforts and the plans ahead.

We begin this letter by thanking each of you who have given your time, emotional energy, expertise, and heart to helping our community move forward. Thank you for making our movement what we all want it to be. I continue to be humbled and deeply informed by each powerful personal story that is shared with me by survivors. There is still much work and healing to be done, but together our work is making a real difference every day.

In the December 16 open letter, the following initial priorities were laid out to guide our safety and support initiatives:

•    improvements to reporting of incidents
•    open meetings and support of survivors
•    enhancing our Code of Conduct
•    clarifying and enforcing expectations
•    continuous training and consistency among NFB training centers

The following is a summary of the steps we’ve taken:

Survivor Leadership and RAINN Partnership

At the beginning of 2021, we announced a partnership with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and established the Survivor Task Force to help provide guidance on behalf of blind survivors. Working with RAINN, we have created and conducted mandatory trainings for all national board members; national division and affiliate board members; NFB training center staff, students, and boards; national staff; scholarship committee members; and task force members. Nearly one thousand people will have received this training by the end of April.

Our experience with these trainings will inform development of our next phase of training, expected to roll out this fall. This will include training for chapter-level leaders and expanded training offerings for those working with youth. In the meantime, training is planned to ensure that all individuals involved with our 2021 summer programs including NFB BELL and NFB EQ are appropriately trained and clear about our expectations for working with minors. Training is in addition to background check processes that were already in place.

Special Committee Independent Investigation

On January 6, 2021, the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind unanimously established a special committee to oversee and direct an internal investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by NFB members, participants, or staff at NFB or NFB-affiliated events, facilities, or training centers, and the adequacy of NFB's and its affiliates' response to such allegations. The committee directs its own work and has complete authority to examine all aspects of the organization. Its independent work has guided and continues to guide the steps we are taking to create a safer culture across all NFB affiliates, events, and programs. The committee hired an outside law firm, Kramon & Graham, to help with the internal investigation. The four members of the special committee include an attorney, two affiliate presidents, and a current NFB board member. None of these individuals have been named in any allegations being reviewed by the special committee. To ensure the independence and integrity of their investigation, the special committee will communicate directly about its work in the coming weeks and months.

Code of Conduct Independent External Investigator

Since December 2020, all reports of sexual misconduct, abuse, and harassment are reviewed by an independent investigator, Tonya Baña LLC, to preserve their confidentiality. Once a report is thoroughly investigated, a report of findings is submitted to the Federation for action. The report is considered by a two-member panel of national board members who do not have conflicts of interest in the case. Recommendations are forwarded by the panel to the President who issues rulings. All rulings are appealable. To date, all final rulings have been completely consistent with the recommendations of the external independent investigator.

Climate Assessment Survey and Report

As an additional initiative, RAINN will execute a climate assessment by gathering feedback from NFB community members to help inform recommendations for further sexual misconduct prevention and response programming. This effort will assist in determining additional and continuous training, which will ultimately provide consistency across the organization. This is a baseline measurement to target our future efforts and will continue to be assessed as a component of our accountability measures. 

Please participate in the assessment survey which is expected to be available later this month. The anonymous survey will result in RAINN delivering two reports: one internal and one public-facing, detailing findings and implications that will be shared at the time of our 2021 national convention.

Response Protocols and Code of Professionalism

The NFB Code of Conduct remains in place to set expectations within our organization, and we have published the Code of Conduct FAQs to improve clarity and ease of understanding. All current reports submitted will be reviewed, regardless of when the incident occurred.

In addition, we are thoroughly reviewing our code of conduct. This work is on-going. We have instituted the following immediate changes based on your feedback, as well as input from RAINN, the survivor-led task force, and the independent investigator.

•We improved communication protocols to ensure leaders of the Federation are notified when individuals have been removed or suspended from the organization.
•We strengthened the appeals protocols to ensure that survivors have more time to respond to rulings they feel are not satisfactory for healing.
•We distributed interim guidance to Federation leaders to encourage sharing of information about incidents at all levels of the organization so patterns can be tracked nationally. The guidance is intended to balance the obligations of leaders to share information with the need for survivors to consent and guide the sharing of their stories.

In addition to the immediate changes we have made, prior to July, RAINN will be leading us through the development of a set of customized and actionable standards of professionalism to address sexual misconduct and strategic response protocols. The standards will clarify and emphasize appropriate behaviors for members of the NFB community and act as the foundation for a safer, healthier organizational culture. 

Training Center Coordination

The directors and board chairs of our three training centers have been coordinating improvement efforts. In addition to training for staff and students, each center has been examining its policies and procedures to ensure correct practices are in place. In addition, the Federation has been reviewing and updating its oversight of affiliated training programs.

We are also working with our training centers and RAINN to strengthen and implement protocols to ensure we have a uniform approach, that all local regulations are clearly followed, and that we have consistent communication throughout the Federation. That work will be fully implemented after our convention this summer. 

Next Steps and Our Commitment to You

Every member of the Federation should be proud of the work we are undertaking and the speed with which it is happening. But there is still much more to do. We need all leaders of the Federation to continue to reflect the expectations of our code of conduct and to help facilitate a supportive culture when survivors disclose information about incidents within the organization.

We continue to seek feedback from members and nonmembers regarding safety and support. Your voice and experiences in these efforts are crucial. Open meeting announcements, ways to become involved with the work of the Survivor Task Force, and an archive of updates and resources can be found at nfb.org/survivors.

We will be making another report of our progress and next steps at the 2021 national convention. These decisions will be grounded in on-going deep listening and best practices that result from working with RAINN, input from our survivor-led task force, recommendations of the special committee, and the input of all of you. Your voice is critical in this process.

We promise to march with you to a stronger future that we build together. More than words, we know that trust is built through actions that are meaningful, visible, and sustainable. We continue taking all necessary steps to earn that trust and ensure blind people can lead their best lives. We are not yet done with our changes, and together we will move closer every day to fulfilling the commitments we have made in our movement.

Sincerely,

Mark Riccobono, President
[email protected], 410-659-9314 

The National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors shown below affirms our support and commitment to the content of the above letter from our President. Each of us are available to answer questions and concerns from members. We continue to encourage the reporting of any incidents so they can be independently investigated.

Pam Allen, First Vice President and Board Chair, [email protected], 318-251-2891
Ron Brown, Second Vice President[email protected], 317-213-7031
James Gashel, Secretary, [email protected], 808-234-9259
Jeannie Massay, Treasurer, [email protected], 405-600-0695
Denise Avant, [email protected], 773-991-8050
Everette Bacon, [email protected], 801-631-8108
Amy Buresh, [email protected], 402-440-4722
Shawn Callaway, [email protected], 202-352-1511
Norma Crosby, [email protected], 281-968-7733
John Fritz, [email protected], 608-622-7632
Ever Lee Hairston, [email protected], 323-654-2975
Carla McQuillan, [email protected], 541-653-9153
Amy Ruell, [email protected], 617-752-1116
Joe Ruffalo, [email protected]
Terri Rupp, [email protected], 702-524-0835
Adelmo Vigil, [email protected], 575-921-5422