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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Highlights from Plenary Session: Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights Becomes a Safe Haven

Jabria Howington, August 15, 2016

“We know through painful experiences that truth will never come by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” –inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The morning of July 27, 2016 brought together courageous and inspiring whistleblowers, GAP coalition partners, and advocacy leaders at the 5th Annual Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights. To kick-off the event, ACORN 8 co-founder and Summit organizer, Michael McCray said, “I became a federal whistleblower and that changed my life entirely, and I have suffered.” He proceeded to explain that being a whistleblower is a journey with three steps: ethics and morals, unbearable retaliation, and broken justice. Testimonies of the trials and tribulations of being a “truth-teller” revealed the underlying significance of the Summit – it serves as a safe haven for whistleblowers to share their stories. McCray further stated that whistleblower events, like this one, “saved my sanity and probably my life,” through a sense of community. Solidarity at the Summit was important for creating a healthy environment for whistleblowers and advocacy leaders to join and commemorate the accomplishments that the whistleblowing community has made together, while continuing to raise issues that still need to be addressed.

GAP’s Legal Director, Tom Devine, reminded attendees that whistleblowers have high points and low points every year. The good news being that free speech rights have made great legislative strides. Whistleblowers are now being recognized through the Senate and House Whistleblower Protection Caucuses, increasing leadership within executive agencies has provided for greater whistleblower protections and rights, and that whistleblower laws are becoming a global phenomenon. However, the bad news lies in remaining legal loopholes, the lack of accountability for wrongdoers, and the fact that whistleblowers still “lose by winning.” Even whistleblowers who win their case regularly suffer from ongoing retaliation and financial burdens, among other difficulties.

Tanya Ward Jordan, Founder of Coalition for Change, Inc. (C4C), followed Devine by expounding on the meaning of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. She explained that, though a common misconception, “Black Lives Matter” is not meant to imply that the lives of others are not important. Rather, black lives are also important. C4C advocates against racial discrimination and retaliation in the workplace; a problem that has yet been put to bed. In her own experience, Jordan witnessed her white colleagues surpassing her and wondered why, despite her numerous accolades, she had not been promoted. Shockingly, her supervisor said to her, “Tanya, you’re black, you’re a woman, this is a time of diversity. You have ‘winner’ written across your forehead and you can go somewhere else to work.” In that moment, she recognized that while African Americans play a significant role in the government and society overall, we do not yet live in a post-racial society.

Former Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal, Matthew Fogg, resonated Jordan’s message in his own testimony. Growing up during the Civil Rights Movement motivated him to make a difference in the federal court system. Soon after graduating from the academy, he realized there was a culture in place that, “you have to go along to get along,” otherwise a target is placed on your back or you “disappear into bureaucratic Siberia.”

The panel discussion continued with the topic of how health is at risk after blowing the whistle. Committing the truth can be very stressful and can have severe impacts on the mind, body and spirit. Arthuretta Holmes-Martin, from C4C, tells her clients that once they file an EEO complaint they become an Enemy of the State and the “witch hunt” against them can be taxing on their health. She explained that retaliation is a form of abuse and, in reality, no human being is created to accept such psychological abuse. Rather than our fight-or-flight mechanisms kicking in, harassment and reprisal can leave us paralyzed. Understanding the effects that whistleblowing may have, both mentally and physically, can help mitigate the stress. Dr. Denise Wright, PhD, provided her expert advice on how positivity and forgiveness can serve as tools to combating negativity. The stress that can inevitably arises from retaliation can lead to clinical depression, anxiety, disability, and absenteeism. Wright asserts that changing our perspectives about the world can help to fight the fear of retaliation and embrace the purpose of being a whistleblower.

The morning closed with an admiring and heartfelt tale of how Deirdre Gilbert, Founder of the National Medical Malpractice Advocacy Association, lost her daughter to professional negligence. After battling and surviving 125 surgeries, Jocelyn Gilbert reached out her hand to her mother one last time in a cry for help before finding peace. Rather than providing Gilbert with answers, the doctors attributed Jocelyn’s untimely death to her own special need disabilities and the complications that occurred. Gilbert explained that medical malpractice has psychologically disabled the entire medical community, but where is the outrage? She revealed that as the third leading cause of death in America; 1.5 million people a year are dying at the hands of medical malpractice. More shockingly, she shared that 2,400 dentists who have been found guilty of rape and sexual harassment of their patients are still allowed to practice. Why? Gilbert explained that because the government seeks to keep these statistics a secret and have barred any resolution or legal recourse for the victims and their families through tort reform. So what can we do?

Those impacted by corruption, illegality and other forms of misconduct have come to realize that silence cannot protect us because the more we speak out, the greater the fight against injustice becomes. To bring the issues discussed at the Summit to the international level, whistleblowers and supporters must come together as a community to address the abuses we face in our society.

More information about the Whistleblower Summit on Civil and Human Rights can be found here.