#MeToo in Hawaii: Progress Against Sexual Harassment

The statement below was given by Rachael Wong in response to an ethics complaint for sexual harassment against former state House Speaker and Representative Joe Souki after she resigned as director of the Hawaii Department of Human Services in 2016. Earlier this year, Souki publicly apologized and resigned. This statement was given on March 21, 2018. Find a video of the statement on YouTube; the Aspen Forum on Women and Girls is mentioned at the 20:00 mark. 

This is a day of closure for me and many other women, and it also marks the beginning of a transformation that many have said is long overdue. The hundreds of messages I’ve received reinforce the need for positive, substantive change in Hawai‘i. They revolve around similar themes: Thank you for speaking for me…for my daughters…for giving voice; We’ve all been there; #MeToo; I really want to tell my own story; I don’t know where I can go; and the status quo is unacceptable.

Our culture often prevents us from speaking out when there is injustice, and we are taught not to put others to shame since we live in a small community. These are some of the very reasons many suffer in silence for years, and things stay the same. It is time for a new way of doing things in Hawai‘i, and I am hopeful because of what is possible.

This press conference was called because of the resolution of an investigation. In fact, today represents much more for Hawai‘i: This can be a springboard to a different future for us all. My motivation behind filing the complaint and publicly coming forward is that I deeply love Hawai‘i. We can and must do better for each other and our future.  

I envision a state where anyone who has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace can safely come forward without the risk of retribution, retaliation, and loss of reputation. The public shaming, vitriolic judgments, and hate mail I received since my complaint became public only further solidify my vision for a better Hawai‘i and, hopefully, explain why I was compelled to speak. It is time to end the misuse and abuse of position and authority in the workplace.  

Acknowledgments

First, I will start with a few brief acknowledgments. I would like to thank the Hawai‘i State Ethics Commission for its thorough investigation of my complaint and the tremendous amount of work that went into the resolution. The Commission staff are consistently professional and responsive, and they honored the requests for confidentiality from all of us who came forward throughout this process. I am grateful that an entity like the Commission exists and that it is led with and grounded in law and ethics. It must be known that it is a safe and effective conduit for reporting sexual harassment by state officials.

Second, I would like to thank and applaud the courageous women who also filed complaints with the Ethics Commission. Several found me after the news about my complaint became public. In this current culture, not one of them is in a place where they feel they can safely disclose their identities at this time. This is significant.  

Thank you to Elizabeth “Liz” Jubin Fujiwara, who has served as my legal advisor. I appreciate her wise counsel and sharing of her deep experience in this field.

I also want to acknowledge Speaker Emeritus Souki for his decades of public service in Hawai‘i. His long career in economic development and in the legislature resulted in programs, policies, and laws that impact generations in Maui County and throughout our state.

Finally, and very importantly, I would like to express deep appreciation to my family and friends for their support during this period—I know many of you wanted to speak out on my behalf, and I thank you for honoring my decision to allow the legal process to follow its course. The biggest thank you goes to my husband, Brad, for his unwavering support and love. We have both dedicated our careers to improving quality of life for others here in Hawai‘i, and he is a big reason why I am able to do so in varied ways.

My Story

I will use this opportunity to share why I filed the complaint, touch on my experience after my complaint became public, and share my hopes for what each us can do in Hawai‘i to change our collective future. Thank you for reading/hearing this in its entirety.

As many know, I previously declined to comment on the details of my complaint out of respect for the Ethics Commission investigation process. Now that it is resolved, it’s the right time for me to speak. There was inaccurate news coverage during that period because of a lack of information from me, and I can now speak with facts and reclaim my own experience.

Let me start by giving you some background. When I was serving as the Director of the State Department of Human Services, I was responsible for a budget of 3.3 billion dollars, 2000 positions, and programs vital to the lives of 25% of all Hawai‘i residents and nearly half of our children. As the head of a State agency, part of my role was to regularly advocate for our Department’s budget and policy priorities with legislators and ask for their support.

When seeking support for my agency and the well-being of those it serves, my experience included legislators telling me things like: “You should be grateful for what I got you,” and “I expect [fill in the blank] from you.” The incident with Representative Souki involved abuse of this positional power to an extreme. Although there was a male colleague present, he made inappropriate comments specific to my physical appearance and an inappropriate request for physical contact beyond the traditional greetings we typically exchange in Hawai‘i.

I do not think it is productive to share more of the details that led to my complaint. I will share, however, that the November 2015 incident left me angry. It was the first time in my professional career that I had experienced this type of inappropriate assertion of power where there was no path for recourse. The risk of retaliation against me, my department, and the administration for refusing to comply or for reporting the incident was real and could derail good work in progress. This work directly affects the lives of local keiki, kupuna, families, and individuals in our communities. I told others whom I trust about this incident and publicly remained silent.

I also want to be clear about why I transitioned out of the executive branch because this has been misrepresented, despite what I’ve consistently shared from the time I informed the Governor through today. There were three main reasons: First, I left the Department of Human Services (DHS) in good hands with a clear path forward to work collaboratively for children and families. The department adopted a multi-generational approach—named ‘Ohana Nui by our state’s former foster youth—to improve health, education, employment, and other outcomes, and it did so with its partner, the Department of Health. Second, it was time for someone whose strengths include implementation to lead DHS to the next level; and third, I believed I could play a role in accelerating progress for Hawai‘i from the outside.

Why I filed with the Ethics Commission

I waited until I was at least one year out of my position to decrease the chance that my complaint would be politicized. I quietly filed my complaint with the Hawai‘i State Ethics Commission after recognizing it as a viable, confidential entity for reporting sexual harassment in the state workplace and with the hope that resolution could open up space for the community to focus on some real issues at hand. I did not file a lawsuit. I do not seek financial compensation or personal gain. I want to be clear that I respect those who file through the Hawai‘i Civil Rights Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or through the court system; I just chose a different route.

It was only after a reporter received an anonymous tip that I decided to confirm my complaint. My decision was based on three reasons: 1) I had already committed to disclose my identity; 2) I wanted other women to know they are not alone; and 3) I also did it for my own safety. My decision to file the complaint came from my deep love for Hawai‘i, our community, and our future.

My experience

After my complaint was made public, I was blown away by the support that came from hundreds of people—both expected and unexpected. I am grateful for the overwhelming support and affirmation that stepping forward was the right thing to do for other women and for Hawai‘i. However, after reading some of the online comments posted to published articles, I now know what it feels like to be shamed, judged, and attacked by those who do not know me. Although there are those who try to make me fear for my safety, the waves of support are much greater and speak to the truth of our larger community—I want other women and survivors to know this.

I also want it to be known that although news coverage slowed after early February, the pain of abuse for many did not fade. I am so moved and saddened by what other women have shared in the last few weeks about the abuse of positional power they experienced through their work at the State legislature. Some incidents are recent while others are decades old. Regardless, the trauma and the visceral effects are vivid and carried, and the tears that come from reliving these experiences are real.

It has taken a national and global groundswell of people to speak up, unite, and say, #MeToo and #TimesUp. Those who have been harassed can finally hear “I believe you” and are no longer as quickly judged. Yet every single one of the local women with whom I’ve spoken share that they were not and still do not feel able to come forward publicly. How can we be okay with that in our islands?

Like those who have come forward throughout the national #MeToo movement, as well as the women in Hawai‘i who have filed on their own behalf, we are speaking about our past experiences—regardless of how long ago—because the trauma remains and the abuse and culture still exist. We can all be better people, and we can all play roles in creating a different future for our children growing into adults. There is #MeToo…and we can be #UsAll.

 

 

What I hope to see

I was born and raised here and have dedicated my career to improving the quality of life for others, and this includes the privately funded One Shared Future Initiative I founded and lead to deepen and accelerate the public sector’s work. Our values of mutual respect, diversity, inclusion, and aloha (which is taught and shared by our host culture) are a big part of what makes Hawai‘i so special. These are our highest common numerators, which allow us to come together for change. We can move to a place where the future can be free of bullying, coercion, and harassment in local places of work and in our government.

Many of us share the goals of coming together around our common values to create safe spaces for inclusive, substantive conversations about this uncomfortable topic and for survivors of sexual harassment at the workplace to confidentially tell their stories. People and organizations are stepping forward to support this. Please be a part of what’s to come!

Media Contact:

Nathan Hokama

Strategic Communication Solutions (808) 226-7470

nhokama@scsolutions-hi.com