Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Public Letter from Rachel Stirling and Joe DeMers Regarding SwingFest ‘15

Rachel Stirling is a professional Blues dance instructor, dj, and event organizer who lives in Portland, OR.

Joe DeMers is a professional Blues and Lindy Hop dance instructor from Denver, CO.


Introduction
We, Rachel Stirling and Joe DeMers, were confirmed to teach Blues dance at an event, SwingFest ‘15, in St. Petersburg, Russia. After committing to teaching, another instructor, Steven Mitchell, was re-added to the bill of confirmed instructors after being ousted from the dance community for his gross misconduct, using his position of authority as a teacher to take advantage of women. The SwingFest organizers have been vocal supporters of Steven Mitchell, disregarding the many personal testimonies and allegations of assault as heresay. This decision by the organizers to knowingly hire an alleged sexual perpetrator and allow him to maintain his position of authority goes against our personal values, as well as our community's values. After an involved process of advocating for a physically and emotionally safe space for our SwingFest community, it’s with a heavy heart that we chose to withdraw from the event.

Russia’s Blues and Lindy Hop community is part of our community and this is more than just an American problem. Although access to information regarding Steven’s assaults can be increased through social media, such as Facebook, members of our community may still be ignorant of the situation and/or perhaps not know how to deal with it. How do we best facilitate our community in creating the safest space possible to dance and interact? Does withdrawing best serve this purpose? How do we remove barriers in communication and increase access to this information? Do we (Rachel and Joe) hold enough power and have the skillset to advocate on behalf of our community and the SwingFest participants in an environment where the people we fight to protect are knowingly put at risk? Is it possible to hold the organizers accountable to implement infrastructures that create safe spaces? We are one community, there is no right answer, and we believe that communication, collaboration, and compromise can solve even the most challenging of problems.

At a time when our world and political systems are in turmoils, we sought to see the organizers as human beings. We considered SwingFest, the Russian dance community, and each of its members separately. We’ve heard there was dialogue in Russia surrounding Steven when accounts of his assaults surfaced and many people were opposed to Steven being hired; however, we didn’t know who they were nor have access to them. Hearing this disapproval was encouraging and also reminded us that when we consider our fellow community members and dancers in Russia, we should beware of the danger of a single story. For example, one possible Western perspective of Russia is that everyone there contributed to annexing Crimea from Ukraine and is responsible for the fighting in eastern Ukraine. However at SwingFest, members of the Ukraine dance community are invited to participate for free. It’s very much an act of support in this time of military intervention, such as the Israeli Swing Dance Community’s letter to Palestine.

The call for us to uphold our values by withdrawing has been immense.  And while our values align with our community’s in feeling Steven should not be present at the event, we were conflicted about what would best serve our community should SwingFest insist on hiring him. We took a step back, examined our values and what it meant to embody them, asked why there’s a misalignment of values with SwingFest and the rest of our community, and sought advice from community members, victims, and those familiar with sexual assault.

Part of examining our values meant also examining how our (American) culture has influenced us. While we could speculate on reasons for differences in how we understand and respond to Steven’s accounts of misconduct, our biggest challenge was navigating how to effectively respond to organizers who are influenced by a cultural background different from our own and uniquely diverse from others. Our hope is that by establishing a productive dialogue, we begin to bridge the gap between differing cultural backgrounds to strengthen, support, and facilitate SwingFest in creating a safer space for its community and attendees.

It was with the best intent that we opened a line of communication to raise concerns and propose solutions so as to uphold our values and our community’s with integrity and fidelity. Below is our initial email sent to the SwingFest organizers in light of their intention to hire Steven Mitchell to teach at SwingFest, even after knowing of his victims’ allegations.


Email to SwingFest Organizers Regarding Concerns Surrounding Steven Mitchell
Dear SwingFest Organizers,

Rachel and I wanted to reach out to you regarding an important issue within our community and begin a dialogue about it. We are writing because we feel strongly that Steven Mitchell should not currently be hired to teach or hold any position of power at any dance event. This is an incredibly sad statement for us to make because Steven has been super influential on our dancing and was once a beloved member of our community. However, due to his behavior and past actions, our community has removed him from events at which he was booked and we believe it is too soon for his reintegration. The desire to create equitable and safe spaces has sparked intense conversation in our community which we believe needs to be continued. There is still a huge healing process of rehabilitation and reconciliation for Steven that has not yet unfolded, which is why we believe it’s too soon for him to be hired to teach or hold any position of power at any dance event.

As it stands, we hold unfavorable positions within our community by teaching at an event with Steven; our reputation and professional integrity are on the line. We are excited to teach amazing workshops at SwingFest ‘15 and to have an excellent time in Russia; however, we wish to uphold decisions that respect the concerns of our dance community, particularly around issues of physical and emotional safety and sexual misconduct (e.g Steven’s history of sexual misconduct - see references at end of email). At the present, SwingFest ‘15’s current decisions and actions to hire Steven Mitchell as an instructor are not aligned with that of the community’s concerns. We observe this misalignment through phone calls, emails and social media messages we have received from swing communities around the world, including Russia. In these messages, we have been asked to intervene regarding the decision to include Steven on the teaching staff and to withdraw from the event entirely if he is not removed. We are also concerned that there may not be a support network which empowers individuals to share their voice and experiences with organizers of SwingFest ‘15 when they experience harm in the community. Our ultimate goal in engaging with you in this conversation is to help shape our community so safety is the utmost priority and to ensure that structures are in place to support community members in a safe journey to learn and love Swing and Blues dance.

Rachel and I are committed to teaching at SwingFest ‘15; however, we propose the following solutions to meet our community’s needs and for Rachel and me to feel completely comfortable participating in the event:

  1. Steven is removed from the event staff. In the past, Steven has used his position of authority as a teacher, his reputation as it were, to coerce individuals into participating in non-consensual, and sexually compromising, activities (see references at end of email for more details). (We believe the safest course of action for the community is to not place him in positions of power.)
  2. A transparent code of conduct for all participants at the event is posted and agreed upon by all attendees (see a good example with background context here)
  3. The organizers publicly and transparently put infrastructures in place which allow members of the community to express, discuss, and acknowledge concerns and ideas relating to building safe spaces within the dance community, and especially related to the issues surrounding Steven Mitchell.

We strongly believe the proposal listed above is the right course of action. However, in the event that SwingFest ‘15 chooses not to enact it, we will still participate as instructors provided the following actions are taken to ensure the event is committed to modifying his behavior to be in alignment with the values and needs of the greater community. If the following actions are not taken, we will publicly withdraw our participation and support from SwingFest ‘15:
  1. A transparent code of conduct for all participants at the event is posted and agreed upon by all attendees (see a good example with background context here)
  2. Steven Mitchell attends the event only after agreeing to a contract with a specific set of behavior requirements (proposed below) and that SwingFest‘15 provides oversight to ensure he adheres to these contractual requirements.
    1. Steven is not allowed to participate in any sexualized act with anyone attending, volunteering, paid participants, or otherwise involved professionally with the event, during the event and his stay before or after the event. To give clarity to what sexualized act refers, we suggest the following definition: manual, oral, and penetrative sex, as well as kissing or making out, or the general sexualization of any interaction or act at the event. This also includes conduct that has overt sexual connotations for the observer. (We see engagement in interactions of a sexual nature as detrimental to creating a space that is safe for all participants.)
    2. Steven agrees not to use any kinds of drugs or alcohol. (This is because use of alcohol played a role in some of his past misconduct.)
    3. Clear conduct guidelines are added into his contract (including above stipulations) with the consequence for violating these guidelines including the loss of all compensation from the event.
    4. Whoever houses him should be given full disclosure of his situation and what is being asked of him. Any host must give consent to house him knowing this.
    5. If at anytime Steven Mitchell violates this code of conduct, the event shall ask him to leave.
  3. The organizers publicly and transparently put in place infrastructures that allow members of the community to express, discuss, and acknowledge concerns and ideas relating to building safe spaces within the dance community, and especially related to the issues surrounding Steven Mitchell.

By hiring Steven Mitchell, SwingFest ‘15 endorses a culture where harmful behavior is overlooked in valuation of talent. Because Steven has yet to demonstrate his willingness to take responsibility for his actions, offering him a position as an event staff ultimately makes a statement of support for his prior misconduct. The above proposed action steps and agreements for Steven teaching is done in the context of a restorative justice approach. It is not the answer itself; however, this step could be instrumental in the process. In theory, Steven demonstrates he is able to hold himself accountable to the demands and expectations of the dance community and adheres to restrictions placed upon his participation, and is allowed to attend the event.

This is an opportunity for SwingFest ‘15 to be a model for other events and scenes which strives to create a safe space for dancing. This is also an opportunity to set the stage for an international dialogue relating to Steven’s, and other dancers in similarly compromised situations, rehabilitation and reintegration. Rachel and I are willing and happy to support you to develop these above proposed structures and to embody values of safe communities. Please let us know how we may support you in this endeavor. We invite you to ask us questions for clarification and are willing to support you and your community in any capacity in which we are able.

To respect our community, we may need to share publicly the action steps that we are taking. Please feel confident that it is our goal is to create the most positive experience at SwingFest and improve the event with you in a way that aligns with the values of us and our community.  

Rachel and I really appreciate you taking the time to read our message and understand our positive intent. As we stated earlier, it is our desire and goal to teach at SwingFest ‘15 and have a wonderful experience, and hope we can come to an agreement regarding the above proposed solutions. In reply to our proposal, please provide us a clear answer about which action steps you’re willing to take in order to create safer spaces and meet the demands of our dance community.

Thank you,
Joe and Rachel

References:
1. Sarah's Testimony (Sexual assault of a minor, facilitated by him providing her alcohol and asking her to keep it a secret): ssullivan410.wordpress.com

2 & 3. Allison's Testimony
The video describing the emotional impact of the first assault on her is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMtgK2TtFOA (her 2nd video is no longer on the internet, and I won't describe what Steven did to her without knowing whether she still wants it shared - but I will mention that it involved 2 separate counts of him deceiving her into accompanying him into secluded circumstances far from help under the promise of [nothing-to-do-with-intimacy] private social interactions)

4. Heidi's Testimony (Steven's sexual assault while she was sick after drinking a drink he prepared): ssullivan410.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/3/comment-page-1/#comment-34

5. Brenda's Testimony (Steven's sexual assault as she tried to talk business with him) : https://ssullivan410.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/3/comment-page-3/#comment-234

6. Clara's Testimony (rape when she was his roommate, July/August 2014) : https://ssullivan410.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/3/comment-page-3/#comment-306

7. Piper Jay's Testimony (Steven's sexual assault while she was sick after drinking a drink he prepared) : https://ssullivan410.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/3/comment-page-4/#comment-405

8. Peds's Testimony ("could've been me" sexually uncomfortable encounter while socializing with Steven in his hotel room): https://ssullivan410.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/3/comment-page-3/#comment-238


Evidence that would demonstrate infrastructures are in place to meet our stipulations
After sending the above letter, the SwingFest organizers thanked us for reaching out  and asked to schedule a Skype meeting (including a translator) to discuss our concerns. They shared with us the value of SwingFest in contributing to the knowledge, growth and passion of the Russian Lindy Hop and Blues scene. They assured us that securities would be in place for Steven’s participation and would speak to each point above and be fully responsible for any action taken. They stated that nobody from the Russian Swing dance community has any doubt that any sexual abuse is bad and unacceptable in any community, although there is no proof of Steven's guilt (Steven’s comment on Sarah’s blog post), only a lot of years of personal communication, business contacts and personal friendship. The organizers informed us they were not going to un-invite Steven.

(For those that haven’t seen, Steven also posted a comment on Naomi Uyama’s Facebook post, which was removed from the thread: “Steven Mitchell – Naomi thank you for your post. I do have have a problem. And after reading your post, and talking with a few people it has helped to see and realize this fact. I will seek help as soon as I get home. I’ve been so blind and on a road of destruction for some time now. I will clean up my life. Thank you”)

Although the organizers may have had the physical risks ‘absolutely excluded,’ which is difficult to do in itself, there would still be potential emotional risks for people attending an event with someone who has been accused of sexual assault present. It was important to us that the SwingFest community (and the larger Swing/Blues community) knew what preventative actions were being taken to ensure the physical and mental health of people at the event, because this would be the first event at which Steven would teach since accounts of the assaults were made public. After much consideration, we felt strongly that we could bring more positive change with our presence and level of advocacy for safe spaces and consent culture than with withdrawing.

In order to uphold our values and those of our community’s and still feel comfortable committing to teach, we needed pieces of evidence to be public and in place. Without it, we weren’t willing to come. We suggested these steps for explicit interventions as evidence in meeting our requests:
  1. Publicly post Steven Mitchell's situation and SwingFest’s interventions
  2. Publicly post Steven Mitchell's contract with our language agreement
  3. Publicly post SwingFest’'s code of conduct for all participants (how we as a community will create a safe space)
  4. Identify an authority figure/group of figures whose main responsibility is enforcing the code of conduct
  5. Identify men and women authority figures to hear participants concerns
  6. Have a session (lunch or workshop) to discuss building infrastructure for creating safe spaces.
  7. Steven doesn’t attend the social dances (added after our initial Skype conversation)
  8. Bring Steven in on the conversation
Informed consent and victim empowerment is at the core of our proposed interventions listed above. If the organizers are willingly hiring an alleged sexual offender, then everything regarding his misconduct should be fully disclosed to the public. Steven engaged in nonconsensual sexual acts of abuse and each individual dancer/participant at the event should have the opportunity to be fully aware of the environment they are entering. Disclosure of his alleged sexual perpetration and his public vow to adjust his behavior would be key to building a safer space for dance, although not risk-free.


Another meeting with the organizers
Although we felt we made progress toward creating an environment in which people would give informed consent to participate, the organizers had concerns regarding points 1 & 2 (publicly posting Steven’s victims allegations and contract language). They felt it was not necessary for Steven to have additional restrictions placed on him, that every participant should agree to a high-level code of conduct. We expressed that if individuals wished to practice consent in engaging in intimate relationships (verbal and not under the influence of alcohol/drugs), then they should be allowed. Steven’s restrictions would only be for him because his countless misconducts demonstrated his total lack of understanding regarding consent and appropriate substance use, and there were never any repercussions for his misconduct.

As well-recognized and desirable Blues dance teachers who helped sell tickets to the event, being hired to teach at SwingFest ‘15 placed us in a position of power to advocate for participants who we have never met, who perhaps have no advocate or are unaware of the situation at hand. After these initial conversations with the SwingFest organizer, it seemed our points of view and intent were understood and they were willing to agree to meet our requests and stipulations. At this time, we organized a call with Steven.


Meeting with Steven
Our agreed upon outline for the meeting was to bring Steven up to speed with our current predicament and concerns, share our intent for the meeting, and discuss our proposed expectations/stipulations. Moments in the meeting were heart breaking. Here we were, disciples of Lindy Hop and Blues of a once beloved teacher having to discuss sexual predation in our dance community with the very person of whom we were speaking. The best solution was for Steven to withdraw himself (or not be hired by the organizers). Though we were listening to another human being talk about practically living on the streets and needing to take this job out of survival, losing one’s job cannot compare with the trauma sexual assault leaves in its wake.  

The meeting ended with Steven recognizing the need for us to take action and he would agree to our terms.


Our last meeting with the organizers
In our last meeting and in a professional manner, the organizers expressed their concern that publicizing Steven’s accounts of misconduct could potentially avow them as people who support violence and violation of human rights. They feared that, by applying our original stipulations and suggested actions, the image of the event and the atmosphere of it would be damaged. We shared that although disclosing Steven’s misconduct may tarnish the image of the event, their fear had already become a reality when they chose to hire an alleged sexual predator and our proposal could in fact lift up the event as one that takes responsibility and takes action to create a more informed and safer community (although the best practice is not to have Steven). We compared it to a food allergy. For example, if one is going to serve food with peanuts, it’s not enough to just tell people the name of the dish. A best practice is to label potentially harmful ingredients so people can make an informed choice to eat, or to not serve it at all. Unfortunately, the organizers felt they couldn’t accommodate all of our requests.

Do we teach for, and thus support, an event who willing hires a sexual perpetrator or do we withdraw our support from this event and potentially leave its participants without an advocate for implementing infrastructures that create safe spaces? What does one do when another isn't willing to recognize/acknowledge claims of abuse and take action? Was there anything more we could have done?

It was at this time that we withdrew from the event.


Final Message
There are no easy solutions to creating safe spaces for dance and we don't claim to have all the answers. Sexual violence and predation are real in our community and no two offenders are the same. Most perpetrators of sexual assault are known to their victims and women are the likely victims of abuse. The most important key to preventing this problem is to practice consent and respect boundaries. Consent should be verbal and not under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Only yes means yes, and no means no. Among both men and women, let’s further the conversations about consent, alcohol, and drugs, and say something when boundaries are not respected.

Consent should be taught within the context of our dance scene as there are many individuals who are ignorant to its practices. Without this education individuals may not be aware they’ve been assaulted or may not know how to come forward regarding the experience. We should ensure people know how they can access support in the community and that expectations for everyone are clear.

If we see a friend under the influence, let’s become their sober voice of saying “no.” If you’re unsure if your words or actions are making someone uncomfortable, check in with them.  If someone was comfortable with something with another person, or even with you on a prior occasion, it does not necessarily mean they are comfortable with it now. If you want a clear and clever how-to about consent, go watch this video.

Lastly, if language is a potential barrier to accessing information about Steven’s situation, we should encourage members of our community to find professional resources to translate the victims’ testimonies and this post. Translation is a sensitive topic and being able to do it properly requires a lot of skill. It's also important to check with the authors of the testimonies to obtain permission to translate and re-post publicly.


Thank You
Thank you to our whole scene for stepping up to have these challenging conversations and providing thoughtful reflection to this process. Although we wholeheartedly wish these experiences of assault had never happened to these individuals in our Lindy Hop community, thank you to those who have had the courage to share your experiences with our community and bring to light dark acts of abuse in our scene. Thank you to those of you in positions of power who have been vocal, written emails, and/or withdrawn from events or otherwise for empowering others to take a stand against rape culture in our community. Thank you to the Blues and Lindy Hop instructors and organizers who took the time to reach out to understand our situation, offer advice, and allow us to bounce reflective thoughts off of you. Thank you to Aimee Eddins, Tian Yu Yen, and Tresne Hernandez (from Joe) and all our friends and family for being a moral foundation and guide. Thank you to you for reading our post.

If you would like to personally reach out to us, please feel free to contact Rachel Stirling at redstirling(at)gmail.com and Joe DeMers at jddemers(at)gmail.com.

3 comments:

  1. Though I'm sadden that such a letter had to be written in the first place, I must say that I've grown quite a bit of respect for the two of you. Thank you for standing firm to your belief and your stance with the community towards a safer space for us all.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. It is great to know about the SwingFest through this public letter. Thanks for this wonderful post dear. I have also attended the Blues dance event at some local event space San Francisco. The event was really outstanding and I want to attend such an event again!

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