In an ordinary Washington office building, Anna Black gets so many calls each day, she lets them go to voice mail so she can make proper time for each one.
That’s about how Meryl Streep, Selena Gomez and Shonda Rhimes envisioned it when they helped create this unlikely outpost of the #MeToo movement.
Black’s office at the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is at the end of a long hallway, far from the panoramic Dupont Circle views that the rest of her team has. Far from the Hollywood stars who created her job. There are no windows, like the budget room on a cruise ship, and the 25-year-old with dangly cherry earrings and a jean jacket doesn’t use the harsh, office lights, but does her work to the dim glow of a small lamp, so it feels like a confessional chamber when she gets on a call.
This is #MeToo two years later, two years after producer Harvey Weinstein was finally taken down for his predatory behavior.
The calls come in from a farmworker in California. A home caregiver in Texas. A bus driver in Mississippi. A cook in a Philadelphia hotel.
Some of them cry. Most of them are women. All of them called to report they were sexually harassed at work. Big deal, hasn’t this always been going on?
Yes, it has. But this time, the call center isn’t just a confessional and trauma-informed therapy talk. A call to this hotline means a lawyer, a lawsuit and action.
“As people started coming forward about Harvey Weinstein, a group called Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a (women’s) farmworker group, published this letter called the ‘Dear Sisters’ letter,” said Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “It was a letter to the women who had come forward in Hollywood, and it said ‘We hear you, we see you, we know what you’re going through because this is what we go through, too.’ ”
It was at that moment when glittery Hollywood stars with five-figure facials and farmworkers with calloused hands realized they have something in common, Tejani said.
And some of those Hollywood women also realized that the momentum of the #MeToo movement could fade once boldface names weren’t involved.
“We wanted to focus on low-wage jobs, retail, janitors, farmworkers,” said Fatima Goss Graves, the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, who helped organize the effort. Because at that point, most of the attention to sexual harassment claims went to wealthy, white women.
Turns out that’s exactly what the Hollywood folks wanted, too. Thanks to big-time donors and a wave of support from a GoFundMe page, they started with $24 million.
Since the start of the Time’s Up fund in January 2018, they’ve handled nearly 4,000 cases. Most get referred to a network of about 700 lawyers across the nation who specialize in these types of cases.
Calls come in to Black, who is not a lawyer, but came to the legal fund from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. So she knows how to talk to people who have been through trauma.
Ellie Driscoll takes the emails that come in. And the two of them dispatch cases to attorneys across the country. Those attorneys must promise that the first consult will be free. And after that, they will agree on a path for the case. Many of them will take it pro-bono.
A lot of the survivors tell Driscoll and Black that they would never have come forward if they didn’t hear the stories from Hollywood stars who were abused, too.
“During the Golden Globes” — when Time’s Up was often mentioned — “we got 200 calls,” Goss Graves said. “During. The. Show.”
The tucked-away little office in Washington is an important place for these survivors to call because too often, they’ve already tried to tell someone at work.
“One of the biggest things we’re seeing is retaliation. Retaliation if they did try to come forward,” Tejani said.
At their staff meeting last week, they compared notes and agreed that a lot of the callers are women who have reported sexual harassment, and now can’t find other jobs because the report follows them, especially in the restaurant and hotel industries.
“Do you think we can use the term ‘blacklisting?’ ” Tejani asks.
Black nodded vigorously, her cherry earrings bobbing. “They use it. Almost all of them said ‘I’ve been blacklisted.’ ”
So it is like Hollywood, after all.