The goal: Allowing women to speak their truth — without consequences

Culture change around sexual harassment starts with ability to freely discuss incidents

The asks — all of which fall in line with the rules of basic decency — are plentiful.

So, don’t think for a second that the 76-page report released by the ad hoc Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics created by state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg includes anything more than the ability of women to simply be able to do their jobs — without sexual harassment —in Trenton.

Of course, making rules and offering recommendations — like the creation of an independent investigative unit — only serves as an answer to a problem. It doesn’t solve the root of it. That comes with a change of culture. One that cannot simply be voted into practice.

The 15-women on the Weinberg committee took a big step with the report. But the truth is, they’ve been taking a bigger step since the group was created a year ago. Through listening groups held around the state, they gave women an opportunity to be heard. Creating an environment where that can continue is key.

Julie Roginsky, a co-founder of Lift Our Voices, an advocacy group she helped start shortly after going through an ordeal of sexual harassment at Fox News, said letting other women know they have support is vital.

“It is very lonely to come forward,” she said. “Those who spoke before our committee, those who might be listening, they will know what I’m talking about. It is incredibly lonely.

“When you come forward, and especially when you speak truth to power, there’s a lot of power structure that lines up to try to destroy your life or destroy your career to make it very hard for you to persevere.”

Roginsky said women who come forward in New Jersey can expect “an army of women” behind them.

“I think this workgroup has already demonstrated that we will have your back,” she said. “We will not necessarily take sides. We will not necessarily say, ‘Amen’ out of the gate. What we will do is allow you to have the space to be able to speak your truth, to be able to get what’s on your mind, off your chest.”

Coming forward is still difficult. Jeannine LaRue, a senior vice president at Kaufman Zita Group, said she knows why. It’s another issue the group needs to address, she said.

“This is what I would like women to understand,” she said. “And this is the part that I think has been really a negative for women who want to come forward with their stories over the years: Women need to understand they need not be perfect.”

LaRue said people will try to discredit women for reasons that have nothing to do with their complaint.

“Someone can say, ‘Look at what she did there,’ or, ‘I wonder what she did to ask for this kind of treatment?’ or, ‘What was she wearing? Have you seen the way she dresses?’

“It makes women think, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t come forward, because they’re going to talk about these other things in my life.’”

LaRue said trust the truth.

“What women need to understand (is that) you don’t have to be perfect to know when someone has wronged you,” she said. “You don’t have to be perfect to know when someone has violated your body.”

This always has been a challenge. The toughest challenge, Weinberg said.

It’s why workgroup members Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Crystal Pruitt, of the Franklin Township council, want to change the rules of the game.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to keep expecting women to have to bear their trauma publicly for there to be accountability and reform,” Teffenhart said. “And, so, we’re talking so much about women coming forward — but women come forward and litigate their cases in the court of public opinion, because the systems we have in place are completely inadequate.”

She noted the case of former Gov. Phil Murphy campaign worker Katie Brennan, who had to go to the media to get her story heard.

“I think what this workgroup has done is shine a light on the fact that these reforms are necessary across systems, across institutions, in and outside of government — and that no one should have to be on the cover of the Wall Street Journal in order to have their voice be heard,” she said.

Pruitt agreed.

“That’s the change of culture we’re trying to get to — where things like justice and equity aren’t buzzwords, they are things that are actually built into our system that everyone has access to,” she said. “And the problem is that so many people do not have access to the same justice, or equity or respect.

“So, our task is not just laying the groundwork, but our task is also fighting to make sure that people appreciate and use and lean into in support and respect the groundwork. And that, you know, there is liberty and justice, bodily autonomy, and respect. So, no one has to be trotted out for change to happen.”

It’s a challenge. But it’s one where progress is being made quickly.

LaRue proved that.

Last December, LaRue was one of a handful of women willing to put their name to allegations of misdeed, telling NJ Advance Media about a time when a lawmaker wanted to exchange a vote for sex. As a well-respected veteran of 40 years, LaRue should be able to speak her mind on anything. On Thursday, she recalled the terror she felt after that interview with Sue Livio.

“We met at Starbucks and I gave her my story,” she said. “Even at 70 years old, and at the point I am in my career right now, I walked to my car and I sat behind the steering wheel for a couple of minutes and I said, ‘Damn, did I make a mistake?’

“‘Maybe I should not have gone on the record,’ because I didn’t know where this whole thing was going. And I remember when the article came out, I sat here before this monitor, and I read it, and I said to myself: ‘Jeannine, this could be the end of your career. You’re on the record. And you know, this never has a good ending.’”

This is the feeling. This is the concern. This is the culture that has to change.