Before #MeToo, Women in Local Arts Communities Were Organizing for Accountability

Alyssa Milano accidentally launched a viral movement last year when she asked survivors of harassment and abuse to respond to a tweet with “me, too.” But over ten years earlier, Tarana Burke, co-founder of Just Be Inc., a youth organization for young women of color, had coined the phrase for a similar purpose—to let women and girls in her own community know they weren’t alone. Though Milano quickly and publicly acknowledged Burke’s work, making space for a movement which would come to involve celebrities and advocates alike, the incident served as a stark reminder that across the country, the #MeToo movement has been a long time coming on a much smaller scale.

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Decades of grassroots activism paved the way for #MeToo and #TimesUp—some of which has been ongoing among lesser-known women in the arts for decades. Young women embedded in smaller, independent and local arts communities have been creating accountability workshops, organizations and even community infrastructures to identify and eradicate sexual harassment and sexual predators in DIY spaces. I’ve been among these women since 2013 as a journalist, fighting for safe spaces and media inclusivity by shining a light on their work. I have seen young women speak out and organize with no budgets, no press conferences, no tee-shirts and no mainstream media connections—and I want to ensure that we acknowledge some of the women I’ve spoken to, and give to homage to the women who have gone unnoticed, opening doors in their communities that helped to make the #MeToo moment possible.

Musician Xe Davis was disturbed when she opened the Honey Trap in Los Angeles, a short-lived DIY music and arts venue. When I interviewed her last year, Davis opened up about her own experience as a silenced abuse survivor in the arts community. She had moved to Los Angeles with an abusive partner, one who shared her spaces—and she remained isolated from the larger arts community for fear of sharing her story only to be called “crazy” or otherwise alienated. “There needs to be more accountability for the actions of predators,” she told me, “and for those who allow them to continue to prey on our community simply because they haven’t personally experienced the predatory and dangerous behavior. The discussion of how to handle these situations should happen before [an instance where] continual attacks occur.”

Davis didn’t just wish for accountability, however; instead, she assembled a structured plan of action for the Los Angeles music community at-large. After two sexual predators were ex-communicated from her arts scene due to serial allegations of abuse, Davis came together with two other women, Deseret Rodriguez and Leanna Robinson, to launch Account-Ability, a nascent certification program for venues and galleries of all sizes that empower owners to foster safe spaces by providing them education on how to handle sexual assault and harassment and how to make spaces welcoming to people of color and LGBT folks. “I began work on this after one of many discussions of ‘what now,'” Davis explained. “We decided we were tired of having the same discussions over and over again and action needed to be taken.”

But Aayesha Aijaz, a Muslim American activist, started the Baltimore Community Accountability Project to have those discussions. Founder of the local DIY community organization in Baltimore City, strvnge encounters, Aijaz organizes workshops that help community members define accountability, draw up diagrams of their support networks and brainstorm an accountability process that fits their social lives. Then, attendees come together to generate a list of values and principles to guide community-wide accountability.

Young women bear the brunt of the #MeToo crisis—because they are often the most vulnerable to power imbalances and have the least recourse when they’ve been abused. Jackie Fuchs (Jackie Fox), the former bassist of The Runaways, told her own #MeToo story in 2015, opening up about her rape at a hotel room in front of several people in 1975, but it failed to launch a movement. What it did do, however, was shine a light on the importance of accountability and bystander intervention. “I had a nice talk with Dr. Dorothy Edwards from Green Dot, an organization that educates people on becoming active bystanders,” Fox said in an interview with me for Bitch Media. “They go out on campuses, they go through scenarios to teach people the things they can do to help others who are being hurt. In my case, maybe someone who was there could have walked in the room and created a distraction and said, ‘I just heard next door that someone is going to call the police.’ Kim was so scared to be caught with an underaged girl, that would have stopped it from happening. But nobody knew to do that.”

Women like Davis and Aijaz aim to show them how to do just that. And they are not alone. Women of all ages have been working, fighting, organizing, speaking out and battling the status quo in their local communities and via media outlets for decades—and #MeToo is their watershed moment, too. Advocates and celebrities are finally finding the momentum they need to change the same lopsided culture that has left women like Jackie Fuchs and Alyssa Milano feeling isolated, alienated and powerless. And across the country, young activists and artists stand at the ready to keep the ball rolling.

Jordannah Elizabeth is an author, lecturer, music critic and feminist writer. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Bitch Media, LA Weekly and Village Voice and is bi-coastal by nature. She is the author of Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As.

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