I moved away from Mobile, Alabama, in 1988 to attend college at the University of Alabama. Before I left, I worked as an office worker and a part-time “runner” at a law firm in old Mobile. The office had a few lawyers and a legal secretary, and I believe the name of the firm was Patterson, McCleave, and Shields. We worked in an old house off Government Street. It was surrounded by law firms in similar houses, which were scattered throughout the gorgeous oak trees of the historic downtown.
I was only 17, still in high school, and I barely said a peep to the lawyers because I was so nervous and intimidated by these accomplished professionals. It was my first introduction to a professional work environment. I learned a lot.
One thing I noticed about the law firm was the respect and kindness these lawyers showed even the most hard-pressed client. I remember one guy, an African-American gentleman in his 50s, who would show up once a week in the late afternoon. It was obvious from the sweat on his skin and his soaked clothes that he had walked a long way to get there.
He would come in, pay $35 in cash, and wait for a receipt. Then he would turn around to plod his way back home just as the afternoon sun was starting to hide. One of the lawyers had represented his case, and they accepted his slow payment plan. He was treated with respect each time he showed up. I admired this about the people who worked at the firm. The respect they showed this man and other customers like him (who might not have been treated as well by others) meant a lotto me.
Enter, the #goodguy not the #metoo guy.
One day, Mr. McCleave came up to me while I was filing and he handed me a file. In front of the secretary he looked at me seriously and said,
“Cherilynn, I’d like you to sit down and read this case. It’s about sexual harassment. As a young woman, you may have to encounter this some day, and I want you to see how it happens. And I want you to know your rights.”
As a file clerk, I got to look at the cases too and was bound by confidentiality to not disclose any information. I won’t disclose it now but it was a case where a woman was pressured and cajoled into a relationship by a superior. She relied on that job for bread and butter, and like millions of women before her, she felt she had to succumb to keep her job. She suffered many consequences, not the least of which was emotional fallout. I remember that woman, but I have no idea to this day who she was.
Later in my 20s, I went into the social work profession and was sexually harassed by a powerful doctor within the hospital. No one helped me despite the abuse and despite his aggressive challenges to my professional credibility. I was told by a colleague to “kiss my career goodbye” if I did anything.
I eventually hired an attorney, which was not easy on a social worker salary. My attorney wrote some legalese to the hospital and eventually the hospital kept this man away from me. I had lost weight, gotten terribly depressed, and was scared about my future. I recovered. It wasn’t the last time I was sexually harassed, but it was certainly the most difficult of my experiences.
As a social worker, I didn’t have a career that could have been horribly endangered by this problem, unlike a junior law partner trying to work her way up the ranks of respect. Nor did I have as much to lose as an actress vying for that one-in-a-million role. However, I was frightened—and overwhelmed. Unlike millions of women who have come before me and who will come after, I was successful at getting it to stop.
The #metoo movement has gotten me thinking about all of this. In reflection, having Mr. McCleave pull me aside and strike it as an important issue at my formative age made a difference. He showed me his concern, and showed me his belief in his client and in her right to his advocacy. Without being conscious of it, he strengthened me.
Thank you to the law firm and the people there who showed me that treating people with humanity and respect happens out there. You provided strength, guidance and justice to the people who walked in those doors. And thank you Mr. McCleave for showing me the #goodguys are out there. We women need reminding that you are, and you are willing to believe us and willing to stand up for us in our time of need.
Cherilynn Veland is author of “Stop Giving It Away” a self-advocacy book for women. Stop Giving It Away is the product of 20+ years of social work and counseling individuals and couples. Cherilynn also blogs about home, work, life, and love at www.stopgivingitaway.com (look for new developments).
azalea pic from comp fight.