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Breaking the Silence

Common to abusive relationships is reluctance on the part of the abused spouse to speak up about the abuser. Often the abuser manipulates the spouse into thinking that the abuse is minimal or is a result of the victim's actions. So rather than expose the abuse and risk retaliation, the abused spouse remains silent and keeps the terrible secret.

Suppression of the truth is also a component of dysfunctional organizations, especially when a leader wields disproportionate power and feels entitled to operate without reprimand. As a former member of the board of directors at Vanguard Public Foundation, I noted that the dynamic of fear and self-silencing extended beyond foundation insiders to include others, including grantees, who had conflicts with Vanguard's Executive Director Hari Dillon. Those of us who spoke privately about our fears felt ostracized by others who were willing to go along to get along. One chief worry was how the social justice movement would be viewed if we aired the dirty laundry too widely, so the stories of financial mismanagement and exertion of pressure on others for personal gain remained private whispers. Few were willing to be fingered for shaming the movement by going public about Hari’s actions.

Unfortunately our silence allowed Hari's unethical behavior to escalate and eventually drive Vanguard and the donors who invested through him into financial and emotional malaise. Even so, the code of silence persisted until the June 9, 2012 community dialogue, which was the first public discussion of the demise of Vanguard, and included personal testimonies of many former Vanguarders who had bottled up stories for years, even decades. The experience for many was cathartic.

And--important to note--the airing of the truth is helping to regenerate a spirit of hope and renewed trust among members of the progressive philanthropic and grantee communities. 

The notion that those of us engaged in social justice are capable of critiquing our past practices is becoming a source of pride, not a source of shame. The sky isn't falling. We are discovering that common ground still unites us and that by reclaiming a process based on openness and transparency, our interactions will be enhanced, not jeopardized.

Our work of reconciliation and healing hinges on the first step, which is breaking the silence. 



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