“Anyone who knows how change is made knows that it usually starts with two women coming together in a shared experience,” explained Cami Roth Szirotnyak and Rachel Richardson. Who are these women, and how did they come to know each other?
In April 2021, a colleague of Roth Szirotnyak sent her a screenshot of a Facebook post under the alias of ‘Orange Julius.’ The post mentioned a woman dealing with sexual harassment under an unnamed committee member of 1Matters. That woman turned out to be Rachel Richardson.
“The post said something to the effect of, ‘she felt that her success was getting this guy kicked off Toledo Street Newspaper’s board.’ I said, ‘Oh, I know exactly who she’s talking about,’ because he had sexually harassed me almost two years prior to that,” says Roth Szirotnyak.
Unbeknownst to Cami, this would be the start of their friendship, as well as their project, a book titled On Drowning Rats: How Two Women Took Down Their Sexual Harasser, and an accompanying workbook.
“The reaction to our first post together was a lot of (….) women who were cautioning us. Almost to the point of ‘don’t.’ I would encourage intergenerational discussion (…) because we have gone through different things generationally,” said Roth Szirotnyak.
The encounter with Ken Leslie happened in 2019. Roth Szirotnyak’s experience with Leslie was even more unusual; she worked with him on another committee, but she had the documentation to prove it.
Roth Szirotnyak and Richardson decided to meet up for coffee, and they got angry together. They wondered how this kept happening. After being kicked off multiple committees and boards, how was this man allowed to be reinstated? Ken Leslie is in charge of a vulnerable population, the veterans of 1Matters, and as writers, activists and feminists, the two decided they were going to make their allegations public. (Toledo City Paper reached out to Ken Leslie, but he declined to comment for this article.)
“Sexual harassment is not usually about sex. Acts of harassment are often downplayed for being jokes or misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, it’s all about power. We wanted him out of the 1Matters organization, and we also wanted to write about it,” said Roth Szirotnyak.
Ken Leslie had been placed back on the committee even after he had been accused of sexually harassing at least three women. The book is a narrative on how they went through the process, and the accompanying workbook is about what readers can do, and how to document their experience.
“We have the stories of over 20 women, specifically relating to Ken Leslie,” says Rachel Richardson.
“We were actually interviewed after putting out the press release, because the 1Matter’s board did not respond to us in the time frame that we asked for. No one published a damn thing until Ken Leslie resigned. The two producers we had been working with asked to interview us, and I said, ‘you already have, but yes we will do another interview.’ Nobody wanted to touch this,” said Roth Szirotnyak.
Everyone wanted to say “these girls just misunderstood. Well, 20 allegations later, it was not a misunderstanding,” added Richardson. Roth Szirotnyak had statistics from the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (June 2016) stating that “25-85 percent of women and people will be sexually harassed in the workplace. The workbook tells you exactly what to document, and what you can do with that information.”
When asked for advice for women dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, Richardson is adamant in her response. “I would give advice to the men, to behave themselves. Because women have no choice but to learn how to protect themselves, it’s always on us. I would rather that men, employers and leaders, be aware that a tide might be shifting here. And that their accountability is going to become more the norm than acceptance of their behavior. That we are going to be looking at the people who are perpetrating this, more so than the victims.”
The hope is to distribute the memoir and workbook in Fall 2022. A recent Kickstarter campaign for the book fell short of the $25,000 goal. After the first run is complete, Richardson and Roth Szirotnyak said a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the ‘Me Too’ Movement.