I appreciate the patience of citizens sitting with sadness, fear and anger as I have worked to understand and adequately respond to the startling events unfolding since Jan. 19, when a statement was widely disseminated and believed on social media regarding an unsafe working environment at Rabble-Rouser Chocolate & Craft Co.

For the last seven months, cyber-bullying that was aimed at my character and our business has cost us tens of thousands of dollars. The defamation campaign had been simmering at a low burn since just a week after it began on June 23, 2019, the other most difficult week of my life, along with this last one. Then, two Sundays ago, a well-meaning person lent credence with her own power to this smear campaign by sharing biased information on social media and creating an online group that immediately drew in over 460 people now concerned about danger in our community where there is none. The size of this group combined with terrifying allegations in the letter, in turn, drove key vendors, customers and creative partners of Rabble-Rouser to question our integrity, and to hastily withdraw their collaboration.

Despite these challenges, I do not regret that this happened. In this miraculous emergence of the #MeToo era, structures of power do need to be examined. I do not blame any of these people for wanting to make sure that I do not abuse my power. I share my stories of unskillful leadership openly, and I welcome the opportunity to do so here. I have carefully studied how I can be insensitive to others, and how insulated I originally was within my privilege: cis, middle class, white, supportive family, self-employed.

In my journey to becoming more sensitive to others’ experiences, I learned that misunderstood and non-recognized power dynamics cause vastly more confusion and pain than we understand or express, and so I talk about these things readily and urgently. I share with co-workers what I have learned in the past about causing pain accidentally with my misuses of my power, and this enriches our deep culture of transparency in the workplace. I tell my story of growth to fellow business leaders in hopes it may inspire them to embrace empathy more deeply in their work.

Misuses of power

I had terrible professional boundaries in my first 10 years as an employer. I never committed a crime or intentionally hurt anyone. I didn’t have relations with any workers except my two long-term romantic partners that worked in the business.

I sometimes allowed personal disappointment in a worker’s performance to manifest as an emotionalized response, which I learned can be enormously painful and disorienting for someone trying to do their job. I have always been more comfortable naked than clothed and my home was next to the workplace. As long as I believed that someone was “cool with it,” I did not hide my body even as they were expected to come to the house to check in or conduct some manner of business. I learned that my lack of professionalism could cripple someone’s belief in their own professionalism and strip them of their sense of dignity.

I learned that working for me was stressful for some people. I misunderstood friend/employer boundaries, which rendered me ignorant of the power that I implicitly held over other people. I believed that a safe, happy work environment meant being good friends, when in fact it is professionalism, consistency, good planning before changes, and clear direction that is needed for peaceful work. I learned that when one person issues another’s paycheck, they have a certain indescribable power over them. Time is precious, and so a person is inherently vulnerable to another person that is tasked with determining the value of their time.

When I was 30, I recognized in myself a deep, immovable dissatisfaction with the employer/employee dynamic and the ineffective power dynamics that existed within it. I set out to sell my company to the employees so that the value of our time would emerge organically as a function of our profits. We eventually contracted the services of Round Sky Solutions, a consulting firm designed to engender organization-wide collaborative power structures, for 18 months of intensive training. We learned how to conduct the Interpersonal Meeting Practice, one of 7 Types of Conversations adopted for collaborative work.

7 Conversations

The Interpersonal Meeting Practice is how I learned the central place of empathy within properly aligned power. The process is fairly simple and incredibly effective. It involves one speaker, one listener, other members of their department, and a facilitator. It is a witnessed quest by the listener for deep understanding and by the speaker to explain a series of experiences they had with the listener and how it made them feel. When the listener feels understood, then the meeting concludes and everyone is typically able to return to a healthy work environment. Although it can be shorter, we allow two hours for an interpersonal meeting. It is a tool available at Rabble-Rouser for those vital moments when one worker feels really hurt by another. This type of meeting is not a frequent use of our company funds, but is always a valuable one.

More regularly, the business evolves through the other six types of conversations: mission, governance, finance, strategy, operations and individual growth. By identifying and consenting to what kind of conversation we are having when, with whom and why, we safely and authentically meet each other in a consensual place of idea exchange, and we honor all 32 Rabble-Rouser voices. Our business invested in 2014 and 2015 on developing these methods as a means to advancing our journey toward all worker ownership. On April 1, 2019, I finally sold the business to the workers, which has been a deep joy, after almost a decade of harboring that dream.

Process matters

Process has transformed my relationship to power, and my current commitment to using it includes using good process with those accusing me at the moment.

I have struggled for eight months, but especially since Jan. 19, to understand how a transformative justice process can sustain an unconditional ban on the involvement of one of the involved parties. Equally inhumane, it would seem to me, is any situation where unspecified parties level unspecified charges against an individual. Private citizens convened to share grievances about me in my absence and they decided I was a criminal. They then advised the public as such, bypassing entirely the old adage: innocent until proven guilty. Despite the systemic injustices that exist in our legal system, negligence of democracy when we speak to power is detrimental to advancing the #MeToo cause. We can not imagine that our job is to take the law into our own hands, or we will destroy the power of #MeToo even as it has just been born. An updated adage for the new humanity: “Innocence” and “guilt” are flawed constructs, irrelevant within the search for transformative understanding.

I have been, and remain, prepared to talk with any person who feels hurt by me in a space of their choosing, with a mediator of their choosing, if so requested, if I may be of service. It is my opinion that this process did not “promote shared responsibility for a safe and healthy community, engage citizens in restoring relationships and building community connections, or engender a community in which citizens are safer and feel more connected,” contrary to the mission of a local facilitating organization.

Power dynamics, whether healthy or unhealthy, explicit or implicit, exist all around us all the time. It is an all-pervasive presence, like atoms, throughout the human relational field. However, it is a subject of utmost confusion, overlooked entirely in our education systems and workplaces, and so we are always bubbling over with a need for better understanding of power and we don’t know how to discuss it. Our collective consciousness also has an infantile understanding of power imbalance. It is yet binary. Powerful. Powerless. Right. Wrong. Victim. Perpetrator. While sexuality is currently the focus of our attention in matters of national power accountability, I believe it is actually just the tip of a deep glacier in the ocean of humanity’s pain. Other types of abuses of power are easier to keep underwater because it’s hard to make them sound valid in our culture, where people in power have a vested interest in denying their capacity to cause harm. We must reckon with the glacial implications of power, and find ways to discuss how it affects every aspect of our lives.

Humanity might prepare ourselves for a long, winding path to clarity around collaboration and shared well-being. I suspect that it may be a long time before we perfect the means of bringing truth to power and bringing power to accountability and bringing healing to trauma, but we can put one foot in front of the other and seek new ways of responding to each other’s pain. I hope I have advanced this path ever so slightly today. I am committed to reworking these power dynamics in my life and businesses no matter what the rest do or how long it takes.

In solidarity with the person whose Facebook accusations indicated I sexually assaulted them (and with four other Facebook corroborators, one of whom I have never met), I was gravely concerned about what my actions were. Because nothing was asked of me in this process, I desperately wanted to resolve whatever I had done, and so, in my best attempt at solidarity, for months, I lent power in my silence, even as I was repeatedly, systematically attacked. I was told my involvement would re-traumatize people and damage the possibility of a safe space for healing.

I really appreciate the time, support, advice, conversations, hugs and commerce from our customers over the last 10 days. Thank you for the big love. I am in awe and admiration of my 32 partners and their families who have inspired me with their brilliant courage in avoiding the divisive pitfalls of thought-control cultural sinkholes. I am above all grateful for the rouser at the nucleus of this eight-month hysteria. For 18 years of sharing this community with you, I have appreciated you, I wish you well in your journey through these complicated waters and remain your friend.

Jaquelyn Fernandez Rieke is a co-owner of Rabble Rouser in Montpelier.

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