*This post was submitted by Erica Lee Garcia, founder of “Engineers of Tomorrow” and former EWB Venture Lead
I’ve signed NDAs in relation to my consulting work. They are meant to protect Intellectual Property and ensure that proprietary technology and trade secrets (i.e. non-public business information) do not end up becoming public, thereby destroying or reducing their ability to make a profit. An NDA prevents me from enriching myself unjustly. In that context, an NDA makes sense. They help ensure I do not profit off of information which is not mine to share; I only happened upon it in the course of my work but I do not own it. It belongs to the company because they developed it. It’s not mine to give away, so I agree not to.
There is no personal cost to me as the contracted consultant of a manufacturer for example, to keep the copies of their process documentation and other protected information to myself. It’s the just thing to do. It’s something I can do comfortably. Sure, I am losing out on the ability to make a quick dollar from sharing someone else’s information, but such gains would be ill-gotten and suspect both in a legal and moral sense. To hold back from doing that, no harm is caused to me. You could even say it keeps me from doing harm to the company, which is doing what it should by profiting off the value of its own IP. My mind is at ease in keeping these secrets.
In the context of a whistleblower and the misdeeds of a company or volunteer organization (such as their failure to deal with sexual harassment, bullying, and retaliation against those who report) there is a VERY high cost to keeping that information ‘secret’.
Whether an NDA is meant to stop the public from finding out about the original misconduct, the organization’s response (or lack thereof) or the NDA itself, the psychological price that the survivor/whistleblower pays to keep these secrets is massive.
Why? It’s the very abdication of the truth. It’s the denial of the experience of the self, to the self. That is their story, and they cannot tell it. Sometimes they can’t even tell it to themselves. And because they cannot tell it, they cannot heal. It is lonely and mind-bending. Devastating.
Also, where the survivor speaks out not for her/himself but for the good of others, to prevent them from future harm and the same experiences for others, they have massive guilt for not being able to protect those others. This is not just. It props up an organization that is now profiting off of silence, and a dishonest silence at that because there is so much to say. The rest of the organization is now at a disadvantage as well, propagating something they have no idea about.
Purchased silence is a pretty shitty business model, when you think about it. You think university students who want to change the world donate their free time and invest their personal reputation in associating with an organization that stays viable by stifling the truth about how they deal with their own people, in their most vulnerable moments? How they not only do not help them but actively isolate them, hush them with NDAs, treat them like the problem when they report a wrong that’s been done to them?
Those university students, those gutsy and principled members boycotting EWB as we speak, are the ones who get just how messed up it is. Maybe the rest of us are numb and have accepted this ‘common practice’. But you know what?
TL; DR: NDAs are bullshit in the context of sexual assault/harassment reporting.
EWB especially whose DNA reflects the spirit of openness, transparency, learning from mistakes must ban them immediately, issue a statement apologizing to anyone who has signed an NDA with them. I know of one but who knows how many more there are out there? This makes me shudder. By definition we do not know!
EWB must lift all NDAs effective immediately and allow all who signed them to tell their story, to seek the healing and support they need. And apologize to the community for this massive error in judgment when it comes to protecting their safety. There’s probably more but that’s just the basic corrective stuff, the minimum.
Imagine if companies were allowed to keep their worker safety records secret, and forced anyone who sprained their ankle or broke their leg or fell off a ladder on the job was told they had to sign a paper saying they’d never talk about what happened? Ridiculous right? And the problem that injured that worker in the first place would never be fixed, and many many others can get hurt under this secrecy… are getting hurt, to this day, until something changes.
My questions: How many NDAs has EWB encouraged/forced people to sign over the years? Did they do it with the intention of intimidating them into silence? Whose idea was the first NDA? Was it introduced as the default way to deal with situations like this, an expedient cleanup for a messy ‘problem’, by an outsider? Or did it come from someone I know?
Did anyone in the EWB leadership at the time question it, thinking hey, this is pretty sketchy and does not uphold our values of transparency or justice? Were they aware of how harmful it would be? Were they worried about the truth coming out, and how callous and basically evil they would look? Or did they just figure it was their right to shut up anyone who was generating a narrative about their organization that they found inconvenient, or maybe even threatening, and not give it another thought?
Maybe they were deeply in denial and really thought they were justified in their actions. Yuck. But that was then. When you know better, you do better.
What are they prepared to do about it now?