#MeToo Movement Sets the Stage for Positive Change

The #MeToo elevated the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to a new level across the nation and globe. The movement served as a springboard for the Safe Spaces & Workplaces Initiative in Hawai‘i.

The Safe Spaces & Workplaces Initiative was born out of lived experience and need. Although the origin can be traced to the experiences of two Hawai‘i women and their desire to be a part of creating a better future for our community, it is a shared story among many individuals. Find out more about the personal stories of Rachael Wong and Karen Tan.

Safe Spaces & Workplaces brings people together in new ways to have meaningful conversations about a subject that previously could not be spoken about publicly. It is a breath of fresh air for those of all genders and ages. Collectively, we have reached a stage where we recognize we can no longer accept sexual harassment, and we are ready to create change.

Rachael’s Story

While serving as the director of the state’s Department of Human Services, Rachael Wong was sexually harassed by the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Souki. At the time, there was nothing she could do without risking retaliation against her department and the 330,000 lives for whom she was responsible.

Watching many come forward with #MeToo stories in October 2017, Rachael was compelled to speak her truth, too. Having transitioned out of the executive branch over a year earlier, she was in a place where she could tell her story without as much fear of retribution.

Later that month, Rachael filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Hawai‘i State Ethics Commission against former Speaker Souki. She was very clear from the start: she was moved to say something because of her deep love for Hawai‘i and the hope that things could be different for others and future generations.

At the end of January 2018, Rachael received an inquiry from a reporter asking to confirm the Ethics Commission filing. After careful consideration, she decided to publicly share her story to let other women know they were not alone.

The next day, the story was published and by 6 am, the first of several women contacted Rachael to share her own sexual harassment experience. There ended up being more than a handful of courageous women, many of whom interface regularly with the State Legislature, who filed similar complaints against the same legislator.

Rachael received hundreds of emails, texts, cards, and calls expressing support…as well as individuals’ own accounts of sexual harassment, too numerous to count. These came from women and men, most of whom did not feel safe to publicly share their experiences.

In March 2018, the complaint was resolved. Mr. Souki was required to admit he touched and kissed more than one woman in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome, that his conduct exceeded the boundaries of the customary “aloha kiss,” and that his comments about their physical appearance were also inappropriate and unwanted. He also agreed to issue a public apology, pay a fine, and resign from office.

It was over. Yet at the same time, there was a realization that this was just the beginning.

This was not an easy process, and some complainants experienced new trauma through it. The barriers to reporting workplace sexual harassment were brought to light in a public way.

Karen's Story

Shortly after Karen became President & CEO of Child & Family Service (CFS) in June 2017, an internal incident of sexual harassment occurred within the large social services non-profit. This was a surprise to everyone involved as CFS has strict policies against such occurrences. Immediate action was taken to deal with the situation.

A few months later, Karen’s colleague shared a personal incident of sexual harassment with her. With her permission, Karen approached the CEO of the company involved. When they investigated the incident, it was discovered that many women had been treated similarly by this individual over several years.

Around the same time, Karen had asked a group of women leaders in our community to join her for a meeting to discuss issues related to women and leadership. At the first meeting, the discussion turned to sexual harassment—with each and every leader sharing her own story. Everyone agreed that something had to be done to support our local businesses in creating safe work environments for all employees.

Karen Tan and Rachael Wong
Karen Tan and Rachael Wong

Karen and Rachael got together and said, “We will do something now.” And that is how Safe Spaces & Workplaces was born.