Tina Tchen, the lawyer spearheading the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, actually wasn't at the 2018 Golden Globes on Sunday night, despite it turning into a huge public forum for the anti-harassment initiative she and 300 other women, including Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, and Selena Gomez, unveiled on January 1. But Time's Up's unpaid volunteers were there to get out the message—pretty much every famous actress in Hollywood wore black to the awards show in a mass show of support. Tchen herself was actually in San Francisco: "I had a longstanding commitment with a client out here all day today, and you gotta pay the bills," Tchen, who spent years as Michelle Obama's chief of staff, said with a laugh around 6 a.m. on Monday morning.
Time's Up, whose initiatives are, to say the least, ambitious—legally punishing companies that put up with harassment, achieving gender parity at talent agencies—is still nominally a leaderless movement. That's not to say, though, there are no figureheads: Witherspoon, for example, often seems at the forefront of the group, and Tchen, along with lawyers like Nina L. Shaw, are heading up the group's defense fund. Still, regardless of their prominence, everyone involved—men, women, lawyers, actors, agents, and producers—share two main goals: to bring an end to sexual harassment and inequality in the workplace, and to ensure that such abuse is no longer systemic by directing attention and funding towards working-class victims and survivors as well.
There are those who wonder how a sea of black at an awards show—which some have criticized as an empty gesture, with actors previously accused of harassment wearing Time's Up pins to accept their awards—will translate to real change for the janitors, nurses, and farmworkers shouted out in Time's Up's open letter. Here, Tchen explains how the group plans to reach those in need who probably paid little attention to the Globes and don't subscribe to the New York Times, and how exactly they're planning to keep the momentum going—it helps, she says, to have worked for her "forever boss," Michelle Obama.
How many people are actually involved in Time's Up at this point? Have you all found a more official meeting space?
I think it’s still what it has been: meeting in various people’s offices, with everyone pitching in their space, time, and talent. My focus has been on getting the Legal Defense Fund going, so I’m not sure how many are involved in the ongoing work, but obviously there were 300 from the start—and I think it’s definitely more now, because I saw a lot of Time’s Up pins last night. [Laughs.]
When did you personally get involved with the initiative?
I was working with the United State of Women, another effort on women’s and girls’s issues that started out of the White House, and it just happened to be in Los Angeles a couple of weeks after the [Harvey] Weinstein story broke. Very early on—this was shortly after the second article by Ronan Farrow came out—it became clear to me as a lawyer that the only way to address those kinds of abuses, especially with the legal bullying, was to get lawyers for people in need. That’s where the idea for Time's Up came from. The case of Melanie Kohler, who’s being sued by Brett Ratner [for defamation after she accused him of rape], was really the initial one where we knew we just had to get someone a lawyer, which is why Robbie Kaplan stepped in and is representing her right now. There are many more Melanies out there, so that demonstrated to us that this is a need.
The timing of the initiative's announcement ended up working out so well—reading the stories on January 1 really felt like starting the new year on a positive note.
It was! I laughed, because we'd never have done that from the White House. [Laughs.] When no one’s in town, that’s not exactly when you do a Washington rollout. But it worked pretty well.
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Wearing black to the Globes was by far the most concrete initiative listed in the initial Time's Up New York Times story and open letter. Are there any other steps coming up soon that people can immediately act on, as part of the more long-term objectives like passing legislation to penalize companies that put up with sexual harassment?
People are going to continue to draw attention to the issue. This has been an issue that’s been around for decades, if not centuries, and which is going to take a long time to fully root out, but right now everyone is very committed to staying in it for the long haul. And right now, with the initiatives that have been announced, there’s a lot to do.
Which, I imagine, is why you've been putting out calls for volunteers.
Yes, we’re still hoping for more lawyers to step forward. We’ve certainly had lots of people emailing and calling seeking help, so I’m very committed to making sure that we’ve got lawyers volunteering to help serve the women and men who come forward. We’re partnering and working very closely with the National Women’s Law Center, the leading women’s rights organization in the country, which I'd worked with in my time as executive director at White House Council on Women and Girls. They're administering the fund, as well as managing a legal network they’d already set up for the broad range of gender discrimination cases that's very similar to what we were hoping to accomplish with the fund—recruiting more legal resources to help people in need, and especially low-income women. The cases from that that are specifically about sexual harassment will now be handled through the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund at the Law Center. We have some pro bono assistants going just to help the inflow that’s happening right now, but they’ve got a whole system for taking in both lawyers and people who need help on their website, and I urge anyone who’s both interested in volunteering or needs help to read.
So now that you've actually raised $16 million and really do have this fund, how do you reach the working class women who aren't yet aware of the movement?
We’ve been talking with organizations who work with low-income workers and about other ways we can get the word out—that’s very much on the list of our next steps. And while we’ve reached the first fundraising goal on the GoFundMe page, people should continue to contribute, because those of us who are lawyers or have had legal bills know that litigation gets expensive. We don’t really know the range of need out there, because it’s just never been fully surveyed or documented, but I know that we’re going to continue to need more resources both independently and through the fund. Many of us are getting a huge number of people writing in in need of services.
You’ve been receiving personal emails asking for help, too, in addition to the messages sent through the website?
Yes, we all have. I think anybody whose name is somehow attached to the fund has been getting emails directly themselves, in addition to the fund. Their requests have turned out to be very much of what we thought was needed out there, and now we feel a great responsibility to live up to that need. But there’s just been an influx to my inbox of all sorts of things, including people who want to volunteer. On the one hand, it’s been heartbreaking with some of the stories that have come to me from people seeking help, but also enormously inspiring because so many people, like a law student who emailed this morning, want to help out. Some of the emails this morning were inspired by the Globes last night, so it's great to hear that many people watching the show really heard it, and that everybody really does feel like the Globes was a moment.
Your career has centered around making social change, both at the legal and governmental level, for three decades now. Did you ever expect there would be a point where so many people could speak openly about these issues?
Well, I never thought we’d be in almost the same place three decades later as we were three decades ago. Although there’s been progress made, we see in so many places how much remains to be done three decades later, with everyone speaking out, how pervasive sexual harassment is, and just the raw numbers of how few women we have in leadership—how few women are CEOs or in congress or, in my field, equity partners of big law firms. So I’m a bit frustrated that we’re so much in the same place, but at the same time, I’m enormously inspired by the fact that we are now also in a place where these issues that so many of us have worked on in our little corner are now right in front of the world in so many sectors and that so many women and men are speaking out.
Definitely—I mean, Barbra Streisand and Oprah explicitly shouted out your movement last night.
That felt wonderful—really, really wonderful. And I have to give a lot of credit to the folks in Hollywood who stepped up, and the women who wanted to see solutions, for the momentum they’ve created. They were very much the impetus for Time’s Up coming together and for reaching out to low-income women, because they realized very early on that this was not confined to their industry, and that there would be so many more women without their resources who are also suffering.
Some of them have definitely surprised me with their involvement and level of commitment.
In some ways I wasn’t surprised, because I’ve seen that level of commitment from folks in Hollywood before. We had the good fortune at the White House to work with several people from Hollywood who supported, for example, Let’s Move and the Let Girls Learn initiative. But what was striking about this was to see everyone getting behind a singular effort, and I think that’s because it touched their industry first. This wasn’t just reaching out to help kids go to college, or help adolescent girls overseas get to school: This started at home, which I think has really galvanized the entire entertainment field, and it’s wonderful to see them extend their reach into other industries.
How many men are you hearing from, whether attorneys, victims, or volunteers?
Oh, all across the board. Men are victims of sexual harassment and workplace abuse themselves, but also men care about the women in their lives. I got an email from a man asking if I could help his wife, and I think as many male attorneys have come forward to help support and volunteer for the fund as women attorneys. We need men to be part of the solution—and, by the way, this isn’t just about sexual harassment. To really combat these issues, what we really need is more diverse workplaces, with more women and minorities represented at all levels of companies, and then to address the full range of workplace issues, which I worked on a lot at the White House, like equal pay and paid leave and promotion and retention practices. Those have to go hand in hand with addressing sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is sort of the tail at the end of the dog—if you don’t have workplaces that are diverse, then these abuses are going to be more prevalent. The real long-term solution here is to really build truly inclusive and diverse work forces.
I saw that Michelle Obama tweeted in support of the cause. You have decades of experience in this field, but has there been anything in particular you learned working in the Obama administration that you’re applying now?
Time’s Up has the same feel for something we learned at the White House: the power of social media and the power of a very focused and clear message. We always said we didn’t have a big budget in the East Wing—actually, we had no budget, and no policy levers. But what we had was a big megaphone through the power of the First Lady’s voice, which we used to achieve all that we achieved there, sending out a message in a way that people can join in and support, which allows you to really galvanize people across the country and around the world. I think Time’s Up is very similar: It’s a very focused, clear message projected by people with big megaphones, with a very tangible way in which people can apply that message in their own lives, whether to speak out themselves and be supportive or to donate.
Are there any other things those looking to support the initiative can do right now?
Just to encourage people, we’re going to need way more than $15 million to do this. I just had an email from a high school girl who reached out to me about what to do, and I suggested to her that she organize events within her high school—both to talk about the issue and support the fund. It would be exciting to see those kinds of efforts happening across the country—though I’m already really thrilled that it’s taken off the way that it has.
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