Accountability at VONA

A call to action!

Please sign the letter at the bottom if you are in solidarity with VONA fellows.

For inquiries contact vonafellowsspeak@gmail.com

Dear VONA Board of Directors, co-founder Elmaz Abinader, Executive Director Diem Jones, and VONA/Voices faculty and staff:

We are former and current VONA fellows who are writing out of love for VONA and deep concern about the allegations of sexual harm, harassment and violence that have been voiced bravely by VONA fellow Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, Monica Byrne, Alisa Valdes and other writers, mostly women of color, against VONA co-founder and long-standing faculty member, Junot Díaz. Their allegations have opened the door to many VONA fellows speaking about our own experience with Junot and other faculty sexualizing, dating, and sleeping with students. While VONA acknowledges the survivors who have come forward, we write this with the understanding that there are many more survivors living in silence or who are preparing to come forward with their stories of abusive behavior. We write this in solidarity with them. As VONA fellows, many of us have been aware of sexual and other forms of abuse at the workshop stemming back over a decade. This behavior was an “open secret” at VONA, and we have received many testimonies from fellows who attempted to bring it to the attention of VONA and were met with a lack of substantive responses in addition to active gaslighting. We want VONA to both acknowledge the deeply harmful impact Junot Diaz's and other faculty’s violence has had on the survivors and community at large, and take a firm stance against any abuse of power and privilege by persons affiliated with VONA now and in the future.

Out of the harm that has been exposed by many brave women and femmes of color, we think this moment gives VONA an opportunity to become a community that holds healthier boundaries around abuse of power in all of its manifestations, including sexual, physical, emotional, professional, and verbal. We also understand that this goes beyond punishing one person. Although the allegations against Junot broke the silence and reignited this conversation, we recognize that, in the absence of clear community agreements, any faculty member could use sexual harassment, sexualization, exploitation, poor boundaries, and popularity to potentially harm and create an unsafe environment for all other students.

When a student’s safety is compromised, it impacts the entire community. The victimization of one student damages the integrity of the space for current and future fellows and changes the reputation of VONA as an organization. If VONA cannot be a safe learning environment for its most vulnerable community members, then it has failed to meet the most basic needs of its community. Our idea of safety goes beyond notions of sexual harassment and sexual harm, and includes physical, emotional abuse, bullying and intimidation.

Diem’s recent statement to VONA fellows does not go far enough. The statement, which talks about “following the letter of the law,” does not acknowledge that laws often fail survivors, especially those of color. What we require is a transformative justice approach that would enable fellows to participate safely in the residency. Given VONA’s insufficient response to previous complaints with Junot Díaz, we want action or material proof that VONA’s primary concern is the health of its community, rather than the prestige of the organization and its bottom line.

We want a VONA that is a freedom space, a space where we can build the world we want to live in. In acknowledgement of the work of women, femmes, nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks of color around safety, we want a VONA that is explicitly and affirmatively anti-cisheteropatriarchal. As we have come to know it, VONA was established as a workshop for marginalized writers who experienced discrimination and racism in traditional educational institutions. According to its mission, VONA is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation, bringing writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored. VONA aims for developing writers to explore their craft in an atmosphere of support and understanding and to gain empowerment to move from VONA to a writer’s life with authority and confidence. This is not possible if VONA looks the other way while a number of its fellows are subject to sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse and even assault by Junot Díaz and other faculty, as well as professional retaliation to those who have turned down unwanted advances or threatened to make their experiences public. That little has been done to address this goes against everything VONA purports to stand for.

Taking this into account, it is our desire to preserve a space that prioritizes the health and well-being of its community over the reputation and career of a few personalities that provide this organization with funding and prestige. In the legacy of Black, Indigenous, and POC writers who have paved the way for the creative space that VONA facilitates, we must prioritize the brilliant, fierce community of BIPOC writers, many of whom are women and nonbinary people. We come to VONA in need of safety that extends far beyond the page, over the career of one person, or the financial gain of any organization. It is in our interest, as writers, to establish and maintain a community where ALL writers can feel safe, a temporary respite where we can experience “freedom to” rather than “freedom from,” and a cohort where we are assured that we are on the lookout for one another, not just in our words, but in our practice.

To this end, we are asking VONA to:

  1. Meet the demands and actively prioritize the needs of individual VONA community members in ways that wholly satisfy the acute requests of those survivors who have experienced abuse or harm by Junot Díaz or other VONA faculty.
  2. Cut all ties with Junot Díaz, including removing his name completely from the website as well as images of him from the website and social media that is triggering to survivors. We also call for the resignation of other abusers of power including sexual harassment by other faculty as well as those who have been called out by survivors for being complicit in protecting Junot Díaz and other faculty who have exhibited sexual predatory behavior towards fellows.
  3. Create and adopt explicit community agreements which all VONA community members—including faculty, guest speakers, participants, staff and board members—commit to, which directly addresses questions of sexual harassment, assault, harm and consent, including the understanding that faculty should refrain from flirting with, sexualizing, dating, attempting to have sex with, or attempting to offer professional rewards in exchange for sexual acts from students in any form during their time teaching at VONA in recognition of the power dynamic inherent in the workshop and teaching space between faculty and students. To be clear, due to power differentials and possible educational and career ramification, the notion of consent between fellows and faculty or board members at VONA, while in session, is not safe.
  4. Hire and work with a transformative justice consultant of color outside of the VONA community (Mariame Kaba, Ejeris Dixon, Mimi Kim, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Coalition are some potential names) to do a safety/anti-oppression assessment/audit within the organization, including organizational structure, limits or terms for board members, and creating systems of checks and balances including an Advisory Board, with the resulting recommendations transparent and accessible to VONA community members, as well as create a transparent sexual harm reporting policy to proactively address if and when a VONA community member is sexually harassed or assaulted by a faculty member, staff member, fellow student or VONA community member, including a written guarantee that those who report sexual harassment, harm and/or violence will not face retaliation.
  5. Provide an on-site counselor to provide therapy or active listening for the upcoming VONA sessions should any attendees require additional emotional support as the allegations have been serious and might greatly impact those who are at VONA this year.
  6. Provide yearly prerequisite intensives for faculty and staff that cover the structural importance of consent-based policies, provide LGBTQIA+ and gender competency training, and reiterate the policy structure at the start of each summer prior to the VONA workshops.
  7. To issue full refunds to fellows accepted into the 2018 summer workshop with written confirmation that they will not be reprimanded personally or professionally for opting out.

While we recognize that survivors of abuse of power and instances of sexual assault by VONA leadership have already severed ties with and see no hope of VONA changing because of their record of protecting abusers among their ranks rather than survivors, we write this with the intent to bring some resolve to those survivors, as well as to protect future fellows. But if these demands aren't met, we will have no choice but to also sever ties with the institution and continue to warn future fellows about the unsafe climate at VONA and publicly voice our demand to see the institution dissolve completely.

We recognize that we are not the only ones writing to you and want to make sure everyone's demands are accommodated. That said, we align ourselves with other letter-writers in their efforts to hold VONA accountable. Through these steps, we hope that VONA can become a space that we can recommend to other writers of color with pride, and in good conscience. We want women and nonbinary writers of color to be—and feel—safe, and expose all people to newer, healthier ways of relating in the literary world. We want all VONA fellows to have equal opportunities to achieve success in their fields free from danger and harm.

We look forward to seeing these changes made.

Sincerely,

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