Duty, Respect, Integrity?

A reader was inspired to write and submit this piece after reflecting on our last post “We Are The Problem.”

This is called leading by example.

Thank you Nicole Oke.

By Nicole Oke

I try, but I can’t. I want to, but it’s just too hard. How can I? How can I look into those eyes knowing what I know? After all I have seen, after all I have heard, after all I have done or allowed to happen, how, how can I? When those eyes stare back at me I know what they will see, the truth, the shame, the guilt.

Duty, respect, integrity. Words to live by. Words to live up to. I thought I lived by these words, but if I look into those eyes I will have to acknowledge that I fell short, that I have failed, that I have let down those who needed me most.

Northern California Fires of 2008

It is my duty to be a leader. It is my duty to make sound and timely decisions. It is my duty to develop others for the future. I claim to be a leader. Others look to me for guidance and support. But if I look into those eyes I know the questions I will have to answer.

What kind of leader allows others to be harassed on their watch? What kind of leader knows harassment is happening and makes a conscious decision to ignore it, or worse yet, makes a conscious decision to allow it to be ok? What kind of a leader develops others for the future in a work environment where those who follow them don’t feel safe?

It is my job to look out for those I work with and for their well-being. It is my job to know others’ capabilities. It is my job to build a team. This is how we define respect, it is my job to respect those I work for, those who work for me, and those I work with. This is my job. But if I look into those eyes I know I will have to address why I choose to respect some and disrespect others.

"Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014"How can I look out for someone’s well-being if I refuse to acknowledge the things that are happening around me that are damaging all of our well-being? How can I look at others capabilities when it comes to doing a job, and yet be blind to their capability for hurting others? How can I build a team if harassment is present? How can I expect others to work with team members who have disrespected them, who have mentally, emotionally, or physically violated them in some way? How can I build a team when my team members can’t trust me to protect them and support them when they are going through one of the hardest things imaginable?

I struggle with integrity the most. Know yourself and seek improvement. Seek responsibility and accept responsibility for my actions. Set the example. To know myself requires examining every part of who I am and what I stand for.

Who am I? The more important questions is, do I want to know who I am? I support others, until I don’t. I believe in zero tolerance, until it happens. I speak up for those who can’t, until I won’t. I do what’s right, until doing what’s right is too hard. I talk the talk, until those I am talking to are in a position of authority. I care, until it stops impacting me.

"Happy Camp Complex, Klamath NF, CA, 2014"Being honest, being real, about who I am is hard, and those eyes, they know I need to take responsibility for my actions and for the consequences of my inactions. If I call myself a leader then I am one by name, but if I want to be a leader then I need to lead. I set the example for others. I can choose to allow, disregard, or deny the existence of inappropriate comments, dirty jokes, intimidation, innuendos, threats, and harassment. I can choose to ignore the realities of our gender biased culture and dismiss incidents of sexual abuse and rape as unique cases, not created by the beliefs and values of our firefighting community, or I can choose to lead a direct attack against it.

I can choose to have the integrity to speak up and let it be known I do not tolerate any form of harassment. I can choose to find ways to educate those around me about the experiences of others, and build understanding and empathy among my colleagues. I can choose to have the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that I have been avoiding all of my life. I can choose to talk about topics that are considered taboo. I can choose to create a welcoming and safe work environment where everyone feels able to discuss ideas and issues without fear of disapproval or reprimand. Maybe then I would able to look into those eyes and not feel like such a fake.

2c_IntegrityI look into the eyes of those who have faced sexual harassment and refused to accept it. I can see the pain, the humiliation, the disappointment that goes along with being harassed. I can also see something more, a determination, a drive, and a passion for a job they love. I think to myself how much strength it must take to admit to the world that something this horrific happened to you. How brave it is to talk about such a personal experience and to share that experience in hopes of helping others. I think about how much courage it takes to set aside all the reasons not to speak out. I think about how afraid they must be for themselves, their families, their careers.

I look into the eyes of those I love, the eyes of mothers, sisters, and wives. I hope that they will be one of the lucky ones. I pray that they will never have to endure the kind of harassment that is so prevalent among us. I dream of seeing a shift of our practices and policies so that one day I don’t have to hope and pray anymore.

I look into the eyes of my daughter, so young and innocent. My eyes water, my hands shake, and I get sick at the idea of her ever working in a place where she could be harassed, abused, or even raped while being surrounded by individuals, leaders, whose values are duty, respect, and integrity.

I finally find the ability to look into the eyes I have been avoiding, the eyes in the mirror. How do I look myself in the eye knowing what I know? After all I have seen, after all I have heard, after all I have done or allowed to happen, how, how can I? When those eyes stare back at me I know what they will see, the truth, the shame, the guilt.

The time for change is now, I stand with you and choose to live by the values of duty, respect, and integrity.


14 thoughts on “Duty, Respect, Integrity?

  1. Nicole. Thank you for such an honest, open, and heartfelt essay. We as women need to also acknowledge and own our biases and our roles. You did it beautifully and eloquently and courageously. Thanks you, for setting this example.
    Riva Duncan
    Interagency Fire Staff Officer
    West Central OR Interagency Fire

  2. The same culture exists with the zero tolerance policy of non-sexual HARASSMENT and BULLYING yet there have been multiple cases on my Forest of Management taking the same stance as what is discussed here and in other articles. Women are also violators in this yet the situation seems to put management in a weird place for corrective action therefore a bias on who commits the actions is affecting the decisions being made.

    • The sentiment of this essay is for tolerance across the board men, woman, gay, transgendered, race, etc. But in bringing up that they do it too you are deflecting from the issue today that the majority of incidents today occur to woman. If we address this effectively it will bring about the needed change to address harassment and discrimination on all levels.

    • Bill I worked for the USFS 1975-1997. I was a victim of non-sexual harassment from a supervisor so bad in civilian life it would have been labeled battering. No one would do anything about it. I still say – There’s a lot of ‘lip service’ in government without any resulting action to resolve the situation. The more things change the more they stay the same. Barb

  3. Thank you for encouraging all of us to be active participants in changing the wildland fire fighting culture. I think complicity is our biggest enemy, and the more we can actively choose to follow the values of duty, respect and integrity, the better, especially when it’s not easy. I appreciated the honest narrative and recognize the difficulty at publishing something like this that leaves you vulnerable; a trait of a good leader.

  4. Thanks Nicole for this perspective, it is something I need to take a look personally and that we all should look at as leaders that value Duty, Respect and Integrity regarding harassment of any kind. Great job!

  5. I read this and cry. We lost a member this week he took his own life. His last words to me were” What will it take for the CFA to listen, for someone to die?”
    A victim himself as vulnerable as the rest of us, nobody listened, no leader cares for us we look after our own. We told them we have vulnerable members. We know what bullying is so did our friend who could not cope anymore. Leaders who are supposed to support us didn’t, now this is the result. Devestated 🙁

  6. Are we here to put out fires, or are we here to make sure a brainwashed generation of snowflakes feels “safe” doing work that is essentially hazardous?

    I do not recognize “transgendered” as anything other than mental illness and I do not “tolerate” it. What’s next? “Tolerance” for pedophiles? “Understanding” for animal abusers?

    • Anon Veteran Firefighter,
      It is hard in a written comments section to get a true sense of a person. What you have chosen to contribute to the conversation comes across to me as being very hostile to my belief that we should be striving towards both psychological and physical safety in wildland fire. In order to have a respectful conversation that could lead to more understanding and to solutions, are you willing to cease the name calling? (snowflake) Are you willing to cease clouding the discussion with your false implication that because some aspects of firefighting will always be hazardous, it’s not our responsibility to address safety concerns that are brought up?

      Your declared refusal to tolerate transgendered people (“mental illness”) leaves me amazed at your ignorance, and it also makes me angry that the firefighting community that I am part of somehow kept you around as a member long enough for you to be a “veteran”. You go on to equate tolerance for the transgendered with tolerance for illegal violent behavior (pedophiles, animal abuse). Are you serious? This is a very irrational connection, and a failed attempt to justify bigotry.

      Wildland fire is a very exclusive club; lack of tolerance and lack of respect for people that are different or have different perspectives has perpetuated a level of group-think in wildland fire that results in a resistance to change that is literally killing firefighters and public.

      We will become more respectful of each other in fire, mostly because it’s the right thing to do as modern, educated human beings. I will be very proud if we are able to accomplish this at a faster rate than society as a whole. Beyond just being the right thing to do, it will also make us much safer, smarter, more resilient, and much more effective at getting our jobs done. People that are willing to open themselves up to learning from others and to self-examination will be part of making these improvements. It’s said we are in the “modern era” – well, it’s time we start acting like it.

      disclaimer: in self-examination of my own work and private life, I have to admit to too many examples of harassment, sexual harassment, sexualization/objectification of women, going along with and/or not opposing misogyny, etc. I’m past denial and moving on to just being better.

      Kevin Pfister
      US Forest Service since 1985

    • Wow! Anon leaves comments concerning his opinions and the fur start to fly.

      Kevin laments the “lack of tolerance and lack of respect for people that are different or have different perspectives” and then goes on to show that his tolerance only extends to people that agree with his opinions and biases, and is “amazed at” his “ignorance”.

      Sherry calls him a coward.

      Casey wants to get him fired.

      This is a microcosm of our post-Obama extremism that exists in our country. The art of respectful disagreement is dead. Either you are with me or you are the enemy which must be vigorously attacked.

      While many people won’t acknowledge it, there is a cultural divide that is tearing this country apart. All of the major presidential candidates this sought to use this turmoil which only served to increase it.

      Highly intelligent people can look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions. While we may not agree with someone’s views, tolerance requires that our disagreement should be in a respectful manner.

  7. Anon Veteran Firefighter,
    Thank you so much for your comments. They illustrate perfectly why the culture of harassment and bullying is ingrained in Fire.

    What you don’t get is that having to worry about being sexually assaulted gets in the way of getting the job done. The brave ones speak the truth. You are a coward.

  8. Anonymous Veteran Firefighter: if I ever hear anyone on the job say what you just said (with your cowardly pen name), I will do everything in my power to ensure your career ends there. And there will be many, many supporters standing behind me, and none behind you. Why? Because those who think like you have no more courage or integrity than you do. And I hope our paths cross soon.

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