To Stop Bullying, Organize and Advocate for Your Rights

Advocating for our rights

On October 19, 2017, Jerry Halberstadt, Coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition and a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission on Bullying, spoke on the role of advocacy and legislation on bullying at the online conference of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition in the context of National Bullying Awareness Month.

Catherine Mattice, President of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition, introduced Halberstadt and led the presentation by posing a series of questions. Catherine Mattice runs the consulting business, Civility Partners, LLC, which specializes in helping organizations realize positive workplace cultures. She is a subject matter expert in workplace bullying.

Q: How is bullying of elderly and disabled people who live in public and subsidized housing relevant to bullying and mobbing in the workplace?

Bullying and mobbing of elderly and disabled people has essentially the same dynamics as bullying and mobbing in the workplace. The key research concepts that I use are based on the work of experts on mobbing in the workplace: Janice Harper, Andrew Faas, Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry, among others. The slogan that we use is, “It’s the bad barrel, not the bad apple.” There may be individuals who use bullying, but it is a contagious social disease causing stress, isolation, and a long list of emotional and physical ailments. It will spread and infect everyone in the institution unless it is stopped. And in housing, tenants do not have the ability to exercise their rights in the face of bullying, unless the landlord and all their agents exercise their authority to assure that all residents can live with "peaceful enjoyment," and unless everyone who lives or works in the residential setting strives for a healthy community and each person seeks to prevent bullying.

The underlying problem is how to empower people who are in an asymmetrical institutional setting—such as elderly and people living with disability in subsidized and public housing. Or immigrants, the poor, ethnic or racial or cultural minorities. Or slum dwellers who live in urban areas that are ripe for development. And like employees in some workplaces.

Chai Feldblum, a Commissioner of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, speaks about the need to change the culture of the workplace. It begins with the owner or chief executive of the company stating that harassment will not be tolerated, and then they have to make it stick, and they have to train people in how to prevent or stop harassment.

And one of the key factors in bullying of tenants is the role of the landlord, manager, and staff in taking a stand against harassment. Such change in culture needs to take place if the tenant or the employee is to work or live in peace. In the residential situation, a healthy community life is based on everyone taking responsibility, tenants as well as owners and workers.

Q: You were practically alone when you began advocating for change, what could one person do?

This story is told from my perspective as Coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition, and our success has only been possible because of the diversity and strength of the Coalition. Yes, I started alone. Could I win the battle against mobbing?

It started when, in 1940 at 4 years of age, I held identification numbers in photographs of slum buildings in Boston’s Mission Hill. My father was doing photographs and paintings to document the difficult conditions that people lived in. As a result, the slum in Boston’s Mission Hill was razed, a new project was built, the Boston Housing Authority grew, and a few people from the slum got new housing. Many years later, I learned that slum clearance was not a blessing for everyone. A slum is simply a valuable piece of real estate where poor and marginalized people live.

I came to believe that everyone had basic, inalienable rights. And that if I could document a social problem, that we would fix it. Idealistic, unrealistic, a dream never fulfilled, even after I studied anthropology intending to apply science to social issues. More was needed to address bullying and mobbing: documentation; analysis of the social structure and culture; community organization; and advocacy. Advocacy is what is working for our cause. Not for my cause, but for our cause.

Nine years ago, in 2008, I had health problems, my publishing business folded, I was broke, and my partner wanted to see the back of me. I found myself lucky to get an apartment in a subsidized housing situation that I called “Bleak House.”

The bullying and mobbing among elderly and younger disabled tenants, by the maintenance person, and even by the manager was intolerable. It was incredible, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I learned the basics of community organization, and helped to form and lead a tenants’ association. We made significant progress but after three years of mobbing by groups of bullies, management, and landlord, I was burnt out. But I had been taught by three of the best bullies in the country, tried all the standard techniques to overcome bullying, and concluded that protections and remedies did not exist. I decided to work on the problem of mobbing in the community and through legislation, and not in my home where I was vulnerable.

I timidly posted a story about Bleak House on my blog, and the responses showed that the problems I had experienced were typical of subsidized and public housing. My blog began to connect me with others who wanted change. I was encouraged by another activist to submit a proposal for a state law, and I wrote an analytical position paper. With less than a week to the final date for new bills, I was told I had to propose a law in legislative language. I had no idea what to do and little time.

Q: How did you overcome this impasse? Was this the end of the road? How were you able to advance the legislation through the state legislature?

No, it was not the end, because I was not alone. I had begun to network with people who became our partners in advocacy.

A seasoned advocate and early partner of our coalition suggested I copy and adapt an existing law, that on bullying in schools. My state senator helped me submit the law and we became partners in advocating for legislative change. When the housing committee on Beacon Hill (the state legislature, our Great and General Court) held hearings on our bill, our coalition presented impassioned testimony from a wide variety of witnesses—from a disabled woman made homeless by mobbing, from a state representative, and from leaders of our new advocacy coalition. We had support from the disability community as well as the elderly. Everyone in the hearing room was close to tears of empathy, the legislators were very supportive. But the bill wasn’t going to get out of committee.

Was this the end for us?

No, our legislative partners suggested we opt for a legislative study commission. The leaders of the legislature had determined to own and push this issue. Here is where a wise community organizer steps back: the community of legislators was taking over our cause and making it theirs: we had partners on Beacon Hill. And once again, I was set the task of writing a bill to create the commission, but this time with professional help. Despite a positive reception, our new bill got stuck in committee, and it died.

Was this the end for us?

No, we had momentum and support, and the next year, my state senator submitted the same language for a new bill to create a commission on bullying, and again we had a very effective hearing. We thought, surely this time we will succeed. But at the end of the session, our bill was again stuck in committee.

Was this the end for us?

Not at all, because in the last hours, our legislative partners, who included the key power brokers of Beacon Hill, pushed it through and it was soon signed by the Governor. However, they neglected to provide a budget for the work of the commission.

Q: But if the legislature did not fund the commission, how could you possibly get anything done? Was this the end of the line?

Appointed by the Governor, I have been a Commissioner for just over a year, the lone tenant in a group of 17 commissioners. The Commission didn’t get much time—our first meeting was at the end of May, our final report is due at the end of this yea—and we got no funds. Could we do anything meaningful? Some were skeptical. The Commission was seen as a way to bury the idea.

I was appointed as chair of the committee of commissioners to do research for the Commission, and this included a survey that I was told was impossible—we lacked survey expertise and funds. But responses are being collected online today. I have partnered with an experienced public health professional to help analyze the data. I am also leading a select group to evaluate current legal protections and we may propose new law. And I am doing research to compare healthy and toxic communities, partnering with each community. I have been able to involve many powerful and experienced individuals and strong advocacy groups as partners in our cause, perhaps based on having the authority of being a commissioner, and perhaps because we have a rightful cause, and because the legislature and governor have given us a mission.

Q: You began your advocacy seeking remedies and protections for elderly and disabled tenants. Are they being involved, are they being heard?

Commissioners represent several government administrative agencies; legislators who are the chairs of several joint committees; representatives of housing and consumer protection advocacy organizations.

There are 1,400 housing developments with 92,000 units, so there are at least that many tenants. I know that legislators will give more respect to experts, so I have reached out to experts in the law, social science, and public health; and tenants may be the most important experts because they know from lived experience what the problems really are. I have created an informal panel of advisors including several tenants to assist me as chair of the research committee. But it has been a struggle to get recognition for tenants, and we have had to make a stand to insist on having the commission hear them and involve them. Large government agencies are powerful, run by powerful people, and they resist change and protect their turf. And they’re not used to listening to the people that they are meant to serve. It is one thing to bring together representatives of different institutions, it is a major challenge to find ways to work together on a common goal. And bringing their clients and consumers to the table is a further challenge. I rely on the enabling law: “The commission shall identify and invite to participate in and contribute to the commission: individuals with experience and knowledge of bullying in public or subsidized housing, including tenants who have been victimized by bullying; managers who coordinate resident services; industry professionals and stakeholders; and individuals who have direct experience with bullying prevention.”

Was this the end for us?

To overcome the roadblocks, I have turned for advice and support to other commissioners, our legislative sponsors, to our advocacy partners, and to other tenant leaders. With their help I have gotten support and the advice to meet and overcome obstacles. We have insisted on our rights. And we are making progress, seeking to include all stakeholders in the effort to protect people from bullying. Our tenant leaders hold my feet to the fire, they show up, and they make themselves heard.

This is not the end, there is much more to do. But we have made a start.

One person can start a movement, one person can lead a movement, but one person alone can do nothing. Build community because alone you can do very little, together anything is possible.


National Bullying Prevention Month is a nationwide campaign founded in 2006 by PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center. The campaign is held during the month of October and unites communities around the world to educate and raise awareness of bullying prevention. This campaign has grown from an initial week-long event to a worldwide effort with thousands of individuals participating in multiple activities throughout October.

SURVIVING AND THRIVING—Leading Experts Share Tools to Eliminate Incivility, Workplace Bullying, Harassment, Violence and Other Bad Behaviors That Ruin Your Workplace.

The speakers included psychologists, professors, consultants, authors, and even one lawyer, and one global director of employee relations for an international Fortune 500 company. A recording of the proceedings is available at


The Call-In: Workplace Sexual Harassment October 22, 2017, Contains interview with Chai Feldblum, Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination

The EEOC Training Institute, training for the workplace. Harassment Prevention and Respectful Workplaces Training. Leading for Respect (for supervisors) and Respect in the Workplace (for all employees) focus on respect, acceptable workplace conduct, and the types of behaviors that contribute to a respectful and inclusive workplace. The training is customizable for different types of workplaces and includes a section for reviewing employers’ own harassment prevention policies and procedures.