Home Commentary Systemic Abuses of Power at Hunger Mountain Co-op

Systemic Abuses of Power at Hunger Mountain Co-op

The entrance to Hunger Mountain Coop on a quiet summer day. Photo by Carla Occaso.
By Billy Donovan 

In acknowledging the harm done to some of our young community members this past summer at the Hunger Mountain Co-op, the best place to start is in support of them, giving them the reassurance that they have been heard, believed, and that this is still being taken very seriously by some of us as we look deeper into the failures of the governing and managing bodies of the Co-op.

A narrative has developed that needs correction. What is alleged is NOT sexual harassment. The individual charged, Reis Winkeljohn, faces among other charges a felony count of Luring a Child, 13 VSA 2828, Chapter 64: Sexual Exploitation of Children. In contrast, Vermont state laws governing harassment are found in the Labor Statutes.

This ongoing reference to “harassment” by those in positions of power at the Co-op is a self-serving attempt to minimize their own complicity. This was an alleged sex crime found in Title 13 of the Vermont Penal Code. In the chain of command, as articulated in Co-op policies, the human resources department, the general manager, and the Co-op council bear significant responsibility in allowing the alleged perpetrator free-range to do his deeds, because they completely neglected to do theirs. In that way, they are all seemingly complicit in the “Sexual Exploitation of Children” or its cover-up through failing to act or speak up when faced with that obligation. We should not shy away from that charge for as long as they remain silent on “who knew what, and when.” This is a cover-up.

Regarding governance, the Co-op council holds the duty to monitor and they are empowered to intervene in management’s actions; it is their principal responsibility. The Hunger Mountain Co-op Policy Governance-Executive Limitations required the general manager to report this activity to the council. If he did, then the council kept it concealed and the activity was allowed to continue. If he didn’t, then he should not have been allowed to resign, he should have been fired. The council has clearly failed either way, and its current entrenched silence, isolation, and obstinate behaviors relative to our communications advocating for “justice from within” for those affected, allows the entire community to see their true face behind the mask. Council members are (seemingly) not only complicit to the alleged sex crime (or its cover up), but they are obstructive to justice as well.

The jolt of what allegedly transpired this summer arises when two different “systems-of-power” interacted, and both failed. The Co-op employee was entrusted with a system-of-power that he is accused of having used to the detriment of others, and then that failure interacted with the system-of-power in the Co-op hierarchy (meant to intervene in situations such as this), and it also failed, in service of protecting themselves and the Co-op’s image. The Catholic Church cover-ups come to mind.

Regarding management, as a lifelong social/political activist, and more recently as an emerging advocate for domestic and sexual abuse survivors, I take great interest in not only the well being of those who are abused, but also an interest in systems of abuse, and the psychology of the abuser. It is increasingly understood that the abuses of power that we find in interpersonal sexual violence and in domestic households are replicated in various forms — in the workplace, in business structures, in organizations, governments, and more broadly as destructive political ideologies. Yet these aberrations of powered-forms have remarkable common elements between them as well. To different degrees and with differing effects, they all tend toward exploitation, secrecy, coercion, self-interest, punishment, manipulation, deception, self-protection, blame, emotional abuse, privilege, shame, denial, isolation, and censorship. 

Power and control are the dominant forces, but the confounding and central feature inherent in “systemic abuses of power” is the illusion of the normalcy of the system, i.e., the normalcy of the family, or the normalcy of the business, as cleverly crafted by those in power. It is the facade that is deftly woven to appear benevolent — the “mask of sanity” — while its own internal decay advances toward the inevitable breaking point. A mix of these forces has been evolving at Hunger Mountain Co-op for 20 years, and were seen and predicted by me and a few others 5–8 years ago. Those cries were ridiculed and mocked at the time by those in the same positions of power that are now complicit in this mess. They will likely ridicule this commentary, too. 

Hunger Mountain Co-op is in desperate need of a critical assessment of its managerial structure, and a review of the use of the corporate consultants that have infiltrated the Co-op’s governance, and which has separated us from each other. We have a right to monitor and maintain the integrity of our own business, and our youths have the right to freely, safely, and joyfully enter into a world where they are protected, respected, and honored unconditionally.

Billy Donovan is a “social/political activist” and self-employed in forestry and agriculture. He is a member of the Hunger Mountain Co-op and lives in Washington, Vermont.

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