This week On The Same Page has the pleasure of interviewing Cathy Harris, author of Flying While Black, A Whistleblower's Story. She was featured in an 8 page spread in "Essence's" February 2001 Black History issue. She was also recently seen on Oprah's Oxygen Cable show.
M.T.: Your book is well-researched. How long did it take for you to gather the notes, the legal material, and the references for your book?
C.H.: I already had all the information. It was much later that I realized I needed to put it in print. I collect any material or data that I feel might educate or uplift the world.
M.T.: Had you ever written anything before? Did you aspire to be a writer? Are you planning another book?
C.H.: During the course of this fight which started in October 1998 -- when I first became a Whistleblower by (1) Forming an Organization, Customs Employees Against Discrimination Association (CEADA), (2) Going to the Black Press, NNPA (3) Going to a Media Attorney -- I became a freelance writer somehow. After approaching the black press, NNPA, about articles needing to go out, my organization was assigned a reporter but eventually the reporter who reported these abuses had to go in another direction.
This is when I realized I had to write the articles. I was thrilled when the black press picked up my
articles with my signature at the bottom. I have always wanted to be a writer. I am definitely
planning several more books. I am presently working on two books "How to Fight Discrimination and
Sexual Harassment in the Public and Private Sector" and "The Book of Hope: Surviving the Worker's Compensation System."
M.T.: Give the audience some of the background which inspired you to write Flying While Black,
A Whistleblower's Story. I lived it for many years but many of those years I was not in a position to do anything about the humiliating acts to Blacks especially Black women.
C.H.: After transferring on my job to Atlanta, Georgia, and watching it for 4 years, I knew it was time to come forward. When the black women looked into my eyes, they looked like my mother, sister, daughter, niece, or another relative. My conscience would no longer allow me to stay quiet about the atrocities against our beautiful black sisters traveling internationally, or working in U.S. Customs or working for the airlines. It was time to go up against the system.
M.T.: Could you share how you made your contact with Oprah? Queen Latifah?
C.H.: After the Black History month February 2001 issue of "Essence" magazine featured a story on my plight, Oprah Winfrey cable company, Oxygen, producer, called me. She said the story touched her heart.
Many told me the story touched their hearts and many said they cried even men. I told them not to feel sorry for me but to help me get my message out nationwide. The Queen Latifah show called me twice also because of the Essence article. After these phone calls, I breathed a sigh of relief, while thinking finally - black women of influence are listening to me. I had become disappointed with many women groups that chose not to stand with me. I was defending the rights of black women.
A March 2000 General Accounting Office (GAO), which is the investigative arm of Congress, report proved that U.S. Customs went after black women – but I knew it, I watched it everyday. But it seemed like for a while no one was listening to me.
M.T.: Please share how you contacted the Black Media and what gave you the strength to take a stand against a large bureaucracy?
C.H.: A year before I came forward to the media, I had mapped out the media route that I would take. I did not become a whistleblower overnight. It was planned. I knew once the stories got out in the Black Press eventually the main stream press would pick up the stories of abuse by the U.S. Customs Service. President Dorothy Leavell, Chicago Crusader, Owner and Publisher, was the publisher of the Black Press, National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) at that time. I told her what we needed and at the same time I sent a CEADA member to the yearly meeting of NNPA to talk to the group to tell them what we were trying to do.
We told them we were trying to expose this agency, U.S. Customs, and we needed a reporter to
circulate news articles throughout black communities nationwide. What mostly gave me the strength
to stand against a large bureaucracy was the fact that I was located in the hometown of the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like him I have titles but the one that I am most proud of
besides "mother" and a "civil rights leader." A civil rights leader is a person for the
people - all the people - all the time. And this is who I am.
M.T.: What has been the price of standing up for your rights?
C.H.: Because I stood up I have a ruined financial history. But I still would have gotten this if I had continued to file EEO complaints on my job. After filing several EEO complaints, I knew things would not change so I had to break the cycle by going to the media. I now have 8 EEO complaints and I am being represented by the law firm of Attorney Johnnie Cochran. I believe I was at this place at this time in my life for a reason and that reason was to change the system. I believe what happened to me, happened for a reason and it indeed made me a much better person. My experience has helped me to grow in order to help myself and others.
M.T.: Could you tell us where you'll be touring with your book?
C.H.: I will be touring all over the United States and maybe even internationally giving seminars, lectures and workshops in order to change the system. This book might very well cause a public outrage and it should. Everyone need to take the book to criminal attorneys and their legislators in order to reform the system. Keep filing lawsuits and keep demanding that stronger legislation is introduced.
We also must demand that there is a "Citizen Review Board" appointed by Congress and that a GAO investigation and Senate Hearing takes place on behalf of the Customs employees. Remember the only thing that the federal government is afraid of is exposure in the media and this agency will not understand the extent of how they have traumatized Black people until we "hit them in their pockets" with major lawsuits both by travelers and the employees.
M.T.: What advise would you give to other employees who are harassed or discriminated against on the job?
C.H.: Do what your gut feeling tell you to do. Because of your managers history, you know they
will not change. If you don't come forward there is no documentation that these illegal acts occurred. Filing a complaint is a way of "documenting the abuse." Get a good support system from family, friends, community activists, civil rights groups, legislators and media entities. Remember one of the best outlets for a person filing a discrimination complaint or a whistleblower is the media. In order to move forward and change the system you must report the violations. Through the process remember to continue to live your life and "Never Ever Give Up."
M.T.: How has being a published author changed your life?
C.H.: It's has given me a feeling of accomplishment. I have turned my adversity into a victory. I believe I have truly found my real calling in life, which is simply to help people live a better life.
M.T.: If you had it to do all over again, would you have accepted this challenge, which will surely go down in history?
C.H.: If I had to do it all over again, I would still come forward. Everything in my life is
happening in divine order and I truly believe I am on a spiritual path to doing something so much
greater with my life. Always remember when you step out on your faith, "No Weapons Formed Against
You Shall Prosper" and that "God is Good - All the time."
M.T.: Thank you, Ms. Harris. Please order her books from http://web.archive.org/web/20011121151829/http://www.milliganbooks.com/.
For speaking engagements, contact Cathy Harris, CEADA
Founder/Executive Director, (678) 476-9328
To Order Book - Flying While Black - 1-800-772-0247
Book Price: $16.95
Remember the power of the printed word to bring about change!