I am a member of the permanent faculty at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. As an educator, I am passionate about sparking cultural change to foster positive work environments to execute our missions. Focusing on psychological safety first was key to drawing out the talents of high-performing diverse teams. In one example, over 100 cadets of diverse academic majors, languages, experiences and backgrounds came together, channeled their moral courage, and supported by Coast Guard for Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. Receiving the 2017 Captain Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Award for Cultural Change was one of the proudest moments of my career. Another proud time was in 2013 when I spearheaded changes to the Uniform Manual where the Coast Guard became the first military branch to lift a ban on natural hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, for women. I then continued to mentor other women in the Department of Defense to change their respective Uniform Manuals, with the U.S. Navy being the last of the military branches in 2018.
Despite these deeply rewarding experiences serving in the Coast Guard, it may seem surprising to hear that I am also simultaneously proud to be a whistleblower who exposed gaps in our reporting systems for bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Whistleblowing is one of the oldest American traditions, with its first roots in 1777 when two U.S. naval officers who were jailed and retaliated against by their superiors after reporting the mistreatment of British prisoners during the Revolutionary War. They contacted Congress for assistance and on July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress unanimously passed our nation’s first whistleblowing protection law. I am one of the first active duty whistleblowers in the Coast Guard who successfully proved retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General substantiated my case in December of 2018.
I am a survivor of four years of workplace and institutional bullying, harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. The intersection of my race (Black), gender (female), sexual orientation (lesbian), and reporting wrongdoing, were all contributing factors to the years of abuse I endured. I refused to allow the abuse to persist and make me feel less than human; I instead channeled and transformed the years of trauma into healing process by educating other Coast Guard and DOD employees towards the pursuit of preventing other occurrences. I am lucky; many in our military, such as Marine Corps Lance Corporal Harry Lew and Army Private Danny Chen, unfortunately don’t survive harassment and therefore cannot tell their stories or serve.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, the prevalence of bullying is highest amongst women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and those who report wrongdoing. Since sharing part of my story publicly ahead of National Whistleblower Appreciation Day on July 30, 2019, within the Coast Guard there has been a genuine outpouring of support and also some skepticism and even criticism. However, I’m proud to serve in the Coast Guard and have seen a positive shift in attitudes from the least expected pockets within the organization. Those pockets are building community in radically different ways than in the past. More people are intentionally seeking out LGBTQIA, women, people of color, and survivors to learn about from one another. I have also witnessed more survivors take space to tell their story and make an impact.
Anyone entering the Coast Guard who had dreams to serve our nation should be welcomed in work environments where they can thrive as their authentic selves. As a humanitarian organization, we must continue to center on our values, the dignity of others, and our most marginalized – people who are drowning within our own service. I am extremely proud of the next generation of cadets and officer candidates who I have had the privilege of teaching and mentoring. I am extremely proud of the many in our service who have already intervened to make our culture more equitable. When we treat each other with dignity and demonstrate moral courage, we can thrive and accomplish almost anything, including some of our most complex 21st century missions.
Recognizing that we have not achieved full equality within our own community and within the Coast Guard, I’m very proud that I can continue advocating while in uniform for safe, honest, efficient, and accountable workplace environments in the military for all, including LGBTQIA, women, people of color, and survivors.
LCDR Kimberly Young-McLear, Ph.D.