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The woman who was covering sexual harassment before #MeToo

In the opening pages of her new book, reporter Bernice Yeung quotes feminist writer Audre Lorde.T...

Posted: Sep 6, 2018 5:13 PM
Updated: Sep 6, 2018 5:13 PM

In the opening pages of her new book, reporter Bernice Yeung quotes feminist writer Audre Lorde.

The woman's place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.

Yeung's "In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Among America's Most Vulnerable Workers" comes out on March 20, and in it, she writes about spending time in some of these "dark" places where women have found strength despite grappling with sexual assault amid grinding poverty. As a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting's online platform, Reveal, Yeung has covered stories in immigrant communities and vulnerable populations -- those people often omitted from the recent nationwide reckoning on sexual harassment.

Yeung is among the many journalists who have covered sexual harassment in the workplace long before the #MeToo movement swept the country. For "In a Day's Work," Yeung followed the lives of "invisible workers" -- the women who pick our food, mop our floors and clean our bathrooms.

Yeung began working with a documentary team in 2011 to report on sexual harassment and assault the in agriculture industry, shown in 2013's "Rape in the Fields," and in custodial work, as seen in the 2015 film "Rape on the Night Shift."

Related: 2017 was the year of (certain) women's voices

Documentary filmmaker and Berkeley journalism professor Andrés Cediel first met Yeung when they began working together on "Rape in the Fields." Cediel and Yeung tackled a sexual assault story together after a former Berkeley student revealed a devastating secret from a female agricultural worker she interviewed: the field foreman raped her and many other workers, all of them terrified to speak up for fear of deportation or retaliation.

When Yeung and Cediel started reporting on the story, Cediel noticed Yeung's determination to do the work: to track alleged rapists, build databases, find sources and knock on trailer park doors.

"There's this willingness in her to not even pound the pavement, but to pound the dirt road," Cediel said. "To be out in these far-flung communities, to go talk to people nobody else is going to bother to talk to."

Yeung admits that the lack of interest in stories about "invisible workers" has been a "barrier" in her reporting process. Part of the challenge is technical --"how do we get access to them?" -- but it's also part of a bigger problem -- "Will people listen to these stories?"

"[People say] 'Do we really care?' They're not politically powerful ... they might not be the people one might even think about," she says. "Media has a huge role to play."

Almost five years after Yeung and her team produced "Rape in the Fields," bombshell investigations exposed sexual harassment in politics, media, entertainment and other industries.

Related: Why the data on sexual harassment is "just the tip of the iceberg"

To Yeung, this moment looks different, and not just because of policy changes or celebrity buy-in through the Time's Up initiative, which was created to help vulnerable women in Hollywood and beyond. She says that it's the sheer number of women coming forward to share their stories -- and pave a road for others to do the same -- that makes this moment feel like a true reckoning.

Recently, her documentaries were translated to Spanish and distributed via local community organizations to empower harassment victims.

"They got so pumped up," she said. "For them, they said it helped legitimize the problems they were dealing with."

Yeung says she celebrates the progress that came with the #MeToo movement — but she also knows it will take time for the ripple effects to reach the low-wage, undocumented and immigrant workers she interviews.

"There's also so many structural issues to women coming forward," she said. "There's so many steps that make it hard to say, 'Me, too.'"

In her dedication to "In a Day's Work," Yeung remembered them, too: To the women who shared their stories with us, and to those who couldn't.

Tell us about the conversations you've had about sexual harassment. Share your response here and your response could be featured in an upcoming story on CNNMoney.

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