Kailie Smith has been working in the restaurant industry for more than 15 years. When she was in her 20s, living in California and riding her bike to work, her manager would make crude comments when she walked in, telling her to "give us a spin" and show off her bike shorts. It made her deeply uncomfortable, but she thought that was just part of working in a restaurant.
"It didn't help me professionally, it didn't make me a better person or a better worker," Smith says. "And in dealing with customers saying creepy things to me, I just thought this is what working is."
Now in her 30s, Smith is a manager at Don't Look Back Triple in Scott's Addition. She says the culture has begun to shift away from the rampant harassment she dealt with when she was a young server, but the industry still has a long way to go. She wants to be a part of making the area's restaurants and bars safer for both staff and customers, which is why she's spearheading an effort to bring a new safety training and witness intervention program to Richmond.
"I really wanted to find a way to protect my staff and empower them to deal with sexual harassment issues in the workplace," she says, adding that as a manager, she feels responsible for the safety and comfort of her workers. "I thought, how can I teach these 22-year-olds to deal with these issues in a way that isn't harmful to them and doesn't put them through the same kind of things I went through in my 20s."
Enter Safe Bars, an initiative in Washington that trains staff at places like restaurants, bars, clubs and concert venues to recognize and safely confront sexual harassment and assault. The program focuses on all forms of harassment in these establishments, including between customers, between staff, from customer to staff and from staff to customer.
"We know that a lot of people who work in the industry already do a lot of things to help their patrons and co-workers stay safe," says Safe Bars co-founder and director Lauren R. Taylor. "So really what we're doing is upping their game, and providing an opportunity to share a set of skills and understanding, and develop a team culture around culture and respect."
Taylor notes that at restaurants and bars, managers rarely have time to hold staff meetings, much less sit everyone down for an in-depth discussion about addressing workplace harassment. Safe Bars training creates space for those conversations, and what often happens, she says, is that "people hear what each other are doing and that just naturally adds tools to their toolbox."
Smith and a cohort of about 10 other people who have backgrounds in the service industry or violence prevention, will participate in Safe Bars' two-day "train the trainer" program. The training costs $6,000, which covers the curriculum, a training manual and ongoing support from the Washington-based organization as the team gets the Richmond chapter up and running. Once the two-day crash course is over, they'll go into restaurants and bars in teams of two and lead training sessions for the staff.
According to Taylor, much of the curriculum focuses on friend groups and other people who know each other, because most harassment and assault occurs between acquaintances, friends and significant others. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, less than 20 percent of rapes are committed by strangers.
"Most people who work in a bar or restaurant, especially in a bar, are already watching out for the stereotypical creeper who comes in and hits on women until he finds somebody," Taylor says. "But since the vast majority of gender-based violence is by the people we know, we really emphasize people who came in together so that people who work at the bar or restaurant are also looking there. That's where we're going to be able to stop a lot of stuff."
Smith recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the training. As of Tuesday evening, the effort had raised nearly $1,500, plus another $1,500 donation from Safe Harbor Shelter, an organization that provides support for survivors of sexual and domestic violence and human trafficking. For information or to donate, visit gofundme.com/bring-safe-bars-to-richmond.