Arrested Development

City officials say the head of the Frogtown Action Alliance is dodging them. Two former employees say he sexually harassed them. Leaders in the struggling St. Paul neighborhood fear Shem Shakir's bad karma is contagious.

But instead of offering a sympathetic ear, Webber says, her boss literally attempted to yank the wedding ring off of her finger, then told her he loved her. "What are you doing with James?" he allegedly asked.

In retrospect, Webber believes Shakir mistook her openness for weakness: "I don't know if he saw that as me being vulnerable. But at that point the unwanted advances started."

On this late afternoon in August, Webber is seated at a glass-covered table in the library of her attorney, Alf Sivertson. As she speaks of her tumultuous employment at Frogtown Action Alliance, she carefully enunciates each syllable, her accent still tinged with a hint of her native Sierra Leone, and the West African nation's past as a British colony.

According to Webber's statements in documents filed with Ramsey County District Court, the incident in the conference room marked the onset of more than two years of constant mental torture. Shakir, she claims, made untoward sexual advances on an almost daily basis--making lewd comments about her body, shoving his hand down her blouse, and rubbing his crotch suggestively when they spoke. "It made me realize why my father warned me never to become an administrative assistant," she says now. "That women were taken as sex objects by men in power."

In a deposition taken on February 23, 2000, Webber recounts a particularly degrading incident that took place one afternoon in the winter of 1996. Shakir called her into the Alliance's conference room. When she entered, she testified, he was leaning back in a recliner with his fly unzipped. He was holding his penis. As she retreated, she alleges, Shakir made comments like, "Look at this, it's big," and, "Come sit on it." She says she responded by telling Shakir he was sick.

Webber says that despite the abuse, she felt she couldn't quit her job; she needed the money. Her husband, whom she is now in the process of divorcing, had not been working and she was the sole breadwinner for the family.

Webber was laid off in March of 1997. According to depositions given by Shakir and one former member of the Alliance's board of directors, Stella Whitney-West, the organization simply didn't have enough money to keep an office manager on the payroll. But Webber alleges that her employment was terminated because she'd attempted to bring Shakir's behavior to the attention of Whitney-West and other board members.

After she lost her job, Webber says, her life went into a tailspin. She had recently become pregnant and was now without health insurance. Foreclosure proceedings were begun on her house, she says, and her car was nearly repossessed.

In November of 1997 Webber filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, alleging sexual harassment. An investigation by the department concluded that "probable cause exists" that Webber had been discriminated against. She then filed her lawsuit against Shakir and Frogtown Action Alliance in Ramsey County District Court, seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

In a deposition taken this past January and filed in Ramsey County District Court, Shakir denied all of the charges. He specifically stated that Webber never confided in him about her marital problems, that he never exposed himself in the office, and that he never made any sexual advances. He said Webber was an unreliable employee who was frequently late to work and spent too much time making personal phone calls. The issue of whether she should be fired, he noted, had come up on several occasions. In her deposition, board member Whitney-West confirmed that the board was aware of concerns about Webber's work.

But Webber's allegations are supported by a host of witnesses. Six people who worked in the Dale Street building provided sworn affidavits that they had witnessed Shakir behaving inappropriately toward Webber and others. Perhaps most damaging was an affidavit by Dawn Goldschmitz, executive director of the Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation, which rents space in the building from Frogtown Action Alliance. Goldschmitz stated under oath that on one occasion Shakir came up behind her and began nibbling on her neck while she spoke on the phone. When she confronted him about the incident, Goldschmitz said that Shakir's response was that the only reason she was complaining was because he was a black man. "Because of Mr. Shakir's conduct toward women that he comes in contact with at the workplace," Goldschmitz stated in her affidavit, "I am now warning all of my new employees that they should use caution with Mr. Shakir and they should be careful not to establish a personal relationship with him because he tends to overstep professional boundaries."

Webber's lawsuit was slated for trial July 10, but in June it was settled out of court. The agreement is confidential, so only the parties involved know how much money was involved, if any. But those who work with the Frogtown Action Alliance say the suit only served to further cripple the group and its ability to serve as an agent of change in the neighborhood. Money spent on attorneys' fees or monetary settlements is money that isn't going to the corner bar that needs a new façade or the Hmong translation business that's looking for a low-interest loan.

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