Less than a week after the close of Silk Screen’s 13th annual film festival, the non-profit organization appears to have shut down amid allegations of workplace and sexual harassment against its executive director, Harish Saluja.
Sereny Welsby, a programming and operating assistant at Silk Screen contacted the Pittsburgh Current on Oct. 1, a day after the festival closed. On Aug. 29, Welsby filed a formal complaint about Saluja with Silk Screen’s board, which included several statements from former employees and interns alleging a history of inappropriate conduct by Saluja.
Following Welsby’s call for Saluja’s termination, in early September Silk Screen staff were told that he was resigning effective Dec. 31. Until that time, when he worked in the office, Saluja was to be chaperoned by a board member and have no direct contact with interns.
However, Welsby says, the board has never investigated her complaints or complaints by previous women. Unhappy with the way the board had handled the complaints, which she learned are a part of a pattern going back several years, Welsby decided to take the story to the media.
On Oct 2, Welsby says she arrived at work and was fired. She was offered $1,000 severance if she signed a document agreeing not to make “disparaging, insulting or critical” comments about her former employer. The agreement also required that she give up her rights to any sort of legal redress, including the filing of a lawsuit and any other future claims. She declined the cash payment.
As of Tuesday evening, Silk Screen’s website was locked down and required a password to access. The organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were also deleted. By late Wednesday afternoon after the Current inquired about the website’s disappearance, the site was back up.
“This has all happened so fast,” Welsby says. “I reported this at the end of August and I continued to document throughout September leading up to the festival. He did step back a bit and he had a babysitter every time he was in the office, but it was still uncomfortable for everyone.
“The thing that upsets me the most is how the board handled it. They allowed him to attend the festival’s red carpet gala and showboat around despite all of this happening.”
Saluja’s behavior allegedly elicited so many complaints that last month the University of Pittsburgh notified Silk Screen that the school would no longer be sending female interns to the organization. The email from Dana Och, director of undergraduate studies, film and media studies, read:
“I’m writing to let you know officially that Pitt Film Studies will no longer be sending over any women interns. Students from previous terms have come to me to complain anonymously. I will not put my students in any situation that makes them feel harassed, unsafe or negative. I have informed the internship coordinator and the director of film program of my decision. We are currently debating whether to stop male interns moving forward as well, given that we are ideologically opposed to the normalization of sexually discriminatory behavior.”
The Silk Screen Film Festival was founded in 2005 and is a 10-day Asian-American film event featuring more than 20 feature films.
The Current reached out to Silk Screen with specific questions regarding Saluja and the festival’s status. On October 3, Silk Screen board chair Vijay Bahl issued a statement sent through a public relations firm explaining that Silk Screen has suspended operations due to “financial challenges.”
“The Board is speaking with other community organizations to explore ways to keep the spirit of Silk Screen alive,” Bahl says in the statement. “On behalf of the entire Board, we thank you for your support over the years. We hope that others will carry the Silk Screen tradition forward, and that you will remain active in their efforts. If your organization wants to carry on the tradition, please let us know.”
In regards to questions regarding Saluja, Silk Screen spokesperson Robin Rectenwald wrote in an email, “the board is also aware of the allegations regarding Harish Saluja and they are actively addressing them.” In a return email the Current asked in what ways the allegations were being addressed and whether there was any way to address them now that the organization has folded. Thus far, additional answers have not been supplied.
Welsby says she doesn’t believe that finances were the reason the organization was shuttered so hastily. “I think they are trying to cover up Harish’s abuse,” she says. “If it was financial, why would they move out of their offices so quickly? Why would they lock down their website and delete their social media?”
Aside from an executive board, the festival also has an advisory board whose members include Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. According to a 2011 post on www.billpeduto.com, Peduto “has been a part of the festival from its inception. He secured grant funds to get Silk Screen started.”
Mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty told the Current Wednesday that the mayor has been an honorary board member for “awhile” but does not attend meetings or get board materials. McNulty says Peduto only heard about the allegations after receiving emails from a former employee two weeks ago.
“The festival was set to start just a few days after and the Mayor canceled plans to attend the opening gala,” McNulty says. “The mayor and [City Councilor Dan] Gilman stayed in contact with the employee and thanked her for coming forward.”
On Wednesday, Welsby says she did not receive her usual paycheck. Welsby says Silk Screen is a small organization that relies on its few employees, interns and volunteers to put the annual festival together. It was a workforce that Welsby says Saluja directed to be made up of young women who he berated, manipulated and controlled.
“From day one it was an uncomfortable work environment,” Welsby says. “But I was just happy to have a job like this and I kept quiet for months and thinking if I can just somehow do a better job, it will get better. He would yell or act inappropriately toward interns and I would just make excuses.
“I feel like a jerk for doing that. Until the point I stopped making excuses and filed my complaint.”
Welsby says her moment of clarity came after she attended a board meeting with Saluja in August. In the weeks leading up to the meeting she says he told her to watch a makeup tutorial on Youtube and wear black, sexy clothes. “He objectified me, made me dress a certain way and wear heels and red lipstick,” she says.
After that meeting, Welsby reached out to another woman who left Silk Screen after a very short tenure. That conversation led to more employees with similar stories.
Sarah Miller was one of those former employees. Miller, who was the person who notified the mayor’s office about the allegations, wrote in a letter that her experiences involved “verbal sexual harassment, innuendos, gross inappropriateness and hostile bullying.”
Miller worked at Silk Screen for nearly two years and wrote that her experiences were “awful in every sense of the word, but within the larger narrative, not nearly as bad as the experiences of others who worked for him.” Miller said the level of abuse she suffered depended on how she acted when it was dished out. She said she never felt that her employment was in jeopardy because the only “tangible punishment for objecting to his sexual harassment was the hostile, volatile work environment that took its place.”
She wrote that examples of his sexual harassment included:
- Demanding “I never chew gum in his presence because it wasn’t ‘ladylike.’”
- “Demanding I consult him first should I ever decide to cut my long hair.”
- “Once after a board meeting, Harish told me, ‘You have a sexy voice. You should speak up so they can hear you better.’”
- “Harish noticed and complimented my necklaces and high heels far more than any man typically would. He had a habit of saying familiarity would create a family-like work environment, but comments like these felt more like a way for him to let me know he was looking at my body. It fit a pattern.”
- “Frequently in the first year I worked at Silk Screen, Harish took me to lunch meetings with board members and potential new sponsors. He would make me stand in front of these men while he pointed at me like a new car, saying, ‘Look at her. How can you say no to her?’ I was old man sex bait.”
- “In my final weeks at Silk Screen, it came to my attention that Harish had harassed our two Duquesne University interns. He had asked one to post a picture to his personal twitter account and when he handed her his phone, she found that the photos app was filled with images of naked women. The other young woman caught him staring at her breasts, for which he did not apologize, but said with lecherous defiance, ‘Oh I’m sorry for staring at your tits.’”
“Silk Screen is a good organization with an admirable mission and many wonderful employees and volunteers who haven’t drunk Harish’s Kool-Aid trying to forward that mission,” Miller wrote in her letter to the board. “They should be allowed to do their jobs without the specter of Harish looming over them like a penis-shaped cloud.”