What is a Whistleblower- Humanizing the Act

Kelly A Adkins
May 19, 2022

‍What is a Whistleblower? A seemingly simple question that elicits a different response from many Americans: a patriot; a traitor; a snitch; a savior; a friend; a child; a government official; an integral part to the United States democracy. Seeking to demystify the act of whistleblowing, in 2007, two whistleblowers found that when words fail, art prevails; and so came the birth of the Whistleblower Film Festival and Summit (WSFX).

The first of its kind, WSFX was created as a solution to the narrow definition and understanding of a whistleblower. 13 years ago, the first congregation of the organization, “The Summit for Civil and Human Rights,” was met with excitement, support and yet confusion.

“The very first week, no one knew why there was a theme for a whistleblower week or why you would want to identify as one.” Said McCray, the co-founder and managing director of WSFX.

At the time, NGOs regularly met at Capitol Hill–“The most recognized symbol of democratic government in the world,” according to the United States Senate website–to engage in panels and discussions about their efforts that would now be labeled as whistleblowing.

Founding WSFX members saw the potential of this geographic location and established the first conference exclusively run by whistleblowers, for whistleblowers. To this day, no organization has mimicked this model.

As McCray said, “It is one thing to cheer for the matador, but it is another to face the bull.”

McCray, himself, is a whistleblower. Aftering blowing the whistle on 40 million dollars worth of waste fraud and abuse, he accredited his sanity to attending the Whistleblower Summit in 2017; the overwhelming sense of community and mutual support is crucial to the act that is mislabelled as taboo.

“I’ll take you back to when I got hit by the train.” Said Michael McCray when asked when his passion for whistleblowing and advocacy began.

And for most whistleblowers, this analogy is painfully true.

Marcel Reid, WSFX co-founder and festival director, did not know that her speaking out against misuse of funds would drastically affect her life. After blowing the whistle during her time at ACORN for misuse of public funds, she realized not enough people saw the act as common knowledge.

“When you see death, fraud, and abuse you should be driven to speak about it simply because it’s wrong.” Said Reid.

To Reid, whistleblowing came naturally and was thought of as an excellent way for people of marginalized groups to speak out and speak up. The issue became a matter of uniting the American in the same effortless cause. When she attended the WSFX Summit, she began to think of ways to organize in an efficient and thought-provoking structure.

“To organize you need to build popular sentiment; laws are never enough to change society, society is changed by people understanding that whatever legislation is passed is actually going to impact them,” said Reid. “So how do you get to the people the fastest way? Books and film.”

McCray said that the majority of those outside the whistleblowing community associate whistleblowers with white males such as Ralph Mater, Deepthroat, Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, or even Hal Westbrook, a fictional character.

“We discovered that not everyone likes whistleblowers, but everyone likes whistleblower movies and stories,” said McCray. With this though, he and Reid decided to use the visual and emotional representation of whistleblowers, through the medium of film, to elevate the discussion.

Prior to this, no one had thought about segmenting films out to gain support for the community;

McCray and Reid have won “The Best in Fest” for their efforts, and have had the support of Hollywood and the Pacifico network since the beginnings.

“What we are trying to build here is not only to change whistleblower laws but to change the perspective of whistleblower(s) in the regular community,” said Reid.

The purpose of this year’s Summit and Festival is to redefine what it means to be a whistleblower and establish representation for all sectors of the workforce and all Americans to unite for advocacy and truth-telling.

“It is not a pejorative, they are patriots. We want to reclaim the name and talk about it in a historical context.” Said McCray.

This year, marking 50 years since the Watergate break-in, the Summit offers an opportunity to change history, and create context and humanization for whistleblowers.

With such historical context, McCray wishes for broader support.

“For a while, it felt like we were preaching to the choir,” he said. “Now, we are trying to open the windows so we can shout to the heavens.”

Corporations are encouraged to get involved with the Summit and Festival to increase integrity and ethics within the business sector.

McCray also dreams of the Columbia School of Journalism to get involved. The Society of Professional Journalists have supported the WSFX in the past, and McCray believes it is important for journalists–especially student journalists–to understand what their sources are going through during whistleblowing acts.

Reid explained the severity of potential societal ostracism, even by family and friends, after blowing the whistle, saying “Some of these stories might be a Pulitzer [Prize winner] for the journalists, but the whistleblower’s life is eviscerated; they have no avenue.”

She hopes for whistleblowing to become less taboo, and more integrated into daily life and rights as an American worker.

“In the community I held this [act] is considered snitching, and I want to separate that,” Said Reid. “We are not asking you to snitch, we are asking you to stand up and speak out when something is wrong.”

The WSFX is open to sponsorships with custom activations to create brand integration, creating a speaker’s bureau of education panels, book tours and partnering with colleges and universities to establish class discussions.

Join in the WSFX Summit and Film Festival this summer during Whistleblower’s Month to discuss the whistleblower's dilemma: does truth matter?

“If the truth doesn’t matter, why are we doing this? And I am sure other people are asking the same thing.” Reid said.

The events take place on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. from Friday, July 22 to Sunday, July 31. Potential sponsors and outreach organizations can contact the WSFX organizers by calling (870) 543-0024 or emailing mccray.michael@gmail.com.

Speak Truth to Power

You can help give more power and voice to whistleblowers by supporting the Whistleblower Summit & Film Festival. You will be helping to highlight civil and human rights violations across the globe. Call us at (870) 543-0024 or email us at mccray.michael@gmail.com.

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