Volunteers Bring Schools More Than They Bargained For

Oakland-Based Charity Pushes its Founder's Views on the Sexes

San Jose Mercury News/September 15, 1996
By Sarah Lubman

International Community Service Day Foundation

As a new school year begins, hundreds of schools throughout California and the nation are receiving application forms from an Oakland-based charity to become one of its 1997 volunteer projects.

Some two dozen schools and community centers will be selected to get new playgrounds and coats of paint from the International Community Service Day Foundation.

If the past is any guide, they're also likely to get an extreme view of the sexes that stems from ICSD's unpublicized roots in the Sterling Institute of Relationship, a for-profit firm with a history of complaints stretching from Oakland's Better Business Bureau to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Allegations of fraud and complaints ranging from physical abuse to damaged marriages trail in the wake of the institute, which preaches that women must yield to men's egos.

Parents at Santa Teresa School in South San Jose knew nothing about those complaints when they applied to ICSD for a new playground and landscaping last year. But some were soon disturbed by the foundation's practice of reciting a creed and separating the sexes at weekly planning meetings on campus.

So was Caroline Fong, principal of 98th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, where ICSD volunteers installed security lighting, painted murals, and put in new benches, two playing fields and a basketball court last spring.

Although they liked the results, Fong said teachers and parents were offended by the separation of men and women, group hugs and New Age emphasis on emotions.

''We thought, 'What did we get ourselves into?' '' said Fong, echoing the reactions of educators from British Columbia to Brooklyn.

The source of such discomfort stems in large part from the strong links between ICSD and the 15-year-old Sterling Institute, which share the same founder and president, A. Justin Sterling.

The institute's stated purpose is to ''transform the quality of people's relationships by defining the differences between men and women.'' It runs $500 weekend seminars, segregated by sex and filled solely by word of mouth. The weekends are based on Sterling's contention that men are simple, combative egotists, so it's entirely up to women to make relationships work.

''In a serious, long-term, committed relationship with a man, there is absolutely no room for your ego,'' Sterling writes in his 1992 book for women, ''What Really Works With Men.'' ''Get it stroked elsewhere.''

That message is not widely accepted these days. It also hasn't been personally effective for Sterling, whose wife left him two years ago.

But it's not just an extreme view of sex roles that disturbs many people. Margaret T. Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, and other experts on psychological manipulation said they've had reports from participants that Sterling's weekend seminars and affiliated men's and women's groups are controlling and domineering. The men's weekend ends in a naked ''rite of passage'' that sometimes gets rough, participants say.

Sterling refused several requests for an interview.

The institute gets new business through groups it sponsors for seminar graduates that Sterling and other staffers promote during the weekends. Although the groups for men and women exist mainly to recruit people for the seminars, dozens of former members say that goal wasn't made clear to them before they joined; an institute official disagrees that it wasn't clear.

Group members also must pledge to do volunteer work for ICSD, which always has focused on community service projects, but now emphasizes fixing up public schools.

Workshop participants
must agree to secrecy

Sterling's controversial weekends began as one-day workshops for women in 1979. He expanded to men in 1981, and the weekends became intense, two-day ordeals with participants required to sign lengthy waivers in advance. The release swears them to secrecy about weekend events, waives their rights to a refund and permits videotaping by the company. For the men, it warns that participants ''may threaten or engage in acts of physical violence.''

For years, people didn't know that they would be required to sign a waiver until they arrived at the seminars, which often were held in remote locations. Many graduates also said they had to fill out detailed questionnaires that included questions about their sex lives.

Lee Wheeler, a mechanic for the city of San Jose, is one of many Sterling veterans with positive memories of the weekend. Wheeler took a men's weekend in 1986, and says he learned to trust other men. Felice Chang, a marketer for a Sunnyvale technology firm, emerged from a 1994 women's weekend feeling liberated.

But dozens of graduates described Sterling's seminar format as intimidating and misleading. They tell of being verbally abused and physically threatened.

''It was supposed to be a relationship seminar,'' says Susan Frost, a Massachusetts courier who got her money back in small claims court three years ago. ''It's an abuse seminar.''

Peter Rosomoff, the institute's executive director, won't discuss the weekends' content. He said the company has distributed the liability release in advance for the last two or three years, and stopped using remote sites because people objected. The institute holds 18 to 20 weekends a year in Oakland, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Seattle and New York, although there are no records of it being authorized to do business in New York or Washington states.

Oakland's Better Business Bureau said the complaints it got about the Sterling Institute led it to drop the company as a member in 1993. Patrick Wallace, the bureau's president, said the first gripes came from female callers who were too scared to file written complaints.

''The claims were nasty enough to make me very nervous,'' Wallace said. ''Particularly when people told us, in anonymous calls, that they were afraid, brow- w beaten. My God, no wonder they don't get more complaints.''

In her letter to the bureau, Frost - then Susan Evjy - said, ''It got to the point for me that after hours of listening to (Sterling's) abuse I finally broke down into tears.''

Institute sued graduate
who criticized it on TV

Some people also said they were cowed by the Sterling Institute's 1994 breach-of-contract lawsuit against Sue Watson, a weekend graduate who criticized the firm on Canadian television. Rosomoff said the company dropped its suit against Watson in 1995 because she had no money, but Watson's lawyer said the company backed down as soon as it learned Watson was about to countersue and invoke her First Amendment rights.

Along with several anonymous calls a year, the BBB has received nine written complaints since 1992. It now rates the Sterling Institute as ''unsatisfactory.''

Rosomoff said the company cut its ties with the agency because the BBB unreasonably criticized the company for using a profanity in its seminars.

Several women have complained to the FBI as well, saying the Sterling Institute's seminars were abusive and misrepresented. The FBI's Buffalo, N.Y. office sent a letter this spring to Oakland's Better Business Bureau, saying it is investigating allegations of fraud against the company. An FBI spokesman declined to comment.

According to more than 20 people who took the seminars, the weekends follow an exhausting routine. They said male and female assistants - all group members who work for free - ordered them to be quiet and wait for hours for Sterling to show up as video cameras rolled.

When the audience got antsy and began to complain, Sterling made his dramatic appearance - voice first, over stereo speakers, then in person. Participants said he told them to share traumatic experiences, vent anger at the opposite sex, hug and compare sexual escapades before crowds of up to 200 people.

Several men said Sterling warned their groups never to confide true feelings to women, because they'll ''use it against you.'' Both sexes said their groups broke down in tears, then bonded in a dimly-lighted ceremony - a naked, drum-beating ritual for men and a candlelight procession for women.

Weekend of lecturing,
lack of privacy, little sleep

Throughout the weekend, many participants said, Sterling expounded on his views into the early morning and humiliated those who disagreed.

By Monday morning, 22 graduates said, they were disoriented after three hours of sleep a night or less for two nights in a row, followed by cold showers taken at Sterling's instruction. Many shared hotel rooms with up to three strangers, sleeping two to a bed.

There was no lunch break. Several people said they were followed to the bathroom, or allowed to go only after haggling with the women and men posted at doorways.

''It was a complete subordination of your will,'' said Jennifer Saso, a law student in Santa Cruz who took the weekend in 1986. ''It was late hours, deprivation of food, sleep, and freedom of movement, repetition, and restraints on your liberty.''

Her description jibes with accounts by 12 other women in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Canada, some of whom took the weekend as recently as last year.

At the end, graduates said Sterling exhorted them to join local groups to ''live the spirit of the weekend'' and tell others about it.

The men's weekend is wilder. In the fall of 1994, police in Spencer, Mass., picked up a Sterling weekend dropout found walking along a road at 6 a.m., shirtless and in tears. The man said he'd been blindfolded and shoved into a room of naked men. Police went to the site - a 4-H camp - and arrested Douglas W. Kilby of Toronto, a Sterling volunteer who wouldn't talk until a Sterling colleague gave him permission.

The case rattled the officer who interviewed Kilby.

''The loyalty they displayed to Justin Sterling and the institute was just phenomenal,'' said Spencer police officer Michael Cloutier. ''(Kilby) cried and sobbed, but it wasn't a remorseful kind of sobbing. It was about relaying information about the Sterling Institute.''

Kilby, who pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge, couldn't be reached for comment.

Rosomoff said the man who pressed charges was troubled, and that he was ''escorted,'' not violently pushed into the room. Police wouldn't release the man's name.

The Sterling Institute also appeared in a police report in Long Island last year. The 1995 complaint came from the family of a man who returned from a weekend so emotionally shaken that police first suspected he had been drugged, said officer John Keary. No charges were filed.

Claim of obscene
terms about women

Some people don't last the weekend. Richard Levick and Greg Casey, a professor and a U.S. Senate aide from Washington, D.C., attended the 1994 weekend in Spencer. They said they left in disgust on Sunday, fed up by both the seminar's format and by highly offensive comments Sterling made about women - including the statement, ''Women are . . .,'' using an obscene term for female genitals.

''You can't have relationships when women are the enemy. That's clearly what he was talking about,'' said Levick, a 38-year-old professor at American University.

Although two other men who took weekends in 1994 and 1995 recount the same crass comment, Sterling's right-hand man emphatically denied it.

''I've never heard him say that. He has the highest regard for women,'' Rosomoff said. He added that less than 1 percent of the institute's 30,000 graduates have complained or demanded their money back.

So how do people wind up taking a $500 course for which they can't get any advance information? The answer, graduates say, lies in the aggressive, emotional recruiting techniques of the groups known as Men's Division and Family of Women.

Early on, graduates of the weekends formed loose ''Sterling communities'' in California, New England and Canada. Members socialized, spread word about the weekends and did community volunteer work.

But in 1986 the institute divided ''Sterling community'' members into the Men's Division and Family of Women, according to Ed Collins, a Santa Clara systems analyst, and other Sterling veterans. The groups were incorporated as the non-profit Men's Division and Family of Women, Inc. in 1995 but still consult regularly with the Sterling Institute.

Rosomoff said the change came from the grass roots. But he also said the Sterling Institute gives the groups ''formats and forums'' for recruiting seminar participants - the company prefers the term ''enrollment.''

Rosomoff said no one has been misled or manipulated by the men's and women's groups, which charge annual dues of about $125.

But Aimee Pollack-Baker, a social worker in Boston, said that she joined the Family of Women partly because Sterling said it was a place for women to get the support they'd never get from men. More than 40 other former Men's Division and Family of Women members gave similar accounts.

Rosomoff disputed that: ''I tell (men) very specifically they shouldn't join if they're looking for a support group.''

In 1990, more than 100 South Bay Men's Division members from San Jose and the Peninsula quit, saying the Sterling Institute was too authoritarian and obsessed with recruiting.

Most members of the post-weekend groups don't last beyond a year. Some said they were attracted to the group by its community service, or by the prospect of a new circle of friends.

Participants cite pressure
to volunteer and to recruit

Sue Van Patten, a Santa Clara teacher, took the weekend and joined the Family of Women in 1994 after a divorce. She soon was spending four nights a week on the group due to what she describes as intense pressure to volunteer and to recruit people by invoking their trust.

''If you didn't, they'd say, 'What's your barrier?' '' Van Patten says. ''They'd go around the group and hound you until you said, 'OK.' '' She said she quit after a year because Sterling activities left her little outside life.

Both Van Patten and Renee Stevenson, a manager for a high-tech firm in Sunnyvale who joined the women's group for three months last year, said they were put off by the relentless recruitment, and by rhetoric that equates enthusiasm for the group with the right attitudes toward men.

The recruiting strategy comes through in Family of Women documents. One how-to manual used in 1994 explains why members are assigned ''buddies'' to call weekly: ''They will begin to learn about delivering the (weekend) to each other and to other women and the value found in this - life is enrollment.''

John Kimura, a teacher at Harold Holden Ranch in Morgan Hill and a 10-year Men's Division veteran, said the weekend and the Men's Division strengthened his relationship with his wife, Susan, a Family of Women member. Other marriages haven't been as fortunate.

Linda Blinder, a 47-year-old artist in Brookline, Mass., said she almost divorced her husband of 15 years over his involvement in a Sterling men's group. Serge Blinder, a bank executive in Boston, won't comment. But his wife said their marriage went downhill last year after Serge began spending more time with his Men's Division team, going to several meetings a week, and spending several hours a night on the telephone.

Linda Blinder said she found a flier for a Sterling recruiting barbecue that warned men to keep it secret, and that referred to wives as ''whining bitches.''

Soon Serge Blinder was also volunteering for ICSD and support work at Sterling weekends, Linda said, likening his time away from her and their 11-year-old son to an affair. Blinder filed for legal separation this summer but reconciled with her husband after he quit the men's group and agreed to seek therapy.

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