Arts Group Shuts Down Amidst Sexual Harassment Allegations
Sereny Welsby, a 30-year-old aspiring filmmaker, was thrilled back in April when she got a job with the Silk Screen Asian-American Film Festival.
The feeling, she says, didn’t last long.
Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
The arts group was small. Its offices in the Strip District housed just three paid staff: Welsby, the programming and operations assistant; one co-worker; and Harish Saluja, an artist and filmmaker in his early 70s, who was founder and executive director of the 13-year-old organization.
Saluja, she says, proved difficult to work with. He was often verbally abusive, she says, and had angry outbursts. And, she says, he took an unusual interest in how his employees and interns, who were almost all women, dressed.
“He asked me to dress a certain way, and wear my hair down, and wear lipstick,” she says. “He said, ‘I’ve seen your Facebook photos and I know that you can look sexy. I need you to look sexy when you’re with me, because you represent me and I need to look good.’ Basically, I felt like arm candy.”
Saluja’s interest in her attire seemed to peak before Welsby was asked to accompany him to Silk Screen’s Aug. 27 board meeting. “He asked me to get really dressed up for the board meeting: lipstick, slimming clothes, form-fitting clothes, hair down, high heels,” she says.
Then, just before they walked into the meeting room, she says, Saluja abruptly mentioned a bit of information she had confided in him: that she was in recovery. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t let anyone know that you’re a drunk,’” she says.
Inside the room – her first board meeting, which Saluja had asked her to attend in place of her co-worker who couldn’t make it -- things got worse. Welsby had briefly produced what she calls “a very unsuccessful web series.” Now, Saluja introduced her to board members, falsely, as a “professional” performer who’d had a successful show. And his punchline, Welsby says, was, “Today she’s taking notes for me.”
The joke fell flat, but Welsby felt humiliated. She went home that day in tears. She’d had enough, she says.
Two days later, Welsby began approaching Silk Screen’s board with her concerns of intimidation and sexual harassment, and eventually with similar complaints by other current and former workers. Weeks later, she began speaking to media outlets. On Tuesday – two days after the end of the 2018 film festival — board members met Welsby and her co-worker at the office and told them their jobs were terminated and that Silk Screen was suspending operations. Welsby says board members asked her to sign a release that offered her $1,000 but barred her from discussing her employment. She viewed it as hush money.
The board, while acknowledging the claims against Saluja, says the shutdown is due to “financial challenges.” (Through a spokesperson, the board says the document Welsby was asked to sign was a standard release, unrelated to the harassment allegations.) Saluja has denied allegations of sexual harassment. But Welsby says she believes the group shut itself down over those claims, and says she’s still waiting for justice to be done.
Silk Screen, founded in 2005, is Pittsburgh’s most prominent programmer of Asian-American arts. The group has struggled in recent years: A 2016 federal tax filing, the most recent available, shows that its revenue declined by half from just four years earlier, to about $139,000. It has never had more than a couple of paid employees beyond Saluja himself, instead relying on volunteers and unpaid interns. But Silk Screen is culturally significant: Its annual film festival shows dozens of films from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and India, most of which wouldn’t be commercially distributed in the U.S. (Films this year screened at the Regent Square Theater, in Edgewood.) The group also programs music and dance events throughout the year.
The India-born Saluja is prominent, as well. The Journey, the 1997 film he produced, wrote and directed, was shot in Pittsburgh and starred noted Indian actors Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey; it made the rounds of film festivals, where it won a few awards. Saluja’s paintings have been exhibited Downtown by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. And he is a volunteer host of Music From India, a long-running program on 90.5 WESA, and before that, on WDUQ. (In a statement, a WESA spokesperson said Wednesday that the station had suspended its relationship with Saluja and the program and was conducting a “confidential inquiry” into the allegations of sexual misconduct.)
Welsby first approached Silk Screen’s board on Aug. 29. She delivered to a board member a written complaint detailing multiple instances of alleged verbal abuse and harassment by Saluja. These included yelling at her in front of colleagues (“What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you stupid?”) and throwing office supplies. She wrote that Saluja seemed to hire only women, and was seemingly intent on belittling and berating them. The complaint asked that Saluja be “removed effective immediately.” Welsby wrote that she had hired an attorney and would take her allegations to the media if action wasn’t taken.
But the board, she says, didn’t seem to react. It was around this time that Welsby began connecting with former Silk Screen employees, including: Sarah Miller, the woman who’d previously held her job; former employee Jamaica Jones; and two female interns who had worked with Miller. All had similar stories about Saluja.
WESA spoke this week with eight Silk Screen staffers or interns dating back to 2014. All said they experienced or witnessed conduct by Saluja ranging from verbal abuse to sexual harassment.
“It was incredibly uncomfortable,” said Jones, who worked part-time for Silk Screen in late 2014. “Within the first week, he sat me down in his office and asked me to clear all plans for future haircuts with him.” (She says he disliked her short hairstyle.)
“He was very mercurial. I never felt safe being in the office alone with him,” says Jones, now age 42. “He was prone to angry outbursts which were always followed by sort of currying of favor.”
Miller was hired as programming and operations assistant in January 2015. She was 27. She, too, says Saluja told her that if she decided to get a haircut, she should “talk to him about it first.” That seemed just “weird”; more disturbing was the time they attended a board meeting and, alone in his car afterward, he told her, “You have a sexy voice, so you should speak up they can hear you,” she says. She adds, “I just sat there shocked that that was something he said to me.”
Accompanying him to fundraising meetings was also unsettling for Miller. “I would go to these meetings with him, and they would be like old men, he would make me stand there and say, ‘Look at her, how can you say no to her, you should give me money,’” she says. “And I thought, ‘Now I’m just old-man sex-bait, this is gross.’”
Still, Miller didn’t report this behavior. She complained only in 2016, after she started to see similar patterns emerging with two summer interns from Duquesne University.
“One of our first conversations we ever had was like at a coffee shop, and he said something about a blow job,” says one of the interns, who asked to remain anonymous.
“He just said and did a lot of obnoxious things,” she says. “I would be doing my computer work, and he would be sitting right behind and supposedly looking at the computer screen while looking down my shirt, because I caught him one time, and he goes, ‘I’m sorry for staring at your tits.’”
Many everyday activities were subject to his notice, she says: “He would comment if I was eating an apple or fruit or something, how sexual it was.”
Both interns also say that Saluja once asked them to look at something on his phone only to be confronted with photographs of naked women. “He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, sorry, those are my personal photos,’” says one intern.
Both interns say they ended their internships early. Miller says she reported the incidents, and her own treatment, to a board member, who seemed concerned. But Miller says that the only result was that Saluja apologized to the two young women via email.
Miller left Silk Screen to return to school in September 2016. Her story, and those of Jones and the interns, among others, would not resurface until early this September, when Welsby connected with Miller, Jones and others. On Sept. 10 – just 11 days before the big annual gala that would launch the group’s 13th annual film festival -- Welsby and a co-worker followed up on Welsby’s earlier complaint to the board during lunch Downtown with board member James M. Singer.
Welsby handed him a file of complaints she’d compiled. The next day, she says, Singer and another board member began coming to the group’s offices whenever Saluja was scheduled to be there. On Sept. 12, Saluja circulated an email saying that he would be resigning as of Dec. 31. But he still attended the Sept. 21 gala, at the Fairmount Pittsburgh. Welsby – who refused to attend the gala, was incensed.
“We talked to the board. We tried to work with them. And they just refused to cut out the cancer that was Harish,” she says. (An emailed message to Singer seeking comment was answered with a written statement from the Silk Screen board about why it was suspending operations.)
Two days after the festival ended, on Oct. 2, Welsby and her co-worker came to the office and were told their jobs were terminated and that Silk Screen was suspending operations. Hours later, Welsby took to Facebook Live to condemn Saluja and the board. “This is the time, this is the climate to bring this stuff to light,” she said. “And I really need your help so that this man can never go and do this to another woman again. (The post was quickly removed on the advice of her lawyer.)
In response to messages left for Salujah seeking comment, WESA was phoned Thursday by Pittsburgh-based attorney Mike Moser, who said he represents Salujah. Moser asked for specific allegations against Saluja, but when told what they were, he said that Saluja could not respond to them by deadline. But Moser said, “Mr. Saluja denies ever sexually harassing any woman, at work or otherwise.”
In an Oct. 3 statement announcing the suspension of Silk Screen’s operations, board chair, Vijay Bahl said, in part, “In recent years, the Silk Screen Board has explored how best to position the organization for the long-term [sic]. However, financial challenges remain. … The board is speaking with other community organizations to explore ways to keep the spirit of Silk Screen alive.” (Bahl is also co-host of the Music From India radio show.) The statement does not mention the allegations against Saluja; in response to a follow-up inquiry, spokesperson Robin Rectenwald said that the board is “actively addressing [the allegations] at this time.”
A measure of Silk Screen’s prominence are some of the names on its advisory board, an honorary body. They include film and TV actor Ming-Na, newcaster Sally Wiggin, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
In September, Miller, the former Silk Screen staffer, alerted Peduto’s chief of staff, Dan Gilman, to the allegations via email. (Gilman is also a former advisory-board member.) Mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty says Peduto then canceled plans to attend the Sept. 21 gala that kicked off this year’s Silk Screen film festival.
The University of Pittsburgh’s film-studies program, which formerly sent interns to Silk Screen, has also cut ties with the group. This week, Welsby supplied several media outlets with an email purportedly from a Pitt professor to Silk Screen that indicated that the move was because interns had complained of sexually discriminatory behavior. However, film-studies director Randall Halle told WESA on Wednesday the school stopped sending interns to Silk Screen a year ago for reasons unrelated to alleged sexual misconduct.
Welsby remains dissatisfied that Saluja was permitted to keep working -- even with what she calls “babysitters” in the office.
“I thought that the board, since they had known from Sarah’s complaint before, would just fire him,” Welsby says. “Because this isn’t the first time women have come forward about things he had said and done to them. So whenever I saw I was going to have to be working with him for another three months, I was furious. I felt like they didn’t believe me or they didn’t care.”
Welsby said she is contemplating legal action against the group over the board’s response to the allegations against Saluja. She’d like an apology. Most of all, she says, “What I’d ultimately like to do is never see Harish work in the film community again.”