On The Ground: These Women Are On The Front Lines Combating Sexual Assault
Chip Somodevilla

While the ‘Me Too’ movement has increased awareness of sexual assault, these seven women-led organizations are on the front lines fighting for our communities every day. Ahead, check out what inspired them to do this kind of work and what keeps them going every day.

Cherisse Bradley
I Found My Voice

Bradley’s Flint, Michigan, group, I Found My Voice, uses story circles and arts workshops to help domestic and sexual violence survivors form creative responses to their trauma. At the end of each program cycle, participants perform in a final stage show of dance, song and spoken word.

Beginnings: “I was raped at age 9 [by] someone who was supposed to protect me and the abuse continued for years. This created a downward ricochet affect in my life. I attempted to self-medicate the shame and pain away.”

What keeps Bradley going: “The hardest lesson I learned about the healing process is that it’s my responsibility to heal. The bag is left in my lap, and I own my own destiny. After entering recovery, I felt a yearning in my spirit to help empower other survivors and to remove the stigma attached to them. I was already deeply entrenched into arts, so I drew from my creative power as a singer, songwriter, tap dancer, choreographer and director to create a platform to help others.” facebook.com/ifoundmyvoice

Indira M. Henard
The DC Rape Crisis Center

Henard is the executive director of the DC Rape Crisis Center. Founded in 1972, the Washington, D.C., program runs a hotline and offers counseling and training. It is also a prominent player in the DC Coalition to End Sexual Violence.

Beginnings: “The DC Rape Crisis Center was birthed on the heels of the bourgeoning Women’s Movement when the notion of having the right to be safe and free from sexual violence was very much a political act,” says Henard. “The center has historically been led by Black women, and we are celebrating 46 years of providing survivor-centered and community-led service.”

What keeps Henard going: “I feel grateful that I get to do this work. I see survivors who are looking for a safe community to process what happened to them,” she says. “We facilitate healing for survivors of sexual violence who have experienced the unimaginable. The work we do is sacred and unscripted. My hope is that survivors know that recovery is possible and that there is no straight path to healing.” dcrcc.org

Kalimah Johnson
SASHA Center

Johnson’s Detroit-area SASHA (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness) Center provides culturally specific support groups. It also does corporate and community antiviolence training and equips survivors with health referrals and resources.

Beginnings: “After getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, I worked at a sexual assault agency housed in the Detroit Police Department,” she says. “I would see health care providers treating Black women as if they were subhuman and basically ‘unrapeable.’ ” Johnson realized that consciously or subconsciously these providers held a stereotype of Black women as sexually wanton beings who couldn’t be raped because they were always willing. She knew she had to do something.

What called Johnson to this work: “My mother suffered from mental illness,” she says. “Every time she was hospitalized, other family members took care of me and my sisters. This is when I was molested. Being a victim put me at further risk. I was sexually assaulted by one boy at 15 and another at 19. I dropped out of high school and was out of control. But I was determined to not let this trauma control my life. Creating SASHA Center was just one way of doing that.” sashacenter.org

Joanne N. Smith
Girls For Gender Equity
Smith’s Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) provides Black girls, including cisgender and trans young women, with leadership and community organizing skills through counseling, an after-school program and a girls’ advisory council. The 16-year-old organization also conducts research on sexual harassment in schools and fights the pushout of Black girls due to biased disciplinary practices.

Beginnings: “I started GGE because I saw a lack of opportunities for Black girls to participate in activities that would support their holistic development,” says Smith. Her goal was to create an organization that would empower girls to become self-determined leaders as women.

What propels Smith: “GGE deals with girls being sexually harassed in school and sexually abused at home,” Smith says. “Some of our young people are being coerced by pimps on their way to school. What keeps me going is that the light that shines brightly in these girls’ eyes needs to remain lit. I want to revolutionize how the community views and treats Black girls and denies their right to be children. Success means living in a world in which the narratives, needs and strengths of Black girls are reflected in policies, practices and resources.” ggenyc.org

Farah Tanis
Black Women’s Blueprint

Farah Tanis’s group, Black Women’s Blueprint, does human rights advocacy, sexual assault counseling, youth development, and beyond. The Brooklyn group’s signature programs are the annual March for Black Women and Mother Tongue Monologues, a star-studded awards ceremony.

Beginnings: “Black Women’s Blueprint began with us sitting around the kitchen tables of Black Brooklyn women during the 2008 presidential election. The candidates were presenting blueprints for issues such as healthcare and the economy. None presented a blueprint for Black women, so we created our own. We wanted to look at Black women’s lives from multiple perspectives—the criminal justice system, popular culture, economic justice, and, most importantly, the issue of sexual assault.”

 What keeps Tanis going: “I can tell you it was as a result of the rape of my mother and of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. Or [witnessing] for years the violence against Black women at the hands of Black men. I can tell you it was the erasure of racialized brutality unleashed upon Black women’s bodies by White America. But it was a combination of all of the above and my determination to end my own fear.”

Tashmica Torok
​​Firecracker Foundation

Tashmica Torok’s Holt, Michigan, Firecracker Foundation provides therapy by licensed mental health professionals to children victimized by abuse, support groups for their caretakers, medical advocacy for kids undergoing sexual assault forensic exams, and trauma-sensitive yoga classes.

Beginnings: “My father began sexually molesting me at age 6. At 9, a year after he died, I learned about sexual abuse in school. I disclosed to a teacher who helped me tell my mother. She believed me right away.”

What keeps Tashmica going: “A lot of people don’t know that they’ve been victimized until they have a conversation about what is included. Is sexual harassment included? Yes. Is access to pornography before you turn 18? Absolutely. Having an adult or a peer saying inappropriate things to you is also included. We do our caretaker support groups because we believe that you can’t support youth if you’re not giving their parents the tools that they need to support their children.”

The Tillet Sisters
A Long Walk Home

Salamishah and Scheherazade Tillet started Chicago-based A Long Walk Home (ALWH) in 2003 to provide at-risk Black girls with art therapy, emotional support and tools for community organizing. ALWH’s signature programs are the touring stage show Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS) and the Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, a yearlong experience for middle and high school girls.

Beginnings: “A Long Walk Home grew out of SOARS, which had a simple and generous premise: Scheherazade used photography to document my recovery from being raped twice in college,” says Salamishah. “It was her vision to transform her photographs into a full-fledged performance featuring other Black women artists, dancers, singers and rape survivors. From there we developed the art therapy and activism programs.”

What keeps the sisters going: “As hard as it is to give voice and space to or open doors for these younger people, we just couldn’t be more excited,” says Scheherazade. “Our programs are rooted in Black feminism. We really value creating sisterhood, onstage for SOARS and with the Girl/Friends Leadership Institute.”

An abbreviated version of this story appears in the November 2018 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands everywhere now!

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