Umi Shelia Hankins - Mentor and Founder

The TRAILBLAZERS series highlights the intersectional identities of activists and changemakers in the gender-based violence and domestic/sexual violence prevention movements. For Women’s History Month, we will highlight prominent women working to end violence. 

Meet Umi (Shelia) Hankins

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With almost forty years of leadership experience, Umi (Shelia) Hankins is recognized nationally for her work in the anti-violence field, specifically for working on issues related to Black survivors of violence, their children, families and communities. In addition to her numerous leadership positions in organizations like the Detroit Women’s Justice Center, HAVEN, and the YWCA of Metropolitan Detroit, Umi co-founded the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community (IDVAAC) at the University of Minnesota, a pivotal institution for the domestic violence movement that she will talk about later in this piece. Umi currently serves as the President and Executive Director of the National Institute on Transformation and Healing of the Black Community (ITH), which works with national and local projects, communities, and individuals dedicated to ending violence against Black women of African descent, but also redressing and transforming their complex historical, generational and current trauma experiences as they heal and achieve well-being.

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As part of our TRAILBLAZERS series, we ask featured activists to answer a few questions for us about their experiences in the movement.

Why did you initially get involved with the Gender-Based Violence Movement or Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault prevention?

It was an evolution of my life and the way that I live. It started when I was a young girl supporting black women and older people in my community reading documents for them, talking with businesses about finances and bills. During that time, I was seeing how these social and systemic structures treated African American it disrespected them and talked to them in a way that slighted who they were. But the women I helped would fight back and challenge those structures. It helped me learn how to support a community.

You have to think of it in a framework of gender-based violence combined with racism. My initial thought wave was that racism was the issue, right? But as a young adult, I could see and interpret how this racism was intersecting with sexism to harm black women in our community in many different ways. From a historical perspective in our community, it was commonly said and believed that  “black women have to be strong”, and then to observe politically and socially that black girls WERE strong too, provided me a level of strength that still empowers me. My friends and I developed strategies for being girls in a society that treated us a certain way and used them to understand how to be safe.

In the 60’s I spent a lot of time with my girlfriends discussing our lives, and our time together had power. These were girls who thought like me and challenged me about the things that were happening in the world. If we would hear about someone being abused, we’d talk it over with each other and what we would do if it happened to us. Things like abuse that were secret to talk about in society weren’t off-limits with us. Having that ability to talk about it with my peers, to know we could get together and make a plan, if needed, was such a resource. We didn’t think it would happen in our group, but we recognized that it could happen and it did happen to other people, and we had to think about what that meant to us and for us.  It wasn’t like I stepped through a window and said I choose this work. It’s been my life, a natural thing that got me there.

The real moment where I dedicated myself to this work was when I became the interim Executive Director at the Women’s Justice Center in Detroit. When I took the position, I realized that this passion I had for working on issues of oppression - on issues that demean and ridicule women, particularly black women - could be a career! I could work on issues that had been evolving naturally in me over time. The work I had done before, like the community work, the peer discussions, as well as working with young girls in the church, they were part of this broader GBV work too, but it was not acknowledged in the mainstream movement as that type of work.

What do you see as the greatest accomplishments and challenges in the movement thus far?

Accomplishments:  There are many great accomplishments of the movement, but one stands out for me.  In 1993 I attended a meeting hosted by Bill Riley, director of Family Violence Prevention Services Administration for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). There I met Antonia (Drew) Van, Oliver Williams, and others. We were drawn to each other because there were very few African American people there, and really we just connected with each other. We decide we’re going to go to Bill Riley and tell him the way domestic violence services are being structured do not allow black women to receive services in an appropriate, competent manner. The problems included: 1) It was one size fits all model. The services were not effective for black women, and survivors were being revictimized by the way services were being administered;  2) Black people were not being recognized as leaders in the DV movement; 3) Men in general, especially black men, were being completely left out of the conversation. We knew black men and women needed to come together to address the issues; 4) Academics and advocates needed to work together to create a relevant model.

Turns out, Bill had been thinking the same thing! Through HHS, Bill provided an opportunity for us to organize black thought and black leaders to raise up these issues; out of that, we developed the Institute on Violence in the African American Community. This institute was one of the greatest accomplishment for the movement, in that it established that culturally specific institutes were needed to actually accomplish our goal of ending violence against all women. It helped us think about policies, who should be the leaders of thought, who deserves to get paid for the work, whose voice is critical, and making sure that the work is appropriate for the population being served. Our institute, in particular, moved us into a new framework that recognized that black women needed to heal from the historical and current traumatic experiences of violence over their life course and to understand how this violence has evolved. We also supported and wanted to make it possible for this to exist for other marginalized communities of color,

Challenges: Originally the movement didn’t provide a space for black women or other women of color.  There was a lack of recognition that we were doing the work; it was being framed that this was not our movement. We were not respected; we were challenged on our intent on all issues. We were positioned to feel that we did not have knowledge, that we were not experts. At that time, women of color were not only fighting against the overall system but also fighting for our place in the movement.

While there has been a lot of progress, we haven’t arrived.  There are still disparities we have to address. Within the movement itself, for diverse racial and ethnic communities, we still struggle with the development and implementation of culturally specific services, expanding and sustaining leadership positions and opportunities, and getting adequate funding and other resources to serve the complex needs of communities of color. We have to continue examining the structural systems within the movement that rarely allow black women, programs, and services to be successful. Additionally, the current political climate that is weighing heavily over our nation and local communities is threatening to push our work and accomplishments back decades.  This external environment that is filled with hate has the potential to create turmoil and conflict within the Anti-GBV movement as our resources, policies, and positions are jeopardized.

What message do you want to send to young people in the next phase of the movement?

First, in order for one to work in this movement, you have to start with yourself. Before you go out and change the world, you have to examine and understand yourself. There are things that have happened to all of us that have created a reality for us. If we can’t understand our own worldview, we can’t help others. We have to process, “What are the things I heard growing up about oppression - sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, etc. - and how did those things position me in a belief system that provides the foundation for how I advocate?” Just because we grew up with those beliefs and values, doesn't mean we have to see the world with those values for the rest of our lives.

Secondly, understand the history of the movement. The Sankofa bird’s neck is turned backward; It symbolizes that in order to know where you’re going, you have to reach back to reclaim that which was lost.  Mentorships and relationships with people who started the field are crucial; there so much wisdom that can be bestowed upon you. This can help you have a greater understanding of how to connect with the people you seek to reach.

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Culturally-specific services are essential for successfully preventing and intervening dating and domestic abuse. Unless we are led by the voices, ideas, and people that we are trying to reach, we will never reach our goal of creating a culture without abuse. That’s why at Break the Cycle we have Let’s Be Real members leading the way in the violence prevention field; they use their voices in our Real Stories blogs, design skills to create powerful images to share, and experiences to inform how we prevent dating abuse. Like Umi said, the young people can learn from the people who came before them too, the TRAILBLAZERS who created these paths so everyone can have a space at the table, and follow their example to invite more people too. Thank you for joining us this week, Umi! We are honored to have you.

-as told to Rachel DeLadesmo, Social Media Coordinator, Break the Cycle

Stay tuned for our next TRAILBLAZERS feature!