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The TRAILBLAZERS series highlights the intersectional identities of activists and changemakers in the gender-based violence and domestic/sexual violence prevention movements. 

Meet Kalimah Johnson

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and for survivors of sexual violence, unpacking the trauma and addressing the ramifications of that violence is a vital part of the healing process. Break the Cycle is excited to introduce Kalimah Johnson to our readers as a TRAILBLAZER in the anti-sexual violence movement with a focus on holistic healing. Kalimah is the founder of SASHA Center in Detroit, Michigan – a culturally specific holistic healing organization for survivors of sexual trauma. Kalimah has been an advocate and counselor for survivors of sexual violence for over 20 years, and has utilized her skills as a consultant for the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Football League – Detroit Lions on the subject. Read on to see how Kalimah uses her passions to help sexual violence survivors on their healing journeys and why she believes you can do the same by using your passions.

Why did you initially get involved with the anti-Sexual Violence Movement?

In 1995 when I had an undergrad internship while I was getting my Bachelors in social work. I signed up for an internship that dealt with sexual assault because I’m a survivor. I was sexually assaulted by 3 separate people – a family member, a first date, and a boyfriend – before the age of 21. I recall very well all of the issues that came as a result of that and the struggles that I ended up having, including dropping out of high school, being promiscuous, and trouble developing lasting friendships and relationships. I wanted to figure out more about my own life and see if this was my career path. When I signed up for it, there were amazing women in leadership around sexual assault that worked at the agency. I was educated in activism by white and African American women, and there is a very big difference in the way that nurturing happens. But I had both – the best of both worlds. They were the ones that schooled me and encouraged me.

After that internship, I got my masters degree and worked with the Rape Counseling Center (now the Victim’s Assistance Program) from 1996 – 2005. Later down the road, the Michigan Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence asked me to be a consultant for them. I went around the country training directors of coalitions on how to become culturally relevant and specific. I learned a lot at that time around the importance of dealing with African-American women particularly, from a cultural perspective, which motivated me to come up with my own program. That idea became an official nonprofit in 2010, called SASHA Center. We deliberately try to reach the African American community in two ways: education and support groups. Our goal is to go into agencies that provide the basic things for clients like shelter, clothing, food, etc., and provide 6-8 weeks of support group services for survivors of sexual trauma. This model works because many agencies are not prepared to unpack the trauma of rape, but a lot of the clients they serve have that trauma in their lives. All of our support groups really work hard to make sure that there is a survivor in a leadership role in the group, along with a licensed clinical social worker there. Our philosophy is that people can run groups and they don’t necessarily need to have advanced degrees, as long as they have comprehensive training and support. In short, I got into the work because I am a survivor of sexual assault – that’s my motivation and my wheelhouse. Because I was in the field long enough, I knew there was a gap and I wanted to fill it with SASHA Center.

Can you tell us more about the specific mental health/support services SASHA Center provides and why you chose them?

Here in Southeast Michigan in particular, most of the African American community is here as a result of migration from the South. On a great level, we’re assuming that most of the African Americans in this region are descendants of enslaved people. That in and of itself has a huge impact on how African Americans process any kind of trauma, not just sexual trauma. Like environmental trauma: it includes everything from our water and food sources, to how we’re treated by the police, and racism – it all impacts what we do. These are some barriers that keep African Americans from recognizing or talking about mental health and mental well-being. Knowing that background and having the charge that SASHA Center provides culturally specific programming, we use best practices as the foundation and intertwine those with culturally specific elements. On our list of services, we have cognitive behavior therapy and empowerment theory to name a couple. For example, our yoga instructor only teaches Kemetic yoga – it’s Egyptian yoga, where we imitate hieroglyphics as the poses. We know that Yoga is meditative and good for the body and exercise, but to include that culturally specific piece, makes it all the more relevant for the SASHA Center. We believe you cannot begin your healing journey if you do not know who you are or where you come from. So another service we provide is an opportunity for survivors go on a tour of the Underground Railroad stops in Detroit. Understanding the historical perspective of how strong we are as a people – to even get through the Underground Railroad or Jim Crow or Civil Rights or slavery – we have to stop and acknowledge our strength in that. Even though those are really horrible past experiences, we use that as an empowerment model to understand that if their ancestors could survive, they have the same power in their own DNA. We just have to pull it out and acknowledge it so that we can use it as a tool for healing.

Based on your own intersecting identities and the experiences that come with that, what do you see as 1) the greatest accomplishments of the movement so far and 2) the challenges that we still face?

Accomplishments: This is the best SAAM I’ve ever had in the field. More people are talking about consent, defining sexual assault for what it is, and having social media as an access to answers has been meaningful for people to collaborate and get the word out. More survivors in Detroit and the country have more voice and opportunity to express themselves in the way that they see fit about their survivorship and thriving or healing. Just this month SASHA Center was featured in a documentary that’s coming out on HBO called “I Am Evidence” talking about the backlog of the rape kits. I’m really happy that the office that found a way to process the kits as quickly and efficiently as possible. Overall the idea of language changing – like the fact that this question was from an intersectional point of view is amazing compared to what was happening in 1995 and 2005. Here in 2017, we know to ask those questions around intersectionality, and that intersectionality means that we have to become more fluid, both in the way that we provide services and the way that we talk about violence. We’re never going to get it exactly right, BUT the fact that we’re creating an environment where learning and understanding can take place so people can adjust and become more receptive to and accepting of our differences is a gain.

Challenges: I wish we could work more on everyday people understanding rape culture and victim blaming. We have not been able to do that nearly as well as I’d like us to, especially with reaching out to youth, adults, and elders. We also need to find spaces to help men process their sexual trauma. When we impact the everyday people, I believe that’s what is going to influence media and music.

What specific message or advice would you like to send to young people who are in or want to be a part of the movement?

Young people can use their voices, their interests, talents, capabilities, access, information and the way they process that information, to get the word out about intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Whatever it is you do – drumming, poetry, whatever – reach up or back or to your side and ask “How can I bring in this conversation or topic around relationship violence and sexual assault so I can raise awareness in my community and my circle of people?” You don’t have to do it every day if it’s too much – you can make a huge impact during one of the awareness months. Your impact doesn’t need to be thousands of people; it can just be one person that you talk to.

Talking with Kalimah only reaffirms what we already believe at Break the Cycle – that culturally specific services are crucial to prevention, intervention, and healing services for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. We also love her advice for young people – use your unique talents and passions as a gateway to talk about healthy relationships. Let’s Be Real, our national movement by and for young people, gives you the space to do that and the national platform to reach others. Thank you. Kalimah, for sharing your wisdom and perspective with our TRAILBLAZERS readers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Stay tuned for our next TRAILBLAZERS feature!