My role as prosecutor was an unexpected choice. I took it to my law school classmates’ and family’s surprise given my past interest in criminal defense work, specifically with youth. I naively thought then that the system legitimately tried to act in the interest of justice and therefore had a strong interest in helping survivors of violence from all backgrounds, which of course included Black women, who have highest rate of domestic and sexual violence in this country. It just needed some more progressive changemakers like myself to push it in that direction from the inside, particularly when it came to empathy and cultural understanding towards both Black and Brown persons who committed crimes and survivors of those crimes. I was wrong. Although I dealt with many types of cases as a young Assistant District Attorney, my passion lied in working with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual abuse and what I observed in the handling of those cases demonstrated how dominant culture permeated throughout the criminal system from its inside and out.
Domestic and sexual abuse survivors where I worked with often looked like me and we shared cultural connections, Black and Latina womxn, raised in more urban, majority Black and Brown communities. These women came to the system looking for help, healing, and “justice”, despite the fact that traditionally these various systems had oppressed them and that the police (who were supposed to be working in tandem with the DA’s office) often showed them little or no respect as survivors. These survivors’ places could be found at the lower end of importance in that office, because I felt and still do believe that most of those white people in the DA’s office cared very little about Latinas and Black women living in urban areas getting beat by their partners. Drug cases and DUIs rang more supreme where Black and Brown people were more easily accepted as “criminals,” not as “victims.”
Black and Brown survivors were clearly viewed through the lens of the “other.” A misunderstanding of their culture, the communities they come from, and choices they face was imminent. Questions like, “how can these [smart] [pretty] [has her head on straight] women date these types of guys?” “Why do they keep going back?” “Why don’t their stories line up?” persisted by ADAs throughout the office. Black and Brown women have often been viewed as distrustful because often our stories are not told in a linear fashion. As advocates, we know that mental trauma and very real head injury trauma interfere with linear thinking and memory. These survivors were seen as “difficult” and defensive women- again a misunderstanding of their former interactions with government systems and the police, and a learned distrust. Prosecutors didn’t understand that an ADA, including even Black women ADAs, had to gain Black and Brown survivors’ trust. For a white person, that may have meant unpacking privilege and power to understand survivors, their culture, and their trauma, which some ADAs were unwilling to do.
There was a permeating environment in that office that I knew too well: Black women’s physical, mental, and sociological safety is not a priority in this country. The criminal-legal system was ultimately not designed to protect Black women survivors. As a result, their voices and pain are largely ignored by society at all levels. If Black women survivors and the harms against them are ignored by the criminal-legal system, then how can such a system provide them with appropriate services, realistic steps to heal from their trauma, and of course justice as Black women survivors would define it?
I started The Safe Sisters Circle because I am surviving Black womanhood in a country that is not made for me or my community. I knew what it was like to be ignored as a Black woman. As an ADA, I was a prosecutor, who held a prestigious law degree, who was often metaphorically beaten into silence or complacency and often dismissed by the criminal system whether it be within the actual DA office, in front of the judges, or even the courtroom officers who often mistakenly screamed at me, “the defendant’s girlfriends aren’t allowed up here” when I entered the courtroom’s well, assuming I was the girlfriend, not the ADA. I am generally an opinionated, outspoken, and proud Black woman. However, if the system could do that to me, what could it do to the population that the DA’s office and The Safe Sisters Circle majority work with? Black women from socially disadvantaged, high crime communities have been shown that they don’t have a voice worth listening to. They are constantly fighting within the intersections of multiple societal oppressions. They are made to believe that they are not capable of being victims but instead deserving of the harms they face by their abusers.
I wanted to start an anti-domestic violence and sexual abuse service provider organization that would not “give Black women survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault voices” because I believe everyone is born with a voice. Instead, we must listen to their voices and respect their wishes through a survivor centered approach that deals outside the criminal system. We primarily focus on providing Black women survivors (1) culturally competent representation from Black women attorneys who understand the dynamics of domestic and sexual abuse combined with the trauma of being a Black woman through training and their own lived experiences as Black women; (2) safety from their abusers; and (3) holistic services that address barriers to healing, such as housing, food, support groups, traditional and alternative therapy and bodywork. My goal is to do this with passionate Black women attorneys and staff members open to hearing and learning from clients, providing trauma informed training, and working hard to provide ancillary non legal services to survivors when possible. It essentially is Black women helping Black women in a holistic manner. Sisters helping Sisters in a safe space continuum.
Indeed, The Safe Sisters Circle’s greatest feedback form our Black women survivor clients have been that:
- It’s the first time an attorney or staff listened to her throughout processes she’s been through after the abuse occurred or the first time she felt heard.
- She felt more comfortable and trusting of an attorney who looked like her and felt better understood.
- She felt like the attorney actually cared about getting her out of an abusive situation by focusing on several negative indicators in her life alongside the basic legal help of getting them out harm’s way of the physical or emotional domestic violence or sexual abuse.
To further support Black women survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse and the freedom fighters who work with them in Washington, DC, please donate to The Safe Sisters Circle: safesisterscircle.org/make-a-donation.
Special thanks to Valor LEAP Cohort 8; other women of color domestic/sexual networks that I have had the privilege to work with; and a brilliant Black woman executive director mentor in the Washington DC movement for looking out for me, strengthening my leadership skills, and ultimately allowing me to create my own “safe sister circle” space to help me achieve my goals.
This project is supported by Grant No 2020-TA-AX-K022 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this program are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice.