Advocating for Survivors of Sexual Assault

By AeYanna Yett

As we close out April, a month dedicated to a national movement of bringing awareness to sexual assault, it is imperative that we also emphasize the devastating impact that sexual assault has on communities of color, specifically those of Black women and girls.

The following statistics sourced from Ujima, the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black community uncover a startling pattern of widespread incidents of sexual assault among Black women and girls; for example, according to the report, 1 in 5 Black women are survivors of rape; 1 in 4 Black girls will be sexually abused before age 18; 35% of Black women experience some form of sexually violent contact in their lifetime; 40-60% of Black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18; and, for every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 do not.

The numbers uncover an urgent need for more advocacy within communities of color to help bring an end to sexual assault by bringing more awareness around its high prevalence, promoting social-norms and social-emotional learning; educating society and families on the importance of creating safe and protective environments both inside and outside of the home; mobilizing men and boys as allies; and, supporting victims. With so many compounded oppressive forces at work against Black people within society that have been brought on by systematic racism, best practices for the advocacy of ending sexual assault within Black communities is even more complex.

As I navigate this terrain through my work as a social worker, community leader, organizer, and Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Fellow with Authority Health, come to understand advocacy in the following ways:

• Advocacy is an art form that is distinguished by a variety of layers; layers that are laced with intention and purpose, diligence and dedication, patience, and most importantly, an open heart, mind, soul, spirit, and ear. As an advocate, I serve as an artist uplifting the voices of the marginalized and weaving together a platform for those whom you are advocating for. This platform serves as a sacred space where everyone can stand together in strength to bring about the liberation or change you’re working towards.

• An advocate acts as a mirror. This is how I see myself, reflecting the faces of those impacted and showing the nature of the issue in truth and totality; a part of my purpose is to bring visibility to what needs to be seen by both the oppressed and the oppressor. Finally, I serve as a visionary. I envision and foresee what the world looks like after having provided my advocacy and allyship to those who needed it; I envision them in their full power living in an environment that honors who they are as humans walking the Earth without fear and in freedom.

• You see, in this service, your positionality as an advocate is not just about you: it’s a calling to serve as a conduit of change for your community—who you choose to advocate for. By following this calling, you are centering the history, lived experiences, and presence of the voices you empower through your position. And, when we begin centering the experiences of those whose identity intersects with multiple forms of oppression in our journeys toward eradication and transformation, the rest of us will enjoy the spoils of their freedom. As expressed by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Advocacy is not only for the procurement and solidified recognition of a group’s human rights it’s also tethered in love. This love is powerful, as it yields the sustainability of this group’s rights through mass education and action on the individual, community, cultural, political, and all other institutional and systemic levels.

My work as a fellow serving in the SASHA Center, a service agency doing the very work required in advocating for Black women survivors of sexual assault, has been fertile ground; it has nourished my seed and identity in advocacy work. Our community action research project,
Lifting Our Voices Community Conversations, makes way for survivors of sexual assault and those who are serving them in formal support positions (e.g., first responders, police officers, rape counselors) to uplift issues related to Black women in Metro-Detroit accessing care after experiencing sexual assault.

The more we engage the community in our advocacy, center their voices and historical and current experiences, and are grounded in love, the more we can break societal molds of oppression to welcome the freedom for us to live whole in our authentic selves.

AeYanna Yett is a Social Work student at Wayne State University and is concluding her Albert Schweitzer Fellowship at Authority Health.