This is a heightened, emotional, fragile, and powerful time in our community, and across our country. We are grateful to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to all those who have called for racial justice in our country for so long. Their dedicated advocacy has brought home the impact of the persistent assaults on African-American life–from organized white supremacist marches, to wrongful policing, to daily aggressions in parks, grocery stores, and streets, to relentless structural systems that impoverish, ignore, and punish—that continue to saturate our relationships, institutions, and systems.
All of us at Refuge House are inspired and challenged to take action to be part of the change we want to see: to further our anti-violence and equity mission with an intentional commitment to the well-being of African-American/Black survivors, families and communities. How we can best move that action forward has engaged our great staff and leadership over the past many weeks, since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May, and Oluwatoyin Salau’s murder here in Tallahassee a month ago.
For my part, a white woman with privilege, I have thought so often about a lesson learned from my colleague Brenda Hampton—leader, African-American, brilliant–who I met 40 years ago when we were both active in union organizing campaigns on the South Side of Chicago. We were protesting our own union’s support for a police officer who had killed an elderly African-American man on a train platform, for smoking a cigarette. I was going on and on about racism and white privilege, when she turned to me and asked, “And what makes you exempt?” That question was life-changing for me. What Brenda Hampton taught me is that racism isn’t defeated by white people talking about what they already think—but by listening to, empowering, and acting on what we need to learn.
I need to learn what we can be doing better at Refuge House: to better address the impact of racism and white supremacy on our staff and their families, and to strengthen our agency culture to promote the voices and enhance the well-being of our African-American staff. I am grateful to our staff for guiding us in these commitments, sharing feedback and taking leadership in building these efforts over the months to come.
Survivors are also sharing their thoughts and concerns about racism, racial disparities, and police misconduct—especially as those dynamics play out in the context of domestic violence and sexual assault. The fear of, and reality of, wrongful policing inhibit Black women from calling on law enforcement for assistance, and undermine confidence that police will help or believe them. Stereotyping of Black women in the criminal justice system distorts the truth of their experience and the quality of justice they receive. The fear that perpetrators will be subject to unfair sanctions, and families further destabilized, place terrible burdens on the shoulders of victims: whether to disclose abuse, remain silent, or do their best to defend themselves on their own. Disparities of opportunity, wealth, health care, education, and social respect further limit options and conditions of basic freedom.
For the empowerment of the women and families we serve, in alliance with Black/African-American women and communities, Refuge House is committed to redress of those conditions, across our programs and in our community advocacy.
In the spirit of furthering that work, we hope these questions can help spark a wider dialogue with our community in the weeks and months to come:
- What needs to change to empower the voices of African-American and Black women and girls in our community about the issues that concern them?
- How does racist violence against Black/African-American men and boys contribute to the oppression of Black/African-American women and girls?
- What needs to change to reduce and end the risks of sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and domestic violence facing Black/African-American women and girls in our community?
- How does racism and fear of police contribute to the isolation of victims and the escalation of violence in response to these harms?
- How can Refuge House be useful in being part of these changes?
As we engage with these difficult issues, let us all work to be equal to Toyin Salau’s example of vision and courage. I promise I will try, with all I have.
My great thanks to Shan Pompey, Refuge House Domestic Violence Services Director, and Debra McGrew, Refuge House Region III Program Director, for their guidance and wisdom in helping me state this message.