The Warrior Voice

Lilada Gee spent years hiding in denial until her faith gave voice to her abuse. Now, her culturally specific message of healing for other Black female survivors of long-term sexual abuse is powerful, empowering and so very badly needed.

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Rainey-Moore trains providers on how to work with people of color, how to be culturally competent and meet people where they are. How not to label a victim’s reluctance as noncompliant or noncooperative, how to take into consideration that the system may have taught them that their personal information has not always been “used to their best interests.” After all these years of all this work she does sees a positive shift in the number of women of color finally speaking out and she welcomes it, believes it’s critical not only to abuse survivors but the community as a whole, White and Black.

“I think Lilada putting herself out there really set the stage for women to be able to heal and people of color to talk about what has happened to them,” says Rainey-Moore. “I’m really feeling proud to be connected to this, what I consider a movement to take back our lives. I consider it to be relevant work. I feel it’s needed work, in fact it’s long overdue, and I just think that the more we talk about it, the more people will come forward, the more perpetrators won’t be allowed to continue. And that
people know that somebody will listen.”

Jacquelyn Hunt also works for Journey Mental Health Center, where she’s been a clinical substance abuse counselor for fourteen years. Substance abuse and sexual abuse go hand in hand, of course. Drugs and alcohol are logical solutions when you need to numb out, to self-medicate, to set fire to that trauma. Hunt believes all professionals work with a level of cultural competence, that no matter what race or ethnicity, a professional can help all ethnic groups. But there are still huge barriers to women of color seeking access to mental health services, still a significant group within the community in pain because they don’t feel safe opening up.

“African American women have issues with trust and the formal systems that are in place don’t necessarily reflect or mimic who they are,” says Hunt. “So they’re often pre-judged, and there are stereotypes that are placed on them that aren’t placed on other cultures, and so for this reason it is very important to have people who look like them serving them in that capacity.”

Hunt’s got another point, too, about the need for Black women helping Black girls, and it’s a fascinating one.

“African American girls and women … have mostly been hurt by African American women. Be it in the form of moms who didn’t protect them or other significant African American women in their lives with whom society does not agree on their methods of rearing children,” says Hunt. “These women and girls have a missing connection which is critical for them to have in order to form positive images of themselves and to allow for the type of healing and restoration in their lives which is needed.”

Sherry Lucille is a guidance counselor at Memorial High School. She says that even as a “fully intact grown-up woman,” middle class and married and professional, she still sometimes feels that judgment, that fear, that need to prove herself or explain herself to majority culture. And so she can’t even imagine how much worse it is if you’re young, if you’re poor, if you’re abused.

“I can see that going into a police station where almost everybody is not like you, or going into the hospital where almost everybody is not like you, and feeling like there’s a cultural divide, there’s an income divide, there’s an educational divide and then there’s a race divide. You know, how am I going to be perceived?” says Lucille. “Are people going to really understand that I’m here for help? Are they really going to help me and not maybe somehow trip me up because of something that I’ve done that is not like how they would do it?”

In the twenty-five years she’s worked as a counselor, she’s seen a greater interest and sensitivity to issues like these, but she still remains one of the only Black women in her field in Madison. She can feel the way some of her Black students relax in her presence and it makes sense to her, this need, the importance of it.

“I really do feel that Lilada has a pure heart for this and a sincerity and that she just wants to make room, you know?” says Lucille. “Make room for this and have people understand that there is a need. I don’t think it should be a strange thing that an African American provider would want to meet that niche.”

Betty Banks is retired now from a career in early childhood development, and she’s also the co-founder of the nonprofit Today Not Tomorrow. Although her background is in parenting, she says she’s learned a lot from Lilada about the pervasive impact of sexual abuse on families and “fully agrees” with Lilada’s Afrocentric approach.

“I think in good parenting practices, there also has to be some attention paid to who we are as African Americans and how what has happened to us does impact our families and the kinds of values that we need to give to our children,” says Banks. “So that they know how to navigate systems that may not always be fair. That are, in fact, racist.”

Banks is supporting Lilada because, as the leader of a nonprofit, she knows how hard it is to get the attention and the focus of community that may or may not understand your mission. Because she thinks she’s courageous, and relevant, that her work is vitally important.

“She is smart and she is a warrior,” says Banks. “She’s going to stand for what she believes in and there are all kinds of things she’s up against but she’s willing to do it, and I feel strongly that I need to stand with her.”

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It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it. Lilada Gee, willing to expose herself so thoroughly so that other women know they’re not alone, even when—especially when—she risks further trauma within a city that, for whatever reason, seems to squirm away from the idea that Madison has a race problem, that America has a rape culture problem. Seven more bold Black women—every single one that I contacted—talking to a perfect stranger about incredibly painful, incredibly complex things, just because Lilada asked them to. None of them had to talk to me. Every one of them said yes.

Their voices rise up together and we pluck all those words from the charged air, gently press them firmly upon these pages. To be shuffled and relaid, edited and fact-checked, scrutinized and, finally, yes, sanitized. With any luck and grace, the power in speaking out remains intact. Maybe things might even change, because the catalyst for the biggest movements can come in what seem at the time to be the tiniest, simplest things. Because for all she has seen and all she has heard, for all the women and girls and all the ground they’ve covered together, for all the accolades, triumphs and setbacks, for all the thrills and all the pain, nothing in Lilada’s life has been more critical than that moment thirty-some-odd years ago when that bruised and muzzled little eleven-year-old girl finally spoke out.

“That day when I was able to tell my mother as much as I was able to tell her, I was able to find my voice again,” she says. “And so much of our strength and our being and our identity and our dignity, all that courage, is in our voice.”

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine

Lilada’s Livingroom is launching the Black Woman Heal! Tour this spring to inform, inspire and initiate a healing movement in the Black communities of Wisconsin. For more information, contact LiladasLivingroom@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/LiladasLivingroom. Lilada's Livingroom is located at 655 W. Badger Rd., Madison, WI, 53713. 

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