Two years ago, the thick border of trees surrounding Marygrove College was thinned out. By virtue of disease or age, many trees came down, revealing the stately campus for all to see, for the first time in years. The metaphor for change and revelation is undeniable for Kalimah Johnson, LMSW, ACSW, who grew up in Detroit but had never seen beyond the trees: “I remember driving by and thinking, oh, what a gorgeous campus! I’d like to learn more about Marygrove.” Soon after, Johnson was recruited as Assistant Professor of Social Work, and began to break down some barriers of her own.
A former community organizer, Johnson brings with her a host of contacts who love to help people, especially women. In the spirit of our founder and sponsor, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary—she is a fierce advocate, shedding light on important women’s issues, like sexual assault and abuse. Johnson joined forces with another Marygrove champion of women’s rights, Darcy L. Brandel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English, to co-sponsor the third and most successful Take Back the Night–Detroit (TBTN-D) event, an evening dedicated to sexual assault awareness.
It’s an inspired pairing. Brandel led the call in 2007 to create the first Women’s Center of Marygrove College. After four tireless years of collaboration, the center opened its doors on campus to provide services and information about women’s issues. It will encourage the ongoing development of women’s studies curricula, and promote present and future success of women as urban leaders. It is a physical place now. A place where events like TBTN-D can continue to grow.
Raising Consciousness for Women and about Women
Brandel was a young girl when her parents, both counseling psychologists, took her to a Take Back the Night rally in their Ohio hometown. Since her mother specialized in sexual assault cases, she learned early on about the necessity for women and girls to feel safe, and protect themselves from abuse. It was foreshadowing at best for this future English professor. But she insists that this year’s success was largely due to a student body that wrapped itself around the event like a warm hug.
“Our students were the stars of this show—they really internalized the mission of the college,” Brandel said. “They were selfless,” Johnson adds, “They kept asking ‘How can we help?’…abuse against women is something many of our students feel passionate about.” Admittedly, getting Generation Y involved in causes needs to be approached creatively, and that’s where Chairperson Johnson’s social work training and years of community experience come into play. “Today’s outrage is more of a party with a purpose…it works,” she says. “Popular causes come from a need, and the need is great.” Fact is, one in six women in America will be a victim of sexual assault, according to a joint survey by the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
TBTN-D at Marygrove attracted nearly 200 people during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Participants shared their stories and support for one another; even lighting candles for those who didn’t survive their abuse. “It is a heart-wrenching event that creates a powerful energy, you can’t help but be moved by it,” Brandel says. “Every time I do this, I tell myself I’m not going to cry, and sure enough, it gets me every time.”
But don’t be fooled by either woman’s soft-spoken demeanor, or their larger than average hearts. When they get behind a bullhorn, chanting, “Break the Silence/Stop the Violence!” “People Unite/Take Back the Night…!” there’s no denying their strength and relentless dedication. Both led a protest march around the surrounding west-side Detroit community, carrying signs with messages of hope and support. “We were marching along McNichols Road, and people kept stopping to ask us what we were doing…it really did create a buzz in the community,” Brandel adds.
“We encourage whatever works for the individual to find healing and comfort.”
An unexpected twist this year was the noticeable increased participation of men—an offshoot of the college’s new Marygrove Men Empowerment Network—a group of traditionally underrepresented professionals in the field of social work. “They are so important in this community; they bring a perspective to children in particular, that is invaluable,” Johnson says. Men are often the inflictors of sexual abuse, but TBTN-D is not a ‘man-haters’ club; this event is about consciousness-raising. Johnson believes that the more men get involved, and the more educated they are on the subject, the better off we’ll be as a society.
TBTN-D encourages free expression of survivors and supporters. It has a preventive mission and a healing role. Both aspects are equally important. Not everyone heals in the same manner, so a variety of ways to participate are offered. The march is an obvious outward protest. But there is a Healing Tent that provides a quiet place to reflect privately. The Wall of Hope is a collaborative art project for participants to draw or write messages. “We encourage whatever works for an individual to find healing and comfort,” Brandel says.
Several local organizations including B.L.A.C. Magazine, Turning Point, and the Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness (SASHA) Center– a group that Johnson actually founded– donated educational materials and teal ribbon pins, the symbol for awareness support. SASHA was born out of the need to represent women of color in the sexual assault awareness mission. “We needed to bring those voices to the table,” Johnson says. “Every woman deserves to be heard.”
For more information about the programs and services offered through the Women’s Center of Marygrove College, including Take Back the Night-Detroit, contact Darcy Brandel at (313) 927.1447 or Kalimah Johnson at (313) 927.1484.
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