The founders of "A Long Walk Home"—the only organization in the United States that uses art to educate, inspire, and mobilize young people to end violence against girls and women—visited Boston College to discuss the problems of modern race and gender-based violence across the country and throughout the African diaspora.
The event was hosted in conjunction with the course “From #BlackLivesMatter Meets #MeToo: Violence and Representation in the African Diaspora”, taught by Regine Jean Charles, a professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, and Shawn McGuffey, a professor in the Sociology Department.
Through their project, "A Long Walk Home", Salamishah Tillet—an Ivy-League feminist professor and rape survivor—and Scheherazade Tillet—a professional art therapist and rape counselor— have educated over 100,000 survivors and allies on how to build safe communities and end gender-based violence.
“These women are a living and breathing example of what it means to be the change you want to see in the world,” said Professor Jean Charles. “Their commitment to ending gender-based violence and centering the lives of black women and girls has truly made the world a better place.”
Their advocacy started in 1997, when Scheherazade Tillet learned that her older sister, Salamishah was raped. Looking for ways to help her sister heal from the emotional trauma of sexual violence, Scheherazade used her passion for photography to document her sister’s recovery process.
Although photography has had a history of exploitation against women and people of color, Scheherazade used it as a way to celebrate the female body, empowering and supporting women to embrace an image of dignity. “I use my camera as a way to express but also to communicate, to hug, and to explore,” said Scheherazade. “My camera became a way to honor Salamishah’s persistent spirit and the process of healing.”
But creating a visual narrative around sexual assault was not enough for the Tillet sisters. They wanted people not only to know their story but also to feel it and to see themselves as a part of it. So, in 2003 their project became a multimedia arts show combining visual images with music, dance, and theatre, giving rise to their non-profit organization, "A Long Walk Home."
Their organization also fosters a program called the Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, which empowers teenage girls to use art as a tool to advocate for themselves and other girls, ultimately changing the face of leadership in the women’s movement. “To see them interact with the girls in our program is to understand what it looks like to advocate, to fight, to teach, and to have fun from a place of love,” said Jean-Charles.
The advocacy of the Tillet sisters revolves around the combination of art and social justice to dismantle issues surrounding race and gender-based violence. For them, art can serve as a tool to promote justice, symbolizing the power to live beyond the actual moment. “Art is where justice lives,” said Salamishah. “The artists have the answers that the law, policy, and organizers haven’t caught up to. In the space of the artistic imagination you can not only see the world as it is but also how it could and should be.”
Even though writing gave Salamishah the courage to tell her story, capturing the intensity and the complexity in her healing process, she acknowledged that many girls fear speaking out and breaking the silence. “As survivors, it is hard to own your story because it means to admit a whole bunch of things about your experience,” said Salameesha. “It is not easy to carry on a sense of powerlessness and fear.”
The Tillet sisters believe that the #MeToo movement is not going away, as more and more people are finding their voices, coming forward, and articulating their trauma. However, they argue that we, as a society, are not equipped to believe survivors. “When a woman shares her story, people respond with ‘I believe you, but…’” said Scheherazada. “They use the phrase ‘I believe you’ to testify that her story is true, but are they really believing her story? What do we do when we believe women?”
According to the Tillet sisters, believing women is about survivors believing and owning their own story. "A Long Walk Home" is about publicly creating empathy and giving women the confidence to forgive themselves and trust their power in saying "no."
“People fight not for themselves but for the future,” said Salameeshah. “You do what you can in the present hoping that you are changing what is yet to come, and that is what we are trying to live up to.”