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Teachers Come In All Forms

It is an awe-inspiring moment when you wake up and you realize that you have spent your entire adulthood as an advocate. What is so remarkable about this, is doing so when it seems the odds were against you making it. As a Black woman in the movement to end violence against women, it has been a journey that is multifaceted. There were moments when it was clear to me that I was an unwelcome guest. And others where it was clear that if I were not here, the needs of all survivors would not be met.

It was in the late ’90s, and I was working for a program in Ohio. I was a freshly minted graduate and eager to get into a career. When I first entered the program, it felt like it was exactly where I needed to be. The survivors that were being served were largely Black women and the executive director was a Black woman. It was as if I had found my place in the world.

Eventually, though, my head had to come out of the clouds. The women that I was to serve were those who were there because of violence in their homes. All that I had learned in school had not prepared me for telling individuals who had experienced a traumatic event that they had to follow rules or be left without a safe place – a temporary safe place, but a safe place to be nonetheless. At this time, there was no empowerment model. There was no research that had been completed on the neurobiology of trauma. Although the services were for survivors, they were not survivor-centered.

I was working one evening with a woman who had six young children. I had just completed teaching the parenting class when a staff member had shared with me that this woman and her children were going to be exited if she didn’t get her children under control. I went and spoke with this woman and ended up staying over several hours offering her assistance.

What I learned from her has stayed with me to this day. I learned that the lived experiences I had were just as valuable to my work as my formal education. I was able to connect with this woman on a level that other staff had not been able to before. I understood the life she had come from and how she had been shunned by systems that she sought for help due to her to intersecting identities. She needed to be both heard and seen.

As an advocate, my role was to meet survivors where they were, not where I was told that they needed to be. I was to listen more than I was to speak. Just as important, I was not to be afraid to let my identity be present with me as I served.

A Eurocentric education had not given me that lesson. A Eurocentric training curriculum and program design had not been what this woman needed. She needed equity in her service provision. She needed a service that was designed to meet her particular needs. She needed an advocate that would actually stand in where she could not and reflect the totality of her crisis that had brought her to need the services offered.

I am forever indebted to that woman for being so raw and open with me that evening; curse words and all. She challenged me in a way that continues to influence me today. As a Black woman who advocates for all survivors, my voice and perspective are an added value in my community. As an advocate, being trauma-informed, survivor-centered and valuing all identities is a way of being for me, it is a calling.

Today, I am fortunate to be a part of MCEDSV’s Emerging Leaders. Emerging Leaders invest in advocates who aspire for leadership, possess leadership ability, and are in need of a space where leadership development is afforded to them. An opportunity like this would have served me well in my early days of leadership. Advocates are able to have their skills and abilities complemented with tools for success in leadership to serve all survivors.




Chéree Thomas is the Hotline Director at the sexual assault crisis hotline of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence, our trained advocates are available to talk 24 hours a day toll-free at 1-855-VOICES-4 (1-855-864-2374).