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Kalimah Johnson, Executive Director of the SASHA Center

Through her work at the Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness, this native Detroiter gives victims a voice

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Kamilah Johnson, founder and executive director of the SASHA (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness) Center in Detroit, boldly wears teal-painted fingernails. It's not a style choice, though. Teal is the official color of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.

To survivors of sexual assault like Johnson, teal represents the courage to speak out. And through her work with the SASHA Center, Johnson hopes to encourage other sexual assault victims to speak out, too.

"Our job here is to take the shame and the guilt away," she says.

Johnson—an adjunct professor at Marygrove College and sexual assault awareness consultant to the National Basketball Association—opened the SASHA Center in 2010 after working 15 years in the Detroit Police Department's victim assistance program.

"As long as I've worked in the department there was a huge difference on how women got serviced—based on how they looked, they presented, and what their background was. So (SASHA) doesn't shame people for having struggles in their lives that come with just being a person who has experienced sexual assault."

While there are numerous sexual assault studies that offer advice on how to work with sexual assault victims, Johnson says no studies specifically focus on African-American victims.

"So that just tells you how much we are not talking about it and how silent it is in our community," says Johnson, explaining the SASHA Center breaks that silence by offering weekly community support groups on sexual assault, with an emphasis on the African-American perspective.

"We are unapologetically Black," Johnson says, explaining SASHA uses African cultural customs such as smudge sticks, white candles (to signify healing) and libation ceremonies to bring about healing. Notwithstanding, victims of all races are welcome.

"As an African-American organization, we recognize all orientations, all folks, all people, all races, everybody," Johnson says. "If you identify as someone who has experienced sexual assault, we will service you."

She explains that SASHA partners with other local groups to help provide additional services, as SASHA does not offer individual sexual assault counseling or crisis management.

"We did an assessment of the community and found out that support groups were the one thing that other organizations had difficulty pulling off because they were doing other pieces like the rape kits, individual counseling, court accompaniment and crisis work," says Johnson. "They didn't have time to pull the groups together. So that was why SASHA was formed, to fill the gap."

One of the most important roles of SASHA is to help survivors confront past traumas by healing on their own terms, says Johnson.

"I say that because I have learned from survivors that sometimes they don't call themselves survivors. Sometimes they don't call themselves victims. So what's in between? These are people who have experienced sexual assault. And what that means for them, they get to identify and they get to define."

Finding healing at the SASHA Center in Detroit

Inside the SASHA (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness) Center, the organization's motto "healing is possible" is painted on a teal wall, with the sentence: "The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you're not going to stay … where you are."

Founder and executive director of the SASHA Center, Kalimah Johnson, explains: "It says 'where we are' in that we are a social work agency and we believe in starting with people where they are. We also believe in starting where we are in helping people heal."

Every Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m., the SASHA Center holds a free public talk on sexual assault. Registration is required.

"For many years I thought, 'I just need to forget about it. I just need to put it behind me,'" says Johnson. "But actually everyday life presents challenges that may trigger you or give you a flashback. So how do you deal with the triggers, the flashbacks, the shame and the guilt that comes with being sexually assaulted?"

The SASHA Center is here to help. For more information about the SASHA Center's weekly meetings, call 888-865-7055 or visit SASHACenter.org.

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