Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Black Feminist Anti-Violence Activism

Jul 13, 2016

How can artists engage with the academy to share cultural work and activism? How is education a form of activism?

In episode 14 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews filmmaker and cultural producer Aishah Shahidah Simmons about her award-winning film NO!: The Rape Documentary, collaboration as key to feminist work, and how every one of us can play a part in ending violence in our communities.

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Guest: Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is an award-winning Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker, activist, cultural worker, writer and international lecturer.

An incest and rape survivor, she is the creator of the Ford Foundation-funded, internationally acclaimed and award-winning feature length film NO! The Rape Documentary.

Aishah is the 2015-2016 Sterling Brown Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is also a 2016-2018 Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow.

Her essays and articles have been published in several anthologies including the recently released Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence anthology edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers and the forthcoming Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Sexual Violence Movement anthology edited by Jennifer Patterson.

Committed to archiving, documenting and telling Black women’s herstories and contemporary realities, Aishah co-edited The Feminist Wire’s online forum in honor of June Jordan‘s life and legacy, the Global Forum on Audre Lorde, and the Toni Cade Bambara 75th Birthday Anniversary Forum.

An associate editor of TFW, Aishah’s cultural work and activism have been documented extensively in a wide range of media outlets including The Root, Crisis, Forbes, Left of Black, In These Times, Ms. Magazine, Alternet, ColorLines, The Philadelphia Weekly, National Public Radio (NPR), Pacifica Radio Network and Black Entertainment Television (BET).

She has screened her work, guest lectured and facilitated workshops and dialogues throughout the North American continent and in many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Aishah credits both her twenty-three years work with a Black feminist licensed clinical psychologist and her thirteen-year practice of vipassana meditation with supporting her own healing while simultaneously fueling her to commit a significant portion of her life to address rape, child sexual abuse and other forms of gendered sexual violence.

We chatted about

  • Sexual violence, and resistance against it, in Black communities (02:30)
  • The intersections of racism and misogyny, and how Black women have resisted both (06:40)
  • Advice for those seeking to work at the nexus between collective reparations and personal healing (12:00)
  • Collaboration as a key aspect of feminism (25:30)
  • How “love with accountability” can end child sexual abuse (31:30)
  • Imagining otherwise (38:20)


Aishah’s film NO! The Rape Documentary

Black women have resisted sexual violence in our communities, while also simultaneously fighting against racism and white supremacy.

The pressures for Black survivors of sexual violence to stay silent

There’s this notion that when Black women come forward about sexual violence in our communities, that we’re traitors to the race. Traitors to the race becomes traitors to Black men—race because masculine-identified.

Collective social justice

In the name of collectivity, don’t be afraid to stand by yourself for what you believe in.

Working for both personal liberation and collective justice

I do believe that we can do it simultaneously, but we cannot put ourselves, our families, our children on the back burner.

Imagining otherwise

Speculative fiction can become our reality.

More from Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:22):

Hello and welcome to episode 14 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is Aishah Shahidah Simmons. Aishah is an award-winning black feminist, lesbian documentary filmmaker, activist, cultural worker, writer, and international lecturer. An incest and rape survivor, she’s the creator of the Ford Foundation funded, internationally acclaimed, an award-winning feature length film NO! The Rape Documentary. Aishah was also the 2015 to 2016 Sterling Brown Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She’s currently a Just Beginnings collaborative fellow and is working on a new multimedia project called Love WITH Accountability about child sexual assault.

Cathy Hannabach (01:05):

Her essays and articles have been published in several anthologies, including the recently released Dear Sister: Letters From Survivors of Sexual Violence, which is edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers as well as the recently released Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices From Within the Anti-Sexual Violence Movement, which is an anthology edited by Jennifer Patterson. Committed to archiving, documenting, and telling black women’s histories and contemporary realities, Aishah co-edited The Feminist Wire’s online forum in honor of June Jordan’s life and legacy, The Global Forum on Audre Lorde and the Toni Cade Bambara 75th birthday anniversary forum.

Cathy Hannabach (01:46):

An associate editor of The Feminist Wire, Aishah’s cultural work in activism have been documented extensively in a wide range of media outlets including The Root, Crisis, Forbes, Left of Black, In These Times, Ms. Magazine, Alternate, Colorlines, The Philadelphia Weekly, NPR, Pacifica Radio Network, and BET. She has screened her work, guest lectured, and facilitated workshops and dialogues around the world, including in countries in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Hi Aishah, thanks so much for being with us.

Aishah (02:22):

Hi Cathy. I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me to be a guest.

Cathy Hannabach (02:27):

You are the director of the film NO! The Rape Documentary. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what that film is about?

Aishah (02:34):

Yes. NO! is a feature-length documentary that unveils sexual violence and rape and sexual assault in black communities. It also looks at healing and transformation. This is its 10th anniversary of its release. It had its world premiere in February of 2006 and so it’s, unfortunately, still relevant and still going strong. People who haven’t ever seen it, it is as if it came out today. I mean, there are definitely some dated examples, because I look at the climax really focuses on what happened with Mike Tyson when he was accused and ultimately charged with raping Desiree Washington. That happened at a time when many of the young twenty-something activists were either not here or just getting here on the planet. That is dated. However, because of how many celebrities have been excused or pardoned or celebrated despite the crimes that they’ve committed against women and queer people, people relate to it, so that you can just maybe substitute Mike Tyson’s name for another contemporary celebrity’s name.

Cathy Hannabach (03:58):

Certainly. I know, I’ve taught this film myself in my classes and I’ve been to screenings of it in a variety of different places. It’s incredibly, incredibly powerful, both for the story that it tells of the extent of violence, but also the extent of collective resistance. One of my favorite parts about it is the way that it traces these collective histories of black women banding together to fight sexual assault and rape in a variety of communities, both within their communities and in others. I know that’s one of the things that students find so powerful about it. They constantly comment on it, they write blog posts and assignments and they… mostly because they haven’t ever seen that wide a representation of the work that black women have always done around sexual assault and rape prevention.

Aishah (04:54):

Yeah, I mean, thank you first and foremost for just that wonderful description of the film. I mean, for me it was very… Let me continue by saying I’m a survivor of incest and child sex abuse as well as rape, and I was raped in my sophomore year in college. This is very personal as well as it is political, academic, all of that, it’s all those. But it is definitely personal and I am definitely a generational survivor. That is to say that my mother who is featured in the film, Dr. Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons, talks about sexual assault attempts that happened to her when she was in college at Spelman College in the 60s, as well as when she was a frontline activist revolutionary in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee known as SNCC.

Aishah (05:49):

For me, what was very important was to really look at, not just the testimonies, which are very powerful and always important. You have the testimonies, but to situate it in a historical context, to look at sexual violence in African American communities from enslavement in this country, in the United States, through present day. Of course, present day is always relative in terms of when the completion date was. But really looking at how black women have resisted sexual violence in our communities while also simultaneously fighting against racism and white supremacy.

Aishah (06:25):

We talk about how Ida Wells-Barnett, who was a major anti-lynching crusader at the turn of the 20th century, really also was very clear that lynching was not only used as a tool to silence and murder black men, but also to silence and murder black women and children. Then really also again… because there’s this notion that when black women come forward about sexual violence in our communities that we’re traitors to the race, that we… traitors to the race means traitors to black men. Race becomes masculine-identified.

Aishah (07:04):

I really wanted to push back and say, “No, black women have been at the forefront of major racial movements for transformational change in this country while simultaneously being sexual assaulted by their lovers, brothers, comrades, friends, in this movement, and up until recently weren’t really going to the police. Because you’re not going to police in Jim Crow US of A. You’re not going to go to… and even now in the height of our awareness around Black Lives Matter, do you go to the police or where do you go? Which then, for me, moves to my understanding and belief in what are ways in which we can have transformative and restorative justice to address this atrocity? It’s not to let the perpetrators off the hook, but how do we hold ourselves and our communities accountable?

Cathy Hannabach (07:57):

Can you say a little bit about how you see your work in this film, but also more broadly combining art, activism, and academia in the service of social justice?

Aishah (08:07):

Oh, yeah. Well, I was very fortunate to study and just learn and just be around Toni Cade Bambara from 19… I would say late 89 through 90, up until her passing in December 9th, 1995. Up until her passing to 1995. At that time I was what, like 20 to 26, so that was a very formative time in my life. She always talked about how the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible. She also talked about the work that writers, film-makers do who are committed to social change. That we’re cultural workers, that were using our cultural work, our art, in the service of liberation and transformation in our communities.

Aishah (08:59):

For me, when I became a film-maker, or identified as a film-maker, as an artist, I identified as a black feminist lesbian cultural worker in the tradition of Toni Cade Bambara. In my previous work as well, I’ve always been interested in, to the extent that you can entertain, how can you entertain while also educate? For me, NO! covers, one could say like 300 years. If we’re going from enslavement to present day, so how do I touch upon all of that information? Clearly it is a survey view. Well, how do I touch upon that cinematically, and that’s where I think the power of film. If I were to write a book that would… I can’t even imagine writing a book in terms of covering the ground that NO! covers. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and I believe that a moving image is worth a million words.

Aishah (09:55):

For me, I did use poetry, dance, music, archival footage, scholarship, and activism to really show how the, for lack of a better word, marriage or intersection of all of these disciplines can play a role in radical social change, and I’ve seen it happen. I mean, I’ve screened NO! extensively throughout the US, it is subtitled in Spanish and French and Portuguese thanks to a major grant from the Ford Foundation, so it has traveled with me but also beyond me, without me, throughout the world. I’ve been in places where myself, the people I know are the only English as a first language black people in the room.

Aishah (10:42):

To have folks speaking to me in different languages in Eastern Europe, in Hungary, in Croatia to say that have these women, [inaudible 00:10:53] women, women who’ve been trafficked throughout Europe to say, “This is my story,” and this is a film about rape in black communities in the US. That really shows me the power of the medium, not only for people to relate to it, but also that folks also learn about parts of African American history, and I would say black feminist history. Because I think that NO!, while it also addresses sexual violence in black communities, it looks at black history, which is American history, through a black feminist lens.

Cathy Hannabach (11:29):

Nice. You have a long history in your career of combining art and activism in different communities and particularly finding the ways that art can be used as both a tool of individual healing on an individual particular level, but also as a collective or collaborative way that communities can come together for, I don’t know, what we might call social or political healing. I’d be curious to know what maybe advice or wisdom you have to share with others who are interested in that nexus between individual healing and collective reparations or healing.

Aishah (12:09):

Yeah, I’m a movement child. That is to say that both my parents, I mean and they’re still going strong, have been actively engaged in movements for social change since the 60s. They were in SNCC, they’ve been in socialist movements connected to Marxism and communism. They’ve been in black nationalist movements, anti-war movements, women’s movements. It’s in my blood I would say. Now, that doesn’t mean that this is my path, but it is the path that was chosen for me or that I chose. I shared this to say that I feel like I have a… the benefit of what I’ve experienced as a child, what I witnessed, is that I am just unequivocal in my belief that we have to have individual healing.

Aishah (13:00):

I don’t think that that is selfish, or self-centered, or narcissistic. I think that there are so many of us who are wounded, who have incredible visions and ideas for radical social change. But because they have not done that important work on healing themselves, that they inadvertently replicate some of the very same behaviors that marginalized and oppressed them and others. Thinking about how Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” How do we not use those tools? I think part of that has to be about taking care of ourselves, and individual healing, and self care. It can’t be viewed as taking us away from the real issue at hand because Toni Cade Bambara actually said, “The revolution begins with the self in the self.”

Aishah (13:53):

I think that it is important that while we are working collectively to do healing and transformation in our society, that we have to also work individually. I don’t see it as first you do one and then you do the other. I do believe we can do things simultaneously, but we cannot put ourselves, our family, our children on the back burner, because we won’t be free while we’re not dealing with what has happened to us as a result of white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, heterosexism, classism. If we’re not dealing with that, then we’re going to inadvertently replicate.

Aishah (14:31):

I’m not interested in creating a radical left version of this insanity that we’re all living under now. I don’t even know what that vision will look like. I call upon Walidah Imarisha, who is an incredible writer and activist and co-editor with Adrienne Maree Brown of Octavia’s Brood, where she talks about how marginalized communities are science fiction visionaries. What does it mean to be enslaved and to say my people will be free? What is that? Or to imagine life without prisons. We have to have the imagination, and this is, again, dovetails to that in terms of the relationship, in terms of art and social change and what. We’ve got to envision a world that we’re not even living in, that we may not even see but work towards future generations to see. We’ve got to move beyond these kinds of structures. I think part of that is about liberating our own minds, our psyches, our bodies and our spirits while also doing the work with others collectively.

Cathy Hannabach (15:40):

What you were just saying about the role of blackness in science fiction and the Imagine Otherwise aspect of science fiction reminds me a lot of one of the earlier Imagine Otherwise podcasts with Andre Carrington who has a fantastic new book called Speculative Blackness about precisely that. About how African American communities and black communities more broadly, but he specifically focuses on African American communities in the US, how they’ve imagined otherwise. How they’ve imagined these speculative elsewheres, other times, both that are in the past and that are in the present past that maybe never were or that were never allowed to be present, that have been denied but show glimmers of themselves in certain spaces and in futures folks have yet to imagine or in the process of imagining. It’s certainly an interesting connection to how various kinds of art forms, literary forms… he talks about comics, performance art, film, all of these kinds of forms of art are places where those other worlds can be made.

Aishah (16:50):

Right. Yes, I agree, and I think that that’s… I think that we need… I mean, it’s hard when you’re under siege. Where is the space and time to imagine and create? But I think that we have to. I think it’s important, this is where history for me is very important, that we really look at our history. I mean, when I think about Harriet Tubman making anywhere between what, 15 and 18 trips back to liberate enslaved black people. This is a woman who was illiterate, who suffered from narcolepsy because of a head injury when she was enslaved, who kept going back. What does it mean when you can’t read and when you can just fall out unexpectedly? What does that mean? What world was she envisioning that she was just like, “My people are going to be free,” or her leading the only military action led by a woman during the Civil War that freed almost 700 enslaved black people. Then, just so many, I mean, in terms of this…

Aishah (18:00):

I think that we don’t need the internet. We don’t need Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, et cetera, meaning to imagine that, and that’s why I said, thinking about history. Because Harriet Tubman was a genius. But based upon so many things in terms of, particularly contemporarily, we’d be like, “Oh, she was illiterate. She was this, she was that.” But look at what she accomplished. I think that we have to figure out… and when I say make the time, I’m talking about if we’re drifting off to sleep or even at the job that’s breathing down our back. I’m not acting like I have a job that’s breathing down my back, so I don’t mean to be disrespectful in that way. But just finding those moments to think about, what is the world that we want to live in and what could it take individually?

Aishah (18:51):

I think again it’s that, we need the collective work, but what’s that individual action, which is why I’m going back to Harriet Tubman, one woman, in terms of what she did. There’s some saying as I was reading in a book called Remnants by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, a book written co-written by her daughter, Dr. Rachel Elizabeth Harding, where aunt Rose, she was one of my spiritual [inaudible 00:19:22], she’s passed on. She talks about how there were many Harriet Tubmans in terms of that there were many who were freeing folks. That we know about Harriet, but there were others. I think that this is that kind of work in terms of how past is prologue. Just back to what you were referencing in terms of Carrington, that’s speculative fiction in terms of thinking about that and then thinking about how speculative fiction can become a reality.

Cathy Hannabach (19:53):

That was beautiful, I love that. Speculative fiction can become a reality. That’s definitely going in the show notes. You have a very, very long history of collaborating with a whole bunch of different communities, individuals, different artists, scholars, students. I would say it’s one of the things that characterizes your works very strongly. As we know that collaboration is pleasurable and it’s hard. How have you found that collaborative process? , Are there particular communities or people that you’ve had a lot of fun collaborating with? What are maybe some of the challenges that you’ve come across in collaboration, and how has that collective work allowed you to maybe create things that you wouldn’t be able to create by yourself?

Aishah (20:50):

Well, I carried the vision for NO! for 11 years, seven of which were full-time. I carried it, I was the producer and director and writer, but I did not do it alone and I could not have done it alone. I worked with an incredible group of predominantly black women film-makers, artists, dancers who helped to carry the vision. Tamara Xavier who was the first co-producer of NO! and a director of choreography. Because of her that there’s even dance in NO!. She was the one who taught me literally, and we had to battle about it, how movement and body is as important as what’s going on in the head. Because I’m a very cerebral person. I’m like, “I’ll, go to therapy.” I’m in my head, and never thinking about body memory. Because of Tamara, dance is in NO!.

Aishah (21:43):

There’s Joan Brannon who was the director of photography and associate producer. At that point when, I mean, I was making NO!. What I feel like the stone age is when initially I was like, “Oh, it’s going to be HI8,” which is only film-makers would probably know what that is. Then Joan introduced me to something called miniDV. This was before HD and digital video on disk. Then just traveling and work. I mean, she was on every single shoot. I mean, she [inaudible 00:22:10] kissed everybody in NO!. It was a pivotal role, and Gail Lloyd, who was a co-producer and contributing editor almost from the very beginning was a part of NO!. Sharon Mullally who is a white woman filmmaker, editor we just… I mean, combing through the footage. I had over 40 hours of footage from which she created the first draft of what became NO!. We worked together and then Gail came in. Gail was always in as a camera person and co-producer, but then came in, I think, as a contributing editor.

Aishah (22:50):

Working with those four, I mean, I viewed them as comadres in many ways of NO!, was very powerful and definitely challenging. Sharon and I are different generations, she’s from my parents’ generation. I think that was very powerful, and definitely in terms of being a white woman. Which was very important because for me, while no, I definitely was speaking to black communities, I also wanted others who were not black in the US to [inaudible 00:23:19]. I think that that pushback in terms of… now, when I say pushback, questions, discussions, particularly as Sharon was very much involved in anti-Vietnam war movements, peace movements. Really talking about how do we grapple the sacred cows, how do we talk about sexual violence in the civil rights movement? Acknowledge that it happened. It’s critical not to be silent about it, and at the same time not to allow that to be used as a scapegoat to talk about that SNCC didn’t do anything good.

Aishah (23:54):

I think that working with Sharon around that segment, I mean many segments, was so critical. As I said, talking with Tamara around dance, that was critical. Joan and I had many conversations about the vision and shooting and angles and interviews, and same with Gail. I mean, so I think the joys were not working in isolation, working in community. There were other film-makers also very much involved, Nikki Harmon was assistant director, so being a part… Tina Morton filmed and edited the closing dance sequence with myself and Tamara, so that was a magical experience the three of us working on that together. I mean, it was powerful in many, many ways.

Aishah (24:42):

There were fights, disagreements, space taking, all of that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, because I think that sometimes we think that collaboration should be an easy road, and I don’t think it… it doesn’t have to be easy. We’re different people with different experiences, different visions, different viewpoints, different perspectives. It’s not about me becoming you or you becoming me. It’s hopefully about hearing each other’s perspectives and visions and seeing, where’s the common ground? Is there common ground? As I said, at the end of the day the buck stopped with me in terms of the final decision. But for me, even just the process of NO! was very much a… I would ask the questions during the interviews but it was a closed set. Most of them particularly were the survivors.

Aishah (25:39):

But then after I asked the questions, what would happen was that I would then ask the crew if they would be willing, if they had questions that they wanted to ask. I think that that’s very much a part of feminist… that’s a part of feminism. Having scholar advisors, particularly the late Dr. Aaronette M. White who died suddenly from a aneurysm in 2012. I mean, I can’t imagine NO! without Aaronette White, without Dr. Janelle White, without Dr. Elsa Barkley Brown in terms of them helping me figure out the direction. Helping when I would come back to them saying, “Well, this is the research and work.” Really working with dedicated scholar activists. These women have dedicated their scholarship, their graduate work, their postgraduate work, all of that around these issues. To be able to tap into them and to learn from them, and then apply what I learned from them to the work.

Aishah (26:44):

As I said, it wasn’t easy. But it was joyous in the way in which that even in those difficult moments, I felt that I stretched, I evolved, I transformed, and I think by extension, so did NO!. I mean, I’m glad it’s over [inaudible]. It was 11 years, and 10 years later I feel like I’ve recuperated from NO!, It was hard. Because it wasn’t just the collaborative work, it was also the raising of the damn money. Part of the reason it took so long was to raise that money. Also though that was the gift. Because I didn’t have the money, it forced me to have to think out of the box, back to speculative fiction, “How can I make this film a reality?” It meant that I was dependent upon the community, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, that names me.

Aishah (27:39):

Yes, ultimately I received huge funding from the Ford Foundation when NO! was completed in terms of for post… not post production but for sub-tiling and other important things, but in terms of… I did receive grants and funding from the Valentine Foundation. Astraea Lesbian Action Foundation for Justice was the first foundation that gave money, Sonia Sanchez. I mean, I know Bagwell and Pat Clark, a couple, they gave considerable amount of money towards NO! Sonia Sanchez was the first individual to give money. It was a community. For me, and I think this is really important, it meant that I was accountable to the community, and the community was accountable to me. In a sense being that often when we get funding from grants, foundations, and funds, it’s usually about how can I fit my proposal, my vision into what they have decided are their funding priorities?

Aishah (28:40):

So many of us, we have to jump through hoops, and usually we can figure it out, but this was a little different. When somebody is like, “Here is a dollar or a euro or,” and I was making NO! before the euro, so a franc in terms of the European currencies. “We are supporting your film,” or to have queer and feminist and sometimes feminist queer Europeans, and when I say Europeans I don’t mean just white Europeans. I’m talking about Arab women, Ethiopian women, Caribbean women, Sub-Saharan African women in Europe, bringing me to Europe to screen the rough cut, paying me, and using that opportunity to talk about sexual violence in their own marginalized communities in Europe. So that NO!, before it was done, was already an educational fundraising tool.

Aishah (29:35):

I could then use that money that I received in Europe or from speaking engagements at colleges and universities in this country, and put it back into NO!. I mean, of course it would have been great to get that big grant immediately, and I’m saying this on the other end, many single digits, popcorn dinners later. NO! is a better film because of that struggle. I am not romanticizing struggle and I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through. But I just say in terms of my own personal journey, it is a better film because if I’d gotten that grant right away in 1995, six when I was applying, I would not have included the voices of cisgender men, straight and queer. It would have been maybe a 30-minute film, definitely not 90 minutes. I wouldn’t have talked about enslavement and lynching.

Aishah (30:26):

Because I thought initially that all I needed to focus on was contemporary issues. I didn’t know that it was important to look at sexual violence and race and gender in this country historically through present day. I didn’t understand that at that moment in time when I didn’t get that grant, that was important. But it was the screenings and these discussions when people would say, “How are you going to talk about a brother when he’s already been enslaved?” Oh, I was making NO! right in the height of Clarence Thomas, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson. Three people who are still in the news many years later. But the height of that stuff in the 90s, so it was really like,

[inaudible 00:31:06]

. It was really like, oh, I am out to destroy black men by making this film. When I was like, “No, I’m out to heal the black community and hold perpetrators responsible and accountable for the violence that they are causing, not only against women and children, but against the community.”

Cathy Hannabach (31:25):

What are you working on now?

Aishah (31:31):

I’m one of eight queer… well, now everybody’s queer. I’m one of eight child sexual abuse survivors of color, many of whom are queer, but not all of us are, who are funded by the Just Beginnings collaborative, which is funded by the NoVo foundation. We each received a two-year fellowship to focus on our own individual projects to eradicate child sexual abuse. My project is called Love WITH Accountability. It will be a multimedia campaign that will examine and explore how accountability is a form of radical love needed to end child sexual abuse. This will include an online forum of writings by survivors and other practitioners around, what is their vision about Love WITH Accountability? How can we use accountability and make the direct link to love?

Aishah (32:46):

Because so often when we’re talking about CSA, that so often children, adult survivors, and I’m a survivor of incest and child sexual abuse, the discussion is, “Oh, if you loved your family, if you loved this person, then you would be silent.” I really want to flip that on its head and say, “No, actually. It is, we have to talk about this.” Talking about this and addressing it is a form of radical love and accountability.

Aishah (33:20):

The fellowship happened, it was from January of 2016 through December of 2017. At the point that I received the fellowship, I already was a Sterling Brown visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, so I was part-time on the fellowship from January to June. While there I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz who at the time was a junior and she was my research assistant. That was really a tremendous gift to work with her and doing a lot of research around what is already out there around child sexual abuse, specifically in black communities? What’s been done? Not only in terms of research and stuff, but also popular culture. Are there popular books out there, popular songs, are there celebrities who are talking about this?

Aishah (34:12):

That is what, in terms of my first six months, has been the energy that’s been focused on that. Beginning in July, which is now, I will then move into being full-time working on this work and hopefully will be partnering with other individuals and institutions in terms of looking at this work. I’m not sure if it will ultimately be a film, I know video will be a part of it. I will have a Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook page connected to that. Right now they’re shells, but they will be up and running, and as well as a website. I’m looking forward to having, in the future next year, convenings connected to this.

Aishah (34:58):

I don’t have the answers. I’m envisioning the world that I want to live in or that I want future generations to live in in terms of one without child sexual abuse. But I have some ideas and what I see and hope and envision for Love WITH Accountability is that, that will be one of many sites, particularly along with those of the members of my cohort in the Just Beginnings collaborative inaugural cohort, where we’re tackling this issue. As somebody who struggled from 1994 through 2006 when NO! was finished, and then after NO! was finished still struggling, I can’t even underscore what a profound gift it is to receive the amount of funding that I’m receiving to be able to solely focus on my work. That so often for so long I’ve had to focus on my literal survival while also creating the work, and I did it. I’m just really grateful for this opportunity to do this work and not have to worry about how I’m going to live.

Aishah (36:07):

I’m also clear that this opportunity is as a result of the years of struggle, of the years of activism and work that I’ve created. I have an immense amount of gratitude and I also acknowledge that it is a result of 20 years of being in this movement as a cultural worker doing this work. I will also continue my work as an associate editor of The Feminist Wire, which is great and amazing feminist online news site that I’m really happy to be a part of for, this is the fourth year. I had the opportunity to co-create many online forums, on Audre Lorde, on Toni Cade Bambara with Heidi Renee Lewis as well as on June Jordan. My next forum that I will definitely be doing will be on Love WITH Accountability. I’m really excited about what the future has in store around this work.

Aishah (37:11):

I also want to just put a plug in for a new anthology that just came out called Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement, which is edited by Jennifer Patterson. It’s hot off the press. It is the first book of its kind of writings by, and about, and for LGBTQ queer survivors of sexual violence. Because so often we’ve been silent, because people think, “Oh, that’s why we’re that way.” Or the movements have not included our voices, because it’s been focused on heterosexual, cisgender, sexual violence which I will say that NO! definitely focuses on that. This is a space where our voices are being amplified. For me, it’s the first time that I’ve written in detail about my being a survivor of child sexual abuse. It feels really powerful that the book was released in May 2016 and that Love WITH Accountability is being launched in 2016. For me, there’s some really powerful synergy there.

Cathy Hannabach (38:17):

This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people. You’ve kind of touched on it a little bit, but I’m going to just ask you directly. What kind of world do you want? What’s that world that you’re working towards when you create your art, when you teach your students, when you collaborate with others on activist projects, in art projects? What kind of world do you want?

Aishah (38:42):

I’m a 14-year practitioner of the passion of meditation in a lineage taught by the late S. N. Goenka. I bring that up because I have been fortunate to be able to sit many 10-day meditation courses as well as one or two, a 30-day course, a 20-day course, to just be in silent meditation for 12 hours a day. No talking, reading, no music and just meditating and observing within. When I think about those experiences and thinking about, unfortunately it is a privilege to be able to get off the grid completely and do that. I think a lot about the world that I want to live in, that I want to co-create and really for me, I want a world without violence. I think about what recently transpired at Pulse, Orlando and then all of the violence that we don’t even hear about in this country, racial, gender, sexuality.

Aishah (39:55):

I just finished watching this incredible five part series O.J.: Made in America. God knows I’m tired of O.J., but just what Ezra Edelman did in terms of really contextualizing not only O.J., but just race in this country, masculinity, white supremacy. I bring that up because I’ve just been like, I want to co-create and live in a world where we can really dismantle this stuff. That we can dismantle racism, we can dismantle white supremacy, and transphobia, and homophobia, and heterosexism, and where indigenous peoples have access to their land. Where people who are immigrants do not have to fear being deported. Where I don’t have to fear being raped, beaten, shot because of my race, because of my gender, because of my sexual orientation. Where people who are put in charge of children as caretakers, as educators, whatever, are not going to harm them.

Aishah (41:00):

I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of that creation, and I see NO!: The Rape Documentary, my film, as part of that, I affirm that Love WITH Accountability will be a part of that. But I see this work as all hands on deck. My lens is gender and sexual violence, that’s my lens. But through that, I see so many other issues, education, police brutality, it’s all interconnected. Somebody else’s lens, it may be police brutality, it may be incarceration, it may be education, it may be economics or Hollywood. What I want to see is a collaborative effort, not only in this country, but definitely in this country because it is one of the empires and what we do impacts so much in this country.

Aishah (41:47):

Even those of us who are the most marginalized, just, if we could in our own way, however small, do whatever we can to dismantle this horror, nightmare, that was created on the confiscated land of indigenous people and backs of enslaved folks, and immigrants. Not only people of color, but Eastern European. I mean, just so many folks who have come here a lot under… not because they want to necessarily, but particularly those of color. I include our recent immigrants, our brothers and sisters from south of this border. This is forced migration as a result of foreign policies that have disrupted what was going on in South and Central America. I want my work, my activism, my scholarship to play a role in creating a world where all beings are safe and free, where love is a human right and not a privilege.

Cathy Hannabach (43:01):

I want that too. I think a lot of our listeners would agree and I think that is an absolutely fantastic point to end on. Thank you so much for being with us, for sharing about your past work, about your present projects and giving us a incredibly generous and vivid way to think about what it means to imagine otherwise.

Aishah (43:27):

Thank you Cathy. And may I share the NO! website?

Cathy Hannabach (43:31):

Oh yeah.

Aishah (43:31):

Okay. For people who are interested in NO! The Rape Documentary, you can go to and then from there links to everything else will be there. But,

Cathy Hannabach (43:47):

Perfect, and that’ll be in the show notes as well.

Aishah (43:49):

Oh great.

Cathy Hannabach (43:50):

Thanks so much.

Aishah (43:51):

Thank you very much.

Cathy Hannabach (43:53):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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