Thee following stories were compiled by the Women’s Prison Association for HelloBeautiful. The Women’s Prison Association (WPA) is a service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice involvement realize new possibilities for themselves and their families. WPA utilizes evidence-based, gender-specific tools designed to address the many circumstances that lead women into the criminal justice system. In doing so, we successfully provide tailored services to women and their families before, during, after, and even instead of incarceration. WPA envisions a community where our reliance on incarceration as the default response to crime has been replaced by constructive, community-driven responses.

The women featured below are graduates of WPA’s Women’s Leadership & Media Project, a training program for formerly incarcerated women who seek to achieve criminal justice reform.

Kamilah, 23

Kamilah

Source: Courtesy of the Women’s Prison Association

Where I’m from: I am of West Indian descent. First generation born here. Straight out of the Bronx.

What specific experience triggered your trauma?: There were quite a few.  I was raped by my teenage cousin when I was 13. That’s actually how I lost my virginity, but when I was about 16, I got raped by a stranger. That one cut me the deepest. We had a mutual friend on Facebook. Turned out she only knew him from Facebook, but we had built a rapport online, strictly platonic. He invited me to a cookout and to meet his newborn.  So I went to his friend’s house, chilled with the baby, his mom picked up the baby and we went to his house so he could change his clothes.  He got out of the shower, got dressed and started to flirt with me. When I declined his advances, he raped me and took me to the bus stop. I just cried the whole way home.

When did you become aware that you were suffering from trauma?: It took me many, many years to even call my experiences “rape.”  One specific memory comes to mind: the man who raped me lived nearby, but I never saw him again after that day. About a year or two ago, he got on a train I was on. It was packed and he was on the opposite end, but immediately my hands were shaking. My heart dropped and my legs went numb. I had sworn I’d gotten over it. Tears streamed down my face and I began texting my sister.  That was a big eye-opener for me.

Have you spoken to a professional about your experience? If so, has it helped you find a way to cope with what happened? If not, do you believe medical attention unnecessary or is there a particular reason that is holding you back?: Absolutely and yes it has. It’s taught me a lot about myself and what’s expected of me in society.  She is teaching me to prioritize what I expect of myself instead.  It’s making me a better parent and partner.

Who/What do/did you turn to in moments when you are triggered or find yourself in a negative head space?: Back then, not much. I suffered from depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety for a long time.  Now, I turn to my ancestors, my mom, my friends and siblings. I turn to the people who love me most. Sometimes, I call or text my therapist, but my ancestors have carried me through raging waters.They got my back.They always grant me clarity, wisdom, and peace.

What do you do to celebrate yourself in spite of what you’ve been through?: In order to celebrate myself, I smile, I laugh, I get tattoos, piercings, and elaborate nails. I have great sex with my fiancé despite my past experiences. I maintain a 3.4 GPA and I still reject respectability politics. I love on black girls because the rest of the world doesn’t. I work with organizations that want to make this world a better place. I take care of my family and put tons of effort into raising my little boy. That’s how I celebrate, by living my best life in spite of everything that tried to break me.

Do you feel there is enough awareness around trauma?: Well, I think that’s only half of the problem.  Historically, we as black people were taught to suffer in silence. That turned into a cultural norm. The other part is that society has dehumanized every aspect of blackness, so even when people are aware of our traumas they don’t see it as a tragedy. It’s like trying to convince people to have compassion for inanimate objects.

What do you want people to know about you as a survivor of trauma?: I want people to know that I cannot be silenced. Being a whistleblower can be a thankless job sometimes, but I will continue to speak up even as I look adversity square in the eye.

What would be the one word that describes you as a survivor of trauma?: Resilient. I have an Afro Samurai woman tattooed as a symbol of that. Also, I have a Koi fish done on my back because they swim against the current, as do I. My newest tattoo is actually in honor of sexual violence survivors. It says, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” that’s a poem by Tupac about the beauty of tenacity.

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