Kim Trent, woman behind African American 490 Challenge
Kim Trent, a sexual assault survivor, had made it her mission to make sure Detroit’s rape victims are not forgotten
While dining at Supimo Pizzeria in Eastern Market, a woman approached Kim Trent and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. They could tell she wanted to say something, but was holding back. Finally, the woman spoke.
“I just want to say thank you. You changed my life.”
The woman’s rape kit was among the first to be tested in a backlog of 11,341 unopened rape kits found seven years ago in Detroit. Her attacker was a serial rapist who was sent to prison after she pressed charges.
“This is someone who was not going to stop raping women,” says Trent, president of the African American 490 Challenge, a fundraising campaign to get the rape kits tested. “She said to me, ‘I’m more angry about my kit than I am about the rape now. The kit actually pissed me off more because I just feel like the people who should have protected me, abandoned me.’ ”
Trent was angry, too, and felt empowered to help the 11,340 other women, men and children whose rape kits collected dust on Detroit Police shelves for decades.
The native Detroiter has taken up causes from affirmative action to saving a black-owned book store from closing. The untested rape kits, however, hit close to home.
“When you talk about 11,341 kits not getting processed,” Trent pauses, shaking her head. “That makes a statement about how women are valued by our city.”
Elected to the Wayne State Board of Governors in 2012, Trent also is a policy associate for the Ann Arbor think tank Michigan Future Inc. She is the former southeast Michigan director for Gov. Jennifer Granholm; a former Detroit News reporter; wife to a man who cooks her breakfast every morning; mother to an 8-year-old son; and a sexual assault survivor, who, until speaking at a Take Back the Night event in April, suppressed her story for nearly 30 years.
“When she decides something is going to get done, no is not an option,” says author and former journalist Desiree Cooper.
Channeling anger into a cause
Peg Tallet, the Michigan Women’s Foundation chief community engagement officer, invited Trent to breakfast after the foundation, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and Detroit Crime Commission kicked off Enough SAID (Enough Sexual Assault in Detroit) in January — a campaign to raise money to test the unopened rape kits found in 2009 and prosecute the perpetrators of the forgotten crimes.
Tallet wanted Trent to galvanize black women leaders around the issue and help raise money. Each kit costs $490 to test, but investigations require an estimated $10 million. At the time, Trent had a 6-year-old, a full-time job and sat on more boards than she could count. The cause was important, but she didn’t think she had the bandwidth to lead the charge.
Then she had a Facebook discussion about comedian Bill Cosby and the alleged sexual assault victims. And it got nasty.
“The way people were talking about the alleged victims was just disturbing,” says Trent, 47. “It spoke to real acceptance of rape culture in a way that was really jarring for me. These are people I like and respect that I was arguing with.”
Recounting the story between bites of fresh fruit at the Dime Store in Detroit, Trent, an Elmwood Park resident, says she decided to do something constructive with her emotions. “I do my best work when I’m angry,” she says.
So she posted on Facebook that she was going to take a leadership role with the rape kit issue.
Former state Rep. Maureen Stapleton and Darci McConnell, a former Detroit News reporter, president of a Detroit-based communications firm and a sexual assault survivor, were the first women who messaged back, asking how they could help.
Their first planning meeting was in September. Tallet remembers Trent calling her beforehand, inquiring if she knew how many victims in the backlog were African-American women. Tallet knew: 81 percent.
“She said, ‘OK, I have to help.’ She put together this strategy, and it was just brilliant because it included sororities, service groups, politicians and corporate leadership,” Tallet says. “... It was like someone opening the doors for us.”
The next month, a band of high-profile and grass-root black women stood in front of the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs to launch the campaign they named the African American 490 Challenge.
“We had 100 black women there on those steps, and that’s the kind of stuff that gives you goosebumps,” says McConnell, who doesn’t like news conferences and originally fought against the idea. “Thankfully I was wrong this time, because you can’t recreate that (moment). ... There was all these layers of impact, power, history.”
Ensuring justice for all
About 2 in 3 women don’t report rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Trent is included in that statistic.
“I got in the shower for 25 minutes, and then I spent the next few years just trying to forget,” Trent says.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a survivor who’s been at the helm of the rape kit cases, didn’t report either. She woke up in the hospital after a violent assault, not knowing who the attacker was.
“Back in the ’80s, I very much believed the stereotypes, and I very much thought it would derail my whole life,” Worthy says.
Though Trent’s efforts caused sexual assault awareness “to skyrocket in the African-American community,” Worthy says, more work has to be done to educate the country.
“A few years from now, I hope to look back and say that we’ve completed the project and all the victims have gotten justice,” she says, “but even more ... that the stereotypical things that stopped women from reporting will be a thing of the past.”
“We have to start changing our attitudes about this,” Trent says.
While raising $657,000 by the end of the year is a goal of the AA490 Challenge — they’ve raised over $300,000 so far — she says another is to “create a space where women who do report feel like something is going to happen or at least people will investigate and there’s a possibility that attackers will face justice.”
Thanks to Worthy’s efforts, a state law enacted in 2014 mandates rape kits to be tested within 90 days, so there will never be another backlog.
Wayne State social work professor Larmender Davis, a AA490 Challenge core committee member who founded the Detroit domestic violence agency Serenity Services, says the law is imperative so survivors have closure and resolution.
“I’ve seen where people are like ‘No, I’m not going. You can’t make me go. I want to put it behind me,’ ” she says. “So for someone to take that extra step and actually go through the test, and then for that test to go nowhere, you’ve been victimized twice.”
‘Being the change ...’
Raised in Highland Park, Trent’s parents cultivated her social activism, but her grandmother, Maxine Walton, was her hero. Walton attended Howard University and received her master’s degree from the University of Michigan, which Trent notes is “pretty unusual” for a black woman in the 1940s.
“I miss her everyday,” she says.
Trent says she’s been “blessed” by the women mentors who took her under their wings: Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who Trent represented as her communications director; Annette Rainwater, founder of the National Congress of Black Women; and Llenda Jackson-Leslie, past president of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She calls Sen. Debbie Stabenow “the bee’s knees.”
“She is a natural-born leader,” says Stabenow, who chose Trent as her Detroit regional manager from 2003-2007. “She’s very committed, very passionate, a wonderful advocate for Detroit, from her head to her toes.”
She adds that Trent’s work bringing justice for women is an example of “being the change you want to see in the world.”
“These are our mothers, sisters, daughters, it could be ourselves,” Stabenow says, “so I think it is just a very powerful example of stepping up and caring about someone else.”
Raina Harris, Trent’s sister, who’s two years younger, calls Trent her role model.
“Anything she does and commits to she gives 3,000 percent of herself to it,” Harris says.
Trent’s husband, author and communications consultant Ken Coleman — a former journalist who met Trent through the National Association of Black Journalists in the early ’90s — says helping the community is “second nature” to her.
“My line I often say about Kim is if there isn’t a committee meeting tonight, she’ll call one to order,” he says, laughing.
Not just a Detroit problem
From the roughly 10,000 tested rape kits, prosecutors have convicted 54 people and identified 765 serial rapists, including 50 men who raped between 10 and 15 women, according to Trent. When the kits entered the Combined DNA Index System, which compares DNA data nationwide, the samples matched attackers in 39 other states.
“People are going to other places and committing other rapes. Anybody who thinks this is just a Detroit problem, it’s not,” Trent says, “it’s not.”
A realist, Trent knows the millions needed to prosecute cases won’t be raised by the AA490 Challenge alone, even though 100-plus women are spearheading several fundraisers a month and donations have funneled in from 13-year-old Joshua Smith generating $1,387 from a lemonade stand to Grammy award-winner Erykah Badu’s concert in Chene Park on Friday that raised over $50,000.
After the concert, Badu announced she plans to donate a portion of proceeds from every show on her tour until AA490 reaches its goal.
“My eyes filled with tears,” Trent says. “I had no expectations of that at all — that was the high point of this entire campaign.”
Despite Badu’s generosity, Trent says the government is going to have to step up more. “The total amount that’s needed, we can’t raise from private dollars,” Trent says.
“We shouldn’t have to raise this money, but we can’t turn our back on these survivors.”
African American 490 Challenge Fundraisers
Jazzy Summer Nights
featuring Rich Willis & The Chillin’ Circuit Band
6:30-10 p.m. Aug. 16
Roberts RiverWalk Hotel, 1000 River Place Drive, Detroit
$15 at the door
’80s vs ’90s Skating Party
4:30-6:30 p.m. Aug. 21
Northland Roller Rink
22311 W. 8 Mile, Detroit
Tickets $7 online at aa490challenge.org (click “donate” for tickets)
’In the Cut’ 5K Fun Run/Walk
9 a.m. Sept. 3
2600 Atwater, Detroit
Up to $10 from every participant registered with an Enough SAID AA490 team will be donated to the campaign. Register at inthecut5K.com.
Want to donate to the AA490 Challenge? Visit aa490challenge.org.