Elle Travis: A voice from the Detroit rape kit backlog
Detroit — It was during the first week of January 2016 when Elle Travis got a phone call from Detroit police, asking her if she remembered what had happened seven years earlier on Dec. 3, 2008.
Travis broke down and cried, telling the officer that she had been raped at knifepoint that morning — the first time she had said those words in seven years.
Travis can recite other dates, including May 19, 2017, when a jury found the man she said assaulted her and other women not guilty.
As one of the more than 11,000 victims whose rape kits were abandoned and went untested in Detroit for years, Travis is one of the voices from the backlog — and has amplified it as a black woman in a movement that has been spotlighted predominantly by white women.
She said her effort to find justice after her rape kit was shelved was paramount for her and the community.
"I haven't had any sleep in years," said Travis. "I'm exhausted. I just hope I can finally sleep without any nightmares, without any flashbacks, without any fear."
But she is driven more by changing the culture around rape — and the reason she, and other black woman, were not believed.
"It’s more than just stockpiled rape kits," Travis said. "It was a silencing. We were silenced. We were dehumanized, me and the other survivors of the backlog."
"Because of my skin color, it’s hard for me to be portrayed as a victim,” she said. "Black people are criminalized at every turn. Even our children are criminalized. Our women are over-sexualized. So when we say we were assaulted, it’s almost a joke because of how we are portrayed in society. I think that’s the major reason why the backlog happened."
While Travis, 32, is a survivor of two rapes, she has journeyed from being a victim to an advocate. She is a poet, community organizer and among the most outspoken among the victims of Detroit’s rape kit backlog.
"Voices from the backlog, I am evidence 2," said Travis, reciting one of her poems recently at an event she organized at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "Thrown away like garbage. No justice, thanks to you. Voices from the backlog, I am evidence 2. Evidence that was shelved, hidden from our view."
Travis' activism comes in the era of the #MeToo movement and the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.
It also comes as black women are most often victimized by sexual assault: 22% of black women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes, compared with 18.8% of white women and 14.6% of Hispanic women, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia.
Her voice is critical in the conversation around rape, said Rebecca Campbell, an MSU psychology professor and national expert on sexual assault.
"Some of the loudest voices that have been picked up and carried by the media are white women," Campbell said. "Women of color have been doing this work forever. Women of color are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence."
Campbell noted that the #MeToo movement was founded by Tarana Burke, an African-American woman who started using the phrase in 2006 before it was launched into a global phenomenon in 2017.
Campbell also pointed to the work done by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who led efforts to work through Detroit's rape kit backlog.
"She is a national voice on the issue of sexual assault and prosecutorial investment, investment for staff, advocating for increased funding from the county and making sure that staff has best practice training on these issues," Campbell said.
Another prominent voice in the African-American community around sexual assault is Kalimah Johnson, executive director of Detroit's SASHA Center.
Johnson founded the center, which stands for Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness, in 2010 to offer culturally specific services to sexual assault survivors from the African American community.
"We developed a model of black women’s triangulation of rape," Johnson said. "It talks about the experience of black women around racism, stereotyping, oppression, the 'no snitch code.' Also, the legacy of slavery has an impact on current-day women in terms of our bodies."
The ancestors of many black women in Detroit migrated from the South, and with that comes attitudes that get passed down from generations, such as black women are supposed to be strong and not supposed to tell anyone about pain, Johnson said.
Johnson also hailed the voice of Travis, saying she was someone who needed to speak for the thousands of other victims who were part of the backlog.
"In her heart, she believes that survivors whose kits were processed deserve justice," said Johnson.
Travis has used social media to further her activism and spoken at many events, including a commemoration scheduled for Wednesday by Worthy to mark the 10-year anniversary of the discovery of the untested rape kits. Travis also will host an event on Saturday at Wayne County SAFE, a nonprofit that works with rape victims, to celebrate the voices from the backlog.
"I might not have been able to get justice for myself," said Travis. "But I will fight and make sure this won't happen again, as far as the backlog, and every factor for the reason why we didn't get justice is eradicated to make sure that future rape victims and survivors, no matter how long it takes, they can have a chance at justice."