Kalimah Johnson: Helping Black women feel 'sacred, safe, revered'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Kalimah Johnson built a foundation on what she knows about working with sexual assault survivors when she served as a therapist and social worker for the Detroit Police Department's rape counseling center.

During those 10 years, she began to develop a deeper understanding of how Black women talk about rape and other trauma.

"What I was learning... is we don't talk about it enough," said Johnson. "There are plenty of opportunities for us to talk not just about sexual assault but also healthy sexuality, healthy masculinity and... recognizing what it means to be in this country as a result of us being here because we were enslaved. All of this has an impact on how we see and talk about sexual assault, and it also has an impact on our help-seeking behaviors."

These are some of the reasons Johnson founded and is now the executive director of the SASHA Center (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing And Awareness)

For the past decade, the Detroit-based nonprofit has offered services that are rare across the country: It provides support groups for integrating the trauma caused by sexual assault, especially for African American women. The SASHA Center also develops culturally specific prevention and education programs, including for men.

Johnson's work is why The Detroit News is honoring her as a 2020 Michiganian of the Year.

"I believe with my whole soul that healing is possible, particularly in communities of color, specifically in the African American community," said Johnson, a Detroiter..

Johnson knows it's possible because she is a survivor of sexual assault, and healed on her own. 

Kalimah Johnson, founder and executive director, Sasha Center, Detroit. The Mission at the SASHA Center is to increase awareness, provide resources and educate the public about sexual assault, provide culturally specific peer support groups to self identified survivors of rape and to increase justice and visibility for survivors in Southeast Michigan.

"What some folks don't know is that Black women have been healing for a long time, but no one has asked them how," Johnson said. "I developed the SASHA Center so Black women can come and tell us (how to heal); we use that and formalize it so Black women can use it from now on."

The SASHA Center has developed a model known as the Black Women's Triangulation of Rape, which highlights barriers Black women face when sexually assaulted, including stereotyping, oversexualizing, cultural appropriation and systemic barriers.

"Black women carry with them the historical understanding of Black men being accused of rape — of white women particularly — and lynched in this country, and they didn't do it," Johnson said. "And we have this memory of Emmett Till and understanding of Black communities being overpoliced, and then when sometimes the police show up, innocent people die."

Johnson has been tapped by professional sports leagues to work with athletes on issues of sexual assault, consent and dating violence. She has worked for the Detroit Lions and is a consultant on relationship safety and management with the National Basketball Association.

Kim Trent — deputy director of prosperity for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity — is a Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister of Johnson's, and  said Johnson has the keenest understanding of the intersection of sexual assault, Black culture and the issues faced by survivors.

"She is one of the most effective advocates and healer," Trent said. "She is a healer. I really see her as a healer for survivors."

Johnson has touched hundreds of lives, but said her work is far from done.

"I want to leave a legacy," she said. "It is my goal to make sure that every Black woman is sacred, safe, revered, honored and cherished in everything that she does, in everything that she shows up in and that she is believed, and that she is trusted and that she is worthy and valuable. I will spend the rest of my life doing that."

Kalimah Johnson

Age: 52

Occupation: Social worker

Education: Wayne State University

Family: Single

Why honored: For founding the SASHA Center (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing And Awareness)