“I was motivated by a desire to address my problem before it swallowed me whole”

The following is a Flintside opinion piece by contributor Qiana Towns. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected]

CW: Sexual assault

FLINT, Michigan -- At 22 years old, I was sexually assaulted. Like 81.3 percent of female victims of rape (attempted or completed), I was under the age of 25. Like 40.8 percent of female victims, I was acquainted with my attacker. Through the support of the YWCA’s Victim Advocacy program, I found hope and solace. At 22, I could not imagine anything useful would come from my experience or that someday it would all come full circle.

Qiana TownsIt is not an easy thing to discuss. However, as a writer and an advocate, I understand the necessity and the power of sharing our truths. Our stories are a means of unifying and healing our communities and ourselves. They are not always pretty and light. Sometimes there’s grit and darkness. There are also times when our stories seem insignificant or irrelevant. But I believe this: there is healing in the telling and as Bob Dylan once sang, “I go right where all things lost are made good again.”

I had not created the circumstance but, like so many violated people, I blamed myself. I was mentally and emotionally unprepared to deal with the fallout of sexual assault. I was terrified the person who attacked me would return to take my life. Fear and anger kept me awake at night and mentally paralyzed during the day. I did not know where to begin the process of healing or seeking justice. I had to figure out how to keep the experience from consuming my life. Except, I did not know how to do that either.

I reflect now on that time in my life and celebrate my own willingness to find a path forward. I sought support from the YWCA’s Victim Advocacy program and I remember the call as a moment of reckoning. It was a deliberate attempt to stand up for myself. I did not think of myself as brave; I was more afraid than I can articulate. But I was motivated by a desire to address my problem before it swallowed me whole.

I could not have known my experience would serve as a catalyst. I would not have imagined years later I would be invited to join the organization’s Board of Directors. I did not imagine ever--not ever—I would be elected to serve as Vice President of the Board or that I would be invited to serve as co-chair of the organization’s largest fundraiser, Circle Luncheon. Nonetheless, I am here and wholly committed to our mission to eliminate racism and empower women. As the women before me have often said, “When life gives you lemons, make a cup of tea and get back to work.”

Flint’s YWCA was established in 1908 through the unyielding efforts of Ms. Nina Mills. It currently serves about 2,500 individuals each year. In the past several years, there has been an upsurge in individuals serviced by the organization. Current CEO Michelle Rosynsky attributes the increase to heightened awareness of services and “the support of community partners including law enforcement, hospitals, service agencies, and the prosecuting attorney’s office.”

The YWCA Greater Flint is the only organization in Genesee County that offers comprehensive services for intimate partner violence and sexual assault victims through the following services and programs:

  • Crisis Counseling - Following an empowerment model, counselors provide crisis intervention and supportive services to survivors. They assist with safety planning, identification of resources, and other support based on individual needs.

  • Victim Advocacy - Advocates provide information about the criminal justice system and court support. They assist with preparing and filing personal protection orders & work with local police jurisdictions who receive domestic violence and sexual assault complaints.

  • SafeHouse Shelter - A 32-bed facility that provides temporary shelter and supportive services to survivors of intimate partner violence and their minor children.

  • SAFE Center - In 2017, the YWCA began offering free rape examinations on site with 24-hour access to specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE).

  • Crisis Line - Trained staff are available 24/7 to respond to crisis phone calls, schedule appointments, provide information and referrals, and assist survivors with the intake process for the SafeHouse.

  • Prevention Education - The YWCA actively works to educate the community about the dynamics of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, and healthy relationships.

While the COVID-19 global pandemic has affected nearly every part of our world and shattered any semblance of normalcy, the board members and staff at the YWCA Greater Flint have been determined to stay the course. Delivery methods have been modified and safety measures have been implemented, but the goals are the same. The YWCA of Greater Flint is, “On the Move!”

For 22 years, the Circle Luncheon has been the organization’s largest fundraiser. Community partners and friends are invited to donate to benefit our Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services. The event allows attendees an opportunity to engage with others who believe in the mission of the YWCA. Past speakers for the Circle Luncheon include Elizabeth Smart, Naomi Tutu, Ilyasah Shabazz, and Erin Brockovich. This year’s “luncheon” will be virtual; our esteemed speaker is four-time Emmy-award winner Sunny Hostin. Hostin is an attorney, an executive producer, and co-host of ABC’s daytime talk show The View.

My co-chair Shannon Polk is Associate Pastor at Riverside Tabernacle. She has worked as a diversity and inclusion consultant for public and private organizations and is the current President of Junior League of Flint. Polk says collaborative work between the YW and Junior League lead to her role as co-chair of Circle Luncheon. She is especially excited to hear Sunny Hostin speak at the event. “I look forward to hearing [Hostin] talk about how her identities intersect and how she manages leadership and self-care,” Polk said. “I am looking forward to hearing her, especially with the Y’s emphasis on empowerment and leadership among women. I want to hear what that looks like to her.” She describes the YW as a place that promotes dialogue, “a space tuned in to reconciliation.

“Having places that address comorbidities is good for Black women and good for our community.”

The YWCA Greater Flint is proud to be one of those spaces. Our commitment to women’s empowerment, racial justice, and social justice has grown in these challenging times.

“In collaboration with our community partners and friends of the YWCA, we are currently working on some exciting new projects around women’s empowerment and racial and gender equity and look forward to expanding our services in the new year…. stay tuned!,” Rosynsky said.

More immediately, it is not too late to join us for this year’s Circle Luncheon with guest speaker Sunny Hostin. The virtual event will be moderated by WJRT’s Dawn Jones. There is a $100 suggested donation. To register, visit the YWCA’s website and learn about sponsorship opportunities here.

Read more articles by Qiana Towns.