Recovered Histories of Anti-Rape Activism: Celebrating Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Intersectional Approaches

Originally published on The Feminist Wire

By The Feminist Wire Associate Editors

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We write in celebration of our visionary sister and comrade/comadre, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, black lesbian feminist, cultural worker, filmmaker, incest and rape survivor, and the creator of NO! The Rape Documentary (2006). This feature-length, internationally acclaimed, award-winning film, with Portuguese, French, and Spanish subtitles, a two-hour supplemental educational video, and an accompanying 100-page study guide (funded by the Ford Foundation and published in 2007), which includes national rape and sexual assault resources organized by state and a bibliographic treasure box of over 90 recommended readings – urges us to call rape out and end it. The latter she notes as a “non-negotiable necessity.”

NO! Production Still: featured Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, assistant director Nikki Harmon, set decorator Kia Steave-Dickerson_ associate producer /prod. manager Wadia Gardiner, Photographer ©1999

NO! Production Still: featured Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, assistant director Nikki Harmon, set decorator Kia Steave-Dickerson_ associate producer /prod. manager Wadia Gardiner, Photographer ©1999

We want to pause and acknowledge Simmons and this black feminist labor of love not only because she is a pioneer of the contemporary anti-violence movement, but because her work, which began in 1994, helps ground current moves to raise awareness about rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. More, Aishah Shahidah Simmons provides an opening to center and make present the continuum of too-often invisibilized feminist labors against rape, in which her work is deeply rooted and from which it emerges.

Recently, the #MeToo online movement has made space for women, some for the first time, to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Initially, the hashtag was incorrectly deemed to originate with actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Milano’s tweet was a response to rape allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. However, #MeToo was in fact created a decade ago as “me too” (not an online campaign) by Tarana Burke, who is currently program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity. And though the current iteration of #MeToo exemplifies a significant historical social media moment, it began as a grassroots social movement, with the aim of empowering young women of color sexual assault survivors.

#MeToo, though initially focused on young women of color, seems in the current moment to have transcended race. This matters. It matters because women of color have been doing the work of “me too” for a very long time. And yet even proper attribution, though important, fails to offer adequate recognition of so many other women. In contemporary viral moments, we routinely fail to note the intricate layers, nuances, and intersections of these voices and works across several decades of anti-rape activism. It also matters that Milano is an Italian American Hollywood actress, best known for television shows like Who’s the Boss?Melrose Place, and Charmed. It matters that she is an actress/activist who happens to have the ear not only of Hollywood but many Americans. Milano’s tweet calls rape culture back to consciousness in a very particular time in history, against a very famous white man – with very famous and mostly white survivors – and within the context of a “pussy grabbing” white nationalist hetero-patriarchal misogynist capitalist trans-antagonistic POTUS. The wide-ranging and fiery response to Milano’s tweet may very well be a covert way of saying #HimToo.

In short, Milano’s tweet likely caught on as it did not because critiques of rape culture are novel, but because hashtag activism makes anti-violence resistance accessible, easy to grasp, and contagious, and because who tweets about what, how we imagine the survivors, and who we visualize the perpetrator/s to be, matters. Still, online activism, with its tendency to strike quickly and then fade in response to moments such as this, is often ignorant of its historical precursors. Grounding viral moments in their historical, theoretical, and movement-based genealogies is critical, both to name the labor that made the moment possible and to ensure that discussions and actions continue beyond the Internet.

To be sure, online and hashtag activism may generate benefits, including providing discursive space. A great example is the Black Lives Matter network, which was first introduced to many of us as a hashtag. Notwithstanding BLM’s successes, some of the challenges of online and hashtag activism more broadly are that it erases herstories, movements, complexities, and laborers. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, #BlackLivesMatter developed out of longer and continuing movements of and for Black liberation. So too do contemporary incarnations of the anti-rape movement.  

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Toni Cade Bambara, & Kim Hinckson, 1994 courtesy: ©

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Toni Cade Bambara, & Kim Hinckson, 1994 courtesy: ©

#MeToo was not created in a vacuum. It is not a single story. And its focus is not limited to rich white cis men who victimize. The anti-rape movement is about the eradication of heteropatriarchal white supremacy writ large and its specific manifestations of sexual, gender, and racial violence. And if we look at the contributions of radical diverse women who have been fighting against rape culture for two centuries, we see the herstories of sexual violence across inter-racial, intra-racial, and intra-communal lines. It’s easy to critique white supremacy and white feminists for erasures and white men for rape. It’s more difficult to provide complex and winding history that forces us to broaden the map of violences and resistances, and engage intra-communally and historically.

It is not lost on us how the works of first-, second-, and third-wave black and of color feminists have been left out of the current discourse, or how Burke’s initial focus on young women of color and intra-racial rape in communities of color has been excised. Rape culture impacts all women. But what cannot be ignored is how the emphasis on “all women,” particularly in hashtag activism culture, tends to decenter black women and women of color, and how each have herstories of intersecting oppressions and violences that are overwhelmingly increased because of race, ethnicity, and gender reinforcing each other. Further, some women’s narratives of sexual violence have historically been disbelieved, and are still suspect now.

NO! Production Still: featured interviewee Barbara Smith and producer/director Aishah Shahidah Simmons)_Joan Brannon, photographer ©1999

NO! Production Still: featured interviewee Barbara Smith and producer/director Aishah Shahidah Simmons)_Joan Brannon, photographer ©1999

In fact, as Kimberlé Crenshaw argued in 1989, sex discrimination laws were put in place to protect white female sexuality/chastity (from black men), not to protect black women. Yet sexual violence was often the pretext for terrorizing black communities. She posits, “sexist expectations of chastity and racist assumptions of sexual promiscuity combined to create a distinct set of issues confronting black women.” That is, gender makes black women and girls susceptible to sex domination and violence, while blackness denies them state or local protection. Crenshaw notes that some courts went as far as to instruct juries that black women were not to be presumed chaste, leaving them to fend for themselves. Of course, the erasure of some survivors over others is nothing new. Similarly, the blotting out of black and of color anti-rape activists is not innocuous.

We understand anti-rape activism as the resistance to sexual coercion in daily practice and its institutionalized forms. Because rape, as Angela Y. Davis argued in 1978is the social relations of capitalism and a capitalist interstate system infused with patriarchy and racism, its existence is historic, intentional, and pervasive. Historically, anti-rape activism is present in the contexts of state-sanctioned sexual, gender, and racial violence during colonial and imperial conquests and acts of war; within institutions such as slavery, marriage, prison, health care, immigration, and education; and in the daily acts of our socio-economic and political interpersonal relationships. Anti-rape activism is fueled by and exists alongside sexual violence, be it within survivors alone, or in collectivity with others who strategize against harm. The politicization of our contemporary anti-rape movement is grounded in the global histories of decolonization and Third World Liberation, anti-slavery and abolitionary struggles, and U.S. anti-war, Black Power, civil and labor rights, Indigenous sovereignty, and feminist movements.  

NO! Production Still: producer/director Aishah Shahidah Simmons and featured interviewee Johnnetta Betsch Cole _Joan Brannon, Photographer ©1999

NO! Production Still: producer/director Aishah Shahidah Simmons and featured interviewee Johnnetta Betsch Cole _Joan Brannon, Photographer ©1999

The 1960s and 1970s are central to historic understanding of U.S. anti-rape activism, particularly in its institutional formations. The anti-violence work of these decades was deeply informed by Indigenous and Black women’s activism against white supremacist sexual coercion and exploitation that extends back into U.S. settler colonialism and slavery. These efforts developed hand in hand with women’s liberation movements toward greater economic, reproductive, sexual, and cultural autonomy. Anti-rape activism became entangled with other movements, including white middle-class women’s economic empowerment, in ways that made some pathways possible for these women while closing off opportunities for women of color and poor women.

Anti-rape activists for decades have worked, together and sometimes apart, to raise awareness of sexual violence and to strategize against it. Interventions have targeted “private” lives and political institutions, while at the same time challenging the divide between public and private. The Combahee River Collective, Flo Kennedy, June Jordan, This Bridge Called My Back, and many other anti-racist efforts pushed to account for the whiteness of the 1960s-1970s anti-rape movement, grounding the work in a more expansive understanding of slavery, settler colonialism, and imperialism that targets Black, Indigenous, Third World, women of color, and queer and gender non-conforming bodies. The movement was refigured again by the spread of neoliberalism and inclusion of anti-rape efforts inside institutions via Title IX and sexual harassment law, moves that reframed anti-rape as largely a middle-class white women’s concern. How, scholars and activists have asked, can the movement remain radical when funded by the State?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Black feminist scholar-activist Beverly Guy-Sheftall at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia_Michael Simmons, photographer ©1996

Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Black feminist scholar-activist Beverly Guy-Sheftall at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia_Michael Simmons, photographer ©1996

NO! The Rape Documentary (and its supplemental materials), as it explores the transnational operations, reality, and effects of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of violence committed against women and girls, and as it deploys first-person testimony, spirituality, activism, and the academic and cultural works of Black folk, is a continuation of historical work, particularly the intersectional lessons of Black feminists who laid the groundwork for anti-rape activism in Black and other communities. Simmons’s cinematically groundbreaking work is significant because it forces us to think about rape through BLACK women’s experiences and intra-communally. That is, it pushes us to call out and resist not only the Weinsteins in every industry but the Bill Cosbys and R. Kellys, too. It refuses invisibility, marginalization and/or tokenism and demands a social, political, cultural, ideological, structural, institutional, and interpersonal shift.

Earlier this year, Simmons gave a powerful presentation to students of all genders and sexualities at King-Drew Magnet High School in South Los Angeles, a predominantly Black and Latinx campus.  Simmons’ presentation was followed by student-led workshops on sexual violence, harassment, and rape culture conducted by youth from the Women’s Leadership Project.  Simmons’ statements on the connection between white supremacist hetero-normative violence and racialized sexual terrorism against girls of color resonated strongly with WLP students.  Twelfth grade student Drea Wooden noted that normalized sexual violence against Black girls and girls of color is seldom discussed on most school campuses.  Tenth grader Cheyanne Mclaren stressed that Simmons’ talk reaffirmed that “sexual violence is an important issue for communities of color because women of color are seen as lesser in value than white women and women of color aren’t getting the justice they deserve.”

WLP students, peer educator Issachar Curbeon, Aishah S. Simmons & TFW’s Sikivu Hutchinson

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We are celebrating Simmons because her work marks a pivotal moment in anti-rape activism. Because NO! let’s you know what you need to know fast” (“Because We”), and has inspired new generations of womanists and feminists to resist and take action against a global regime of sexual violence. Because she reminds us that all oppressions are linked. Because she holds us accountable to how we respond to sexual violence. Because she charts an Afro-futurist path for collectively doing things differently and imagining and realizing communities free of rape, assault, and incest.  Because this work was created in community for community. Because NO! centers and hopes to heal black and brown sacred flesh. Because Simmons has shown up for us and for survivors everywhere. Because when and where she enters, she brings all the anti-rape feminist and womanist foremothers, co-laborers, and survivors with her. Because Aishah Shahidah Simmons taught us that NO! is a complete sentence that not only explicitly names rape, which may sometimes be cause for erasure because language is political, but unequivocally refuses it and calls us and our communities to action.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Feral Visions: a decolonial feminist podcast

[AUDIO] “How do you move beyond sharing about your trauma to healing it?” asks child sexual abuse survivor, adult rape survivor, NO! The Rape Documentary producer/director and  #LoveWITHAccountability creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Episode 2 of Feral Visions: a decolonial feminist podcast with producer/host Anjali Nath. Feral Visions is also available as an iTunes podcast. Resources listed below.

***The interview was conducted on August 14, 2017 and released on October 19, 2017. Aishah and her father were finally able to have a seismic, transformative conversation on October 16, 2017.***

#LoveWITHAccountability in National Sexual Violence Resource Center's Newsletter

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"Accountability is a radical form of love" by #LoveWITHAccountability creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons in The Resource, which is the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's Newsletter

“[...]I’ve been pruning in the gender based-violence forest since the early 1990s — for more than 20 years — and yet it wasn’t until the beginning of January 2015 that I was able to cultivate the strength to dig up my child sexual abuse roots.  And as is the case with so many victim-survivors, this digging up inevitably leads to questions of love, accountability, and family.[...]”


Read in its entirety here.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons in Signs - Journal of Women in Culture and Society

Photo by Daniel Goudrouffe

Photo by Daniel Goudrouffe

Signs - Journal of Women in Culture and Society invited Jaclyn Friedman, Kelly Oliver, Claire Potter, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, and Lisa Wade, PhD to respond to Laura Kipnis's controversial (at best) new book 'Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus' for their "Short Takes- Provocations on Public Feminism." Additionally Kipnis responds to our responses. All of which is freely available on Signs' website.

An excerpt from Aishah's response: "The Personal Is Political and Academic":

[...]I share a part of my (rape survivor) story because for many people who don’t have any understanding of what rape is, they would not define what happened to me in March 1989 as rape. Frankly, after reading Kipnis’s deeply troubling Unwanted Advances, I’m not sure she would define what happened to me as rape.

While reading Kipnis’s book, I found myself asking, why this book now? I’m assuming she wrote the manuscript before the (alleged) sexual predator in chief was elected to govern the United States.Perhaps she and her mainstream publisher thought it would be a very provocative and insightful read during a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential administration. It might have been. However, in the current political climate, where conditions and interventions that can follow a sexual assault are at risk of becoming defined as preexisting conditions under the proposed American Health Care Act, which recently passed in the House of Representatives, her book is a very frightening and I believe dangerous read.[...]


Read all of the responses in their entirety here.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Stephanie Renée's The MOJO show on 900AM WURD Radio

#LoveWITHAccountability creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons was a featured guest on Stephanie Renée's The MOJO show on 900AM WURD Radio.

They talked about Aishah's deeply personal and very public #LoveWITHAccountability work, the rigors of healing work, and reflections upon the pending Cosby trial's larger societal implications.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Episode 19 of Rythea Lee's 'Advice from a Loving Bitch' series

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THREE WOMEN RISING, the journey to ending childhood sexual abuse on Episode 19 of Rythea Lee's 'Advice from a Loving Bitch' series. Rythea invited expert artists, activists, and cultural workers author Donna Jenson and #LoveWITHAccountability creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons to join her to help her tackle this child sexual abuse with passion, grace, and maturity. Rythea, Donna, and Aishah each answer "How do we heal? How do we fight back? How do we break the cycle? How do we find joy?"

This project took several months, tons of patience, lots of trust, deep compassion and much love.

 

 

Aishah Shahidah Simmons in ArtsEverywhere Global Roundtable

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Aishah Shahidah Simmons (Philadelphia) was one of the participants who reflected upon and participated in an ArtsEverywhere global roundtable assembled by Kholoud Bidak (Cairo) and Coumba Toure (Dakar), The other participants were: Akwaeke Emezi (Brooklyn),  Kagure Mugo (Johannesburg),  Lucia Victor Jayaseelan, (London),  Kutlwano Pearl Magashula (Johannesburg), Pia Love (London), Rokhaya Gueye (Dakar),  Sheena Gimase Magenya (Nairobi), and Thato Poelo Semele (Johannesburg). The roundtable asked artist/activists Africa and the Diaspora to weigh in on "What is Wellbeing?"

“[...]Convening this roundtable for ArtsEverywhere presented an opportunity to share the point of view of some people who care about changing ideologies of oppression through their work; we were very keen to share the voices of African/coloured, artists/activists, gender non-conforming individuals, women, lesbians.

The issue of wellbeing is one of our main challenges in the work of activism, either for those who work with NGOs, art, community organizing, or any other channel. It gets more complicated if a person still struggles for essential needs and rights.[...]”


Read in its entirety here

Aishah Shahidah Simmon's in The HEAL Project

In September 2015, Aishah Shahidah Simmons had the opportunity to participate in her friend/comrade/sibling survivor Ignacio G Rivera's The HEAL Project's "Outing CSA (Child Sexual Abuse)" campaign, which features the voices of a range of diverse individuals publicly naming their status as CSA survivors. Aishah’s video was posted on March 21, 2017 on The Heal Project’s site.   #LoveWITHAccountability is truly grateful for Ignacio's vision and dedicated work to pull up the roots of child sexual abuse in a variety of educationally interactive, media-based ways.

Please visit the video archive here. My video is below.

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: Child sexual abuse, survivor, rape

AWAY from January 10, 2017- February 13, 2017

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NO! The Rape Documentary and #LoveWITHAccountability are going off of the grid from January 10, 2017 through February 13, 2017 while Aishah Shahidah Simmons sits a 30-day vipassana meditation course. This practice is one of two unwavering tools/resources that both support and enable Aishah to do the work that she does in the world. We invite you to read her reflections on her process and journey.

If you would like to schedule a screening/lecture engagement after February 13, 2017, please contact Jean Caini at Speak Out!

We will be back on the grid on February 14, 2017!

Aishah Shahidah Simmons' Reflects Upon the Women's March on Washington in the New York Times

You can read this article and the full chorus of the eight women who weighed in on The New York Times as well:

I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings about the Women's March on Washington.

As a pro-choice black feminist lesbian who voted for Hillary Clinton I found myself asking: Which women? The majority of black women voters did all we could do to prevent what will happen on Jan. 20, 2017. I was alarmed that the original framing of the march ignored the role of race in the struggle for equality for women. The organizers were all white women and were calling it the Million Women March -- a huge faux pas given that the first Million Woman March, in 1997, was organized by black women. I was among the hundreds of thousands who gathered in Philadelphia.

Since its original framing, the march has evolved. Three powerhouse women of color — Tamika D. MalloryCarmen Perez and Linda Sarsour — have joined Bob Bland as the national co-chairs

Their mission is clear. This major gathering in Washington, and other cities across the United States and internationally, to send a message to Donald J. Trump, his administration and the world that all women’s rights are human rights and that those who march defend and stand in solidarity with the most marginalized. 

I’m cautiously optimistic about the march. As an activist and the daughter of two veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I believe in the power of marches. The inauguration of Trump is plenty of reason to protest. And yet, the Women’s March organizers don’t call it a protest. 

But that's O.K. because we need multilayered strategies to challenge and resist any efforts to rollback the gains we’ve made in women’s rights, civil rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and immigrant rights over the last 50 years.

[Audio] #LoveWITHAccountability: Part II on #TheSpin

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Luz Marquez Benbow and Dr. Thema Bryant Davis join producer/host Esther Armah for a moving conversation on Child Sexual Abuse, Family, Faith, Forgiveness and The Script of Silence in Part II of #TheSpin's #LoveWITHAccountability special.

Broken silence, breaking soul, drugs, truancy, poetry, Christianity, African-based Spirituality, finding a way, coming home, losing your way, context and comfort and company in this powerful 3-way diasporic Black --Ghanaian, Puerto Rican, and African-American women's exchange.

The brainchild of producer/host/visionary Esther Armah, #TheSpin is a one hour, weekly radio show recorded via BBC Accra and NPR studios. The Spin is distributed by NPR Distribution and the Public Radio Satellite System. The show airs on the radio in Ghana, Nigeria, and on several NPR affiliates throughout the United States. It is also available on SoundCloud and iTunes podcasts via The Spin1 channel.

LISTEN, SHARE, AND TAKE CARE.

#LoveWITHAccountability featured in Ghana's Business & Financial Times

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#LoveWITHAccountability is the focus for Sister Visionary Esther Armah's column this week in Ghana's Business & Financial Times. #LoveWITHAccountabilit creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons, her mother Dr Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and clinical psychologist Dr. Thema Bryant Davis are each featured in Esther's column, which is a global call to action to address this epidemic.

[...] " #LoveWITHAccountability multi-media project.  Survivors of childhood sexual assault, sexual molestation and rape share their stories, their journeys as part of a call to healing, change, and what the concept creator calls, ‘loving, accountably’.

What does loving, accountably mean? Doesn’t it go against a global society’s nurturing on loving, unconditionally? Isn’t unconditional love – not accountable love - the goal for how we love, for how parents love their children, for children’s love of their parents, for adults love of each other?" [...]

Read in its entirety here.

[VIDEO] Live stream of Fresh Talk - How can the arts advance body politics?

The archived live stream of the National Museum of Women in the Arts' (NMWA) November 13, 2016 FRESH TALK: Righting the Balance—How can the arts advance body politics? is available for viewing.

Five days after the U.S. Presidential election results, Katie Cappiello, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, and  Emma Sulkowicz engage in a public dialogue with moderatorTanya Selvaratnam about body politics and feminist arts.  The event was organized and hosted by Lori Mertes who is NMWA director of public programmes.

[Audio] #LoveWITHAccountability on The Spin

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Esther Armah, Producer/Director of THE SPIN: all women media panel syndicated talk show launched a two-part #LoveWITHAccountability (LWA) special featuring LWA creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons and her mother Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and Luz Marquez-Benbow and Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis.

In part 1 of The Spin’s LoveWITHAccountability special Aishah and Dr. Simmons delved deep and broke silence about familial #incest violence committed against Aishah when she was a child. They reflected, cried, held space, spoke openly, and read excerpts of their joint article in the #LoveWITHAccountability Forum on The Feminist Wire

The brainchild of producer/host/visionary Esther Armah, THE SPIN: all women media panel syndicated talk show is a one hour, weekly radio show recorded via BBC Accra and NPR studios. The Spin is distributed by NPR Distribution and the Public Radio Satellite System. The show airs on the radio in Ghana, Nigeria, and on several NPR affiliates throughout the United States. It is also available on SoundCloud and iTunes podcasts via The Spin1 channel.

The Spin. One Hour. Once a Week. Smart=Sexy. Listen below!

#LoveWITHAccountability and Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective

#LoveWITHAccountability creator Aishah Shahidah Simmons captured this photograph of her mother Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons during their audio recording of their joint "peace": LOVE WITH ACCOUNTABILITY: A Mother's Lament and A Daughter's Postscript. This recording will be shared with and used by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective  (BATJC) in their critical work to respond to child sexual abuse. 

Deep bow to BATJC member and Living Bridges Project creator Mia Mingus 

#Nov8 #VOTE

I exercised a right that many in this country *still* do not have - the right to vote. It is a right that too many died for to have. It is a right that my divorced parents Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons put their literal lives on the line for in the 1960s. Voting is NOT the end. It is a continuation of hardcore, relentless struggles that we, who believe in peace, compassionate justice and freedom, must wage. We must VOTE AND We must STRUGGLE.

November 13th: Aishah in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: How can the arts advance body politics?

Join Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Katie Cappiello, Emma Sulkowicz, and Moderator Tanya Selvaratnam for “FRESH TALK on body politics in art and beyond,” a conversation and dinner at the National Museum for Women in the Arts on Sunday, November 13, 2016 from 4:30-8:00pm 

For more information, click here.

If you can’t attend but want to view the conversation, it will be Livestreamed.

Aishah talks #LoveWITHAccountability with Stephanie Renee on WURD Radio

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Aishah was a featured guest on the November 2, 2016 edition of Stephanie Renee's "The Mojo" on 900AM_WURD Radio in Philadelphia. WURD is the only African-American owned AM station in Pennsylvania. During her featured segment, Aishah shared about #LoveWITHAccountability's efforts to address and end child sexual abuse in diasporic Black communities in the United States.