R. Kelly has continued to be in the headlines this week. The R & B singer is facing multiple counts of criminal sexual abuse, including abuse of girls under the age of 17. Earlier this week, he went on CBS This Morning to defend himself.
Scheherazade Tillet, co-founder of A Long Walk Home, an organization that uses the arts to empower young people and address violence against women and girls, thinks the city needs to pay more attention to the leadership of young black women and girls. Shannon Heffernan talked to her about the Kelly story and what it means for survivors of sexualized violence.
What do you think about how the media has covered the issue, and how does the way they cover it affect survivors?
Scheherazade Tillet: I think this is an incredibly hard time right now for survivors. Every time there’s a public case that is in the media, survivors are watching how people are talking about them. One of our young girls said she was watching one of her parents talk about R. Kelly and she said there was a lot of victim blaming of the survivors, like, “Well why did they wait so long to come out?” And she said, “If I was actually assaulted, I probably would not tell my parents because of how they’re responding to these survivors.”
But at the same time we’ve seen enormous calls for help. Here in Chicago, a group had a waitlist for a sexual assault group that was specifically for African-American sexual assault survivors. So we see survivors wanting and needing services, but also wanting to need services that speak to them.
What do you think Chicago, as the city where this is unfolding, has to learn in this moment?
Tillet: I think in Chicago, we’ve been talking about violence prevention for a very long time. However, one of the things that we’ve always failed to include is gender-based violence and sexual violence as part of that violence. And I think in that way, we’ve been failing women and girls in our city.
So as an organization, we are focusing on how black girls themselves can be part of the solutions. What do they need and want?
What would you like to see the city and this country do for young black women?
Tillet: I think it’s really, really, really critical that we not only look at this as R. Kelly — that we look at all the R. Kellys. That we really take a moment to look at how all these systems failed black girls, how the criminal justice system failed black girls, how the schools, by allowing him to come to their schools, failed black girls. So what kind of training needs to happen for these things to be prevented in the future?
And I think that black girls have been, oftentimes, waiting their turn for people to see them. And I think this undeniably shows how invisible black girls have been and that we need to address all the different different issues that are facing black girls today.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.
Shannon Heffernan is criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.