Long before the “#MeToo era” was given a name, activists worked tirelessly with and for survivors of sexual violence to make change and help people heal
Since it took off in 2017, the #MeToo movement has provided people with the opportunity to speak out and condemn gender-based violence and sexual misconduct. In the time since, the movement has prompted acknowledgment in many areas of society, from policy to the workplace.
However, long before the “#MeToo era” was given a name — making headlines and influencing marketing campaigns — activists worked tirelessly with and for survivors of sexual violence to make change and help people heal. Now, some of the most respected and influential people in the fight to end gender-based violence are beginning to get the spotlight they deserve — even though they admit that they’ve never been in it for the recognition.
“None of this work happens in a vacuum, it doesn’t happen by ourselves,” Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a filmmaker, writer and educator, tells PEOPLE.
Simmons was among six activists honored with the Activist Impact Award on April 24 at the 2019 Breakthrough Inspiration Awards hosted by Breakthrough, a global human rights organization working to combat gender-based violence.
“To recognize us collectively was just very powerful for me and important because we do this work collectively,” said Simmons, who directed and produced the award-winning NO! The Rape Documentary and recently launched #LoveWITHAccountability, a project focused on addressing child sex abuse.
“We’re in this moment because of a momentum of work by so many,” she added. “It’s powerful to be honored.”
“To be honored at the event was truly an opportunity for me to stop and reflect back on my personal and professional journey to center the voices of Black women and girls in an urban area [Detroit] who have been sexually assaulted,” Johnson told PEOPLE.
“I have never done the work with any expectations of an award of any kind, as my reward has always been to witness Black women integrate their personal traumatic sexual experiences into successful lives and to triumph over obstacles that challenged them in living whole and happy.”
Johnson is the founder of Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness (SASHA Center), which works directly with survivors of sexual assault while providing education resources to the public. It was Johnson’s voice heard leading chants captured on video at various #MuteRKellyprotests, in a movement started by Black women to hold singer R. Kelly accountable for child sex abuse allegations.
The singer, 52, faces 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Kelly, who has repeatedly denied all claims against him, was previously arrested in 2002 on child pornography charges. Six years later, a Cook County jury found Kelly not guilty on all 14 counts.
After years of grassroots organizing, the #MuteRKelly movement took the national stage in January as it led to the groundbreaking six-part docu-series Surviving R. Kelly. Many have said the documentary served as the first mainstream televised focus on sexual violence against Black women. The documentary might not exist without Barnes and Odeleye, who teamed up to launch #MuteRKelly and shut down one of his concerts in Atlanta in the wake of a scathing BuzzFeed report that chronicled the singer’s alleged abuse.
However, Barnes had been speaking out about Kelly since the late 1990s — with her cries largely falling on deaf ears, save for a team of dedicated journalists in Chicago.
“Mute R. Kelly started over coffee and mutual outrage,” Barnes said in her acceptance speech at the event. “It only was simply to cancel the Atlanta concert, that’s all we ever wanted to do. And here we are two years later, 12 chapters including 10 around the country, two internationally … We have taken an estimated $2 million out of his pocket.”
Barnes adds: “I am here because it is truly, for me, an acknowledgment of years of sweat equity, uncompensated labor, hard work that I’ve put into changing the landscape for Black women and girls.”
Ahead of the gala, the activists met for a celebratory dinner hosted by Breakthrough in New York City. Although it served as the first time some of them met, the atmosphere was one of community, as if they had all known each other for years. This, the honorees said, spoke to the camaraderie of sexual violence activists as they all work to achieve similar goals.
Barlow, the founder and author of Tell Somebody, an organization working to end child abuse, shared her own story of abuse at the dinner and was met with cheers and words of support from her fellow activists. She dedicated her award to “all of the children that are in the world right now that are being abused … and to all the survivors.”
Benbow also spoke of those impacted by sexual violence during her own acceptance speech, highlighting the need to support Black Latinx survivors.
“I believe that together we can build a world where communities are never a place to harm and a place where Black Latinos, children and all children, could be free from violence, supported and live in their true Blackness and all the beauty we possess as a people,” Benbow said.
Benbow serves as associated director of the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA), which Benbow touts as “the first-ever national Women of Color (WOC) led anti-sexual assault organization in the United States.”
The honorees weren’t only activists and educators who took the stage at the event. Famed thinker and writer Darnell Moore, who serves as Breakthrough’s head of U.S. Strategy and Programs, shared his wisdom at the start of the gala to roaring applause. Moore is the author of No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, a memoir he uses to engage men in the fight to end sexual violence.