Joelle Kabisoso founded Sisters in Sync in 2018 when she was 22. The Stoney Creek, Ont.-based charity advocates for Black youth as trauma survivors in Canada. She is also an honouree for the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth 2022. Read her personal story.
I was 17 years old when I was raped and had my body exposed on Twitter for people to see. The first time I truly felt like myself since then was when I turned 25. Before then, I never thought I would live to see past 21. I held so much shame and embarrassment. Despite everything that happened leading up to this point – including therapy, the success of our organization – I was still feeling a lot of shame, as if everyone was still judging me and placing blame on me.
It’s a weird feeling, but for every award or every speaking engagement, I always felt such added pressure like I had to constantly prove that I wasn’t crying wolf or using my story for praise. People have always seen me as a leader, but over the last couple of months, I’ve realized that my story has always been bigger than me, and that whatever someone may think, does not change the impact that is happening.
Taking control of shame as a victim
From what I’ve learned, it doesn’t matter if you were the victim in a situation: People will always put women in positions where they feel responsible for their own victimization. And with that will always come the notion we are deserving of whatever misfortune comes to us, because we did something, wore something or drank something that points to us being culpable.
I dealt with everyone, down to family members, refusing to believe me and always making me feel like I could have done so much to prevent my rape. And maybe they’re right, however, once I stopped looking at ways I should have or could have done something, I learned to truly accept what was now my new reality.
Women can take control of the shame they feel by first validating their experience. Once you can accept that something has happened – good or bad – you position yourself to be in a space where you can start to figure out what your next steps are. And sometimes, the next step is to simply embrace who you are post shame and trauma, even if you’re not fully at your best.
How talking about rape broke my shame
I felt shame when my little sister heard what had happened to me. From how the story was being told, I asked for it, enjoyed it and consented to every minute. And for my younger sister, who always saw me as her role model and who I had always talked to about being selective of who she engaged with, I felt like I betrayed her and let her down. To know she heard about this incident before I could tell her, I no longer felt like I could be a good sister to her. I felt I let her down, and Ididn’t know how I could ever get back to being her role model, even if it wasn’t my fault.
I was at a women’s conference with my mom and other women from our congregation, when for the first in five years, I spoke abou my rape and how it completely took away my desire for living. This was the first time my mom heard this, and it was such a defining moment in our relationship. She not only found out with 20 other women, but it also added alot of pressure on her because she felt like she hadn’t been there to protect me. After telling my story, I remember just crying uncontrollably and wishing I hadn’t said anything. But, for the first time in my life, I felt very light, like some of the weight of the shame and guilt had been taken off me.
It wasn’t too long after this (about two to three weeks) that I randomly checked an email account I use for online shopping. I read an email from someone soliciting assistance with a campaign that focused on violence in the Black community and the types of barriers Black youth experience in accessing support and justice. I offered my assistance, thinking I would help them with administrative work. To my surprise, they asked if I had a lived experience of violence I would like to share.
From there, I ended up being the only woman in the campaign to speak about Black women’s experiences with rape, hate crime and the police. The campaign gave me the platform I didn’t even know I needed.
Prior to the women’s conference, I vowed to take this story to my grave because I knew I couldn’t deal with any more shame or guilt. But, seeing how many women, young and old, resonated with my story gave me a completely different understanding of what it means to have other people stand in solidarity with you. It validated my story in a way I never knew possible. And though I didn’t like the thought of knowing that other women had been violated like myself, being able to see myself in all their stories really reinforced that I truly would not be alone on this journey.
Nothing can bring me back to a place of shame
Now, I feel hopeful. At 26, I have experienced a lot and accomplished so much. And to be where I am, knowing that only five years ago I had no desire or will to live, is huge. I feel that there isn’t anything anyone can do or say to ever bring me back to a place of shame.
I used to cringe at thinking about what I went through. And, even when given platforms to speak on it, I dreaded it to a point where I would sabotage the opportunity or try to cancel last minute out of fear that everyone in the room would look at me and point the blame back on the decisions that led me to that hotel room that night.
I’ve come to realize that, for the sake of my healing and of those who need to feel validated for their journey, it’s important I continue to speak out. I hope that there will be a future where women, specifically Black women, can speak about their experiences and have communities stand behind them and believe.
We saw how #MeToo became a huge movement once white women were at the forefront. And I truly believe that, in a time like this, we as Black women need for our stories to be told from our mouths, and not from those of our perceived saviors.
All it takes is for the police to investigate, and to believe us, and for our friends and family to stand behind us. I promise you, there will be more and more Black women who will stand in their power and heal from shame when they no longer feel like society has already deemed them guilty of their own victimization.
This personal essay is part of the FLEETSTREET’s series Street Meet, where we meet up with trailblazers and thought leaders to deliver unique insight and inspiration into issues we all care about.