How one journalist is on a mission to tell stories of healing in Black communities around the world
Lori Robinson with psychologist Zandra Morales at FUNSAREP in Cartagena, Colombia. All photos courtesy of Robinson. Photo by Joaquín Sarmiento.
Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets @celestehdennis.
July 17, 2017
As a journalist, Lori Robinson has never really felt like she’s fit in. For Robinson, who describes herself as a “sensitive person,” hard reporting on bad news has never been her go-to. Instead, throughout her career in media, Robinson has often focused on how people cope with trauma―specifically sexual assault in Black communities both in the U.S. and abroad.
“I think it’s so important to tell stories of healing, of restoration, of inspiration, of moving forward,” she told ivoh. “Both to provide people practical information that can help them with their lives, but also for our emotional and spiritual well-being individually and collectively.”
After receiving a master’s degree from NYU in 1993, Robinson’s first journalism job was at the BET-owned Emerge magazine, where one of her responsibilities was covering Black diasporic communities outside the U.S. It was there that her curiosity with Black communities in Latin America began, as well as her understanding of how racism functions differently. In many Latin American countries, the inequality narrative is largely based on class and racism is viewed as nonexistent, even though the poorer classes are darker skinned.
Then, in 1995, two men with a gun raped Robinson in her Washington, D.C. apartment. She was 26 years old. Her life was forever changed.
“It’s hard to put into words how devastating, painful, and horrible it is to have that experience,” she said. “But I’m one of the lucky ones in that people at least believe me when I tell my story. I was raped by strangers with a gun, and that’s how people stereotypically think rape happens.”
As we know from statistics, that’s by far the least common scenario. Most people are raped by someone they know. In most cases, there’s no weapon involved. Yet, in Robinson’s opinion, victim-blaming is prevalent throughout the media, as well as an unwillingness to hold men accountable, especially if they’re famous or rich.
Robinson ended up reporting a story for Emerge about a sexual assault on Spelman campus, a historic all-women’s black college where Robinson went for undergrad, and pairing it with her own assault. The responses to her story were overwhelming. Robinson had not been very aware of feminist issues before. But after realizing assault was happening in epidemic proportions not only in Black communities but everywhere, and nobody was talking about it, Robinson was on a mission. She wanted to help break the silence, as well as provide culturally relevant information for the Black community to talk about assault and deal with it in a healthy way―which Robinson learned was challenging due to various factors, including a history of violence against African Americans.
“My first priority was Black people because of our unique history, and because of what we know about the criminal justice system and how it deals with people of color, be it perpetrators or victims,” she said. “I really wanted to use my skills as a journalist to contribute to positive change.”
In 2003, Robinson wrote a book, I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse. In it, she delves into context specific to Black communities throughout history and the present: the centuries of legal rape of Black women during slavery; the rape of Black women by white men with impunity after slavery while Black men were being lynched often for false accusations of sexual assault of white women; the context of stereotypes of Black people as hypersexual; the beliefs of Black women not deserving to control their own bodies; the knee jerk reaction of African Americans to not want to accuse a Black man of assault because of the criminal justice system, and more.
But as the book’s title says, Robinson’s main focus is on healing. Her message to survivors: It’s not your fault.
Since the book has come out, she has spoken to audiences in more than 20 states in the U.S. as well as in Costa Rica, Venezuela and Brazil. Last year, Robinson’s two main interests dovetailed when she received the Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Journalism Fellowship and an opportunity to spend time in Cartagena, Colombia.
Up until recently, Colombia had been embroiled in a long, complicated civil conflict that disproportionately affected Afro-Colombians―a population estimated to be around 10-30% of the country, home to the second largest population of Blacks in South America. During the war, ancestral territories belonging to Afro-Colombians were under siege and often the sites of war-related violence. Natural resources on their land, such as coal and gold, were pillaged. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women were raped as a tool of war.
As there not had been much coverage of the war from the Black perspective, Robinson knew she wanted her story to focus on this community―especially the women.
“I was really interested in finding out how women are healing with this. It didn’t seem like there was a network of rape crisis centers anywhere, or a systematic approach to providing services for sexual assault survivors,” she said. “I just had to believe people were doing something for Black women.”
Robinson’s Spanish interpreter tipped her off to Santa Rita Association for Education and Advancement (FUNSAREP), a social services agency in Cartagena that incorporates testimonial theatre into its programs as a means of coping with past violence and trauma. Robinson then interviewed a psychologist to get an overview of the conflict’s psychological impact. She learned about another group, Mirror Women Artistic Group Association, and spent time observing women in the program, who often sweetly interacted with each other like family. She spoke to rape survivors.
“When I’m interviewing people who are rape survivors, I generally disclose up front that I’m a rape survivor to hopefully convey the message that I’m coming at this from a place of empathy because I’ve experienced a similar thing,” she said. “And I care.”
The result was a story published in Crisis Magazine this past April, detailing the lasting impact the war has had on the lives of these women (for some, going as far back as the 1940s), the restoration that happens with testimonial theatre, and how the women are persevering despite it all. An unintentional Restorative Narrative.
“I loved how these women had the approach of, ‘Nobody is coming to save us. So we’re going to figure out some ways to heal ourselves and heal each other,’” Robinson said.
Robinson’s own healing journey is at a better place. Although she says she would like to “heal more deeply,” she no longer feels fearful or triggered when hearing about others’ sexual assaults.
Now, Robinson is working toward starting a nonprofit called VidaAfroLatina that prioritizes wellness and safety for Black Latin American and Diaspora women and girls. She’s also co-creating a day-long event on July 25 in the U.S. called the International Day of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women, focusing on wellness, affirming Black identity, child sexual abuse and sexual assault, and other issues specific to Black Latin American women.
With another fellowship she had last year through Bringing Home the World: International Reporting Fellowship Program, Robinson is in the midst of publishing a three-part series in The Root reporting on the broader impact of the war on Afro-Colombians.
Between all of her projects, Robinson sees no end to lending her talents to raising awareness of sexual violence and Black women.
“I hope the experiences of women that are often omitted or excluded will help other survivors to understand that they are not alone and that healing is possible for them as well,” she said. “Also, I hope to contribute to the humanizing of women who are Black, poor, marginalized, so that jurors, law enforcement, health care providers, community members in general, see them as deserving of respect, support, empathy, and healing resources.”
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