At one point in my life, my abuse was my greatest shame. But over the years, I have come to understand it as my greatest gift. Sharing my experience of sexual abuse for the first time was transformative, giving me access to my heart and imagination in a way I never knew. I discovered that there is a gift in the wounding, but we have to look for it. The violence we’ve experienced in our lives does not define who we are, it only informs who we are becoming.
The Challenge: Many activists, advocates and organizers working to end violence in the world have embraced a martyr complex. We try to save the world while killing ourselves in the process. Too often the way we approach social change work is not only untenable, it holds us back from being as effective as we can be. Although we function at very high levels, we live very unsustainable lives. At the core of our dysfunction is the sexual, physical and psychological abuse many of us experienced in our childhood that remains unaddressed. Who heals the healers? How do we help those who seemingly have the greatest capacity to make change to be their own advocates?
The Solution: Intentional and healing spaces that allow survivors —especially young men of color—not to be judged or pathologized for their survivorship, but instead to see beyond their experiences of sexual abuse and hold space for their highest possibilities to emerge. By exposing the wounds of our personal tragedies, guilt and shame, we give permission for others to do the same and in some cases, release generations of pent up anger and aggression. By making healing and personal transformation accessible for male survivors of color, we unlock their tremendous gifts and brilliance so they can join and be sustainable leaders in the movement to end child sexual abuse.
The Strategy: Create supportive spaces for authentic dialogue and conversation among men of color survivors and develop new language and practices within the survivor community to focus us towards our own healing. Many black male survivors of child sexual abuse are victims of multiple forms of violence, however their healing is not always prioritized in our culture. Creating these types of intentional spaces will allow individuals to feel safe enough to expose the wounds of child sexual abuse. Taking away the emotional charge connected to the experience will allow survivors to do the proper inquiry (initiation) into the circumstance, thereby giving them the capacity to change the story of what happened, so that it works for them and not against them. Moreover, creating new language that does not demonize the perpetrator nor condone his or her actions, but instead invites a new understanding, will lessen people’s fears of being defined by what happened to them or what they have perpetrated against another. The frame from which we operate is that every perpetrator was once a victim and is living out of their own wounds by abusing others.
The project will organize and host a beloved community of “outspoken” survivors, mentors and sponsors. Sharing one’s deep secrets and shame gives others permission to do the same. Once someone chooses to speak out about their survivorship, the project will offer each participant a sponsor who shares their experience and can be available to them in times of need, dispelling the taboo of sexual abuse and making the speaking and healing of abuse commonplace. The project will also introduce outspoken survivors of child sexual abuse to alternative healing technologies to support them in their respective healing journey. Those survivors who are willing to share their experience and healing journey with a public audience will be invited to do so through radio and public events.
Aqeela Sherrills, the youngest of 10 children, was raised in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. In 1989, Aqeela lost 13 friends to gang violence, catalyzing his role as a key player in organizing the historic 1992 “Peace Treaty” between the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles. As a direct result of his effort, Los Angeles is experiencing a 40 year low in homicides and murders, removing the city from the list of the top 15 most violent cities. Aqeela has traveled nationally and internationally brokering ceasefires in some ten cities throughout the U.S. and has consulted with dignitaries in many countries including South Africa, Serbia and Northern Ireland on violence intervention/prevention strategies.
In January 2004, his oldest son Terrell was murdered while home on winter break. This experience inspired a shift in Aqeela’s approach and gave birth to The Reverence Project, a three-fold initiative that is working to shift the current social and philosophical underpinnings of a world culture rooted in violence, shame, guilt and fear into a more balanced worldview rooted in reverence, forgiveness, compassion and truth.
A spirit-centered activist, advocate and social entrepreneur, Aqeela serves on the board of L.A.U.R.A, a community-based organization aimed at creating strength out of tragedy in South Central Los Angeles. He volunteers his time with the Fair Sentencing for Youth Campaign and serves as the LA Chapter-lead for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice with Californians for Safety and Justice, a statewide initiative aimed at providing smart justice solutions to criminal justice reform. He also co-owns 3 Worlds Café and Loco’l—chef Roy Choi’s revolutionary fast food restaurants.
Aqeela is the subject of multiple documentaries on gang violence prevention/intervention and is currently developing The Reverence Wellness Salon, a comprehensive wellness center taking a holistic approach to support the healing journey of victims of violence in the Watts community in Los Angeles.
At one point in my life, my abuse was my greatest shame. But over the years, I have come to understand it as my greatest gift. Sharing my experience of sexual abuse for the first time was transformative, giving me access to my heart and imagination in a way I never knew. I discovered that there is a gift in the wounding, but we have to look for it. The violence we’ve experienced in our lives does not define who we are, it only informs who we are becoming