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Surviving Sexual Abuse: April ‘7even Rich’ Richardson, taking back your power

THE BIRMINGHAM TIMES — The mental and emotional aftermath of sexual abuse can last a lifetime.

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By Je’Don Holloway Talley

Gone are the days of silence and shame in the face of sexual assault and misconduct. America is slowly adapting to a new narrative for survivors of sexual abuse—one that empowers, vocalizes, and offers cathartic relief.

With there being strength in numbers and solace in solidarity, the country has taken a stance in support of the growing movement to lift the veil of secrecy and denial surrounding sexual abuse and sexual predators. #TimesUp, say African-American artists, such as actresses Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, film director Ava Duvernay, and mogul Oprah Winfrey. #MeToo, says activist Tarana Burke.

As silence now equates complicity, silence further cultivates a society ignorant of how sexual assault is so deeply woven into the fabric of America and the lives of women and children. In the wake of “Surviving R. Kelly”—a six-hour television documentary that aired on Lifetime earlier this month, revealing the accounts of several women who have accused the R&B singer of abuse, including keeping them secluded in a house and controlling them with fear and intimidation—women across the country and here in Birmingham have expressed how some of the victim’s stories brought back painful memories of their own traumatic pasts.

The impact is undeniable.

Social conversations continue to expose the need for social change to challenge the norms of yesteryear regarding child molestation, sexual assault, predatory behavior, and statutory rape. The Birmingham Times recently spoke with a group of survivors who have endured the trauma of sexual abuse and courageously stepped forward to share their stories as they navigate the road to recovery.

This is the first of two parts. The second part, which will be published on Thursday, February 7, will feature interviews with counselors and therapists about the impact of sexual abuse and assault on the individual and society.

At age 13, April Richardson fell victim to a respected member of her childhood church in Ensley. As a preteen, Richardson remembers being an outgoing, music-loving, aspiring emcee.

“I can identify with young girls wanting to be in the industry and attaching to somebody in the industry 100 percent because I was that person,” said Richardson, who often goes by the name “7even Rich.”

In the summer of 1997 Richardson was raped by “a fellow church member who was also a recording artist,” she said.

“He begged and begged my mother to work with me for a long time, saying he knew people he could hook me up with, he could get me in the studio, and things like that. … One day, [my mother] finally gave in.”

Her rapist, an up-and-coming gospel rapper at the time, who would be twice convicted for his crimes, had devised a plan to gain the trust of Richardson and her mother to lure Richardson into his care under the guise of getting her more exposure for her career.

“He picked me up with the intent of going to a gospel concert at a local church, but when we got there the concert was over,” Richardson said. “He said he had people at his home that he wanted to introduce me to and that we should go back there, … grill out, and meet some people.

“We went to his house, and that’s when things got weird.

“No one ever showed up, and he began to sexually assault me. First, he had me on the sofa, and then he dragged me to his bedroom. I felt his body weight pressing on mine. He felt like dead weight on top of me. He was this big, 6-foot-5, 200-pound man, and I was really small and thin. … I was a child.”

Richardson, now 35, said she fought with all her might for as long as she could.

“I felt like I failed myself because I’d always been a fighter from growing up in the hood and fighting all the time, and here I am in a situation where I can’t win,” she said. “I really felt helpless. After I saw I couldn’t fight him, I just kind of surrendered. … I laid there and cried.

“After it was over, he tried to get me to take a shower with him, I guess to wash away any evidence, but I wouldn’t. At this point, it was over. I guess he was trying to be nice so I wouldn’t do anything crazy in the moment. … I was like, ‘I’d just appreciate it if you would take me home.’ He said, ‘Listen, don’t tell anybody. This is only between me and you.’”

Once Richardson made it to safety, she told her brother, who was 16 at the time.

“He was in shock and angry,” she said. “He called our mom, [she was at work], and told her she needed to come home.”

Richardson’s mom called the police and took her daughter to the hospital: “The police came, and they did a rape kit.”

Nightmare

For Richardson, the nightmare did not end. The leadership of the church was notified, the members of the congregation found out, and yet her abuser was still welcomed at the church.

“When it happened, I was still going back to that church, and he was, too,” she said. “So, there would literally be times when my rapist was in the sanctuary with me. Because certain people knew what happened, they would try to come get me and warn me that he was there.

“I’m not saying that people have to shun people. I understand that it’s a house of God, but this is where I was around my rapist. He gets to come back with his wife and kids, and literally sit in front of me, laugh, and smirk at me as if it was a joke, like, ‘Ha ha. I got you, and I’m still here.’

“I will never forget the smirk. It’s the same smirk he had when he was on top of me raping me, wiping my tears away, asking why I was crying.”

Richardson’s church offered therapy and counseling sessions, but coming to the very place where she was around her rapist was not conducive to her healing. Asked if she felt coerced into silence, she said, “more like forgiveness. It wasn’t a big deal to [the church leaders].”

“I wouldn’t say [anyone] coerced me into silence, but [they] definitely tried to lead me to believe [the rapist] was empathetic, … trying to make me believe it wasn’t what it was, telling me things like, ‘He’s really sorry for what he did.”

The therapy sessions at her home church only made things worse, she said: “It’s like, if someone witnessed a loved one’s murder and then you take that person back to the murder scene for counseling. How’s that gonna help? “I was shy and withdrawn after that for sure. I didn’t really trust being around a lot of people or being open to meeting new people.”

Aftermath

The mental and emotional aftermath of sexual abuse can last a lifetime, said Richardson, adding that one of the things that helped her cope is knowing that she did not keep silent.

“I actually felt relieved because I just couldn’t see myself living like that and going through that self-torture,” she said. “Something in me just said, ‘I have to tell. I can’t keep quiet about it.’”

The trauma of sexual assault has had an effect on Richardson’s adult relationships.

“It definitely made me feel like sex wasn’t something I had to have,” she said. “I kind of felt like, ‘Eh, I’m good on that.’ I had boyfriends and stuff in school, so it wasn’t that I didn’t trust men, but I could really do without intimacy.”

Richardson said she began to heal when she testified against her rapist after he raped his 18-year-old daughter.

“[For] my offense he got only two years for rape one and sexual abuse,” she said. “Then he got out and reoffended; this time he raped his daughter. … That’s when they gave him 18 years with the possibility of parole in 2022. … I went to the trial. I had to testify.”

Testimony

“Testifying was empowering,” Richardson said. “By that point, I had done a lot of soul searching, and I was a little older. It felt good to look him in the eye and take my power back.”

Richardson said she felt vindicated after people had doubted her.

“When it happened, I wasn’t really believed,” she said. “[Testifying in court] was my moment. It was like, ‘See, I told you.’ That was the most freeing. Just to get an apology from some people who didn’t believe me the first time.”

Richardson said the trauma has given her a way of “digging deeper into my purpose and turning that experience into a positive.”

It also adds to her layers as an artist.

“I’ve put the details of what happened into my music, and some people have come and said, ‘Thanks for being real and honest.’ That helped me, too,” she said.

The song “Labor Pains,” on her 2009 mixtape compilation, touches on her experience and healing, which doesn’t come without prayer and purging feelings: “Deep prayer and actually writing down my feelings, [which come out in the music], was all very therapeutic at that time … and actually still is.”

Counseling

For years, Richardson did not seek help, but that has changed.

“It was fairly recent,” she said. “I didn’t seek professional counseling until my 30s. Praying is great, going to church is great, but sometimes there are things you just need to talk about to somebody who’s not in the church. The older I got, I realized that [seeking counseling] doesn’t make you crazy; it actually makes you sane because you know something is wrong.”

Asked how she feels about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Richardson said, “I love it. At the same time, I feel sorry for a lot of the women that have come out because then people say, ‘Oh, they just want money.’ Still, I love the fact that women are feeling powerful enough to speak up and say #MeToo. I think it’s awesome.”

“Thriving”

Watching the recently aired Lifetime TV docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” Richardson said she empathized with the R&B singer’s alleged victims: “First, I just felt anger.”

“I know an ‘R. Kelly.’ This is somebody that was supposed to be guiding and mentoring you. … It made me angry to hear some of the things people were saying about the girls, victimizing them all over again,” calling them liars, saying they knew what they were getting themselves into and they should have left if they wanted to, she said.

As for Richardson, she continues to heal.

“I think my healing process is a journey,” she said. “Will I ever forget? No. I have forgiven him, though, and I told him that personally. One day [before he was re-incarcerated in 2004], he was in my neighborhood. His truck had broken down, and I passed by him. Then something said, ‘Turn around.’ So, I did. I pulled up and said, ‘Hey, I forgive you.’ He was surprised to see me. … He actually mentioned hearing my song on the radio and said, ‘I see you’re doing good with your music.’ … Then I drove off.”

Richardson said she’s doing more than just surviving.

“Survival is taking your power back and using it for the greater good,” she said. “I’m a survivor because I didn’t let that take over my life or end my life. … I’m thriving and surviving.”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times

Activism

Biden Administration Invests $145 Million in Re-Entry Programs for Formerly Incarcerated

According to a 2021 Stanford University Study, reentry programs in California have contributed to a 37% decrease in the average re-arrest rate over the period of a year.

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By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

After serving a 22-year sentence in a California prison, James Morgan, 51, found himself facing a world of opportunities that he did not imagine he would have as an ex-convict once sentenced to life for attempted murder.

Morgan, a Carson native, says he is grateful for a second chance at life, and he has taken full advantage of opportunities presented him through California state reentry and rehabilitation programs.

After completing mental health care for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Morgan was released from prison and granted parole in 2018.

“I did not expect what I found when I got out,” Morgan told California Black Media (CBM), explaining that he was fortunate to participate in a program for the formerly incarcerated in San Francisco.

“I was mandated by the courts to spend a year in transitional housing,” said Morgan. “Those guys walked us through everything. They made it really easy. It was all people I could relate to, and they knew how to talk to me because they used to be in the prison population —and they were from where we were from.”

Morgan says he also took lessons on anger management and time management.

Now, he is currently an apprentice in Local 300 Laborers Union, specializing in construction, after he participated in a pre-apprenticeship program through ARC (the Anti-Recidivism Coalition).

“Right now, I’m supporting my family,” Morgan said. “I’d say I’m doing pretty good because I hooked up with the right people.”

Supporters of criminal justice reform say Morgan’s success story in California is particularly encouraging.

Black men in the Golden State are imprisoned nearly 10 times the rate of their white counterparts, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. And just a little over a decade ago in 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered California to reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prison system by 33,000. Of that population, nearly 30% were Black men even though they account for about 5% of the state’s population.

To help more formerly incarcerated people like Morgan get back on their feet after paying their debt to society, last month the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the federal government is investing $145 million over the course of the next fiscal year to support reentry programs across the country.

The Biden-Harris Administration also announced plans to expand federal job opportunities and loan programs, expand access to health care and housing, and develop and amplify educational opportunities for the formerly and currently incarcerated.

“It’s not enough to just send someone home, it’s not enough to only help them with a job. There’s got to be a holistic approach,” said Chiraag Bains, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council on Racial Justice and Equity.

Bains told CBM that that reentry programs help establish an “incarceration-to-employment pipeline.”

The White House announced the programs late last month as President Joe Biden commuted the sentences of 75 people and granted pardons to another three, including Abraham Bolden, the first Black Secret Service agent on White House detail.

Bolden had been sentenced to 39 months in prison in 1964 for allegedly attempting to sell classified Secret Service documents. He has always maintained his innocence.

“Today, I granted pardons to three people and commuted the sentences of 75 people. America is a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation,” Biden tweeted April 26.

According to Bains, about half of the people the President pardoned are Black or Brown.

“The president has spoken repeatedly about the fact that we have too many people serving time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses and too many of those people are Black and Brown,” said Bains. “This is a racial equity issue.”

Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have faced sharp criticisms in the past for supporting tough-on-crime policies that, as U.S. Senator and California Attorney General respectively, have had disproportionately targeted Blacks and other minorities.

According to a 2021 Stanford University Study, reentry programs in California have contributed to a 37% decrease in the average re-arrest rate over the period of a year.

Over the last decade, California has funded a number of initiatives supporting reentry and rehabilitation. In 2015, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched the Male Community Re-Entry Program (MCRP) that provides community-based rehabilitative services in Butte, Kern, Los Angeles and San Diego Counties. The Butte program services Tehama, Nevada, Colusa, Glenn, Sutter, Placer and Yuba counties.

A year later, Gov. Newsom’s office introduced the California Community Reinvestment Grant Program. The initiative funds community groups providing services like job placement, mental health treatment, housing and more to people, including the formerly incarcerated, who were impacted by the War on the Drugs.

Morgan spoke highly of programs that helped him reintegrate into society — both in prison and after he was released.

“In hindsight, I look back at it and I’m blown away by all of the ways that they’ve helped me,” Morgan said.

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Activism

OP-ED: Faith Leaders Call for Accountability Over

A demonstration is planned for Tuesday May 24 at 11:30 a.m. at the Board of Supervisors on Oak and 12th streets in Oakland to protest a culture of death at the jail and this dysfunctional incarceration system. Join us in our call for accountability. The U.S. Justice Department recently found our county jail violates Constitutional rights and subjects the 40% of persons in custody who need mental health services to “unlawful harm.”

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Negligence, Deaths at Santa Rita Jail

Alameda County’s Santa Rita jail, run by Sheriff Gregory Ahern, has been the target of multiple lawsuits over jail conditions and has had the most in-custody deaths in Northern California: at least 58 in-custody deaths since 2014, including 19 suicides.

We lift up the names of the two most recent to die in Santa Rita – Marcos Garibay and Larry Roberson. Their families are among many who have been given conflicting and incomplete information about their deaths by the sheriff.

A demonstration is planned for Tuesday May 24 at 11:30 a.m. at the Board of Supervisors on Oak and 12th streets in Oakland to protest a culture of death at the jail and this dysfunctional incarceration system. Join us in our call for accountability.

The U.S. Justice Department recently found our county jail violates Constitutional rights and subjects the 40% of persons in custody who need mental health services to “unlawful harm.”

The sheriff has also evaded a county ban on collaboration of local law enforcement with ICE.

The county continues to hemorrhage millions of taxpayer dollars on settlements and legal fees for this mismanagement – the most recent costing upwards of $300 million. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department needs a major transformative intervention.

Assembly Bill 1185, recently enacted by the California state Legislature, authorizes civilian oversight boards and a full-time Inspector General with subpoena power to investigate sheriff’s departments and jails. Our communities can gain accountability for brutal practices by the sheriff and assist supervisors in exercising their legal and fiscal authority to oversee this county department.

Sopath Mey, speaking for her Cambodian immigrant family, told us of her cousin Soto’s medical crisis and death in Santa Rita in January 2020:

“To this day we don’t understand how he died in custody of the jail and the sheriff. Did he get medical care he needed? … Our family has no resources for an investigation … The sheriff is also the coroner, which raises serious questions. Independent oversight without conflict of interest could tell us learn what happened so we can have peace of mind.”

A sheriff’s oversight coalition initiated by Faith In Action East Bay and Oakland’s Coalition for Police accountability including dozens of organizations and clergy of diverse faiths – ACLU of Northern California, Alameda County Public Health Commission, SEIU Local 1021, Oakland Education Association, Brotherhood of Elders, National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, and working closely with the League of Women Voters – researched essential principles for effective independent civilian oversight:

  • A community selection panel process that is open and transparent to create a representative oversight board insulated from politics and the sheriff’s influence.
  • Legal counsel for a civilian Oversight Board and Inspector General that is fully independent of the County Counsel’s conflicts of interest representing the sheriff in lawsuits against the county.
  • A dedicated funding stream to ensure adequate staff of investigators working with an experienced, full-time Inspector General.
  • Access to records and testimony, regular public meetings and reports to the community and the Board of Supervisors (BOS.)
  • Elected officials – including the sheriff – must be held accountable. Civilian oversight with subpoena power can conduct independent investigations and recommend necessary change to the Board of Supervisors – who have the ultimate power of budgeting tax dollars.

Working with a full-time inspector general, they will investigate jail deaths, in-custody conditions, conduct of the sheriff’s deputies and can help identify alternatives to the county’s current cruel and costly mass incarceration of individuals with mental health challenges.

We must bring the sheriff’s operations into alignment with constitutional law enforcement, our community’s ethical values and the public trust.

Let Supervisors know you support the community coalition calling for strong oversight of the Sheriff – email the Board at cbs@acgov.org.

Rev. Dr. George Cummings, executive director, Faith In Action East Bay

Cathy Leonard for the Coalition for Police Accountability

Regina Jackson, Oakland Police Commission*

Rev. Dr. James Brenneman, president, Berkeley School of Theology*

Rev. Ken Chambers, West Side MBC & co-chair Interfaith Coalition of Alameda County*

Rev. Dr. James Hopkins, co-chair, Faith In Action East Bay; Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church*

Rev. Derron Jenkins, associate minister, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland*

Rev. Andrew Loban, rector, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Livermore*

Fr. Aidan McAlaneen, pastor of St. Columba Catholic Church

Rabbi Dev Nolly, senior rabbi, Kehilla Community Synagogue, Oakland*

Rabbi Judith Seid, Tri-Valley Cultural Jews*

Rev. Jeffrey Spencer, senior pastor, Niles Discovery Church, Fremont*

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Bay Area

County Expands Cybersecurity Awareness

The County’s Information Services and Technology (IST) Department, which has garnered several awards in recent years for its security protocols, created the public list of hacking-prevention tips based on current threat intelligence information, industry best practices, and the County’s direct experience in managing cybersecurity incidents.

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Best practices on cybersecurity are now available for everyone through the County’s Information Services and Technology Department. (Copyright-free Unsplash photo).
Best practices on cybersecurity are now available for everyone through the County’s Information Services and Technology Department. (Copyright-free Unsplash photo).

Tech experts publish list of recommendations for businesses, organizations

Courtesy of Marin County

Cybersecurity experts with the County of Marin have published a Top 10 List of Cybersecurity Recommendations targeted to the local business community that may help in thwarting bad guys who lurk on the web.

The County’s Information Services and Technology (IST) Department, which has garnered several awards in recent years for its security protocols, created the public list of hacking-prevention tips based on current threat intelligence information, industry best practices, and the County’s direct experience in managing cybersecurity incidents.

IST Chief Information Security Officer, Jason Balderama, previously focused on County employee education, awareness, and engagement in cybersecurity, but he recognized a need to widen the audience. In recent years, personnel from Marin’s towns, cities, and community partners have turned to the County for leadership on the topic, and the result was the creation of the Marin Information Security Collaboration (MISC). Member agencies receive IST’s monthly security awareness newsletter, get alert notifications from the County about active cyber threats, and have access to a peer network to ask questions and share ideas related to cybersecurity issues.

It’s an especially critical time for all organizations to tighten web security given active threats tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine emergency. Balderama cited the U.S. government’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and its Shields Up campaign as a way to educate more people about malicious cyber activity.

“We not only need to keep the County’s data safe and secure, but we are eager to help nearby municipalities, local businesses, organizations, and residents at large. Internet safety is vital, not just for financial reasons but for public safety as well. Criminal activity on the Internet can do tremendous harm, and there’s no reason why we should keep our best practices a secret.”

County IST’s top 10 list mentions the need for multi factor authentication, strong password policies, email security training, cyber incident preparedness, and more. All advice is offered in good faith to increase awareness and reduce threats.

As part of the Digital Marin Strategic Plan, the MISC is rebranding as the Marin Security and Privacy Council (MSPC), expanding services, and soon will be opening membership to private businesses in Marin. Stay tuned for more information.

In the meantime, Marin IST encourages all residents to sign up for the County’s monthly e-newsletter called Marin CyberSafe News. Registration is open on the Information Security and Compliance page of the County website. Subscribe to the newsletter and stay one step ahead.

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