From Pain To Power: How Black Survivors Are Reshaping The Narrative On Violence And Crime
Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice is redefining what it means to transition from victim to survivor.
May 26, 2021 at 5:41 pm
From day one, the Alliance for Safety and Justice has committed itself to creating tangible changes inside of the world of criminal justice, growing into an organization known for building shared safety, reducing incarceration and offering invaluable support to survivors of violence.
With its Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) network, thousands of survivors from across the country have worked tirelessly to share their stories and empower other victims of violent crimes. All the while, they’ve worked together to create an impact on a national scale by advocating for legislation in statehouses across the country and lifting up other solutions to address trauma and violence in the most harmed communities.
Through the newly launched National Crime Victims Agenda, the group has worked to redefine just what it means to transition from victim to survivor — a difficult journey for anyone who has previously encountered or been touched by violence or loss.
In an effort to examine ways that violence impacts the Black community and the methods in which we can build our own networks, fight for policy changes and more, Blavity recently spoke to Aswad Thomas (National Director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice) and Tinisch Hollins (Executive Director, Californians for Safety and Justice) about how violence has shaped their own experiences, turning pain to power and more.
Born out of a growing movement in California, which had the country’s largest prison population just under a decade ago, the Alliance for Safety and Justice sought ways to reduce the prison population and redesign the way victims of crime are engaged. Thomas recalled the stark differences in the way Black crime survivors are treated and the resources they’re provided.
From there a spark was lit. Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice began organizing across the country to create and promote change within the very communities impacted the most by violence and crime.
Thomas says, “I traveled, talking to everyday people about what safety means to them and what can be done to keep people safe. What we found out, especially in communities of color, was that the majority of people who were victims of a crime — domestic violence, parents who have lost children, gun violence, sexual assault — never got acess to any services or resources to help them heal.”
Hollins echoes this sentiment. “We saw that many who had been victims of crime were largely Black and brown people. The common theme is that not only did they not get help, they didn’t get recognized as victims. A lot of legal barriers prevented people from being recognized as such, including getting access to compensation, police reports and other things that can become a big barrier to people simply looking to get help or be treated with empathy and respect.”
By focusing on empowering and sharing true stories of Black crime survivors, ASJ has continued to address the ways we discuss crime and its long-term consequences — something Thomas and Hollins unfortunately know all too well.
Meet the Faces Behind a Movement
More than a decade ago, Aswad Thomas was three weeks shy of moving to Europe for the opportunity of a lifetime as an international basketball player. But while leaving a convenience store, the 26-year-old found himself facing the barrel of a firearm courtesy of two men intent on robbing him. Two near-fatal shots to the back later, and Thomas was robbed of something even greater: his basketball career.
Since joining the organization, Thomas has channeled his pain into his work as the National Director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Through features like “Black Wounds Matter” (New Yorker Magazine), “Black Men Who Are Crime Victims Have Few Places to Turn” (NPR), “How I Came to Terms With the Man Who Shot Me” (VICE/The Marshall Project) and other national outlets, Thomas uses his story to uplift and motivate other survivors of gun violence.
The founder of Hartford Action, Thomas has played a pivotal role in advocating for resources and advancing justice reform. He continues to work for policy and other changes within the Hartford community and justice system.
If nothing else, Tinisch Hollins knows how to motivate and bring others together — a gift nurtured over the years through her deep engagement in the Bay Area social justice movement. As a valued community organizer and policy advocate, the San Francisco native has poured her all into empowering and uplifting others in the Bay.
Seeing an opportunity to expand the vital work of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice throughout California, Hollins was instrumental in building the group’s San Francisco chapter, helping survivors turn their pain into power. She currently leads statewide efforts as the Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a flagship state-based program created by the Alliance for Safety and Justice.
For Hollins, it's vital work that hits close to home. Her own experience as a victim of violent crime pushes her tireless passion for being a voice to those seeking resources, community engagement, public policy and so much more. Through her work, Hollins played a pivotal leadership role in defeating Proposition 20, which sought to repeal a number of popular criminal justice reforms.
From Pain to Power
Like many other survivors, Thomas and Hollins are on a first-name basis with pain, linked through the early losses of friends, loved ones and later crimes against themselves. For Thomas, it was something he was introduced to young, following the traumatic death of a childhood friend at the hands of gun violence nearly 20 years ago.
“When Reubin passed away, returning to school a few days afterwards, there weren't any grief counselors. We didn’t have an assembly to really address what had happened in our community — that we’d lost someone so young in such a violent way. There weren’t any therapists. In our community, the resources just weren’t there. So for me at a very young age, that was the first friend I lost to violence. But throughout my life, I’ve now lost 40 friends to gun violence and counting,” he shares.
Yet it’s something Thomas never expected to experience firsthand, making his own shooting even more poignant. He recalls laying in the hospital room wondering if his basketball career would ever recover. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk again. Once I was able to be released from the hospital, I was discharged right back into the same community. And when you’re not connected to any resources, you’re left to deal with the trauma from the incident both physically and emotionally.”
For Hollins, growing up in San Francisco’s notorious Hunter’s Point community, learning how to take an L and keep on moving, regardless of the severity, is something that had been ingrained in her very early.
“Growing up during the height of the crack epidemic and seeing our families being torn apart by the justice system, watching people going to jail or prison, seeing loved ones and relatives go into the child welfare system…. I’m blessed that my immediate family wasn’t addicted or in prison, but I did grow up seeing domestic violence and the overall impact that violence in our community (and our families) has on our lives. These are major issues that have had a direct impact on my life,” she says.
For those who’ve weathered the storm of violence and survived, it can create empathy. Getting candid, Hollins reveals the strife caused by molestation at the hands of a family member, something that ultimately pushed her to use her voice in advocacy for other survivors.
“That family member was later arrested for sexually assaulting another family member, and he went to prison. I never shared my story because I saw the chaos that it had caused when the other abuse was discovered. So I kept it to myself, and it definitely caused me to make a lot of decisions and get involved in things that were a direct result of my traumas. As I got older, I just became really committed to looking at what was happening in my community and being vocal about it,” she shares before revealing how the deaths of her brothers further cemented her frustration with both the system and the community.
“I felt very betrayed by my community in some ways and then by all the systems I felt like I was trying to help. What I learned through losing my two brothers is decades’ worth of conversations around what needs to change and how better responses are needed. It’s like we weren’t making any progress,” she says.
Forever shaped by their combined experiences, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice has become a way to give back to the community that understands how the effects of crime linger long after members of law enforcement have completed their investigations. As such, Hollins and Thomas have worked tirelessly to amplify the voices of those just like them.
A Vision for the Future
In sharing their perspectives, Thomas and Hollins’ inspiring work continues to push the needle forward when advocating for Black crime survivors. The lack of help and resources following each of their assaults is something that’s inspired Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice to fight for legislation and other policy changes to positively impact survivors of violent crimes.
In addition to combating the dozens of laws aimed at reducing non-violent incarceration, CSSJ advocates for measures including enhanced victim compensation, additional protections, access to counseling and other services.
According to Thomas, “We have passed several laws related to extending the time limits for victims' compensation in places like Florida and Michigan. Over the years we’ve secured nearly $500 million in investments for trauma recovery services and established 35 trauma recovery centers across the country — a one-stop-shop community center designed to provide support services to crime victims without all the red tape. And, you don’t need a police report to get help. You just walk in the door and say ‘I am a survivor of a crime,’ and the center will provide services to you and your family.”
Meanwhile in California, Hollins is focused on a bill currently making its way through the legislature: Senate Bill 299. “This bill would recognize victims of police violence as victims and give them access to victim compensation. Something we know directly impacts Black and brown survivors because whenever the police are involved in an incident, victimization is automatically taken out of it,” she says.
This is all part of a larger plan to expand the rights of all survivors of crime. “It calls for access to real help to end discrimination, to make sure that more Black, brown, immigrant survivors and other people of color actually get access to these resources that many of us get denied.”
The road to true healing may be long, but for CSSJ leaders Aswad Thomas and Tinisch Hollins, it’s a fight they’re more than equipped for. Learn how you can get involved or support the rights of Black and other survivors of violent crime here.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with the Alliance for Safety and Justice.