A Long Walk Home cofounders Scheherazade and Salamishah Tillet Credit: Anthony Alvarez

To sisters Salamishah and Scheherazade Tillet, cofounders of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, the six-part documentary Surviving R.Kelly not only brought much-needed attention to the R&B singer’s alleged crimes; it helped to finally center the voices of sexual-violence survivors of color who have traditionally been left out of mainstream conversations about gender-based violence.

“[Even] with the incidents at the Chicago Public Schools system, with missing and murdered girls—who was really talking about Black girls in the center of #MeToo? We were aligning it with Hollywood and by doing that, it means there were not particular resources being allocated to Black girls. Black girls are often seen as the last. They’re told to wait their turn, or that they’re resilient, when in reality they are at crisis,” Scheherazade says.

A Long Walk Home, which the sisters cofounded in 2003, uses art to support and empower Black girls and women who are survivors of gender-based violence. The organization evolved out of a photography exhibit Scheherazade produced in the late 90s after Salamishah disclosed to her that she had been raped a few years before. The exhibit brought to life how Salamishah used therapy, journaling, and even the music of Tracy Chapman to regain a sense of self after the trauma she experienced.

More than 20 years after that exhibit, the sisters are using art to educate and to mobilize young people in Chicago to end violence against girls and women. The Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, a key program the organization first launched in North Lawndale, was born out of a recognition that Black girls in Chicago are often caught in the intersection of different forms of violence in their communities including sexual harassment, sexual assault, gun violence, racism, and police brutality, to name a few. The program, described as “lifesaving” by a former 17-year old participant, uses multimedia and digital arts, yoga, dance, creative writing, theater, and art therapy to educate young women about sexual health and sexual and dating violence.

“We provide a space for these girls to be trained as artists and activists and to address how these issues of racial and gender injustice, as well as class and inequality, impact them,” says Salamishah.

Datavia Stewart, 16, a Girl/Friends Leadership Institute leaderCredit: Scheherazade Tillet

By putting Black girls at the center of the movement and making them the leaders, A Long Walk Home aims to shift how people see them. The sisters credit Black women for seizing this moment—especially ripe in the aftermath of movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo—to mute R. Kelly for good. Surviving R. Kelly was directed by a Black woman, dream hampton, and included the expertise of the Tillet sisters.

Journalist Soledad O’Brien will host a follow-up, Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact, that’s set to air Saturday, May 4, on Lifetime.

“It . . . took art to bring us here. dream hampton is an activist, and I don’t think it’s by chance how successful [Surviving R. Kelly] is,” says Scheherazade. “The BBC did a similar documentary last fall and no one is talking about it.”

“We’re now at a critical, urgent turning point, and it’s not just for us to be aware of it, but I think it’s really important for people to realize that there are R. Kellys out there,” Scheherazade says. “How did we create the space for those things to happen? What is our part in it?”

Those are questions that Chicagoans, in particular, should be asking themselves, she says.

“Many people allowed that to happen—in terms of bystanders, security guards, schools, McDonald’s workers, background workers, people who watched the tape,” says Scheherazade. “If you’re living in Chicago, you’ve heard firsthand about R. Kelly. Still nothing happened.”

Now that people are talking and R. Kelly is set to go on trial right here in Chicago, the sisters are hopeful, even if it took decades to make it happen. A Long Walk Home is already seeing more Black girls and women recognizing themselves in the wider movement to combat sexual violence. The organization has received calls from people wanting to have discussions about the issue in nail salons on the south side. A young girl connected to the organization made an announcement at her school on the day R. Kelly was arrested, and it was greeted with cheers. Just two years ago, R. Kelly had been regularly playing basketball at that same school.

“By empowering those who are most vulnerable you have the most sustainable change,” Salamishah says. “We’ve seen it with African American girls in Chicago, you don’t just transform the life of an individual girl. You transform the lives of her parents, her family, her school, her community, and from there the city, and from there the nation.”  v