(Content note: This piece contains details about specific incidents of sexual violence.)
Nylah Burton didn’t tell her mother about the first sexual assault she experienced during her time as a Howard University student—one that she has little memory of. But she did tell her about the second, in part because there was no mistaking what had happened to her.
Burton says she did “everything that people say survivors are supposed to do”—explicitly told her attacker “no,” pushed him away, told him he was hurting her.
“It just happened anyway,” she said.
When Burton told her mother about the attack, she responded that it was her daughter’s fault for letting him into her room.
Reflecting back on those experiences, Burton told The Root that part of the reason she was so reluctant to talk about the first assault was that she just couldn’t see herself as a victim. And even when the violence was more explicit, her mother couldn’t see it either.
“The worth that we’re taught to assign ourselves as Black women is so low when it comes to this topic of sexual assault,” she said. “We’re not taught that our bodies are something worth protecting or something that is vulnerable.”
A GoFundMe organized this year by Burton and other survivors of sexual violence from Howard aims to shift that paradigm by providing direct cash assistance to survivors at the esteemed HBCU, as well as giving them something just as valuable: trust and autonomy.
The “Black Survivors Healing Fund” is explicitly for current and former students at Howard University, spurred by an outpouring of stories on social media in early June from Howard students and alumni about sexual violence they experienced during their time as a student.
The disturbing and graphic accounts were hard to read. In some instances, multiple women said their perpetrator not only raped them but filmed the encounters. Burton said some of the survivors named friends of hers as their attackers. The testimonials were a painful reminder of her own experiences as a student at the university, known to its students, alumni and faculty as “the Mecca.” During a year defined by a surge of mutual aid efforts, which mobilized patrons and spread resources during both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, Burton, alongside other current and former Howard students, decided to launch a GoFundMe in response to outpouring. Their goal: to give Howard students who have experienced sexual violence $5,000—no questions asked and no strings attached.
That lack of caveats has proven controversial, Burton said. Yet it is essential to the purpose of the fund, which wasn’t just to support survivors financially, but to reassure and remind them of their value. To communicate clearly that not only were they worth this sum but that they could be trusted to know how best to use it.
“A big part about being a survivor is autonomy,” said Burton. This is particularly true for marginalized folks—Black women, trans people, those with previous mental health issues and those who do not fit in the gender binary. “Autonomy is something that I’m constantly seeking and constantly fighting for.”
When talking about the cost of sexual violence, many focus on the profound emotional and physical toll it can take on a survivor. Fewer people grapple with—or even begin to consider—the incredible financial cost of being a survivor of abuse.
But that cost, much like the psychic impact, “reverberates throughout a lifetime,” said Burton.
She details the dizzying financial issues that come up for students who experience sexual violence on campus—many of which Burton has had to face herself. Sexual assault and Title IX investigations can take months, if they’re reported at all, meaning survivors may share a campus—if not classes or dorms—with their assailants for prolonged periods of time. And even once an investigation is completed, there’s no guarantee that an abuser will be expelled or removed from school. Survivors themselves, meanwhile, can lose scholarships because depression, trauma or fear of their abuser prevents them from going to class. Some must retake failed classes, extending their time in school, or a survivor may transfer to another institution because they no longer feel safe on campus. For this same reason, survivors may need to break leases and get new housing. There could be a loss of income if the survivor can’t go to work in the aftermath of an assault. The estrangement from—or need to return to—family as a result of sexual violence also introduces new costs.
And then there’s therapy—treatment that many survivors will need for the rest of their lives. Burton points out that low-cost or free counseling, like the kind Howard provides, may be insufficient for many survivors. Low-costs options are difficult to find and the therapists who provide them, many of whom are white, may not be a great fit for Black survivors. On-campus counseling could raise privacy issues for students, particularly if a counseling center is in a very visible place. Because sexual violence is often as surreal an experience as it is a traumatic one, it can additionally lead to or compound dissociative disorders and other preexisting mental health conditions.
There simply is no clean ending to the fallout from sexual violence. And as Burton points out, one experience can often lead to further instances of abuse.
“Survivors are vulnerable for the rest of their lives,” said Burton. “When you’re a survivor, you are more open to having abusive relationships. You’re more open to people taking advantage of you.”
In total, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the lifetime “cost of rape” is $122,461 per survivor, a cost that includes lost productivity, on top of medical and criminal justice system fees. Put in that context, the $5,000 Burton is aiming to provide is just a drop in the bucket.
But the most important facet of the fund is that recipients don’t have to say how they’re spending the money. If someone spends some of their money on new clothes, brunch with their friends, or their hair, Burton doesn’t see an issue with that.
“Sometimes, getting new clothes makes you feel like a person again, makes you feel good about yourself,” she said. “And people need that.”
While sexual violence happens on every college campus—the anti-sexual assault nonprofit RAINN estimates that 26.4 percent of female undergraduates and 6.8 percent of all male undergraduates will experience some form of sexual or rape—there are specific challenges Black femmes face as survivors.
The advocacy group EndRapeOnCampus.org notes in a 2014 study that, while around 22 percent of Black women reported being raped, “for every Black woman who reports, at least 15 Black women do not.” But despite what the numbers say, for Burton and others, the idea of being assaulted at Howard was simply unimaginable.
The appeal of going to Howard is that it feels like a family, Burton pointed out. “The Mecca” isn’t just an educational institution, but a space to nurture, affirm and protect Black students in a way primarily white schools cannot. That dynamic also makes it very difficult to talk about sexual violence on campus.
“Howard being like a family is also what makes people on campus so vulnerable when they’re marginalized because they feel like they can’t speak out,” Burton said.
As NPR reports, Howard has come under fire for how it treats survivors before. Five women sued the university in 2017, accusing the school of failing to respond adequately to Title IX complaints. That suit appears to still be traveling through the courts after a federal court allowed the case to proceed in 2019. (The Root reached out to Howard for an update on where the lawsuits stand, but received no response.)
“I don’t think that Howard has more instances of sexual abuse than other schools,” Burton made clear. “But what I do think is that Howard does feel like a place where it is harder to talk about it.
“No one wants to be the reason why a Black man doesn’t succeed,” she continued. “No one wants to be causing trouble or disrupting the harmony or the unity, or dragging the Mecca’s name through the mud.”
Part of that difficulty is the fact that Burton couldn’t fathom that she might be a victim—especially not at Howard, a school her family had attended for generations. But she sees this as a larger thread among Black survivors.
After leaving Howard in 2018, she took a job as a sexual assault prevent specialist in Denver, Colo.; a job that required her to go to middle and high schools, and occasionally college campuses, to teach students about bystander intervention and rape culture. She describes the work as demanding, heartbreaking but ultimately fulfilling. But it also solidified for her the deep divides in how Black survivors were treated compared to non-Black ones: fewer resources, less empathy—a systemic refusal to see Black women as worth fighting for. (The following paragraphs detail instances of sexual assault and rape.)
Burton was assaulted twice during her time at Howard, once by a Georgetown student off-campus, and another time on-campus by another Howard student.
She recalls waking up after the first assault with bruising on her neck that was so bad her friends told her it looked like a wild animal had attacked her. As soon as she woke up, she was told by the man responsible for the bruising that she had “wanted them.” Because Burton couldn’t and didn’t see herself as a victim, it took her years to name the assault as what it was—to realize that she, as an incapacitated person, could not have possibly given consent, even if she did verbally say she wanted those bruises.
The second time—when the violence and trespass was much more clear and memorable—she was met with a similar, surreal nonchalance from her attacker. After raping her, he started doing push-ups.
Seeing that she was still in shock, he asked her what was wrong with her. Burton told him that she was in a lot of pain.
“‘Well, you have all spring break to recover,’” she recalled him saying.
Burton reported the assault to the school. The ensuing Title IX investigation lasted five months—an entire semester during which Burton was afraid to leave her room and failed all her classes. Her attacker confessed to raping her, both in person and to Title IX investigators, and was kicked out of school. While his admission was a validating experience, Burton still found herself feeling guilty about his expulsion.
“This is obviously someone who should not have been on campus. Like, the level of danger this person posed is incredible,” Burton reflected. “But I still felt shame because I had gotten a Black man out of Howard, like, ‘what does that say about me?’ And I really struggled with that for a while.”
She’s far from the only one. As she was organizing the Black Survivors Healing Fund this year, she spoke to other survivors to try and get a gauge of how much money the fund would need to give each of them. One asked for just $50. Some recipients even returned the money, saying they didn’t deserve it.
I don’t deserve it. It’s not for me. I’m not a victim, they told her.
Still, for others, the mere fact that someone would want to rally around them—would want to help them pay their rent or utilities or just make sure they were okay—was incredibly powerful.
“We’ve heard from some of the recipients that just the fact that we thought they deserved money helped them tremendously,” Burton said. “Just the thought that someone thought they were worthy of that.”
As of November 9, the Black Survivors Healing Fund has hit just under $30,000—about $20,000 shy of the fund’s $50,000 goal. Each of the 20 recipients has received at least $1,000, with some in emergency situations receiving more money; another 23 survivors are on a waiting list to receive funds. Burton is concerned about the upcoming holidays, a costly and triggering time of year for many survivors, who may be struggling with seasonal depression or estrangement from family members. She’d like to ensure that they have what they need to take care of themselves—whether it’s continuing therapy, getting medications, or simply being able to bake so they can take their mind off things.
Earlier this year, Burton told the Washington City Paper she originally imagined the fund as a kind of reparations movement, supported and funded mainly by cisgender, straight men. But they haven’t been the ones who have donated to the fund. The very people she has foregrounded in her advocacy are the main donors: women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Many of them also don’t have a direct connection to Howard.
“We actually haven’t had that much support from Howard people on this,” she said. “It’s really been a lot of outside people”—something Burton would like to see change.
Burton described some people who weren’t willing to share or donate to the fund without knowing who was getting the money—How would they prove the survivors were telling the truth? Did they really need this much money?
But the point of the fund was not to question survivors—to have them once again prove and validate their experiences, or their worth. This is part of why Burton deliberately chose a broader definition of trauma—sexual violence, as opposed to assault—for the fund.
“I wanted people to know there’s a spectrum [of sexual violence] and I don’t care where you land on the spectrum,” she said. “I will help you.”
If she were to grow the fund, she would love to include other HBCUs, as well as Black survivors from primarily white institutions. And if she could take the fund “as high as it could go,” she would like to see universities across the country creating stipends for survivors so they can have “the space and time to heal.”
In a statement to The Root, Howard University Provost Anthony Wutoh said the university “prohibits all forms of sexual misconduct and we are deeply concerned about the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of all students, especially during this challenging and turbulent period.”
“The Title IX Office remains available during the COVID-19 pandemic to help students understand the process and decide how best to move forward after experiencing any form of sexual misconduct. This is our personal commitment to rid our community of such traumatic acts that have a devastating impact on college students across the nation,” Wutoh continued, additionally pointing out the school’s free counseling services for students as well as several recent programs. This past year, the HBCU has coordinated with the nonprofit ‘me too’ to host conversations about sexual violence and recently launched its “HU Stands” program, a series of year-round, interpersonal violence-prevention workshops.
What Burton doesn’t want to do is tell Howard University’s administration how to protect its students—though some have suggested that she engage with the university to do intervention trainings and other programs.
“That’s not my ministry, to be fighting in the [administrative] building again,” said Burton.
“As someone who hasn’t been at Howard in a long time, I don’t think that I’m the right person to tell Howard what they need to do,” she said. “I think that is for the students who are there now because they know their needs better than I do.”