On a balmy summer night in 2003, 31-year-old Shani Baraka and her partner, Rayshon Holmes, 30, went to Baraka’s older sister’s house to retrieve some of her belongings. Her sister, Wanda Pasha, was separating from her increasingly violent and erratic husband, who lay in wait at her Piscataway, N.J., home. He shot and killed Baraka and Holmes, spinning a community into an all-too-familiar grief.
Fourteen years later, Newark, N.J., Mayor Ras Baraka cut the ribbon for the Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center in the city’s South Ward, blocks from where Shani grew up. In what was once a years-old abandoned lot now stands the 12,000-square-foot building, a beacon for women in crisis.
“Shani was my sister, my baby sister, but she really was like my big sister in the community,” Ras Baraka says. “She represented a lot to me and our neighborhood.”
Shani Baraka was a lifelong Newark resident who taught science and language arts at Vailsburg Middle School. She was an assistant coach of the girls’ basketball team at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School (alma mater of current WNBA player Matee Ajavon); a state champion herself; a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; and out, loud and proud in Newark’s LGBTQ community. She was also the youngest daughter of poets Amina and the late Amiri Baraka.
“[Shani] was victimized because of domestic violence,” Ras Baraka says. “The center really symbolizes not just something for our family but also for women in the neighborhood, especially women of color.”
Often shrouded in secrecy and shame, domestic violence is a hidden public health crisis, especially for black women. Research indicates that at least 40 percent of women killed in intimate-partner homicides in the nation are black; it is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 15 and 45. In New Jersey, black women between the ages of 25 and 45 are 3.5 times more likely than white women to be victims of intimate-partner homicides.
Mayor Baraka “absolutely” thinks that the center could have helped his older sister during her violent home situation.
“It would have been a place to go to talk,” Baraka says. “And [learn] how to effectively get out of the situation. And how not [to] be embarrassed by the fact that it’s happening. And [know] that other women are going through this and it has nothing to do with you. And you need to remove yourself.
“Unfortunately, the minute you try to separate is when it escalates,” he concedes. “That’s when you need as much help as you can get.”
Statistics show that the most dangerous time for a woman in a violent relationship is when the victim tries to leave the abuser. According to a 2013 report (pdf) from the New Jersey Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, there are some unique factors that prevent black women from seeking help. These include systemic racial and gendered oppression, as well as economic and immigration status. But there are also cultural barriers, like not seeing themselves reflected in existing services, racial loyalty, fear of being judged, religion and—my words—always placing themselves last.
Isabel Livingston doesn’t fit the “type” of an abused woman. The young entrepreneur and business owner is drop-dead gorgeous, stylish and always well turned out. When she sought help, it came full circle for her.
“When I came through the doors of the center, I had been dealing with trauma from my childhood and some of the abuse that I had experienced,” the 44-year-old Newark native says. “It was the first time that I had ever talked to someone about what I was experiencing.”
Livingston says that she knew Shani as a kid, and joined the high school basketball team because of her: “It was the first and only time I was ever on a team, but she changed my life and how I felt about myself.”
She explained that because neither she nor her abuser (a man of economic means and community standing) fit into stereotypes of a survivor or a batterer, she dreaded judgment above all else.
Eventually, and with encouragement from staff at the center, she was able to call together about 50 members of her inner circle and publicly tell her story.
“It felt amazing not to have to walk around with the guilt and the shame of the entire situation,” she says. “I think when people look a certain way, because the expectation of life is different for them, it makes it harder to come forward. People look at them and say, ‘Oh, how could you or why would you?’ So I think that may be part of the reason why I stayed silent for so long, because I certainly didn’t want to disappoint people.”
Since opening its doors in May, the Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center has served over 1,000 women. It’s unique in that it is split into two wings, with social services on one side and a fully functioning police station on the other. There is a 24-hour law-enforcement presence and various entrances into the mirrored structure so that those on the outside cannot see in.
On the social services side, there are offices and resources from a plethora of partner organizations—including the Association of Black Psychologists, Planned Parenthood, the Summer Youth Employment program and RZ the Flags—as well as full-time staff from rape and sexual assault and HIV-education organizations. The center also boasts a doctor’s office, a safe space for the LGBTQ community, and grief and trauma counseling. The police side houses the entire city’s domestic violence, sexual assault, missing-persons, elder-abuse, bias-crimes and human trafficking divisions.
Asia Smith, of the center’s Domestic Violence Response Team, says that her team works very closely with law enforcement to bridge the divide that exists between police and many communities of color. “We’re able to make [victim-survivors] feel a lot more comfortable about speaking with the officers, the majority of whom are women, ironically,” Smith says.
“We had a woman who came in today who was strangled,” says Smith, who noted that all it takes is 4 pounds of pressure to die by choking.
“She was threatened with a weapon and was very shaken up,” Smith adds. “Once she came into the center, we allowed her to speak with one of the officers and to ascertain a statement. Then she came over to the social services side and really began to open up.
“We discovered that her needs extended far beyond her situation today,” Smith says. “This young lady is going to have to come back repeatedly. So it’s more of a holistic approach that we take for victim-survivors. I think it makes the officers’ lives much easier because they can’t devote but so much time to an individual, but they really want to do more. We can be an extension of what they do.”
A few years after Shani Baraka’s death, Ras Baraka dedicated a book of poetry, Black Girls Learn Love Hard (Moore Black Press), to her. He still laments how intimate-partner violence ripped through the fabric of his close-knit social network, way beyond the two people involved.
“It was a community problem,” he acknowledges. “Both families knew each other. It caused a lot of tension in our neighborhood, and obviously a lot of grief in our family.”
But Baraka says that the flip side of that is having familiar faces in the community take care of one another. He sees the center as an accomplishment of that as well as a semblance of closure.
“It gave me the opportunity to do something because it felt like I did nothing,” he says. “I was hopeless in the whole situation. And you always feel like you have to protect your sister and the women in your family, and then you realize that we have to empower women to protect themselves.”
Learn more about the Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center below: