Early last month, Dr. Vanessa Tyson came forward to share her story of sexual assault at the hands of Virginia Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Days after Dr. Tyson’s statement, Ms. Meredith Watson came forward with a statement that Mr. Fairfax raped her in a “premeditated and aggressive” assault in 2000 when they were both undergraduates at Duke University.
Between this and the racist images in Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook, the Action Alliance staff, governing body, and members have engaged in hard conversations about our elected leaders and how to respond to revelations of harm they may have committed in the past.
We’ve asked one another questions like, “What would true accountability look like for each person? What would healing and repair look like for the people most directly affected? How do intersecting oppressions of race and class inform what we do next?”
We published several statements on these questions: a statement about Governor Northam’s yearbook photo, a statement about Lt. Governor Fairfax, followed by a longer call to action that centers the work of building a culture of consent in Virginia.
Building on these important discussions, we’ve asked several Action Alliance members, partners, and supporters to offer their perspectives on what should happen in the wake of the sexual violence allegations made against Lt Governor Fairfax. To frame the conversation, we requested their responses to two questions:
- In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?
- What is missing from this conversation?
Here’s a small sampling of the voices and perspectives captured by this dialogue.
Fatima M. Smith, Speaker & Consultant at FMS Speaks, LLC, member of the Action Alliance Training Institute Faculty and Governing Body.
Mike Milnor, Trainer with Justice3D, an organization that educates on issues related to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence cases, and has partnered with the Action Alliance on a variety of educational initiatives.
Raven Dickerson, Chief Programs Officer for Domestic Violence Services at Shelter House, Inc., a community-based program in Northern Virginia that provides housing and advocacy for people who are homeless and/or affected by domestic violence, and member of the Action Alliance Governing Body.
Question 1: In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?
Fatima M. Smith: Action Alliance and many advocates, including myself, have stated that what should happen in response to Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson is the community starting from a place of belief. This issue is complex because it deals with a black male in power as the perpetrator and a black woman as the victim/survivor. The story is unfolding in the midst of blackface scandals and #muteRKelly and it is another painful reminder that the violence that black women experience is not important. I want society to rally around these black women and say, “we believe you, I see you and I appreciate you sharing your story. ” Let us not get distracted by politics and remember at the core this is about (two) survivors coming forward to share their experience with sexual violence. Instead of asking, “why did it take so long to come forward,” we should be asking, “why does it take us (as a society) so long to believe survivors?” We continuously fail black women in this country when we make the conscious decision to not to believe, not to fight for justice. We see this in the less talked about cases of missing black girls in DC, the school to prison pipeline for black girls, and the police killings of black women.
Mike Milnor: In a perfect world, every sexual assault survivor would feel confident in the response to their situation when deciding whether to report immediately. We however know that is not the case. The point to be made here is that Dr. Tyson is totally normal when it comes to her not disclosing to anyone for years about her assault. She was “triggered” to come out to the Washington Post by her abuser running for public office. When one understands trauma and its effects on the brain this is completely normal. It is difficult to go back and say what “should” have happened in this case. What we can do is go forward with a trauma-informed investigation that begins with a trauma-informed in depth interview of Dr. Tyson. Then if she wishes, an in-depth investigation into what can be corroborated, such as any witnesses she came into contact with immediately after the event, should follow.
Meredith Watson’s case is also consistent with trauma. She however did immediately disclose to friends and dorm mates and named her abuser. As with Dr. Tyson’s case, a full, trauma -informed investigation beginning with a trauma informed in-depth interview with Ms. Watson is the best practice.
Raven Dickerson: In a perfect world, and I believe in the world we have now, Lt. Governor Fairfax would step down so that the experiences, needs, and voices of survivors can be lifted up into the spotlight that he, and the mention of him, is holding.
Question 2: What is missing from the current conversation?
Fatima M. Smith: I would like to have a conversation about why society is quick to attribute things like sexual maturity and/or hypersexuality to black girls/women who are victims of sexual violence. An examination of why we do not value black women’s lives as a society…this would include a discussion unpacking the impacts of white supremacy which create the jezebel trope and the strong black women trope and how they intersect and create one’s ability to disregard a black woman’s experience.
Mike Milnor: What is missing from this is the opportunity to have a full, non-confrontational conversation with Mr. Fairfax concerning the statements of Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson. Mr. Fairfax should be offered the same opportunity as the reporting women, to have his statement taken and then investigated and/or corroborated if possible. Once all statements have been given and fully investigated then we stand in the best position to evaluate what steps should be taken.
Raven Dickerson: We are lacking intentional conversation about how survivors healing, health, and well-being are prioritized in seeking accountability. When we are pursuing accountability for someone who has caused harm, especially someone who is a public figure with institutional power, our narratives are absorbed with all the possibilities of how we can process them through our complex systems of judicial judgment and power. We often forget that another world is possible in which we center healing as the purpose of accountability rather than due process and the continuation of harm. Another world is possible for our survivors, for those who harm, and for all of us.
Thank you to Fatima, Raven, and Mike for their thoughtful contributions to this conversation.
Talking about sexual violence may raise painful memories for you, a friend, or a loved one. If you or someone you know would like to speak with a trained advocate and find support, here are two Virginia-based resources available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year:
Statewide Hotline at 1.800.838.8238 | Text: 804.793.9999 | Chat
LGBTQ Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Helpline at 1.866.356.6998 | Text: 804.793.9999 | Chat
Featured image: https://content.gmu.edu/sites/common/files/rotator-image/Justin_Fairfax.jpg