Breaking the Silence.
There comes a time when we must move beyond fear. When what we’ve endured pushes us beyond who we thought we could be into who we must be. Courage becomes a matter of necessity while fear acts as a cancer — one that eats away at our ability to love and protect each other and ourselves.
Sometimes the way forward only becomes apparent when compared to the darkness of the past. When that happens, we have a choice. Those that choose to relish in the ways of old are often those that benefit from the suffering that occurs in that darkness. Those that desire more move towards that brighter way, with hope, but not without understanding the danger of what we are moving away from.
It’s always been that hope that’s allowed me to move beyond fear — to run out into the streets of Ferguson for Mike Brown and sacrifice deeply towards building a powerful movement before many trusted it could be one. It’s that same hope that’s allowed me to speak truth against power as it stands and to continuously stand with and for those of us who seek a world where cruelty, abuse and violence are not the norm in our communities.
It takes a will beyond self to absorb the impacts of trying to change a world where predators and abusers are heralded and victims are punished and dismissed. Usually, I find that will through relating to the stories of others, and with deep faith that the darkness of our experiences can be turned to light by our collective desire for more. As an activist, strategist and organizer, I’ve most often used that understanding to freely speak and embody truths that have empowered others across the globe. Today I’m using my power, hope and courage to light the path towards freeing myself. I’m moving beyond fear because my courage has become necessary for my survival.
Below is a letter from me, Ashley Yates (@brownblaze), to the leadership of Black Lives Matter National Network and the network at large, about someone employed and presented as leadership by the network. I also sent this letter to several trusted movement community members and comrades because accountability takes community and abuse is bred in silos and silence. Things must be seen to be changed.
This person has a history of abusive, predatory behavior and had remained unrepentant, unaccountable and abusive to those she’s harmed. While the network has responded with suggestions of processes rooted in transformative justice, I want to be clear that my letter was offered in the spirit of accountability and integrity, not as an opportunity to silence me or ask for private processes that allow BLM and my abuser to control the narrative or isolate me back into silence. What I revealed was not unknown to the leadership before my letter, they just chose not to address it. Transformative justice comes when we’re intentionally about transforming. Keeping silent about abuse isn’t transformative.
Justice does not occur at the demands of the perpetrator or those that protect them, it’s determined by those of us impacted and harmed. And as I state in my letter below, there can be no justice without truth. Survivors have a right to tell our stories without protecting those who abused us. Our silence will not protect us. My silence has not protected me. Honesty always has.
If transformation is truly possible, it starts with our movements.
It starts with truth.
I’m writing this letter to inform the leadership and network of Black Lives Matter Network that you are currently employing and in community with someone who has engaged and continues to engage in prolonged exploitative, predatory, and abusive behavior targeting Black queer women.
As many of you know, Shanelle Matthews and I were involved in a personal relationship for approximately a year and a half. What most of you may not know is that during the year and a half span of our relationship I encountered deep emotional, psychological, verbal, financial and at times physical abuse from Shanelle Matthews, the acting director of communications for the Black Lives Matter National Network.
Through my work as a movement leader, I’ve not only helped catalyze an international movement, I’ve worked tirelessly to build and help sustain it. The visibility I gained as a result allowed me to become a vulnerable target for people seeking to gain power via proximity. Beyond the abuse I experienced within our relationship, Shanelle proved herself to be predatory and opportunistic by exploiting our relationship from very early on in order to gain position, influence, and credibility within the movement. The serious impacts and repercussions of the abuse of anyone in movement spaces, much less a leader, are not only personal, they are political. I can no longer sit silent as such a dangerous person moves through movement spaces proclaiming moral leadership rooted in empathy. It’s unconscionable.
After ten months of intensive healing, therapy and personal work I am finally telling my story publicly as I have a right to do. Too many people have experienced what I have. We’ve been told our silence is necessary for movement unity while the impacts of rampant abuse, unaccountability and other toxic dynamics have created widespread disarray and disunity. Abuse breeds in silence and I am breaking mine,. In doing so, I’m refusing to continue to shield the identity of my abuser as she’s made no effort to be accountable for her extensive abuse and harm. This is in addition to her admittances of the abuse in private while denying the abuse publicly. My silence has not protected me from her continued abuse, lies and manipulation. In speaking out, I’m not only protecting myself, I’m taking a stand against an issue that plagues movement spaces and shedding the muzzle visibility places on those of us who endure abuse with public platforms.
We each have the right to tell our story. We do not have the right to lie and manipulate truths to hide our own shameful behavior. Rest assured that despite Shanelle’s successful and insidious actions to hide her actions, proof exists in many forms. As people in community and in association with Shanelle, I’m informing your organization now that should Shanelle continue to lie, claim my work as her own and/or negatively impact my livelihood, I will take every actionable step to enforce my right to be safe from my abuser. The truth is my best protection and tool towards regaining that right.
I’m writing this because I want to give you all the opportunity to hear this directly from me, as opposed to in the public sphere. It is my hope is that you take this opportunity to act in tandem with the values that the Network espouses. Certainly an organization that claims a large amount of resources, leadership space, and morality rooted in accountability and love of Black people — Black women and femmes in particular — would show extreme concern and vigorous action to account for uplifting a person who sought to gain influence via proximity, extreme emotional and psychological abuse, and who has actively worked to not only escape accountability, but to damage the reputation and social standing of the person whom they victimized.
While that is my hope, I would be dishonest to state that I have high expectations, or any whatsoever, to be clear, that the leadership in your organization will take steps to hold Shanelle Matthews accountable. I don’t think I need to share the reasons here as your organization has often failed at larger scale, movement-wide accountability — situations that have strained many of our personal and movement relationships.
However, minimal my hope, my asks are that you hold your leadership accountable with the understanding that unchecked abuse and predatory behavior leave us ALL vulnerable. Encourage her to be honest and responsible about her past and present behaviors, as my truths will stand and no longer be hidden. It would be moral for her to remove herself from visible leadership, undergo a process that addresses her abusive behaviors and to stop claiming my work. I believe that she has the right to heal and get help for her issues, but not at the expense of her victim. These asks are not about being punitive to her, but rather breaking the silence around abuse and embodying the moral standard that you have decided on as a network and we should all be embodying in our work done in love, service and community. While I do not require a direct response from the leadership of BLM, I hope you will act with love and accountability, notions I am also open to move forward in community and conversation. It’s with that hope and the spirit of community responsibility and love that I’ve opened the conversation beyond the insular pathways that have existed thus far and led me to take such vulnerable action in hopes of a being able to continue to do movement work with love and support.
with love and respect and hope for a healthier movement,