Washington Area Women's Foundation

#AskHer Series: Alana Brown, Executive Director of The Safe Sisters Circle

Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Alana Brown, Executive Director of The Safe Sisters Circle. The interview was conducted by our Program Officer, Chika Onwuvuche

The Safe Sisters Circle is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides free culturally specific, holistic, and trauma-based services to Black women survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault primarily living in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8.

Chika Onwuvuche: In one sentence, tell us why you founded your organization?

Alana Brown: I founded this organization because I wanted an organization that placed Black women’s needs first, centered the survivors’ needs and also provided them with practitioners and attorneys that they can relate to, such as having a staff of Black women attorneys.

Chika: What cause/issue does your organization tackle?

Alana: We look at domestic violence and sexual assault focusing on Black women and girls living in DC’s Wards 7 and 8.  Although, we rarely turn anyone away, our mission is to mainly focus on Black women survivors.

Chika: What should people know about your organization that they may not otherwise read or hear about?

Alana: I think people should know we take on other people who don’t fall into our categories. We also don’t have an income requirement. We have clients who fall into the low income category, but not poverty level income category, which are women who don’t make enough money for their own attorney, but don’t fall under the low income requirements that a lot of nonprofits have.

Chika: As we get back to building better, what hurdle is your organization facing moving forward?

Alana: I think the biggest hurdle is the idea that right now Black Lives Matter is very popular, and it’s very popular to center Black women. We have the R. Kelly case where Black women finally got justice after years of trying, after many activists did their part to bring that subject to the forefront. I don’t want people to forget that as we build back together. I want them to still be supportive of Black women as we move forward as an organization, as a country and as a society. We should still keep that focus on Black women survivors.

Chika: You brought up justice, can you explain to me your definition of justice?

Alana: My definition of justice is self-defined by the client and what they’re looking for. Despite my roots as a prosecutor, I’m actually more anti-carceral in my beliefs. We understand justice doesn’t always necessarily only mean putting someone in jail or getting a CPO (civil protection order) against someone. It might mean survivors getting custody of their children or putting them in a safer place. It might be getting survivors into housing programs. It might be referring them to the right mental health organization that we work with, as partners after getting them legal services. I think it depends on what people have defined for themselves as justice and we try to help them get to that. The idea of justice is getting people to thrive, not just survive.

Chika: What’s one of your organization’s accomplishments you would like us to know?

Alana: We started out with just one attorney, which is me. And then we grew to have two attorneys, now we have three attorneys and have expanded our capacity. We’ve been able to represent quite a few, 85 or 90 clients this past year, despite being so small. We provide brief legal advice, direct legal representation, limited representation in Civil Protection Order Hearings, family law cases such as custody and child support, and victim advocacy. Also, we are always sure to do a lot of referrals to additional services to make sure clients get a holistic experience. We’ve grown into an organization that has a good foundation of legal services and literally serves survivors directly in their community as our office is located in Anacostia in Ward 8.

Chika: What do your clients need the most right now?

Alana: Besides legal services, clients need mental health services. I think everyone is traumatized by COVID-19. Because our clients live in areas where there are high rates of COVID-19 and high rates of death particularly around caregivers for our custody cases. Our clients’ parents have passed away and it has traumatized them to a greater extent than I think their white counterparts. When you are already living in poverty, already living in a volatile situation with abusers, it makes everything that much more volatile. Both survivors and abusers need mental health services. Clients also need housing. The eviction moratorium is ending. People are really having trouble getting into new housing, especially when they need to move from an unsafe place to a safer place. There are not a lot of options right now.

Chika: With unlimited funds, what would you do with your organization?

Alana: When I started the organization, I wanted it to have more wraparound services. I wanted it to be holistic, which we are, culturally specific, which we do provide, but I also hoped to provide therapy sessions like crisis intervention. In the future, we want to provide support groups for Black women survivors and gender based violence, and if possible, short term emergency housing. So our next step in growing, is to start doing support groups and looking for funding for Black women gender based violence support groups, because our clients have directly asked us for this service and hopefully some Healing Circles and other facets of healing such as art therapy and trauma informed yoga and meditation. With unlimited money we would build up a healing justice aspect in our organization.

Chika: Here’s a quick lightning round of questions:

Chika: Do you prefer: DC-area Spring or DC-area Summer?

Alana: Spring. It’s too hot and muggy in the summer.

Chika: Do you prefer: Monuments or Museums?

Alana: I prefer museums. I’m a nerd so I love learning things about people and seeing arts. I love the National African American Museum of History and Culture.

Chika: Favorite female or gender expansive icon?

Alana: Can I just say my mother? *laughs* My mother is an icon in my family. She’s the matriarch and even though, she has sickle cell anemia, she was able to become a doctor and provide excellent parenthood to me and my twin sister. She worked in wards 7 and 8 herself and gave services back to those communities. Community service is very important to her, which I think is why it’s important to me.

Chika: Favorite part of the Washington region?

Alana: I’m from Ward 7 originally, but I grew up in Prince George’s County. I have a soft spot for Anacostia because it’s where our services are based out of and I have learned so much having worked out of this community. They have a lot of black owned businesses, and I work under the Anacostia Art Center, which is really nice.

Chika: What’s one thing you can’t get enough of?

Alana: Coffee – I like it iced with almond milk and Splenda.

Chika: What should we abolish forever? (Can be more than 1 answer)

Alana: It’s going to sound very anti-ethical to my history, but we should abolish the current criminal and civil legal system as it stands. It’s not survivor-friendly and even within the civil system, there’s a very real anti- Black bias. Those working within the court system need to be trained differently to deal with people from diverse backgrounds, especially focusing on race, ethnicity, gender, cultural, and social economic context of the community they are supposed to serve. We need to abolish the system and rebuild another one that works better not only for Black women survivors, but to help our society as a whole. 

Chika: Is there anything you want to be sure that we know that we haven’t already discussed?

Alana: We are very community oriented. We have a lot of partnerships with non-legal organizations in Ward 7 and 8 with different therapy, healing and housing organizations. When we say “healing justice” we don’t mean solely mean therapy support groups. We also believe in healing circles which speaks to ancestry work and to different types of non-traditional healing. We incorporate our roots of our African ancestors and of the Black community to ensure that our services are culturally specific and relevant. The services are catered to their needs and requests.