DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) – Early History

by Deb Friedman, with help from Sue Lenaerts and NkengeToure, May 8, 2019

Feminist consciousness around the issue of rape began to surge in the early 70’s. A phone counseling and community education project was started in San Francisco, and in Washington, DC, Liz O’Sullivan began envisioning a full-service rape crisis center. Sheand Karen Kolliasheldmeetings around the city to attract women to the project, and a meeting at American University in the spring of 1972 resulted in the DC Rape Crisis Centeropening on June 1, 1972 (in a rental house on Wisconsin Ave, NW, where Karen lived).

Liz and Karen were the ideas and energy that made it happen, involving about 10 others in opening the Center (including Sue Lenaerts, Chris Murphy, Barbara Rellick, and Billie Malkin). During the first year, Karen did organizing and community education, and taught several of the women to be self defense instructors. Liz also wrote How to Start A Rape Crisis Center, which was used by women around the country to help organize other centers.

The following year, the Center was moved to a townhouse on Q St, NW. Six women lived in the house but many more volunteers camefor meetings and phone monitoring. Two years later, the Center moved to a church basement, and by that time many of the original women had left the Center. (Over its early history, the Center moved to several other locations, including Sumner School.) Jackie MacMillan joined soon after the Center was started and remained as the main organizer when the original women left. Jackie also expanded and revised How to Start a Rape Crisis Center in 1976, and started the national Feminist Alliance Against Rape in 1974. Other members who were active early on included Nancy Pfaff, MarialisZmuda, Deb Friedman, Deirdre Wright, NkengeToure, and Trish Nemore.

The Center had no outside funding initially, but after DC City Council Public hearings, at which the Center testified, a small contract with the City’s Department of Human Resources was obtained in 1975 for rape prevention education, carried out primarily in the DC Public Schools. The Center’s leaders decided to fund community education only and the Center’s hotline and “victim services” continued to be run by volunteers. (Thus the Center remained an independent organization, with its own politics, for quite a while.) With funding, the Center could hire a paid Director and a Community Educator. Early Directors included Lynn Wehrli, Nancy Pfaff (McDonald), NkengeToure, and Loretta Ross. Michele Hudson was initially the primary Community Education Coordinator and ran the Center’s educational presentations for middle and high school students.

The earlyorganizers of the Center (who were white) felt that the leadership and paid positions of the Center should be in the hands of African American women, given DC’s large Black population. Michele, Nkenge, and Loretta were among the first. Nkengebecame Director for Community Education (after Michele Hudson) before later becoming Director of the Center. Her groundbreaking education program included adding presentations for 4th through 6th grade students, and bringing along her teenage daughter to help with being able to communicate appropriately to teens ("peer education”). Nkenge and Loretta also held the first National Conference on Violence Against Third World Women, in 1980.

The Center’s overarching goal was to STOP rape,which requires gaining political power. To that end the Center focused on peer support(self-help) rather than professional counseling, on confidence and skills development, and on opposing ideologies that maintain men’s power over women. The Center’s activities included organizing the 1978 March to Stop Violence Against Women (DC's first Take Back the Night march), in partnership with several other women’s groups, and Anti-Rape Week, an annual event held for many years and comprised of a week of organizing and educational workshops held in various communities throughout DC. Anti-Rape Week became one of the Center’s most central and well-recognized events and brought the participation of many women of color into the Center's anti-rape work. The Center also formed a relationship with the DC Self Defense Karate Association, a martial arts school run by Carol Middleton,which provided self defense workshops year-round and throughout Sexual Assault Awareness Month. (Lauren R. Taylor often taught the classes and continued organizing the annual Take Back the Night rallies.)

After the Center became a 501(c)3 organization in the mid-70s, the Board of Directors was established and was first served by the Center’s existing leadership.Marty Langelan (who wroteBack Off: How to Confront and Stop SexualHarassmentand continues teaching women these skills)became President of the Board in the 1980s, serving for a number of years. Denise Snyder was the Center’s Executive Director from 1988-2013 and was instrumental in getting more funding for the Center and keeping the Center going.SherelleHessell-Gordon served as Executive Director following Denise, and Indira Henard became the current Executive Director in 2016.

Deb, Jackie, Sue, and Nancy helped createAegis Magazine on Ending Violence Against Women, a bimonthly nationaljournal published for 10 years until the mid-1980s (originally as the Feminist Alliance Against Rape Newsletter).NkengeToure went on to create a highly acclaimed weekly radio talk show about women’s issues, In Our Voices, which she hosted on WPFW starting in 1988, for over 30 years. In 1997, Loretta Ross helped found Sister Song, a national reproductive justice organizing collective for women of color. She is a well-known leader in reproductive justice and anti-racist organizing, as well as an academician and book author.