Healing as a Hero: One Woman Shares Her Path to Liberation as a Survivor and Abolitionist of Sexual Violence

A colorful mural with "You are beloved" and Harriet Tubman and others
The “Beloved: An Insistence” mural once stood on E.14th St. between 22nd and 23rd St. before the building was knocked down. Mural artists included Cece Carpio, Leslie "DIME" Lopez, Franceska Gamez, Priya Handa, and Angie Lopez. Photo by Kristal Raheem taken in 2021.

Editor’s Note: April is nationally recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In Alameda County, April 24th-30th signifies Sexually Exploited Minors Awareness Week for this year. Kristal Raheem of Oakland Voices interviewed Regina Y. Evans, an award-winning playwright, “artivist,” and leader in the fight against sex trafficking. Evans began sharing her healing process with Raheem in 2022. This month Raheem followed up with Evans for an update about her journey. 

The hauntings of sexual trauma within the lives of Black women and girls is a national health crisis. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 in 4 Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18, and 40% of confirmed sex trafficking survivors in the U.S. are Black.

The aftermath of sexual violence can send someone into an abyss of chronic illnesses, addiction, and dissociation. As the years pass, the body holds onto memories that the mind tries to forget. Seldom discussed, but deeply felt, are the lingering health impacts of trauma on survivors of sexual violence. 

Oakland native Regina Y. Evans (a.k.a Mama Regina) is best known as an award-winning playwright, “artivist,” and costume designer. Her life work centers the humanity of Black women and girls, and has transformed the lives of countless survivors of sexual violence. She is also a survivor who spent years working in Oakland as an abolitionist in the fight against sex trafficking. 

When I first interviewed Evans in 2022, she began to share the ways in which her body processed stress and trauma while doing abolitionist work in Oakland for 15 years. She discussed the emergence of skin issues, lumps, hair loss, and back pain: “I started getting these lumps in my throat a long time ago from traumatic experiences and I’m still struggling with them.”

The “Beloved: An Insistence” mural once stood on E.14th St. between 22nd and 23rd St. before the building was knocked down. Mural artists included Cece Carpio, Leslie “DIME” Lopez, Franceska Gamez, Priya Handa, and Angie Lopez. Photo by Kristal Raheem taken in 2021.

Oakland and the Bay Area at large has been referred to as an epicenter for sex trafficking in the country since the early 2000s. In 2019, the City of Oakland had the third highest number of reported rape cases in the state of California. East 14th St. or International Blvd. is the longest street in Oakland. Often mentioned in Bay Area songs as “The Track” or “The Blade,” it is a focal point for pimps and others who are invested in the sex trafficking industry. 

Evans started a movement called, “Beloved: An Insistence,” where she built altars on “The Track” for who she calls the “Beloved,” girls and women who are being trafficked. During the peak of the pandemic, Evans and community members provided essential items such as condoms, hand sanitizer, and packaged refreshments on the altars. Musicians, muralists, poets, and other artists have supported in effort to counter the impact of sex trafficking in Oakland.

I had the honor of building altars with Evans in the spring of 2021. Along with other community members, we adorned the streets with flowers, crystals, words of affirmation, and beautiful textiles. The altars served as a gentle reminder and offering of love and hope. 

While this act of love became one her most prominent contributions to the community, Evans explains how it was challenging for her to get buy-in from local nonprofits during the early planning stages of her vision. “When I did ‘Beloved: An Insistence,’ it made no sense to people. I told them we’re just going to show love. It didn’t make sense to nonprofits at first. They thought I was crazy. I was like, y’all don’t have to come.”

Evans mentioned Saraí Mazariegos, Executive Director of SHADE and Nola Brantley, Executive Director of Nola Brantley Speaks as two women who have continuously supported her over the years. “They are doing deep work on the ground!… Saraí and Nola are the mothers of the anti trafficking movement in Oakland. They trained me!”

The creation of the altars calls attention to the power of using a gentle approach to address the violence of sexual trauma. While there is a need for political action and advocacy, there is an equal need for survivors to be given grace, love, and the opportunity to rest. Evans used art, nature, and ancestral wisdom to help heal the people and the streets of Oakland. She also used these tools to heal herself, which allowed her to get in touch with her body and her power. 

“A wound needs to rest. Straight up. Hurt needs to rest… When you think about nature, when nature is wounded, it hides,” Evans explained. “A wounded animal will try to get to a quiet place… When I decided to heal, I created my own healing path. I didn’t feel like there was anything that fit me. So I figured it out myself.”

Evans began seeing an acupuncturist as part of her healing process. “As she was putting needles in, she looked at me and said, ‘you know you can heal yourself, right?’… She put her hand on my bumps and she said, ‘you have those in your throat because you’re not speaking your truth.”

The journey of healing looks different for everyone. Survivors are left with the task of learning how to heal and defining justice for themselves. Silence has been used as a strategy for survival. However, when a painful truth is trapped in the body, it can evolve into physical health issues. The process of healing from trauma requires one to learn the language of their body. Our body has the power to tell us everything we need to know. 

Survivors are left with the task of learning how to heal and defining justice for themselves.

Prior to doing abolitionist work in Oakland, Evans traveled the world and lived in Australia where she owned The Diva’s Closet Vintage Clothing Boutique. She explained the challenges of returning home to a gentrifying city, “Before I got to Oakland, I was in very good shape. I was getting enough sleep. I wasn’t food insecure and I wasn’t housing insecure. I existed like that in Oakland pretty much the entire time… I’m shocked to be alive to be honest with you.” 

In 2021, Evans made the decision to leave Oakland again in order to save her own life and embark on a journey of self liberation. She chose New York as her place of refuge. Upon her arrival, she went to visit a chiropractor who checked her blood pressure and advised her to go to a hospital immediately. She explained her health conditions after further tests were administered, “I was in stroke territory. I had vertigo real bad, my back was out, and I had tinnitus in my ears.” Evans spent the next four months sleeping. “I would sleep for 8-16 hours a day… It took a year for my body to feel normal again.” 

Evans now has time to experience many pleasures of life such as cooking, going to the theater, and walking her dog, Butters. She also had the opportunity to sit in on a class taught by Dr. Cornel West and spoke to his students about the work she did in Oakland. 

Pure bliss radiated through the phone as Evans described her new life. “My social justice project right now is me… I deserve this peace. I open my windows every morning and I listen to the birds.”

Evans is now living what she describes as, “a quiet, beautiful life.” She has taken down her website and minimized her engagement with social media. “It feels good because I don’t have eyes on me.”

In an effort to escape the public gaze on her life, she calls attention to the need for a remembrance of ancestral ways of being and healing. “I think there needs to be more ceremonies and rituals. Quiet ones. More art… Going to the water, going to the forest… people spending one on one time with each other, building relationships… Think about our ancestors. They did stuff in the forest hella quiet. That’s why they call it a ‘hush harbor.’ There’s some power that we’re not tapping into because of gaze. Gaze is taking over our souls right now.”

Evans recently received the Cultural Investment Fund (CIF) grant from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ) for an art exhibit titled, “Our Blues”, which she plans to showcase in September of this year. As Evans describes, the exhibit “is a healing and ancestral arts exhibition highlighting the historical journey of Black women as they travel from the press of subjugation to the beauty of freedom attained.” 

Author Profile

Kristal Raheem (also known as Raheem Divine) is an ethnographic researcher, educator, and consultant from Oakland. She has earned a B.A. in Sociology and a master’s in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership. Her work calls attention to health and educational disparities among Black, Queer, and other systematically oppressed communities around the world. Through literary and visual storytelling, she aims to help people remember and remain on their path of healing and liberation.

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