At 44, Detroit native Kelly Mays is a prominent slam poet, a public speaker with local nonprofit organization Haven, and a licensed therapist who empowers survivors of domestic and sexual abuse to share their stories and begin healing from trauma. At 35, she was in a relationship with a man who regularly abused her — a man who assaulted her on their daughter’s first birthday.
The 2010 incident began when her youngest daughter’s father, and Mays boyfriend at the time, refused to assist in planning the child’s birthday party. An argument after the party spiraled into a violent attack that required Mays to go to the hospital. “I got home and my oldest daughter was waiting for me,” Mays says, remembering the aftermath of the incident. “She was frustrated, obviously, and she said she was going to live with her biological father if I didn’t break up with my boyfriend.” This ultimatum sent shockwaves through Mays. The fear of losing her then 14-year-old daughter is what inspired Mays to ultimately leave the relationship, which had consisted of physical and verbal abuse for years.
In an attempt to hold herself accountable, she took to Facebook to share her story. “I was hesitant at first,” Mays says. “I was a graduate with a master’s in counseling and a mother of two, and I thought I had it going on, but abuse doesn’t have a face or a certain demographic. It can happen to anyone.” Mays’ post included a photo of her smiling, holding her baby at the birthday party and a photo of her bruises and cuts, showing her Facebook friends what 24 hours in an abusive relationship can look like. Met with tremendous support online, she finally began to feel the sense of community that she’d been longing for.
Feeling empowered after sharing her story online, Mays applied for the Survivors Speaker’s Bureau at Haven, a women’s shelter in Pontiac that was founded in 1975 and now provides places to stay, court advocacy, sessions with counselors who are trained to address safety concerns related to domestic violence and sexual assault, and a hotline that receives 21,000 calls daily. As a public speaker with the organization’s bureau, she began to spread awareness for the nonprofit’s causes and encourage other survivors to speak out about what they had been through. “By using her incredible talent to share her story, Kelly has taken a powerful step forward that inspires and instills hope in other survivors across our community,” says Aimee Nimeh, CEO and president of Haven.
Mays also channeled her feelings into writing and performing slam poetry under the name “Native Child.” On her eldest daughter’s 16th birthday, Mays wrote a poem that thanked her for saving her life just three years prior. Writing the poem and reading it brought Mays to tears, and to this day, she is overwhelmed with gratitude for the wakeup call. “My oldest is now 23 years old,” she says. “I admire her because she’s wise for her age. I’d like to think that she is more cautious of who she surrounds herself with because of the experiences that I went through.”
As for her youngest child, who is now 10, Mays is more cautious about explaining the abuse she endured at the hands of her daughter’s father. “We co-parent,” she says. “We’re not perfect, and I don’t talk to him unless it’s via text, but we’re trying. He’s a good father, but you can be a man and a monster.” In her efforts to co-parent with her abuser, Mays looked everywhere for advice. “I tore through the internet, the library, all of my therapy contacts, there’s no material because it rarely happens.”
As a certified therapist, Mays comes into contact with other survivors of domestic abuse about two to three times a week. Her advice to people dealing with trauma varies from case to case. “When you meet someone who is currently in an abusive relationship, the language you use is ‘I believe you,’ or ‘I’m listening.’ ” Despite many survivors being reluctant to take resources from Mays initally, she always supplies them with her phone number, letting them know she is there if they’d like to talk.
Mays also encourages friends of survivors to provide a safe space for them to express their anger. And she believes that survivors have the power to transform into healers by reaching out to the community and helping others share their stories. “I like to think of the process as victim, survivor, healer,” Mays says. “[Working with] Haven and writing poetry has given me the opportunity to heal through words. Writing down my thoughts and talking to other survivors allowed me to say, ‘This happened, and I’m okay.’ ”
For more information about Haven, visit haven-oakland.org.