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When ten year old Dimani went to live with a lesbian couple in Novi, she got As and Bs for the first time in her life.
“She was doing really well here,” said Stacey Barker, one of the women who took her in earlier this year. “Just a couple of weeks ago she helped me do a Girl’s Group event. I hired her to help. She took the responsibility so serious! She helped me tie balloons and we put together little gift bags. I paid her $10 an hour and she was so proud of herself for doing a good job. You should have seen her being so helpful!”
The Girls’ Group event, which helps connect young women in an empowering and supportive environment, was just one of the many ways Barker has given back to the community after overcoming unbelievable obstacles in her own life. Barker has been working with the Girl’s Group in Ann Arbor, and having Dimani as part of the family had also been a light in her life, and a way to give back.
But then an arsonist’s fire destroyed their home and Dimani went back to live with her biological mother in Detroit.
On May 12, while Barker and her partner Tawana Williams were in Las Vegas celebrating their honeymoon, someone broke into their Novi Meadows home, scrawled racist and homophobic comments on the walls, and used an accelerant to set the home on fire.
“All we have left are the clothes we took with us to Vegas,” Barker said. “We lost everything. All our wedding presents, all our stuff, everything.”
While Dimani still had belongings at her mother’s house in Detroit, she also lost clothing and toys in the fire. “The worst thing is losing our daughter,” Barker said. “After the fire we had to take her home because her mother didn’t feel like it was safe. Kids at school were making fun of Dimani and one boy told her that we should have died in the fire.”
Barker said that the home in Detroit is also a loving one, and that Dimani is in good hands. But she worries about her education. “She moved out here with us so she could go to Novi schools, but now she is too scared.”
Dimani had been with her mother when the fire occurred, since Barker and Williams were in Nevada. When they returned they stayed in a hotel for sixteen days before their insurance relocated them to a one-bedroom apartment. They will not be returning to Novi Meadows.
“We never had any problems there,” Barker said. “We’ve never been disrespected. That’s what makes it so horrible, not knowing who did it or why.” She said she remains close to her neighbors, including the neighbor to her right that made the centerpieces for her wedding.
Barker said the Novi Police have been “very honest and nice,” and that the FBI is also looking into the fire as a potential hate crime. In Michigan anti-gay remarks are not considered a hate crime, but anti-black remarks are. Barker said that her house contained both, though it’s not clear yet how the crime will be prosecuted or if a suspect will be arrested.
Equality Michigan providing support
Equality Michigan is helping the family through their victim services program. In addition to providing educational resources and a supportive ear, they are collecting department store gift cards to help them replace household items and clothing they lost.
Barker is on medical leave from work where she helps empower women. She worries about how she will return to work without the professional business clothes she wears when she hosts events and does public speaking.
“Me and my partner just support each other. We don’t want to ask for help. We’re the ones who help other people overcome. I know we’re going to get our blessings, because we have our health and we have each other.”
She said this isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her. Barker’s life has been fraught with struggle, not just as a lesbian, but as a woman trying to make it in a society where violence and degradation of women is still all too common. When she was 18 years old she was hospitalized after being gang-raped by three men. And when she was 22 she was sentenced to life in prison after using deadly force to stop another sexual assault.
She was locked up for 22 years, half her life at the time. In 2000 a Federal court ruled that the judge in her trial was wrong for not explaining to the jury that a woman is allowed to use deadly force to prevent a sexual assault. It took a full ten years after that for the parole board to finally approve her release.
While she was incarcerated, Barker was repeatedly raped and assaulted by prison guards. Barker won settlements in 1995, 2000 and 2010 as a result of being sexually assaulted in prison. The most recent suit uncovered widespread abuse of prisoners and resulted in over 800 women coming forward in a class action lawsuit against the state. Thirty prison guards being convicted of various related crimes as a result.
The torture she endured behind bars drove her to do better for herself. She earned a degree and made connections to the outside world. One connection is Williams, who she’s dated off and on since 1994 before living together and ultimately having a commitment ceremony. Other connections helped her find work in the non-profit world and as a public speaker.
“Through Girls Group I get to help young women stay in school, don’t be a teen mom, don’t get in abusive relationships. We also send them on trips and to conferences to learn how to be independent leaders.”
With a life full of experience and a heart full of love, Barker said she’s going to keep moving forward. “A lot of people would say ‘why me?’ But I say ‘why not me?’ I’d rather have it be me than someone who isn’t as emotionally strong who would really be hurt by it.”