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Omaha Magazine

Walking in Her Light: How Filmmaker and Author Denisha Seals Turned Trauma into Community Advocacy

Jun 25, 2021 04:45PM ● By Joel Stevens

By age 9, Denisha Seals had already survived more trauma than most people endure in an entire lifetime.

By age 22, Seals was a first-generation college student on a full-ride scholarship at University of Nebraska at Omaha, a survivor of horrific sexual abuse, abject poverty, and years of struggles with her mental health when she was finally given the diagnosis that would change her life.

Seals was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a form of mental illness brought on by experiencing or witnessing traumatic events. She was sexually abused by her brother beginning at age 5. By her ninth birthday, Seals was removed from her home and sent to foster care. She was eventually reunited with her family, but the years of abuse left her empty and confused. A decade of therapy never yielded the diagnosis that would suddenly put all the puzzle pieces of her trauma together.

“It all made sense—the nightmares, the flashbacks, the anxiety, and the attacks of depression,” Seals said. “But in my community, you don’t know the signs of mental illness because it isn’t talked about and it’s stigmatized. Most organizations [that treat mental illness] don’t cater to people who are often marginalized in society.”

Seals, now 30, has turned her trauma, the healing she has pursued, and her advocacy for those in minority communities who have suffered sexual abuse into her life’s mission. 

“When I was diagnosed, I decided there are a lot more people like me and I wanted to give other people a platform to speak on their sexual assaults, to encourage policy makers to change the laws to protect victims that are a part of the system,” she said. “I want to create a safe space for a gay Black man or young Black woman like me or that Latina or that Native American.”

Seals’ No Longer Silent: Hear Our Voices Project, a documentary she began as an undergrad at UNO, was her first step. The film tells the stories of multicultural women and men who have experienced sexual assault, rape, and child molestation. 

The seeds of the film came to Seals in a dream. She had neither a background in film nor much of an interest in making a documentary. Her vision became a passion project.

Dr. Nikitah Imani, a Black Studies professor at UNO, was Seals’ adviser on the film as part of her independent study.

“Having this heart-wrenching traumatic story, the fact that someone not only was surviving and functioning, but also was so concerned with the plight of others and making an impact, was what I thought was so ambitious about [the documentary],” he said.

The project quickly became less about Seals’ personal story than a multicultural community of people facing the same challenges to heal.

“It was unique,” Imani said. “It made me want to be involved. Not just on the intellectual level but really being empathetic to what it was she was doing. She was carving out a life’s mission. An empathetic life mission where the documentary was just one part of an ever-increasing sequence of things.”

Seals hopes the film can begin difficult conversations and change attitudes on how society and culture responds to the worst of its sins.

“I’m tired of this idea we have to stay silent,” she said. “When survivors stay silent about what predators did to us because of society, we are essentially continuously allowing it to happen not knowing that our silence is actually complicity. I wanted to speak to the disgusting pain of what predators do.”

No Longer Silent was an official selection at the 2020 International Black Film Festival. Seals hopes to market the film as an educational resource and as a professional development tool for social workers and therapists. The same professionals who missed the signs in her case.

“I was that young Black girl that was labeled as a bad child in school when all the teachers ignored or didn’t recognize that the little Black girl was being sexually assaulted,” she said. “There are holes that are in our community, in our society, about the recognition of sexual assault and empathy and sympathy if the sexual assault is happening to a child of color. I would say, it’s nearly non-existent.”

Since graduating from UNO, Seals has leapt headlong into tackling the complex sociological issues of sexual abuse in minority communities. She launched her own website, wrote a children’s book aimed at multicultural children with a mental illness, and began work on a second documentary.

Black Soil and Red Sky, Seals’ next film, examines generational trauma in the Black and Native American communities. Her goal is to show how violence affects individuals on a psychological level and its impact historically and culturally. She expects to complete the film this summer.

Her children’s book, Butterflies In Me, will be published by Boys Town Press in 2022. Seals is one of two women of color to sign a book deal with Boys Town Press in its 35 years of operation.

Seals knows her journey—both professionally and personally—has just begun.

“I honestly believe what it is I’m doing now, won’t be what I’m doing five years from now,” she said. “I will always be an empath, I will always be spiritual and will always be guided to assist other people. My life does not belong to me. But I do not believe sexual assault, telling my story of sexual assault, will be my life. I believe that my life will be about the healing of a nation. And it starts with me.”

She even has a name for what she plans to do.

“In a cultural perspective,” she said. “I would like to be considered as a light.” 

Visit water2spirit.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.