BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
To see the confident, radiant young woman she is now, you’d never know that Wisconsin Youth of the Year Daijahnay Canady was just 7 years old when her childhood all but ended.
Repeatedly sexually abused, the girl knew that what was happening to her was wrong. But she knew other things too: That she desperately loved her mom and didn’t want to upset her by revealing the abuse. That, even at age 7, she felt responsible for the wellbeing of her siblings. That telling might make things even worse — for her and for her family.
“I was afraid — not for the person who was doing it to me, but for my mom,” says Canady, now 17. “I didn’t know how she would react, and I worried about my mom so much. So much was going through my head, ’cause I was also pondering, ‘How am I gonna tell this to everybody else? What if everybody else finds out?’ Thoughts that a 7-year-old should not be thinking.”
Eventually Canady’s mother learned the truth and comforted her daughter. “She was like, ‘Stuff like that, you don’t have to be scared to tell!’” Canady recalls. The abuse ceased, but Canady says she and her mom never spoke at length about it, even as the girl grew up and began to process the true horror of her experience.
“As I got older and realized what happened, it was super hard,” Canady recalls. “I always blamed myself — ‘I let this happen. If I didn’t pay so much attention to everybody else, if I took the time for myself, this would’ve never happened.’ But I was young. How was I supposed to know?”
Canady began to doubt her ability to express herself at all, much less ask for the sort of positive attention she craved. Instead, she began acting out at every opportunity, especially after her mother moved south, leaving the 13-year-old Canady and her siblings with an aunt.
“It really impacted me then,” Canady admits. “I just exploded, and it was a very unhealthy situation. I never listened to anybody, because I felt like nobody could tell me anything I didn’t already know. I always was seeking attention because, as a child, I always gave my attention to my younger siblings, telling them, ‘If I tell you to do something, just do it. I’m not here to hurt you; I’m here to help you.’ But I never had anybody say that to me. Eventually, it hit me and I just acted out; skipping classes, skipping school, all kinds of stuff that I’m not proud of.”
As a ninth grader at Vincent High School, Canady’s trips to the principal’s office became so frequent that another relative stepped in. “The person who came up to me was my grandma,” Canady says, smiling at the memory. “She told me, ‘This has got to stop.’ It was so embarrassing, because my grandma, she’s so loud and she cursed me out in front of everybody. Later she simmered down and was like, ‘If this keeps on going on and escalating like it has been lately, something is gonna happen to you and it’s not gonna be good.’ And I’m just thinking, ‘Wow. My grandma just told me that I could die.’”
In the summer of 2016, Canady’s mother came back to collect Canady’s siblings, sending a shocked Daijahnay to live with her father and stepmother and opening fresh wounds about her dad’s absence during the time she was abused.
Potentially a setback, the move was really a vital first step in the reinvention of Daijahnay Canady.
Her father and his wife enrolled Canady in St. Joan Antida High School, Milwaukee’s renowned private, Roman Catholic, all-girls school with a six-decade record of recalibrating the lives of some of the city’s most underserved young women via a rigorous curriculum focused on, but not exclusive to, careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Nearly 90 percent of its graduates go on to some form of secondary education — and as you walk through the sprawling school’s immaculate halls, covered with inspirational messages and murals, you can’t help but note the ease and confidence in the young women’s strides and expressions as they pass from room to room.
Still, Canady’s transformation wasn’t exactly over night.
“I was just so angry,” she admits. “My attitude was horrible. I carried myself so inappropriately. I didn’t care what anybody said about me. Just my appearance told everybody all my business.”
Enter two more local organizations with a multi-decade record of guiding Milwaukee youth to brighter futures.
Canady was matched with a Pathfinders counselor and then with Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM), where she first encountered Ebony Haynes, social emotional learning program manager, who was, at the time, St. Joan’s BGCGM branch manager. Haynes, a survivor in her own right, had repurposed a journalism degree into volunteerism and then a career working with challenged youth.
“I found a sense of purpose,” Haynes explains. “When I walked into my first room of 20 girls and I opened up about the things that I had been through — which included abuse, which included not feeling worthy and not feeling good enough, and being 25 before I had said anything to anyone publicly — it felt like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m sharing a piece of me with these young ladies.’ But, from that, they opened up to me, they connected with me, they poured into me and they wanted to be better.”
Haynes bided her time with Canady.
“One of the things that we tried to do — and that was with any girl that came to us in need of something — was [working on] expressing an emotion, or expressing a feeling that they didn’t yet know how to express,” she explains. “It was, ‘If you wanna come, come. If you don’t like me and you don’t wanna come hang out with me, that is totally fine as well.’”
Canady chose the latter more often than not. And then, a breakthrough.
Haynes had launched an annual Denim Day event a few years prior to Canady’s arrival at the club. An international sexual violence prevention and education campaign, Denim Day encourages men and women to wear jeans instead of school uniforms on a designated April Wednesday to protest sex abuse and show solidarity to survivors. Haynes knew it was a good fit in the St. Joan environment.
“I started the Denim Day event to bring girls together,” she says. “We would do poetry and arts and crafts and we do affirmations about why we’re amazing and why we’re awesome and why we should stick together. So when I came to St. Joan, I was like, ‘I’m gonna make this bigger and better than I ever have, because I’m at an all-girls school.’ We invited the Office of Violence Prevention, and we put a lot of effort into it, so that it really resonated with the girls and boys … resonated with them in a way where they felt compelled to seek help, and to go out and really do something.”
Approached to take a leadership position in the campaign, Canady predictably resisted at first. And then, realizing that other girls in her school and at the club were struggling with the same sense of confusion and isolation that she was, she let her guard down. “Denim Day is when she became more involved and started to hang out with us more often — because of that connection and because of feeling like someone had heard her, someone understood her,” Haynes reveals. “It gave her that outlet to connect a little deeper.”
Along with the positive new environments and a burgeoning support network, Canady’s new role in the Denim Day event finally allowed her to cast aside labels by which she’d defined herself for so long — abused, unheard, overwhelmed and out of control — in favor others. Like leader. Sounding board. Advocate. Star Student. Success.
And then, with Haynes’ encouragement, she set her sights on another: Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year.
“Youth of the Year is a program that happens every year,” Haynes explains. “It starts at the local level and [candidates have] the potential to go all the way to our national level. It’s a program that allows for our youth to really dig deep into themselves and get that platform.”
Canady admits she battled back some long-held insecurities. “I thought, ‘Who am I to represent such a big organization — to take on that responsibility,” she says. “In my head I was like, ‘Why would they choose me? I’m not special.’”
Haynes knew otherwise. “Because you may be afraid to speak in front of people, or you may be afraid to open up, it can be a little intimidating,” she says, “and so we got an effective communication coach, Denise Thomas, who came in and worked with Daijahnay on her speech and was very straightforward: ‘If you’re going to tell your story, tell your story. If you’re not going to tell me your story, don’t just give me bits and pieces.’ ... I reminded Daijahnay over and over that, ‘You’ve been given this platform. You can either take it and do something great with it or you can watch it fall.’”
“At first, my idea for a speech was not to talk about my sexual abuse,” Canady admits. “But my parents, especially my dad, he’s so about it: ‘This is what you should talk about. You want to tell your story, tell this story. A lot of people can relate to it. Think of #MeToo.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa!’ It took off from there.”
Indeed, as Haynes and Canady shaped her platform, the #MeToo movement exploded, reminding Canady of how many women of all ages suffered like she did, and reaffirming her resolve to speak up.
“If I never talked about it, in the future, I could have been one of the women in the workplace that is sexually abused and never spoke about it,” says Canady. “So I felt, as a young one, I’m here to inspire not only children, but also adults to talk about it.
“Never would I say, ‘Oh, I inspire other women to talk about it’ — because I wouldn’t know that,” Canady continues. “I wouldn’t know if other women have taken what I said and have come out of their shell of hiding and being scared to talk about what happened to them. But I know that I have been inspired by many women who have come out and [told their story]. … I don’t want to be the next girl who had a chance to talk about it but never talked about it, and now she has to deal with it in her future. I want to be the girl who talks about it and it goes away. And now her future ahead of her is trying to make sure that every other girl gets a chance to get served justice.”
“I remember when we were at the state level, an older woman — maybe in her 50s or 60s — came up to her and shared with Daijahnay that she had never shared her own story. And here Daijahnay is sharing hers,” adds Haynes. “She was teary-eyed, and it was a moment for Daijahnay to understand, ‘I’ve been given this platform and, whether or not I’m winning a competition, I’m here to make somebody else’s life better, and mine at the same time, through telling my story, through being open.’
“And then,” Haynes says, grinning at her charge, “going on and saving the world. Because she has great plans for the future.”
“I’m going to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and I am going to study pre-law, criminology,” says Canady, who beams as she talks about being mentored toward that goal by Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern. “I want to work my way to the top to give people who have never had justice get the justice that they deserve. Because everybody deserves justice.”
And, both women add, everybody deserves the chance to be heard.
“I think many people’s experience is that if you share a story, if you talk to young ladies and young men about abuse or any kind of trauma in life, so many at young ages will open up and express what they’ve been through,” Haynes says. “Yes, it’s heartbreaking — but what’s reassuring is that other people have been there and can wrap their arms around you and provide that support. Until you face your past, you can’t move forward into your future. That’s the most important piece, saving those who have been through it, but also recognizing that there is so much injustice that’s happening every single day to our boys and our girls, and we need to protect them.
“It just reminds me that what I do has purpose,” Haynes continues. “Working with youth is not always easy. There are days where you’re trying and you’re trying, and Daijahnay is that beautiful example of your work manifesting. I want my girls to be better than me, so I love to sit back and just watch them become who they are. It reassures me that our future is bright, and that I don’t have anything to worry about. And that’s why, as adults, it’s our responsibility to support them, no matter how hard it may be. Because when you do, this” — she rests her hand on Canady’s shoulder — “is what you get.”
“I’m proud of the way that I’ve changed, the way that my life has turned out,” says Canady. “If I would’ve never made the change that I did, the things that are happening would’ve never happened. I wouldn’t be Daijahnay Canady, Wisconsin’s Youth of the Year. I would just be Daijahnay Canady, the girl who acts out and seeks the wrong kinds of attention that no child should seek because they will always have that support. Telling my story to make me a better person, to help other kids and let them know, ‘What happened to you, don’t blame yourself. It’s not the end. There’s so much more for you to do, so don’t lose hope.’
“The one thing that every child, no matter what, should have is support,” Canady reitererates. “I never really told anybody my feelings because I always felt like nobody would listen. But coming to the Boys and Girls Club, going to Pathfinders, it was always taking one step at a time … and that’s the kind of support that every child should have. If every child has somebody to talk to, somebody there for them 24/7, the world would be calmer and more peaceful.” MKE