By Rachel Dissell The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On Saturday more than 50 women gathered for the Sister2Sister "Justice for Our Sisters" forum at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library. The women explored what needs to be done to keep women safe from domestic violence, including next steps in the legislature.
About a year ago, Deonna Moore Taylor started a group to support and mentor women who are or aspire to be community leaders.
That mission changed on Nov. 17, 2018.
As Taylor prepared to serve as the matron of honor in a friend's wedding, she got a call.
"Lance killed her," the friend said. "I didn't want you to hear it on Facebook."
The friend was talking about Aisha Fraser.
The 45-year-old Shaker Heights elementary school teacher already had survived one brutal attack from Lance Mason in 2014.
The former county judge served a nine-month prison sentence, and Fraser divorced him.
The next attack, Fraser didn't survive.
Mason stabbed her as she dropped off their two young daughters for a visit, police said. He's been indicted for Fraser's murder and has pleaded not guilty.
Taylor said she didn't know how she got through that wedding. All she could think was, "Another sister is gone."
Just over a week later, Taylor's high school friend Rebecca Pletnewski and her 8-year-old daughter were killed by a neighbor after Pletnewski refused his advances.
"My sorrow became outrage," Taylor said. She wondered: "What are we doing as women to protect each other?"
Taylor brought that question Saturday to more than 50 women gathered for the Sister2Sister Justice for Our Sisters forum at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library
The forum was sponsored by Conversation & Leadership, part of the the LeaderStyle Lifestyle Movement Taylor had founded.
First, though, there were stories to tell. Intimate stories. Deeply personal stories from women who were victims and who became survivors.
Stories like Luciana Gilmore's.
Gilmore was already a success story by most standards.
For 16 years she was an educator, and then a successful principal at John Adams High School.
Then, for some reason, she started to reflect on her childhood.
"I didn't want to [dwell on that]. I wasn't that girl anymore," she said.
But flashes of the domestic violence she witnessed and abuse in her home kept surfacing: Hearing her mother cry for help. Running to call the police. Officers seeming disinterested.
"It was scary for me," she said. "I lived a scared life."
Gilmore said she realized that as an adult she was still living scared moments triggered by what she saw and experienced growing up.
She thought she'd "broken the cycle," but she had not.
At first, she was worried about speaking up and concerned about how it might reflect on her mother, who, like many, didn't realize the lasting imprint on her children.
A few months ago, she heard the 9-1-1 call made after Fraser was stabbed.
In the background she heard the voices of Fraser's two frightened daughters, ages 8 and 11, who had witnessed what happened to their mother.
"It touched my soul," she said. "Because that could have been me."
Today, she said she's still a representation of that little girl.
"By grace," she said, "I've been able to take my scars and polish them up."
As part of her mission, she's now an entrepreneur with a greeting card line and a mission to inspire stronger mother-daughter relationships.
It's time, Gilmore told the group, to also work collectively to keep girls and women safer from domestic violence and sexual abuse.
The room was full of women with similar stories. Some had survived sexual abuse ignored by their mothers or family members. Others had lost their daughters to murder.
After two hours of stories pouring out, Danita Harris, a longtime WEWS-TV anchor and women's empowerment activist, moderated a panel that explored what needed to happen next, from legislative changes to how women, in their own homes and circles could push past stigma to better support each other. Harris also hosted a town hall forum following Fraser's death.
Saturday's forum was the first step, Taylor said. Another event, with an action agenda, will be scheduled soon.
"Today is bringing everything to the surface so when its time, we can roll up our sleeves and get things done," she said.