Get to Know Tiara Willie

June 18, 2024

Tiara Willie, PhD, MA, Bloomberg Assistant Professor of American Health, is working to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered Black women and girls in the United States. As a faculty member in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Willie focuses her efforts on addressing the complex systems of structural gendered racism, discrimination, and violence which disproportionately impact Black women and girls and is working to develop better solutions to meet the unique needs of this community.

Despite making up roughly seven percent of the total U.S. population, Black women and girls make up 40 percent of missing and murdered cases annually. Yet these cases receive significantly less attention than cases involving white individuals from law enforcement agencies and the media.

We sat down with Willie to learn more about her work finding and advocating for solutions to this often overlooked public health crisis:

What motivated you to focus your efforts on protecting missing and murdered Black women and girls? 

I am a Black woman who witnessed the health, and legal systems mistreat Black women survivors like my mother. These childhood experiences motivate my equity-, trauma-, and survivor-centered approach to the prevention of and response to gender-based violence. My current efforts on protecting missing and murdered Black women and girls is fueled by a deep sense of justice and a recognition of the urgent need for action. For too long, the legal and justice system has marginalized and overlooked the voices and experiences of Black women and girls. The epidemic of missing and murdered Black women and girls is an inhumane example of how society has ignored the experiences of Black women and girls. I am compelled to center their stories, advocate for their rights, and work towards meaningful change. Every missing or murdered Black woman or girl represents a life cut short and a family torn apart, and I am driven by a determination to prevent further tragedies and to ensure that those who have been lost are never forgotten. 

What do you see as the most pressing issues that still need to be addressed to protect missing and murdered Black women and girls? 

Black women and girls are navigating intersectional vulnerabilities due to interlocking systems of oppression like racism, sexism, and classism. Until multi-sectors recognize and address these unique vulnerabilities faced by Black women and girls, then very little change will occur. I believe addressing this requires a comprehensive and multi-sectoral approach that engages multiple stakeholders, including government agencies, law enforcement, healthcare providers, community organizations, and grassroots activists, in collaborative efforts to protect the safety, dignity, and rights of missing and murdered Black women and girls. Greater investment in preventive strategies, such as community-based interventions, awareness campaigns, economic empowerment initiatives, and efforts to challenge harmful institutionalized racialized gender norms and stereotypes, can help address the root causes of violence and create safer communities for Black women and girls. Structural factors, including structural gender racism, occupational segregation, inadequate access to healthcare and social services, and discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system, contribute to the vulnerability of Black women and girls to violence. Addressing these systemic inequalities is essential for creating environments where Black women and girls can live free from violence and harm.

Is there a case or two in particular that shaped how you think about the issue of missing and murdered Black women? How do those affect your approach to this work? 

I do not have any biological family members who are Black women and girls that have been kidnapped or murdered. The case that shaped my thoughts about gender-based violence and the system's response for Black women and girls was Alyssiah Wiley. We wrote about her in our op-ed, but there's quite a bit of context that is not included. At the time of her disappearance, I was close friends with Alyssiah's grandmother and a full-time research assistant on a NIH-funded project on intimate partner violence and mental health among Black, Hispanic, and white women – of which I was responsible for recruiting all the Black women experiencing intimate partner violence. Given all of my training in intimate partner violence and Women's Studies, I conceptually understood how systems of oppression like racism and sexism could place Black women and girls at greater risk, but this was the first time that I witnessed this horrible situation, attending vigils, and watching it impact the family members who were left behind. Alyssiah's case cemented my interest to document and understand this form of gender-based violence against Black women and girls, and to recognize and address how institutions have been complicit in the erasure of Black women and girls' experiences of gender-based violence. 

Can you share a particularly impactful or moving moment from your advocacy work? 

Last September we organized a congressional briefing on missing and murdered Black women and girls – and it was amazing. Survivors, organizations, policymakers, and advocates were able to share stories of loved ones lost, discuss prevention and intervention strategies led by grassroots organizations, and announce the Brittany Clardy Act, legislation that aims to establish an Office for Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls within the U.S. Department of Justice. At this event, grassroots organizations were able to connect with leaders in Minnesota to discuss creating task forces to meet the unique needs of their states. 

In what ways do you collaborate with local communities, organizations, and policymakers to address the systemic issues contributing to the vulnerability of Black women and girls? 

Collaboration with local communities, organizations, and policymakers is central to addressing the systemic issues contributing to the vulnerability of Black women and girls. We work closely with community organizations to understand the specific needs and challenges faced by Black women and girls in their neighborhoods. This involves community listening sessions and advisory coalitions to listen to their experiences, amplifying their voices, and co-designing solutions that are culturally competent and community-driven. Additionally, we engage with policymakers through congressional briefings and educational campaigns to advocate for legislative and policy changes that address systemic inequalities and protect the rights and safety of Black women and girls. This includes advocating for funding and resources for programs and services that support survivors of violence and pushing for reforms within law enforcement and the criminal justice system to ensure equitable treatment for Black women and girls. By collaborating with a wide range of community members and stakeholders, we can create comprehensive and sustainable solutions to address the root causes of vulnerability and promote the safety, well-being, and empowerment of Black women and girls.

What makes you optimistic about the future of your work?

There's a growing awareness about this epidemic. Several states are doing smaller initiatives like the Ebony alerts in California. After our congressional briefing, we learned that states like New York are working on a taskforce with Lakeisha Lee, co-founder for the Brittany Clardy Foundation. 

Recently, Willie received a Diversity Leadership Award from Johns Hopkins University, recognizing her work in advancing diversity and inclusion, including her efforts around missing and murdered Black women and girls. The Johns Hopkins Diversity Recognition Award, launched in 2003. has recognized over 200 individuals making their workplace more inclusive, contributing to diversity in their field of study, and fostering collaborations within the community. The award ceremony was held on May 8, 2024. 

Stay Connected to the Initiative

Receive all the latest news from the Initiative by following us on Twitter, signing up for the American Health Dispatch newsletter, subscribing to the American Health Podcast, and subscribing to our YouTube channel.

Contact Us