Left Foot Forward

Left: Balisha, Right: Denice Olatunji, Photo by Gillian Wenhold

Left: Balisha, Right: Denice Olatunji, Photo by Gillian Wenhold


by: gillian wenhold, founder & ideas curator

“The arts are serious - what I learned from my poetry and singing is that when you’re in an artistic space, it’s completely raw. You can’t rush anything, you can’t polish the soul. When you put that on stage - take it with you and do a comedy set, you’re letting the world, and yourself, see who you truly are.” 

Balisha is a rising sophomore at Webster University and a native Memphian. She is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and advocate for healing through the arts. 

Three years ago, Balisha’s godmother encouraged her to attend a panel for youth survivors of sexual assault so that she may receive support in a way her godmother couldn’t provide on her own. Even as a first-time attendee she immediately felt included, and comfortable enough to perform her original songs for the first time in public. She recalls, “Instead of bombarding me to talk, they were just like you do you and however you want to express yourself we’re here. Just seeing these women heal, be bold and brave about their story has made me come out.” 

This panel was hosted by Left Foot Forward, a nonprofit aimed at healing the victims of child sexual abuse by providing healing through the arts and therapy and by reaching children who aren’t victims to educate them accordingly to keep them that way. Their main services are events aimed at helping survivors through the healing process, and they also offer discussion panels and workshops tailored to different ages. An open mic is included at the end of each event for people to express themselves however they see fit, be it singing, poetry, or dancing. 

While talking to Balisha and Left Foot Forward’s founder, Denice Olatunji, each emphasized the importance of creating spaces for honest conversation and healing. People who have suffered from abuse as a child are more prone to other issues from academics to sexual and physical health as an adult. Unfortunately the epidemic of sexual abuse is rarely talked about enough in conversation. Especially in Black communities, abuse tends to be swept under the rug and there are few spaces for survivors to gather and support each other. 

It wasn’t until attending her first Left Foot Forward panel that Balisha felt comfortable coming out publicly about her experiences. Since then she has become a great source of motivation for others, attending every panel and even using social media to amplify her message of positivity. According to Denice,“She’s a shining example of a young survivor who wasn’t afraid to come forward. Sometime people don’t get that courage unless they see others being bold. She fits perfectly with what it is we do.” 

A survivor of sexual abuse herself, Denice founded Left Foot Forward because of her own personal experiences with healing through the arts. She writes, “Once I moved to Memphis, I immersed myself in the arts, went to an open mic event, and connected with other artists…I was doing spoken word, singing, acting in plays. That’s when my real healing came. I did some traditional counseling, but it was the arts and community service that gave me my real breakthrough.” 

Next steps for the organization involve mapping out avenues for free counseling services, and pairing with the Man in the Mirror group from London, a support group for adult survivors of sexual assault. There will be a documentary screening about the project here in Memphis, with a community discussion and open mic with the founder to follow.