A few months into her work as the executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, Loretta J. Ross received a letter. On lined notebook paper was a message from William Fuller, a man imprisoned at the Lorton Reformatory, a notorious prison complex on the outskirts of the D.C. metro area.
When he mailed the letter in 1979, Fuller had served approximately 15 years of a life sentence for raping and murdering a Black schoolteacher named Ethel Dorsey. On the outside, I raped women, Ross recalls Fuller writing in the letter. Inside, I rape men. I’d like to not be a rapist anymore. Can you help?
Ross, 25 at the time, was stunned. Then, she was angry. This was personal. After being molested by a family member as a young teenager, she had a child at the age of 15. She then had an abortion at age 16, and was sterilized by a faulty IUD by age 23. She had channeled these experiences into her work, running a threadbare organization to support rape victims. They barely had enough resources to provide services to sexual assault survivors. And now, a perpetrator wanted a piece of the pie, too?
Fuller’s note sat on Ross’s desk for six months. She couldn’t bring herself to respond. But she didn’t throw it away, either.
Forty-four years after Ross got that letter, I was on my way to meet her. It was an October afternoon, a few hours before her fall course began. The farther I drive along the Mass. Pike, I wonder how two Black women from Texas found ourselves in an area like this.
Ross teaches “White Supremacy in the Age of Trump” at Smith College, one of the oldest Seven Sisters colleges. And it’s as New England as it gets, from the quaint architecture to the botanical garden. As I walk through campus, an instinctual mechanism kicks in and I make an internal count of the other Black people who pass. I don’t need more than one hand to tally us up.
I spot Ross instantly. Dread-headed, dressed in yellow, red, and blue, she enters the building on a cherry red mobility scooter. A Delta Airlines tag on the scooter indicates her frequent travels. She flashes a gap-toothed smile — a trait she’ll later tell me she used to consider one of her greatest insecurities, but one she’s now come to embrace.
In the years since leading one of the nation’s first rape crisis centers, Ross has worked at the forefront of the movement for reproductive justice, and has become a voice of reason in the country’s battle against white supremacy.
But recently she has become better known for championing “call-in culture,” a philosophy that approaches someone’s wrongdoing with accountability and, most importantly, love. Ross has been working on a book about this practice, Calling In, since 2016. It’s slated for release in January 2025.
Calling in is a technique she’s used throughout her own life — before there was a name for it — since that momentous letter in 1979.
Ross kept Fuller’s note under a heap of paperwork on her desk for months. Out of sight, but never quite out of mind.
What could Fuller possibly want? she wondered. Maybe to bolster his pitch for parole. Maybe he wanted money. Or maybe he thought he had a chance at romance with survivor advocates.
But how effective could my work be, she thought, if I wasn’t getting to the root of the problem? As rape crisis workers, were they merely placing a bandage over a festering wound?
Ross finally typed her response. For the next three years, she would spend Friday afternoons teaching Black history and feminist theory to six or so perpetrators of rape.
Ross eventually left the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, and went on to serve as program director for what was then the Center for Democratic Renewal, an organization that guided defectors from white nationalist movements through their departure. This would be a new test of her developing philosophy.
In the early ‘90s, Ross received yet another difficult request. Ken and Carol Petersen were longtime members of the Ku Klux Klan. But now they wanted out. Leaving was dangerous. The Klan closely monitored any defectors and sent out death warrants for anyone suspected of posing a threat to their organization. The Petersens needed help relocating. Ross agreed to meet them at 2 a.m. in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where temperatures that night, she recalled, hit the low teens.
The television journalist Geraldo Rivera had been reporting on the KKK, and caught wind of their intentions, too. He wanted to accompany Ross and interview the married couple for a TV segment.
As Rivera interviewed Ken Petersen, Carol and Ross watched from the sidelines. Ross, well prepared, wore four layers, a hat, gloves, and a scarf. The ex-KKK leader’s wife, dressed in only a short-sleeve shirt and pants, chattered beside her.
She’s cold? Ain’t my problem. I didn’t tell you to join the Klan, Ross thought to herself. “I didn’t tell her to leave without a coat on. You live in Wisconsin.”
But it gnawed at her. She didn’t like herself for ignoring the woman’s pain. Thirty minutes passed.
Finally, she peeled off her coat, and offered it to the shivering woman. They shared the coat in intervals. “It’s those moments where you’re doing things you wouldn’t expect yourself to do,” she told me.
“You’re warm, she’s standing two feet next to you with teeth chattering. How would you have reacted?”
The truth is, I’m not sure how I would have reacted.
As I listen to Ross explain her philosophy, I wonder where I fit, if at all. For a long time, my acute sensitivity to others’ feelings has often rendered me silent in the most racist, misogynistic, hateful situations, whether they were caused by random strangers or my closest friends. Black women are expected to be like mountains. Unwavering, enduring.
In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, I felt myself crumbling. I called out snide comments by alumni of my college about Black Lives Matter protests, demanded people boycott the college newspaper when its management dismissed students seeking support amid the racial reckoning, and used Twitter to call out the behavior of fellow students. Each tactic left no room for discussion; I simply didn’t have the energy or patience to engage.
Calling in, by contrast, asks us to always be the bigger person, even in the most hateful and painful situations. I ask Ross: Whose well-being are we prioritizing here? And why isn’t it our own?
Ross tells me about another Black woman who asked the same question at a calling-in training at Harvard this past summer. The sole Black woman on a seven-lawyer team, she said she experiences microaggressions in her day-to-day job, but never knows how to address them in an effective way.
“I’m confused,” Ross recalls the woman saying. “I don’t want to fall into the stereotype of the angry Black woman, because that’s what they’re already going to accuse me of being anytime I raise a question. But I feel like if I embrace the calling-in strategies you’re talking about, then I’m practicing respectability politics and giving a pass to all this injustice. What should I do?”
Ross responds with a question of her own: “Well, who are you inside? Go deep inside and find out who you are. What’s the emotion that you feel is true to you?”
“Inside, I feel like I’m filled with love,” the woman replies.
“Then, why aren’t you leading with your authentic self?” Ross asks her. “Which is the authentic one — the angry Black woman role you’re playing or this love inside of you?”
Accountability and love are not mutually exclusive, Ross explains. And sometimes it isn’t possible to call in with love. She lists out the five accountability techniques she teaches in her mini lessons: calling in, calling out, canceling, calling on, and calling it off. Calling-on moments are for people who don’t have the emotional energy, or patience, “to invest in someone’s growth,” she explains.
It’s like, “I’m calling on you to do better, but I’m not gonna give you a minute of my time and attention to help you.”
“We should always be in control of which options we use, based on where we are at the time,” Ross says.
As Ross meandered down D.C.’s busy streets one day in 1989, a resounding baritone voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Loretta, Loretta,” the voice boomed.
When she turned, William Fuller, clad in a construction uniform, rushed toward her.
She froze in terror. Oh my God, he’s trying to hug me, she thought. But his hands stayed at his side.
Fuller expected her to be happy to see him, but at that moment, she didn’t know what to feel. He had raped and murdered a woman, and now he was out free? She had thought he was still in prison, and the thought had comforted her. As she stood motionless, Fuller continued talking: he had been released a few years ago, got married, and found a job in construction, he explained, holding up his lunch pail. It was all thanks to her, he insisted.
Her love-driven approach to accountability had led Ross to this exact, painful moment. She had called him in a decade before, and she had called herself in when she hesitated to help him. And now here he was, talking to her like a long-lost friend.
Calling in can sometimes bring you close to your greatest nightmares, she realized. But that doesn’t make the work — of learning to coexist in a society, of making each other better — any less important.
“I never learned how to not be afraid,” Ross tells me, 34 years after bumping into Fuller. “I just learned how to not let fear hold you back.”
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