How did you get involved in the movement against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?
I came to the US in 1997, originally working as a missionary with a very small non-profit that was working with adult women in the commercial sex industry. At that point, there really wasn’t a movement per se, just a handful of organizations here and there, and it was just seen as a ‘prostitution’ issue that should be dealt with primarily through the criminal justice system. Within my first few weeks on doing outreach into the jails and on the streets, I met girls and young women, and adult women, who’d experienced so much violence, trauma and exploitation but were being seen and treated as criminals and pariahs. There were no specific services in NYC for a girl or young woman who was in the life and there was no sense of a need for larger systemic and structural change. Because of my own experiences as a survivor, the commonalities I saw that I shared with the girls and young women I was meeting and my frustration with the way that they were being treated, I felt compelled to do something. My experience in 1998 as a delegate at the First International Summit for Sexually Exploited Youth introduced me to other youth survivors who were strong and empowered, and gave me a deeper understanding of what needed to change socially and politically. It was an incredibly transformative experience and I founded GEMS a few months later on my kitchen table.
What draws you to support people who are trafficked and sexually exploited?
Obviously my own experiences as a survivor and a deeply held memory of being in so much emotional pain, of feeling so hopeless and believing that this was really destined to be my life. But also the memories of beginning to see myself as deserving of more, of being a person of value, of feeling loved and being able to trust again, and beginning to discover my talents, my voice and my power. It’s both of those sets of memories that make me so committed to serving and empowering girls and young women who’ve experienced commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. But even aside from being a survivor, I think it’s just really appreciating and loving the strengths and resilience and humor and wisdom in girls and young women, and a desire to see all young people regardless of their experiences, what zip code they were born in, what family background they have, succeed and live lives that embrace their full potential. I guess I’m always rooting for the underdog, having been an underdog for so many years myself and still feeling like David to society’s Goliath sometimes – and honestly it’s hard to think of a group of girls and women who have been more marginalized, maligned, vilified, stigmatized, ignored and underserved than women and girls in the sex industry. I love seeing us trample down people’s perceptions of us!
What does your work involve?
What doesn’t it involve?! As an organization, GEMS is serving and empowering girls and young women ages twelve to twenty-four who’ve experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, shifting cultural perceptions and creating systemic change. On a direct service level we do that through housing, counselling, outreach, crisis care, providing healthcare, food, clothing, educational and employment programming, youth leadership development, strengths-based programs that address the holistic needs and strengths of our young people. On a macro level, we do a lot of education and training of the public and youth serving professionals, using creative and artistic avenues to change perception, engaging in legislative and policy advocacy and working to ensure that survivor voices and authentic leadership is at the forefront of the movement. You can learn more about GEMS work at our website. On a daily basis, my work looks like fundraising, supervising staff, writing an op-ed, and most importantly engaging with our girls and young women, whether that’s providing support and counselling to a girl who’s in crisis and wants to return to her pimp, or just hanging out eating Chinese food and dancing like a fool around the office with them. There’s equal value for me in both of those moments and the girls and young women will always, always come first in my work.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
There’s a variety of legislative change that needs to happen. From national (TVPRA) to state wide legislation (Safe Harbor and Vacating Conviction laws), increased penalties for johns, increased funding for support for programming and services for homeless and runaway youth – many things that would help. But I think it’s important to remember that (a) we already have some legislation in place and if that legislation isn’t properly implemented then it’s simply a piece of paper, and (b) this isn’t an issue that we can just legislate our way out of. Legal change only goes so far. We need cultural change, social change – we need people’s hearts and minds to change – whether it’s the man who goes out to purchase sex because he doesn’t see anything wrong with it, the cop who arrests women and girls and believes that it’s a victimless crime, the social worker who treats the girl who walks through her doors with scorn and disgust, or just the individual who walks past the woman on the street every day and never offers her a cup of coffee or even makes eye contact because they see her as ‘less than’ them. And beyond that, we need to recognize that it’s not simply passing a slew of anti-trafficking legislation that’s really going to result in long term change and a real decrease in this issue. We have to be willing to acknowledge the larger systemic issues that make individuals so vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking in the first place – poverty, gender inequity, classism, racism, gender-based violence, sexual abuse, educational inequality, and overwhelmingly, the fact that we place a lower value on some individuals in society than others. Until we address these core issues, we’re going to be the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam forever. At some point, we need to actually rebuild the dam.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
There are so many ways that people can get involved and support this work. First, get educated about the issue, read books and articles, watch films about trafficking (and no, Taken doesn’t count), learn about organizations that are involved, and learn about what’s happening, or not happening, in your local community. Then take some action! It’s easy to be ‘aware’ but we have to move past awareness if we’re going to create real change. That doesn’t mean you have to start your own organization, but it does mean you should think about your time, talents, and treasure and where you could most effectively have an impact. That might be donating to a local organization, hosting a film screening or starting a book club to educate others in your sphere of influence, volunteering your time. I’d encourage people to think outside of the anti-trafficking box too. We get a lot of people who want to go ‘rescue’ girls on the street – (a) we’re about empowering girls and young women, not rescuing or ‘saving’ them and (b) places like Big Brother Big Sister are always in need of healthy, consistent adult mentors, and long term, the impact you could have in a little girl or boy’s life will make a true difference in actually preventing children and youth from being vulnerable in the first place. Volunteer at your local homeless shelter, commit to anti-poverty work in your community, address racism and sexism everywhere and every time you see it. We need to be thinking long term about making a difference and that may feel overwhelming or complex but it’s not. It’s about taking small steps that collectively add up to real, sustainable change.
What are your plans for the future?
To take a nap! This is our fifteen-year anniversary and so we’re doing a lot of taking stock of where we’ve come from and doing a lot of thinking about the next five, ten, fifteen years. It’s really about continuing to serve and empower our girls and young women, and providing more and more sustainable opportunities for their healing, growth and economic independence, continuing to advocate for change, both on a policy level and on a cultural level, and continuing to work towards transformative survivor leadership on this issue and more broadly outside of the movement and the non-profit world. We’re launching the national Survivor Leadership Institute and Resource Center at the end of February. It’s the first institute of its kind and we’re incredibly excited about the opportunities that it holds. We’ll be supporting and training survivors and providing resources and support for allies and organizations that want to be more survivor-informed. There’s a whole generation of young women coming up as leaders, both at GEMS and across the country, who inspire me and make me want to work harder, work smarter, and create a very different world and experience for them than the one I came into as a young survivor leader sixteen years ago. It’s really about them at this point and I feel really blessed and privileged to be a part of so many phenomenal girls and women’s lives.
Recommended websites/further reading:
My book Girls Like Us
Watch the film Very Young Girls