January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Like most people, when I first heard the words “human trafficking,” I thought of a faraway land devoid of law, order and common decency. I had no idea that it was happening in my own backyard.
Sitting in an advocate’s community meeting to raise awareness, I was in denial over the atrocities I heard, guilty that I didn’t know it was taking place and angry that it was still going on. The gamut of emotions that I experienced reminded me of the early stages of grief, but I decided at that moment that I would not die without making a difference— to give victims a voice and help survivors recover.
I continued to seek out meetings sponsored by social service agencies and community organizations, determined to deepen my understanding, learn how to identify the signs of traffickers and those trafficked and become more involved. I joined a human trafficking task force: a coalition of law enforcement, social services, religious and non-profits. We were briefed on the statistics in the area, the victories, painful losses, and developed strategies to put an end to human trafficking in our neighborhoods, region, and state. The information I learned about domestic sex trafficking of minors was frightening. I was emboldened and impassioned.
In 2014, I singlehandedly organized a sex trafficking awareness walk in the very neighborhood where a trafficker (who is currently serving more than 33 years ), trafficked young girls and women under the guise they were joining his dance team. Young girls who aspired to be dancers and entertainers. He preyed on their desire for success and manipulated their vulnerability. Those young girls. Their innocence was stolen by a predator who used their naivete for financial gain and personal gratification. All this took place in the midst of his cul de sac type community with homes aligned side by side, yet no one did anything.
The recent R. Kelly documentary placed a spotlight on sexual exploitation and modern-day slavery, but the emphasis should not be placed on his celebrity or whether or not fans should #muterkelly. The ultimate goal should be to rescue and recover the women in his possession if the allegations are true. But more importantly, it should provoke people to take concerted actions against human trafficking in their own backyards. We don’t have to look far. It could be someone you know or suspect. It could be you. It could have been me.
As a teenager, I was free-spirited and fearless. I remember riding the 3 train in Brooklyn and striking a conversation with a young man. He invited me to his home in the Ocean Hill area of Brownsville and I went, forsaking danger and consequence. He seemed cool, so why not? I had nothing better to do.
It started off pretty laidback. We laughed and talked— lighthearted fun, but then he became aggressive. He started to talk about me being his best girl, his black cat (a spin on my nickname); however, he needed to test me out first. The test was a sexual encounter I was not willing to have. I was trapped, locked in the bedroom of this strange man’s basement with a lonely hall leading to an exit I couldn’t reach and no one knew I was there. My feline instinct kicked in. I knew I had to escape. Quick on my feet, I said that I was on my monthly cycle and that I needed to go to the bathroom to “fix myself.” He was hesitant, but he let me go and it was in that moment that I ran down the hall screaming at the top of my lungs for anyone to hear and out the door to freedom.
As I listen to the stories of sex trafficking survivors, I see myself in that isolated room and wonder, if I did not have the presence of mind, where would I be? What would my life have been like? Sure, I should have known better. But victim-blaming and shame is never the solution to a problem so prevalent and destructive in our communities.
It shouldn’t take a traumatic experience or a celebrity’s allegations to cause people to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children, sex trafficking of women, labor trafficking or any other egregious form of human trafficking. But if it does, don’t stop there. Join us in solidarity to wear blue for freedom and fight for victims and lend support to survivors.