The Moments After

The Freedom Exhibit– a Post- Reflection

August 3,  2013  12:00 AM

I am high off of the excitement of advocacy. There is so much power in talking to people about the things that drive me, and having them care. I felt the sparks of awareness flying tonight. I feel as if I have lowered a rope into a pit of ignorance and hoisted some people out of it. I think I may have even flung some of those people from the flat ground of awareness into the realms of action.
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 Over the last couple months, I have become more and more competent in my abilities to discuss human trafficking with people that share the same passions. I preach to the choir like a pro– I have had many a car conversation, many a dinner table education with my parents. But when I try to talk to people who don’t share my passion, I have felt tongue tied. I haven’t known how to breach the topic, and once I do, I don’t know where to start. Tonight, that changed.
I completely overwhelmed the first woman I talked to. I overloaded her with way too much information about every organization I could describe on our “Learn” table. I could see the stars coating her eyes, the confusion clouding her vision. When she stopped me and asked, “Wait… what is human trafficking?” I knew I had to take a different approach. I had spewed word vomit all over her, and really not brought her any closer to an understanding of human trafficking.
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That was when I realized that I could use the scene I had created as a presentation tool. My art piece provided me with a catapult to educate, something I had really been lacking. I brought people in, at first one on one, and then as groups and told them this:
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~ First look at this mattress, this graffiti, these papers. What do you see? What do they make you think about?
Now when people think about human trafficking, their minds immediately jump to sex. People know about brothels, about people being trafficked across borders in other nations to provide sex to customers. But human trafficking is truly a multifaceted issue. This bed could be the bed in a brothel, but it could be inhabited by so many different people.
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This is the bed of a boy, who is arisen every morning, thrown into a van with six other guys, handed a couple dozen crates of strawberries, and dropped off at a street corner. He is told he has to sell all of the strawberries or be beaten. He goes out, selling strawberries all day. You have seen this boy, sometimes outside Costco, sometimes outside Safeway. You may even have bought strawberries from this boy. In the evening, he is picked up in the van by his pimp. He has not had a lunch break. He has not been able to go to the bathroom. Today, he hasn’t even sold all of his strawberries. In punishment, after handing the money he has made to his pimp,  he is raped. This is the bed he goes back to and cries in.
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Or this is the bed of a girl whose family is abusive. Her parents are drug abusers or they beat her. Maybe she doesn’t have parents at home at all. She runs away from home, and while walking the streets is picked up by a boy. He takes her in; he gives her gifts. He tells her he loves her. He fills a gap that has been empty; he makes her feel special. She falls in love with him. He calls her his girlfriend. After a little while, though, he tells her she needs to make up her share of the income. He tells her she can’t just sit home all day. So he drops her off on the streets to pick up customers. This is the bed that she brings five, ten, fifteen men a night to, selling her body to make money for her “boyfriend”.
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Or is this is the bed of a woman who has just immigrated to America from Cambodia. She wants to start a new life in the land of opportunity. She is offered a job at a nail salon, but is told that instead of payment, they will give her a room in the back. She is not allowed to leave the salon unsupervised. The only time she is allowed out of this room, is when she is painting nails. She doesn’t know her rights. She doesn’t know she is entitled to more than this. This is the room that she spends her days and nights in.
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This bed represents the millions of people stuck in human trafficking today. And splayed across it are diary entries, prayers, poems. On the walls are cries for help, all scribbled across the oppressive graffiti that surrounds the people contained within its walls. These are written pleas for help, because so many of these people do not have the use of their voices to ask for help. They are scared. Women do not want to be arrested for prostitution. Girls are so in love with their pimps, that they do not realize that they are being manipulated. Their emotions are so toyed with, so disjointed that they do not know who to trust or where to turn for affection. Illegal immigrants trafficked in the agricultural industry don’t want to be deported. Legal immigrants do not know their rights. People who have been trafficked into the US do not realize that they have rights to trafficking visas. People are blocked by language barriers, trust barriers, emotional barriers.
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And it starts so young. The average age of a trafficking victim in the US is 12, but people are weaned into it from even earlier. Children are burdened by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They are neglected by their parents. They are not raised with a sense of self- worth or confidence in their abilities. They seek love anywhere they can find it.
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The system is so skewed. There are more people in slavery now, in 2013, than there were during the entire length of the transatlantic slave trade combined. And back then, slavery was legal. It was in the public eye. It was contested by some, but accepted by most. Now, it is an underground criminal industry. Not just any criminal industry, but a particularly profitable one– the 2nd most profitable criminal industry, netting about $32 billion a year. Once a person sells a gun, that gun is gone. But a person can sell a girl again and again and again and again. A person pimping four girls can make about $600,000 a year. There is a demand for it. It is consumed in mass quantities. With inflation calculated in, a slave back in the 1800s was worth about $30,000. Now, a slave can be bought for $90. Our sense of human worth seems to have plummeted by a long shot. And this is just the beginning of the story. ~
Now, I talked and people listened… really listened. People asked questions… good questions. They started recognizing the signs. People told me about situations that had before not seemed odd, but now seemed like signs of human trafficking. They disclosed information about family, neighbors, friends who had been involved in the issue. They wanted to know how to pinpoint the indicators, how to act, what to look for, and how they could get involved. They wanted to know about the children, about the laws, about the numbers, about the history; I could tell them.  I have done so much research- speaking to people, listening to stories, watching documentaries-  that I was able to truly advocate. I was able to back up my fictional  (yet completely plausible) pieces with hard numbers.

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And I was not alone in my advocacy. I was joined by two truly inspiring women. Julia Wood, the girl who had kickstarted the concept of an art exhibit and collected the art pieces, and I worked off of each other with the most collaborative chemistry. People would ask questions, and we were able to teach together, to fill in each others’ gaps in knowledge, and to combine our separate insight into a truly comprehensive understanding of human trafficking. Most notably, I was joined by Regina Evans, a survivor of the Life, who has since channeled her complex emotions into poetry and a one woman play.
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She shared her story, her passion, her pain, and her love. She lured people into the back room with the bed setup and performed a rhythmic telling of her story… She started with an almost abstract poetic description of a girl being raped, abused, sold on the streets. “She’s somebody’s baby. She’s somebody’s child,” was her haunting refrain. But as her tale escalated, the pronoun turned personal, and the audience was drawn further into her tortured eyes, and her trembling hands. “I’m somebody’s baby,” she whispered, her voice cracking, “I’m somebody’s child.” At the end of her performance, she turned to the numbers, warning of the 300,000 children at risk of trafficking in the US alone. She called people to action. She appealed to them to stand by no longer. As people walked out of that room, the reactions were chilling. Some simply stared ahead in a horrified trance. Some had red eyes, wet with teardrops. Some had hands clasped in fists of anger. I knew that we had changed these people.
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People don’t know, and quite honestly don’t WANT to know about human trafficking. The information is too hard to handle; the reality too repulsive. It is much easier to distance oneself, than to contemplate the truth. With this event, I strove to awaken people to the world around them, bit by bit, so that more people will join their voices in combatting the crime. And I feel as if we accomplished that goal.
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The Moments Prior

The Freedom Exhibit– A pre- reflection

August 2nd, 2013 5:00 PM

It’s finally happening. Tonight, I will put on a human trafficking awareness event. It is the end of a process of preparation, and the beginning of a life of advocacy.
This moment has not come without trepidation, or doubt, or the feelings of failure. Initially, I had the idea of meshing my passion for human trafficking with my creative leanings. I wanted to do a march that would lead to an art show where survivors would speak and poets would do slam poetry and I would advocate. A bit much, maybe? Then, I envisioned a walkthrough display to bring awareness to the issues of human trafficking. People would happen upon a sweet restaurant scene, complete with a candle-lit dinner setup and passed drinks. When they walked through a dark hallway, they would find a pinkly- lit room with a mattress on the floor and graffiti on the walls- a brothel. They would be shocked and confused. Upon walking to the next room, they would find three monitors. One would display Kyle Okie, head of the SJPD Human Trafficking Task Force, explaining the definition of human trafficking. A second would be a local non-profit head speaking about human trafficking in the Bay Area. The last one would highlight a story of a survivor. At the end of the walkthrough, there would be an art show (carried over from the first idea), and I would be standing there, answering questions. Now, neither of those plans came through– they were just inspirations. They got me thinking, got me imagining, but I didn’t have the resources to execute them.
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Then, I met Julia Wood, a college-age intern working with the YWCA who had the ambitious plan to organize an art exhibit to bring awareness to human trafficking in the bay area. Well, that sounded a lot like the ideas I had been formulating, so I jumped on board. I used my resources to expand her project, and little by little, added elements of my own. I recommended she present it at Downtown San Jose’s First Friday Artwalk and suggested venues downtown. I sent out her call for artists and negotiated with two contributing artists myself. Once she booked the TechShop, I started thinking about my walk-through again. I talked with Benita Hopkins, my much beloved “boss” from Not For Sale, and she said she had some materials I could use. I marched on over to the TechShop, pitched my idea to them, and discovered that they had an extra room I could use. Great! But an extra room. ONE extra room… My walkthrough depended on three rooms at the very least. How would I make that happen? I searched for dividers, ways to hang curtains to subdivide the room… but nothing worked. I felt road-blocked and defeated. I had two weeks to put together an event, and had no where to start. But in a conversation with Benita, she told me about a survivor who had become a playwright, written a one- woman show about her experiences, and was incredibly well- spoken and inspirational. She had not been a part of my plan, but why not see if she would be interested in getting involved? I gave her a call, and sure enough, she wanted to participate! We discussed her walking amongst the crowd, dressed as a prostitute and just gathering reactions… Would people laugh at her? Would they give her dirty looks? Would they offer her help? At random, she would break out into poetry, tell stories. A points, she would lure them into the room I would set up– a brothel scene, a shock of reality– and perform segments of her play. Instead of a walkthrough, I would be creating my own piece of art. I could hardly believe my luck– a survivor speaking at an event I was helping put together? That was beyond exciting! But I began to feel like a cheater. I had glommed onto Julia’s initial event. I was letting someone else do the entertainment. A lot of the supplies and suggestions for the brothel setup had come from Benita. What had I done? What had I accomplished? What had I created to call my own?
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However, upon stepping back from my frantic self- doubt, I gained a greater understanding about the way social justice issues have to be fought. In elementary school, all of the focus was on doing my own work. My parents could not help put together my diorama on Native Americans. My friends could not help fill out my fraction worksheet. My art teacher could not help outline my toucan. I had to do my own work. Period. But in the “real world”, just doing my own work wouldn’t get me very far. I don’t have unlimited resources or knowledge. Nobody does. But by pooling resources, connecting people, networking, blogging, shooting out emails of requests, I could compile an amazing event. I may not have had curtains to blacken the windows of the room, so I emailed about ten different theater companies around San Jose asking for fabric donations. More than half of them offered. I did not have materials to teach all about human trafficking, but I contacted local organizations- the SJPD, Not For Sale, Love Never Fails, the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, the YWCA-  and compiled an ample supply of pamphlets, stickers, lanyards, and volunteer opportunities. I could not singlehandedly write and perform a play on modern day slavery, but Regina Evans already had. I have recognized my skills in bringing people together under a common cause to effect change. And I have been able to contribute my own work as well– I have worked for hours perfecting the brothel setup. I have researched, graffitied, written journal entries, dirtied toothbrushes, and searched for abandoned mattresses. And I’ve promoted the event like my life depended on it! I wrote a press release, submitted it to local events sites, and shared it on all my social networks.
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Sure, there may not be a march tonight. Or a three-room walk through. But what we have created is amazing. People will be walking around, sipping wine, innocently looking at art, unaware of the brothel in their presence. When they are invited to see the other side of the black doors by Regina, they will be exposed to a reality most of them did not know existed. People do not recognize the pervasiveness of human trafficking. They hear about girls being transported across borders and into brothels halfway across the world, but they don’t see the people being trafficked in their own backyards.
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The powerful element of the scene I have created is that it doesn’t have to be a brothel. It is a disheveled bed, surrounded by graffiti. It could be the room of a young boy who is picked up every morning, loaded into a van, shoved a couple dozen crates of strawberries and deposited on a street corner to exhaust the supply. It could be the room of a young girl who is forced to stay in the back of a nail salon, only allowed out when she is painting people’s toenails, not given a salary or breaks. It could be the room where a woman is forced to sell her body, up to fifteen times a night. People will see a bed and be given options. There minds will be allowed to roam, and hopefully they are challenged to think about things they had never considered before.
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I hope that people leave the exhibit, feeling shocked, disgusted, and angry. But I hope they also leave with a fit of inspiration, a shot of drive. I hope they have a new perception of human trafficking. I hope they don’t see it as a distant issue any longer, but as a local and unacceptable crime. I hope they tell people about it. I hope they don’t make ignorant comments any longer. I hope they will be able to think twice about situations they are presented with– that they will see a fruit picker and start wondering; that they will see a magazine seller and start questioning; that they will see a girl walking the streets at night and start analyzing. Human Trafficking will never go away, until people see that it exists in the first place. Once they know, I hope more people will join me in the fight to curtail this inhuman exploitation of humans.