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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.