Of the many things at which I am not expert, planning ahead is one of them. When my friends in education tell me about where they're traveling for the summer in January I am usually jealous that they can think that far ahead. Yet, this past January something crossed over into my view and I've been pondering it ever since.
I do know what I'm doing this summer.
In June I'm heading to Southeast Asia with a group of storytellers that I know and have known for quite some time. For now, I'll let the others tell about their involvement with this group traveling with The Exodus Road but I can share a lot of things now about it and why I decided to join with them.
First of all, Exodus Road does abolitionist work in the sex slave industry both in the states and abroad. They help find and free slaves in covert rescue efforts. And the things I've discovered about them is that they're not trying to be the White Knight going in to rescue: they're invested in supporting local government to complete their work. There are things I wouldn't know about the industry had I not read a book by Laura Parker, The Exodus Road: One Wife's Journey Into Sex Trafficking and Rescue. It's a story of ordinary people looking to do extraordinary work.
Several years ago, I was having lunch during a summer school break, and my friend Alaya was late meeting me for Italian food. As I sat in the booth waiting I decided to do my favorite pastime and people-watch. A woman in her 30s came in with three girls. She was wearing too-hot clothes for the day, but I brushed it off with the thought that she might have spent time in an air-conditioned place where she needed her sweater. Except, it was warm in the restaurant and she took it off. When she did, it revealed a huge bruise on her back and I couldn't stop staring at it.
My attention turned toward the girls, each a different race.
This part was important. It's not out of the ordinary to see something like that, but none of the girls' race matched the woman's so I tried concocting a story about them.
When Alaya finally arrived I pointed them out and mentioned how bizarre a group they seemed and she looked over at them, turned back toward me, and flatly stated, "Kelly. Are you for real? Those girls are hookers." It gobsmacked me that I hadn't thought that, but I pressed on for proof from Alaya because no, right? No way. "You mean of their own accord? Because I doubt those youngish looking girls with her are doing this because they want to."
(I also wondered why she was taking them out for lunch in public but they have to eat. It surprised me because it seemed risky.)
If they were all adults and sex workers, that's one thing. Honestly, you'd be surprised about my feelings on that. You do you, boo. I am all for adults making their own decisions about their bodies.
But these were girls probably no older than 15 tops. Girls that I thought should be school-aged. If this is how they're spending their summer, can they be doing so of their own volition?
It's a moment I'll never forget: that slow realization that sex trafficking happens right here where I live, where I'm eating lunch. Yet, the clutched cash they used to pay for their meal and the skittish looks of the girls made me wonder if they were doing this because they were forced to do so. It pains me to say that I don't know how the story ended with them but we did report it to a non-emergency number and the officer we spoke with said they'd been looking for girls fitting that description. I've convinced myself that everything worked out well for them, but if they were runaways to begin with then I'm less sure.
In any case, that story is what made me think of reaching out to a local group who does that work so that I could learn more. When I was invited by The Exodus Road to go and learn about the abolitionist work they're doing in the sex slave industry on the other side of the world it hit me in the gut: where I live is the other side of the world, too. And it's not so different in many regards.
We have our problems here, too. What kind of a community member would I be if I traveled across the globe to witness slavery in this form but didn't think about how my ordinary life could support efforts in my own town?
That this trip is even a possibility for me is no small thing.
Fast facts about my decision to accept this invitation:
I won't be writing some kind of review of SE Asia or the work of TER. Instead, I am joining as a storyteller.
I want to be honest about what I learn, what I see, and be authentic in listening to stories.
I want people, wherever they are, to have autonomy in their narrative. Doing this with fidelity will undoubtedly be transformational but it's the lens through which I view this opportunity.
In my own effort to be a responsible storyteller, my aim is to show ways to donate and help, even if that means you share information and articles about what's happening and what ordinary people are doing to help.
Sometimes, no one else is telling the story. I would never know about some organizations or the work they do if it weren't for my friends, both local and global.
I respect the work of organizations that work to develop deep local relationships in order to support them.
It's important to me that TER is invested in support prevention and after care projects for holistic victim care. Before, during, and after a rescue they provide training for nationals, encourage collaboration among practitioners through The Liberty Alliance, and work to mobilize civil society to actively fight trafficking in their own communities.
Jeremy Stanely, the traveling videographer for this trip, summed it up on his website for me:
“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth & a human being is a story.”
Full disclosure: TER is paying for my travel and accommodations and I realize that my contribution is supported as a marketing piece of their organization. Sure, they could spend that in any way they want. This venue and platform is just one way they get the word out about what they do.
In 2012 when I was visiting Ethiopia I had moments where I worried about intruding on the spaces of the women and the health camps and bee keepers we listened to about changing their lot in life. The struggle of the chasm between my world and theirs weighed heavily on me but in the process it helped me learn about my own country and government aid, yet it was in speaking to a young mom that hit home for me. When I asked, through a translator, what she thought I could do she responded with, "Can you just tell them? Can you let people know what is happening and that they can look directly at our situation and then ask how they can do something? You can all do something."
I held her hand but didn't want to take her picture to share. I could tell people, I decided. That much I could do.
One of the opportunities that we will get is to focus on interviews with 3 fishermen/former slaves who will open our eyes to the ways in which this form of slavery starts and manifests. I have a feeling that a lot of lines will be drawn for me to see how industries are connected in ways I haven't even considered yet.
Another deciding factor for me is that this isn't a one-off rescue mission for them. The Exodus Road financially supports, organizes, and leads training events and programs to encourage the success of nationals in the abolition movement. The follow up they provide to rescued girls was a really important piece for me.
The role of The Exodus Road is to support the efforts of local law enforcement and government organizations in the intervention arena, not to be solely responsible for the rescue. Please don't expect that Liam Neeson speech from me. I don't have a particular set of skills outside of storytelling (and education, but I had to go to college and grad school for that) and I'm certain I will be able to draw some parallels between what I've learned about the sex slave industry where I live and also in SE Asia.