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Today, we remember Martin Luther King Jr. We remember a man who famously said “I have a dream” and followed through on it. We remember a man who fought to erase the residual effects of slavery that had troubled our nation since its founding. On this day in particular, I’m reminded, as we all should be, of my own personal dream for this country we call home.

I have a dream that modern-day slavery, what we now call human trafficking, will end. I personally was trafficked for more than twenty-five years. Had it not been for the program I joined when I hit rock bottom in Chicago years ago, I would not be alive today. Thankfully, that program was founded and run by a caring woman named Edwina Gateley who had the insight and compassion to recognize the reality of trafficking thirty years ago, when most people thought it was about cars and traffic jams. But we need more awareness, outreach, and understanding to bring an end to trafficking.

I grew up on the west side of Chicago. When I was 6 months old my mother died. I was left under the care of my grandmother, who was abusive when she drank and didn’t allow my father in my life. One day when she was drinking, I was molested by a family friend. 

By the time I was 14, frightened and with low self-esteem, I had sex with neighborhood boys. I was hurt, and nobody knew how broken and sad I was. Having been molested, I didn’t have value for my body. I saw prostitutes in my neighborhood, and one day, when my grandmother told me she needed me to help get money for food, I asked a girl where she went. Desperate and with low self-worth, I walked down a dangerous path. Men picked me up, and they didn’t care that I was only 14. I made money to take home, and my grandma was happy. But I ultimately realized, this was no Pretty Woman fairy tale.

I hadn’t even gotten through four days when I was violently kidnapped by two pimps. They pulled up beside me, hit me over the head, and put me in their trunk. They drove me across state lines and put a gun to my head. I was locked in a hotel closet for two days. I wasn’t given food or drink, and after they took me out of the closet, they raped me multiple times. I cried with every john they put me up with; none of them cared. Finally, after five months of this torture, a truck driver took pity on me and helped me escape. I thought I would finally wake up from my nightmare.

I returned home to find that my grandmother had made no attempt to look for me; she didn’t seem to care at all that I had ever left. I hit a new low when faced with this reality. I didn’t feel valuable; I didn’t feel loved. I was totally alone. So I left.

This time I met a sugar daddy, the sweet-talking pimp. These are the men who don’t use violence up front. Instead they ask you about your dreams and try to earn your trust. Mine took me to a bar and let me dance onstage. He made me believe I could be a singer—that was my dream. He had everything: a nice car, a sweet apartment, fine clothes. At 15 years old and with nothing else going for me, I felt I should be grateful to be with him. I thought it was love.

But love it was not. What I thought was a trusting relationship was actually enslavement by a manipulative predator. For twenty-five years I was sold for sex. During this time I was shot five times and stabbed more than thirteen times, whether by johns or other people surrounding my world of prostitution. I was raped more times than I could count or care to think about.

That’s the life that most prostituted women live—even the escorts. It’s not glamorous. There’s no escape, despite pimps telling you, “You can leave anytime you’re ready.” In reality, sometimes you’re physically locked in, but even when you’re not, you’re mentally and emotionally locked in.

Slavery in Our Midst

Human trafficking is the enslavement of human beings for the purpose of labor without pay or sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking is when anyone, through force, fraud, or coercion, is made to partake in commercial sex acts. In America, sex trafficking most commonly occurs when a minor is sold for prostitution because minors can never consent.

Many vulnerable young girls are being lured into modern-day slavery. It is hard to get accurate numbers of how many American girls are currently trafficked because it’s so underground—estimates have ranged between 100,000 to 300,000. But this study from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one in six endangered runaways reported to the Center is likely a victim of child sex trafficking. The FBI revealed that 83 percent of all confirmed sex trafficking cases in the United States involved the trafficking of U.S. citizens.

At least a thousand American children are arrested for prostitution each year despite being too young to consent to sex and despite federal law defining them as victims of trafficking; of those, 59 percent are African-American. These figures are not representative of the total number of trafficked children nationwide because the data only accounts for minors who were arrested from participating jurisdictions and those who voluntarily reported their juvenile arrest data. Sadly, there is no reliable comprehensive data (on adults and minors) given the complex and hidden nature of this crime.

Many girls are trafficked from what starts out as a seemingly trusting relationship with someone they later find out is a pimp. Pimps often target very young girls who have low self-esteem, who feel like they have no one to love them. Often these girls have experienced abuse in the past. They think the pimp will be their hero. What are your dreams? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? A pimp will promise you the world. And vulnerable, lonely young girls will do almost anything to make this dream come true. A form of Stockholm syndrome takes over; the psychological component of the abuse cannot be understated.

Part of the problem is a lack of awareness—what is going on in the streets of our cities, in the bars, and, yes, in the shopping malls. Opportunistic predators are meeting young girls all over the country where they’re at, earning their trust, and promising them a better life. We need a huge public education effort through television and media; we need to keep telling the true stories. Victims need to be given the opportunity to share their stories, however horrific, and to expose what is sometimes going on underneath the glitter and hype of dating, romance, and sexuality.

How can we stop trafficking when public opinion toward brothels is ambiguous—legal in Nevada but illegal in other states? How can we stop trafficking when we call it “sex work,” as if this torture has nothing to do with morality? How can we stop trafficking when many live in circumstances below poverty level and have to find ways to survive? How can we stop trafficking when most people have only just begun to recognize it?

Hope for a Future of Freedom

Like Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream. My dream led me to cofound The Dreamcatcher Foundation, an outreach and education program that helps victims of human trafficking, the slavery of our time. I have hope that we will end trafficking. If I did not, I wouldn’t be able to wake up every day and respond to phone calls from victims who have been abused by a trafficker, a trafficker who could well be their father or a friend or just someone they thought they could trust or would love them.

As more and more victims are encouraged to come forward, and as more police become engaged in rooting out traffickers, we need to set up more places of healing and recovery. At Dreamcatcher, we help victims by meeting them where they’re at and allowing them to become their own person, one day at a time. We accept these women for who they are—even better, who they can be. When we meet them they may be victims, but it’s not long until they’re survivors. Survivor-led organizations, such as Dreamcatcher, provide everything a woman needs to recover and get back on her feet—medical needs, therapy, support groups, mentorship.

There are many ways Americans can charitably contribute to make these places a reality (see the bottom of this article), but ending trafficking cannot just depend on charity. Yes, trafficking can seem like an invisible crime that’s hard for law enforcement to detect—which is why survivor-led initiatives are essential to help weed out this problem in our communities. But we need to start holding the customers—the johns—accountable for their part as purchasers of sex with children as young as 12 years old. Still, whether it is a child or an adult, sex for money demoralizes and destroys one’s sense of self-worth and dignity. Talk to survivors—most of whom got by only through the numbness induced by drugs and alcohol. We must speak out. The public must begin to see trafficking as a major source of violence and abuse against the vulnerable. Our government, church, and civil leaders must recognize trafficking as a major social evil and respond to it as such.

A significant part of this education and awareness effort must also involve exposing the trafficking that happens on the Internet right in front of our children. Both schools and parents have a serious role in making our young people aware that there is evil in this world, and it is often on their computer screens, cell phones, and iPads. There are people who would exploit them for their own gain and profit, and they’d reach them through social networking.

We can stop supporting the ideals of strip clubs and pornography as being acceptable in our culture because it’s inseparable from sex trafficking. I say this from personal experience.

We have come a long way with this issue in the past twenty years or so. With our deepening insight and awareness, with education and publicity, with compassion and caring for our sisters and brothers—especially for our children—we can make America an even better place. In his famous 1963 speech, Dr. King longed for the “day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty/Of thee I sing/Land where my fathers died/Land of the pilgrims pride/From evry mountainside/Let freedom ring!” I agree with Dr. King’s words: “If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

We’ve come a long way since those days, but we must keep marching onward. It is up to us to continue Dr. King’s work on earth. It is up to us to make this dream a reality.

Brenda Myers-Powell is cofounder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation. She has touched the hearts of many individuals and communities by delivering a high-energy message that speaks of her life as a survivor of abuse, drugs, and prostitution. Myers-Powell tells people how to break the chains of oppression and live up to their greatness. Learn more about Myers-Powells story in the Showtime documentary Dreamcatcher.

Organizations where you can donate to help victims of human trafficking:

The Dreamcatcher Foundation — based in Chicago
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
Breaking Free — based in Minneapolis
Purple W.I.N.G.S. — based in Las Vegas
Courtney’s House — based in Washington, D.C.
There is H.O.P.E for Me — based in Miami

Image Credit: Aaron Wickenden