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Robina Conference Mini Series, Number 5: “Creating Real Opportunities for Survivors and Cultivating Survivor Leadership”

Posted: November 3, 2016

Welcome back! This is the fifth and final installment in our month-long series highlighting panels from the Robina Conference held on June 24, 2016, at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. The CSE Institute collaborated with the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School to host this conference, titled Commercial Sexual Exploitation: Shifting Perspectives and Policing Practices. During this conference, our panelists discussed current and potential law enforcement practices, policies, and reform strategies for handling cases involving commercial sexual exploitation.

In this week’s installment, we cover the fifth panel, “Creating Real Opportunities for Survivors and Cultivating Survivor Leadership.” The panel of national survivor leaders included: Alisa Bernard, a board member of Organization for Prostitution Survivors, Autumn Burris, Founder and Director of Survivors for Solutions, Vednita Carter, President and Founder of Breaking Free, and Shamere McKenzie, Anti-Trafficking Program Director of the Salvation Army of Central Maryland and CEO of Sun Gate Foundation. Lesha Sanders, the Court Coordinator of Pennsylvania’ First Judicial District’s Project Dawn Court, served as the moderator for the panel.

Overall, each panelist emphasized the need for viable opportunities for survivors within the survivor leadership movement. In the last 20 years, the survivor leadership movement has made tremendous strides, but as the panelists made clear, there is still work that needs to be done.

The first panelist to present was Vednita Carter. Ms. Carter is known as a “pioneer” in the survivorship movement. She discussed how she develops the leadership skills of other survivors. Her organization, Breaking Free, provides support and opportunities to women and girls every year, enabling them to exit prostitution. The core programs include housing assistance, sisters of survival (a support group), education and employment skills training, as well as offering a paid internship program.

As a survivor herself, Ms. Carter shared the powerful message that “prostitution is not something [she] did, it is something that has been done to [her].” She reminded the audience about the difficulties women who leave the life face in starting over. Systematic barriers, including a criminal record, are all too common among survivors and consistently preclude them from employment opportunities. To that end, Ms. Carter stressed the unjust disparity between the number of arrests a prostituted person has when compared to those purchasing sex. For instance, Breaking Free serves 400-500 prostituted women and girls every year, whereas the john school program enrolls somewhere around 140 sex buyers every year. Furthermore, in talking to the women Ms. Carter has learned that on average each one of them was bought about 5-10 times a day.

The second panelist, Shamere McKenzie, began her presentation by asking the audience directly, “What is one thing you value?” Although she received decent responses, Ms. McKenzie revealed that she was hoping for a particular answer; she was looking for someone to say they value human beings or human life. She explained that in her opinion the reason prostitution exists is because people do not value human life. Survivors are first and foremost human beings; they are no less than any other living person. In our lives we all face different forms of adversity; unfortunately, the form of adversity survivors faced was prostitution, but that does not change the fact that they are human beings and have worked to overcome their adversity. She reminded the audience that restoration of survivors is an ongoing process and as necessary and valuable immediate direct services are, there is also a need for opportunities beyond the assistance that addresses more immediate needs.

Ms. McKenzie’s organization, the Sun Gate Foundation, does just that; it helps provide educational opportunities to survivors. Sun Gate Foundation is a one of a kind organization, whose sole purpose is to provide education. The overarching theme of her presentation was on the educational opportunities that should be afforded to survivors, so they may cultivate leadership roles. Her foundation not only offers financial support for tuition, but also for textbooks and housing. Ms. McKenzie works to provide educational assistance not simply to help the women earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, but to earn a degree in what they want, be it cosmetology school or in the culinary arts. Her resounding message was that it is vital to listen to what the survivor needs as an individual. Anyone can tell them what they should do, but it is more important to hear what the survivor wants to do. When providing survivors opportunities, it is vital that we tap into the skills the survivor already has, and, more often then not, skills they may not even know they possess. By working alongside survivors, will we be able to really help them.

The third panelist, Alisa Bernard, began her presentation by acknowledging how far discussions on human trafficking have come in the realm of academia, where not only survivors are speaking as panelists but are in the audience attending the conference. The focus of Ms. Bernard’s presentation was on the topic of employment and the struggle survivors face when finding employment. Ultimately, survivors need sustainable employment opportunity from within the movement and outside of the movement. Not all survivors are the same, each person has different skills and interests, so they need employment opportunities that take advantage of those skills and interests. She made clear that “survivors come from different walks of life and from different walks of the life.” Survivorship is not a homogenous group, all survivors have different experiences and different ways of understanding and dealing in the life, which makes it surprising to learn what a survivor can actually do. Survivors need meaningful work; yes, they may need jobs to make ends meet, but in the end they need a meaningful job so that it is sustainable. Ms. Bernard concluded by reminding that all organizations in the movement need to include survivors as employees, because as great as having allies is, the truth you learn from a survivor you cannot get from anywhere else.

Last but not least, fourth panelist Autumn Burris spoke about how the problem of prostitution can be solved. As Director of Survivors for Solutions, Ms. Burris works on survivor engagement development for those who want to become survivor leaders. In the panel she provided inspiring anecdotes from her personal experiences. She shared that the belief her mentor had in her and the power of survivor network enabled and encouraged her to get to where she is today. She stressed the importance of working with law enforcement agencies and even shared the power a single police officer had in motivating her to enter drug rehabilitation.

The last time she was arrested, the officer spent time just talking to her. He was the first to ever ask, “why do you do this?” She said the fact that he did not assume she liked or she wanted to be a prostitute triggered her to leave the life. Even though the officer incarcerated Ms. Burris, his words stuck with her. Years later she ran into the officer again at a john school program. When he saw her, he told Ms. Burris that he had being looking for her in the prison rosters and wondered how she disappeared. She proudly told him that she got clean. Hearing her achievement brought tears to his eyes and in a room full of sex buyers said seeing her “was like seeing his kid graduate from high school.” Her story gave insight on the positive impact law enforcement can have.

Next, Ms. Burris spoke about how prostitution is really a political issue. Legislations are what control how the issue of prostitution is to be handled. In her capacity, Ms. Burris advocates for the decriminalization of the exploited individual. At the same time, she wants sex buyers and traffickers to be criminalized for exploiting the individuals. In light of all the apparent problems with prostitution, her work focuses on providing a solution. As she made clear, the solution lies in legislation.

The stories and experiences our distinguished panelists shared left the room in awe of their strength and willpower. Not only have they survived traumatic victimization, they are leaders in the survivorship movement working to afford all survivors opportunities through leadership and self-sufficiency. The work our panelists have completed and efforts they continue to pursue serve as incredible inspiration for the CSE Institute and stakeholders in Pennsylvania, the United States, and beyond. We applaud and support the efforts of the survivorship leadership movement as their allies working to combat commercial sexual exploitation.

The Panel of national survivor leaders included:

Watch the full panel and experience the impactful and wise statements of these tremendous survivors for yourself.



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