Season 1, Episode 10: Passing the Mic - Survivor Tells Her Story

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You’re listening to Episode 10 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. The season 1 finale will be an interview with a sex trafficking survivor and advocate on her transition back into society.

Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, a professor at the University of Michigan, once said, “You do not have to be a voice for the voiceless, just pass the mic.” I’ve had this quote in the back of my mind ever since I first thought about starting this podcast, before I had published Episode 1 or even written its script. I knew I did not want this podcast to silence survivors’ voices, but I also didn’t expect survivors to open up to me about some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. Human trafficking is a very sensitive issue that often stigmatizes victims and survivors and makes it difficult for them to speak up about their experiences.

However, an opportunity to pass the mic came a few months ago, when Jennelle Gordon emailed me. As a sex trafficking survivor, Jennelle has decided to use her voice to advocate and empower herself and those coming out of similar circumstances. On top of her advocacy work, she is currently in school, working, and raising her son. Welcome to the podcast, Jennelle!

Jennelle: Victoria? We’re on!

Victoria: It's great to have you join us! So before I jump into the questions, I wanted to emphasize that you’re free to answer these questions with as little or as much detail as you’re comfortable with, or we can skip questions as well. My first question deals with what you’re doing right now. As I just mentioned, you’re in school and are a part of your school’s speech team, you’re raising your son, and on top of all of that, you’re working as a yoga instructor. So I’m just curious about your current work and how you got to this point.

Jennelle: Great question, and when you say all those things, it makes my head spin a little bit. But, um, well, you know what? Fortunately and unfortunately it was -- it took a lot to get me here to this point. And I'm still, I have so much further to go. So I'm not even near where I need to be. But every day is a journey and every day is a step. And I just try not to lose focus of that. So, how I got to this point first and foremost was...I was not fortunate enough to have these survivor -- I don't know if you'd call them nonprofits or groups -- that are available now, that are helping to assist women and victims out of the life. So, I know there are probably is, and then there are organizations that help with funding and things, education, and...I never had all those things so I really didn't know what I was doing when I got out. And, unfortunately, I don't -- I don't share this often, and I don't know how, why it came to mind, but I guess I'm going to share. I sort of got out of my trafficker and then I, you know, literally went to another one right after that because I was just -- didn't know how to -- I know it sounds weird and hard and maybe unbelievable, but I didn't know how to function, like properly. And so, honestly my whole energy really hadn't change. I had just left one trafficker so I was just completely open to another one. And it wasn't as extreme as my main one, but it was still trafficking. And so, looking back, at that, I realized that I kind of just was like a fish. I just kind of floundered around for a while because I didn't have any kind of direction. I didn't think that I was smart enough to go to school. Um, as you were familiar with I'm sure if you've interviewed victims, you know that traffickers mentally, you know, and emotionally manipulate their victims. So, I really felt like I was not capable of doing anything other than sex work. And so, unfortunately, even when I left my final trafficker, I still stayed in the industry, not so much the sex work itself, but like the adult -- the exotic dancing. Because I didn't know what else to do, and I -- I know it sounds just so simplistic, but, yeah, so that was that. So, when I found yoga, that was sort of a catapult that got me, you know, out of the feeling that I couldn't do anything at all, other than being a trafficked victim or being in that industry perse. If that makes sense. And I remember to this day my trafficker who's in the penitentiary now, said, "If you do yoga, you'll be a complete failure, you'll be broke your whole life, and you'll end up alone with cats." And that was like, I'll be like a lady alone with a bunch of cats, and I know it sounds silly, but I just really didn't know my power. So when I found yoga that was the first step to getting myself confident that I could do something else other than what I had been forced to do for so many years. And, then, luckily I just -- whether it was God or, I mean, I believe it was God -- that put this person in my life to kind of sponsor these yoga trainings for me, because, you know, I didn't have funding. Like I said, I just didn't really understand how to survive in the world. I just didn't because my world had not been what most of us know as reality. So, after I finished the yoga trainings I just felt more confident and it gave me a little bit of hope. And then from that is when, after my son was born, almost two and a half years ago, that's when the spark for me to go to school really came up, because, I felt like, "okay, if ever there's a time, it's now." And I don't have help perse in the sense that I rely heavily on my pells, heavily on my -- unfortunately I had to start taking loans -- to help fund my housing for my son and I. Because, although I do have modalities as teaching yoga and nutrition which I am so grateful for, I don't have, say, a full career. You know, I get clients here and there when I get them. That's extra income, but I don't have as you can imagine, the full time and energy to put into a career because I am a fulltime student and I am a mother, and I don't have family here. So, it's a [full] plate. I know that was a lot, but that kind of hopefully answered a lot of your questions.

Victoria: Yeah, you bring up a lot of really good points! First of all, I just want to commend you for doing all of this work, and really trying to improve your circumstances. One thing that you mentioned is that you didn’t really have the resources -- the access to non-profits or other organizations that could help you -- which reminds me...I hear a lot in the news, “the police recovered or rescued so many trafficking victims”. But the articles almost never say what happens after they’re rescued, so I was just curious from your experience, what should we know about what survivors go through when they’re transitioning back into society? What is that like?

Jennelle: This is the best question. Um, okay, so first it's not probably what anyone thinks, in the sense that, like you said, a lot of it is unknown. And I think there's like this, this sense like, "oh there's this police sting. And yay, that's so great! Hooray for the feds and hooray for these people that saved them!" But then, what happens to the victims? And I don't think anyone really asks that question. The victims -- or they're now survivors at this point. So, okay, this is a long one but I will try to make this brief and concise. I think a lot of them unfortunately get back into the industry. Because they don't know what else to do. Or they, you know, they get back with another trafficker. And I think that this is the problem with it. I think that there are several homes, actually I don't even know if "several" is even the correct word. But there are a few homes that are helpful for young girls. And there's a cut off age. And I work with an organization out here called The Lighthouse that is a small home for teens and girls, and so I believe they're 18. Maybe it's 20, but I believe it's 18 if I'm not mistaken. As I was speaking with one of the girls as I was spending time with them, that's kind of what I do. If they want to do yoga or dance or even modalities that I offer, then I offer that to them. But it was more just us hanging out because they trusted me because I am a survivor, and so they felt that they have that rapport with me. And she told me, she said, "You know, once you're 18, it's like you phase out of the system and then people are just sort of like, "good luck"." And I remember just thinking that that just broke my heart. And she told me -- and this kind of goes into some other things that I know we'll be discussing -- she told me that, okay how do I say this nicely, there's a lot of well meaning people. And I think people generally have the best intentions. But I think sometimes people get caught up in the work and forget about the people that they're doing the work for. And, I know that that's simplistic. But so she shared with me that this one lady who has a non-profit --who I obviously won't name names -- was supposedly doing this work -- kind of gave her the runaround and reached out to her, and when she really needed assistance was just kind of like, just stopped responding to her and sort of just pushed her off. So this is a very common response and I've actually had it happen to me, where, when I started sending people my video, of my speech, and because I felt, "okay, these nonprofits already have a place. Let me reach out to them. Let's -- great minds think alike, right?" They want to raise money, they want to make an impact, I have a voice, I have a story, let's work together! Just like I did with you. They would respond back to me and put me on their mailing list, ask me to join their mailing list. Like I was just, someone who was interested in doing volunteer work. And that really set with me, not very well. Because, you know, there is a lapse in what happens to survivors after they've gotten out. And like I said, people get caught up in the work and forget about the people that they're doing the work for. And, so, for me, some of the things that I've had to overcome is first of all, healthcare. And just certain things like general care. I didn't have this access for years, and to this day I'm still struggling because I had injuries and things where I had a lot of issues with my teeth, and I -- I just don't have the funding to take care of it. And being a public speaker, I need to smile and be confident. And that's something in my life that I'm not confident with because I don't feel like I can smile fully because of the abuse and not being able to have medical care or dental care while I was being trafficked for so many years. And I feel like this was an easy remedy that people in the community, and this is my goal when I have my nonprofit one day, is to get the community involved. It's just a few hours, it's just money that these businesses and these companies could write off on their taxes, to give survivors a chance. Give them a chance, you know, to feel that confidence in themselves. And I think if people feel confident, then their whole world will change. Because as you know, the reason why most victims get caught up in this world other than the statistics of what we all have in common from abuse and things like that, or what most have in common, is that they don't have confidence. And they don't have self-esteem. So why wouldn't that be the first priority that we do to try to get victims, or survivors rather, feeling confident again? Because if they believe in themselves, then there's nothing that they won't do including education and being able to go out and get a job, and things like that. So, that's one area. Another area is just feeling like, I can share my story with people, and people not be blown away. And having people who are just like, "Wow" like a shock factor. Almost like you're an animal in a zoo. But then when I need support, or when I need a mentor, I don't really have that. So, these are things, and trust me, I feel like I'm blessed because I've had training, and yoga, and meditations and different healing modalities. And when I'm able to trade services with professionals, I'm able to get some of those healing modalities. But most victims don't have that opportunity, and so I just think that there needs to be in place mentorship programs and things where people are there. Because sometimes I feel like I just need someone who can just help me, hold my hand. And this is the perfect example: I reached out to a post that Tony Robbins had put on social media. And I just had one of those days where I was feeling like I was searching to find money to pay the rent. I'm doing everything I can to pass this damn math class and I'm trying to take care of my son. And I'm just tired. And I don't have energy. And I just fell on the bed and I was on social media and I saw his post and it just spoke to my heart. And so I commented. I said, "You know what? I feel..." I needed to see this, I said, "I just feel like some days I don't have what it takes." Because being back in society is, it's a foreign concept because you've been...out of life, and you haven't been in life. And sometimes, the weight of the world of how the society functions it, it overtakes you. Because you're trying to keep up, you know, you're trying to catch up years. And so I responded and I commented. I said, "You know, I'm a full time student, I'm a single mom, I'm a trafficking survivor and I'm trying to build a business and I just feel like I don't have the right tools." I don't! And he, he responded to me. And out of me, just being vulnerable in that moment, he inboxed me and, long story short, he has a school for women that have been sex trafficking victims, and he educates them, houses them, and puts them in jobs. And this is just a brand new that that Tony Robbins has started. And he said, "I would love for you to come speak to my women, to the schools and the teachers. And the first step is I want to meet you so come to my "Unleash the Power Within"." And he sent me a VIP ticket, and so I'm going to that next week. But, he heard me, you know what I'm saying? And he said, "I commend your courage." And so, I think we could spend a whole interview on how I feel that there's so many lapses in aftercare and recovery and integration for survivors.

Victoria: Again, I think you bring up a lot of really good points! One of the things I gathered from that is that a lot of well meaning people actually end up silencing survivors and at their moment of greatest need, are just, not there for them. But I’m really glad that you have this opportunity to speak and that Tony Robbins listened to you when you reached out to him. My next question is actually pretty related to what I just asked, and I feel like you may have answered it in large part, but if you have anything to add that would be fine. So you were telling me that a lot of anti-trafficking work is done in the private sector, like religious organizations and charities. I was curious, from your perspective, what are these organizations doing now, and what could they be doing better?

Jennelle: Here's the thing. And again, my voice gets me in trouble a lot, but you know what? For so many years I was silenced and I didn't have a voice. And I vowed that I would never keep quiet again, and so clearly I'm not. I, just, feel that sometimes having a nonprofit is the cool thing to do in society. And, like I said, maybe it is the right intention and there's this, "oh let's help these poor victims of trafficking." But I feel like, the passion sometimes gets caught...or, gets lost. And the purpose, or the outcome for why they do the work maybe isn't always 100% pure. And I don't know. I can't judge. But from my experience, as I mentioned before, reaching out to these organizations, I just have not had the best luck. You know I have with Tony of course. And then I had another nonprofit called Humans 4 Justice out of Raleigh, North Carolina who embraced me and who has actually made me one of their ambassadors. And I started my club at my college called Humans 4 Justice OC as -- we're not directly affiliated with them, but we are a part of them, but we're our own entity. So, they responded to me and were like, "Thank you." And truthfully, really, no one else has really -- Open Gate International reached back out ot me and we still haven't set up a time, but... I was just shocked at the responses that I got, as far as just the churches. I reached out to a church that I am in direct affiliation with here because my son goes to their day care. Well, this church is like a mega-church. They have so much money, there's so much affluence, there's so much wealth. And I just feel like they, they've missed this area. So I reached out to them and I sent them my story and I said, "Hey my son goes here, my son goes to your preschool. Is there something we can do to create more awareness here and to create some funding for survivors here?" And it just went on deaf ears. I got an email back saying, "Oh why don't you volunteer with us the next time we go out with this task force? That would be great." And I was just -- I was just, kind of shocked about, like I said, like you mentioned, I'm coming to them saying, "Hey, let's be in this together, and let's do something. Let's create an event. Let's do a fundraising event at the church campus." And...nothing. Another example is, there's just a lapse in the knowledge of what a human trafficking survivor is. So because I'm a full time student, my son's childcare is covered by the county. But unfortunately, there's about a $400 deficit. And they had given me like a year scholarship as a single parent, and when I reached back out to them and said, "listen, I'm a human trafficking survivor. I'm desperately trying to finish my associate's, my education. Is there anything we can do?" Like, I don't want a handout, but I said, "Could I host an event, like at a church, where I can give my speech and tell people what I've gone through and what I've went through, and can we raise some money? Not just for me, but for if someone else was every in my position, so that they don't have to have this $400 expense which for some people might not be a large amount of money, but when you're a single mother, full-time student and you're trying to push through this past that has tried to haunt me...it's a lot. And they just said, "Oh sorry, you've expired the year-long scholarship for single parents." And I reached back out to them and I said, "but I'm not just a single parent. I'm a human trafficking survivor." And I feel like this mega-church with millions of dollars could -- let's have a presence here. Do you know what I'm saying? Like, let's -- I'll be a part. I offered to donate because the church has like a yoga class -- it's a very open-minded church -- but I'll do a fundraiser or I'll do yoga and meditation and I'll share my story and...no, they just didn't want anything to do with it. And it's just -- that was really sad for me. Because I'm like, "Hey, I'm here!" Do you know what I mean? I feel like I'm walking around with a neon sign that's like, "Hey! Help me! I've helped myself, but can you help me, help me so that I can help others?" Like I'm out now! But nobody cares about that. They just want to keep doing the work of getting people out, but then what?

Victoria: Very good point. First of all, I’m so sorry that a lot of your passion and desire to get your story out there is falling on deaf ears. I hope that more people, especially people that listen to this podcast, will realize that letting survivors use their voice is so important. And, so, that was my last official question, but if there is anything else that you’d like to add about your work, or how people can contact you, this is your space to do that.

Jennelle: Yeah, I want to say some good that I've been definitely impressed with some work that is going on. Another survivor, Stacy Jewell who I'm going to be meeting with, I believe in two weeks -- she's traveling and I'm gone -- who is a huge advocate for survivors, for the breakdown between survivors and nonprofits, which is huge. Because, I'm just now starting to experience this where, I have been invited to speak and unfortunately was unable to speak because I will be with Tony at his "Unleash the Power Within". But, I did feel like I was sort of being utilized, and then when I told [someone who invited me to speak] that I was unable to do the event because of this commitment with Tony Robbins, she [not Stacy Jewell, another woman] was just like, just stopped talking to me altogether. And all of a sudden my story wasn't important because it was a huge fundraising gala in LA. And she wanted me to go and share my sad story so that the uber-wealthy people in $20,000 gowns could donate. And so, and Stacy Jewell talks about this, how there's a breakdown. And so she advocates for these nonprofits, making sure that they're paying their speaker when they come in. Because we've been trafficked for so long, we don't want to feel like we're still being trafficked by people that are helping us, or quote, "helping us." So, she is an amazing person. I've been so impressed with her work. I really enjoy the podcast from Vanguard University which is actually just minutes from me. I believe it's "In Plain Sight" or no...sorry, that's the other podcast. But, Dr. Sandra, she's out of Vanguard and they have a huge human trafficking program at their university, at their Christian university. And from what I've seen and what I've listened on the podcast, I was very encouraged by her work. She was the one who had Stacy Jewell on. And I think that people like that, and those kinds of podcasts are very important. And I hope to do my own kind of work in -- similar to what Stacy does, to bridge that gap. Because, it's so important that we advocate for abolishing and rescuing, but that we also are able to empower those survivors once they're free. So, a little bit about my work now is that I'm really working to educate, empower, enlighten. That's sort of the motto that I had and that I came up with for our club as well, but also, my own personal work. I can be reached on my website, it's jennellegordon.com. It shows a little bit about all the modalities I do. Everything I do, like the healing and the nutrition, the yoga and the dances, is all geared toward healing and just building confidence and empowering people to really heal themselves and to catapult themselves to living their best lives and to living in these peak states where they are thriving, growing. And that they have a voice. And that their voice is heard. And so, yeah, I'm available to come and speak, to come and do yoga and mindfulness events as well as feminine empowerment and embodiment of sacred sexuality, which is something that a lot of women go through so much trauma. They lose that connection, and it's important not to lose that, but to reroute that. To fuel that within, find that inner power and that strength, and ignite that again but in the right way. Because, for so long it was degraded, it was objectified. So I've worked with women who have been victims of rape and assault through my dance om, which is just a blend that I created of yoga dance and world music and no words, so it just speaks to your energy versus like your mind. And, yeah, it's a beautiful journey that I take women through, and so… yeah, those are my main modalities. But, thank you so much again for just giving me this opportunity to speak and to address some of the issues that are important to me.

Victoria: I just want to thank you so, so much for reaching out to me and for all of the work that you’re doing, not only advocating for yourself but for others. Everything that you’re doing is just really, really impressive and important.

Jennelle: Yay, and thank you so much for what you're doing! I mean, I think that that's the -- that's it! The key is, you know, find your passion and use that passion to fuel change. And you're doing that and I'm doing that and Stacy's doing that and all these people are doing it. And I think if we just tweak some of the things -- the miscommunications and the breakdowns in survivor care, aftercare -- I think that we can be a strong force to be reckoned with in the human trafficking world. And I think the first step is what you're doing right here, is just educating people because they don't know. But once they know, they can't unknow, so it's there. And then it's up to them to elicit that change in themselves and their communities and hopefully ultimately the world.

Jennelle had a lot of sobering words on how survivors are often treated, but she was also encouraging and hopeful for positive change in the future. To keep this positive momentum going, I’m happy to announce that planning for season 2 of the Trafficking Dispatch is already underway!

But first, I’d like to thank every single listener and supporter of this podcast. This first season was filled with a lot of trial-and-error, behind-the-scenes mishaps and triumphs, but through it all, you have all been very encouraging. From conceiving the idea for this podcast in China, to drafting the first season in Peru and Ecuador, to recording and publishing in America, this first season has truly been an international enterprise, with an equally diverse following.

On that note, I’d like to make season 2 even bigger and better! If you’re a survivor or advocate who wants to tell your story through this podcast, you can email me at the thetraffickingdispatch@gmail.com. If you’re a student who is committed to fighting human trafficking and are interested in joining The Trafficking Dispatch team, you can also email me. I’m looking for a variety of skills, from researching, to audio editing, translating, hosting, and so much more, so don’t be shy if you have an idea on how you can help make season 2 even better!

If this first season of the Trafficking Dispatch proved anything, it’s that human trafficking is a complex issue that needs more than good intentions to effectively fight it. We can pass the mic when we have the chance, and through this podcast we can join together, not to curse the darkness of human trafficking, but to light a candle of reform (William L. Watkinson).

This has been Season 1 of the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel and Emily Wang. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next season which will premiere on January 14, 2018 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at thetraffickingdispatch@gmail.com. Thank you for tuning into this season, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

Jennelle's website: www.jennellegordon.com

Facebook: @thetraffickingdispatch
Twitter: @ttdpodcast
Instagram: @ttdpodcast_official

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