Fighting Sex Trafficking From the Front Lines: The People Who Inspire Series: Sarah Elizabeth PahmanRelando Thompkins 2012/11/09
by Relando Thompkins, MSW
Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian‘s “The People Who Inspire series” highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s post features Sarah Elizabeth Pahman, Treatment Foster Care Social Worker, and advocate for women and girls.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
My passion for trauma work originally began in a class I took at my alma mater, UW-Madison, where I learned about sex trafficking and began doing research on Somaly Mam and her non-profit organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – rescuing young girls enslaved into prostitution. I learned about 8-year-old girls being sold for high prices to men with AIDs who believed they could be cured by raping a virgin. These young girls were sewn back up again and again, resold as virgins to make large profits for their captors.
This modern form of slavery opened my eyes to the most pressing issue of our time, sex and labor trafficking – and led me to get involved in organizations in my city that focused on trauma.
I interned as a trauma counselor for sexual abuse victims in a domestic violence agency, and again did trauma therapy in a non-profit focused solely on supporting survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence. This is where I began to connect the dots about domestic trafficking, and saw it is not just an international issue, but an issue on our own streets in the United States.
Although not all prostitutes are sex trafficking victims, ALL sex trafficking victims are pimped out as prostitutes, on the streets, in brothels, escort services, and in massage parlors. As I became more aware of this issue I began to volunteer at outreach programs in my city that focused on harm reduction and education for prostituted women.
We got in an old, beat up van with the entire backseat filled with bagged lunches and rapid HIV tests, and we drove the blighted neighborhoods where street prostitution and survival sex is known to be happening. We handed out food, condoms, gave HIV tests, “bad date” sheets (information for women in the sex trade that gives crime information, for example, the description of a John who beat a girl, or raped her, or didn’t pay her, and what street it happened on), and resources. Witnessing the reality of street prostitution made me realize just how inadequate harm reduction is – a band-aid on a gaping wound.
During my graduate field work I also began seeing how young girls end up in coercive situations. Vulnerable children and teenagers looking for a place to belong, and in need of guidance from parents and family that weren’t able, or simply not willing to provide it. Girls within foster care, involved with the child welfare system, are finding themselves on the streets and willing to do anything for a man who pays attention, shows love, care, and concern. These girls, due to their yearning for love, are easy victims for a pimp/trafficker with a slick mouth and a knack for business.
After I graduated I knew I wanted to stay on the frontlines, and I knew trauma was where I belonged. Taking the knowledge I’d gained from my field work I got involved in Treatment Foster Care Social Work in order to stay involved with a vulnerable population I am passionate about: teenage girls, most from abusive backgrounds, who are involved in the system. Being a strong role model and consistently present, supportive, and assertive force in a teenage girl’s life is a preventive measure. It is a preventive measure that can help keep girls away from prostitution, and the risk of being pimped, trafficked, and enslaved. This is how, and why, I got involved in my current work.
I know that you’re very passionate about trauma work. Can you tell us what that means to you?
Trauma work, for me, equates to being up to date on current research on trauma informed care, and applying it to direct practice. Trauma work is about asking people what happened to them, not what is wrong with them. Trauma work is about addressing underlying causes, and understanding that addressing the root problem can help cure present symptoms. Trauma work is about believing people’s stories, not trying to figure out what is a lie, and what is truth.
So many times we approach people with suspicion, and distrust in them – when the truth is it is not the stories making sense that should matter so much to us, but the message the person is trying to send us about themselves by telling us their stories. This is where trauma work lives, in the messages behind the stories.
In your view, what do you think are some necessary elements that are needed to be effective in this kind of work?
To be effective in this kind of work one needs, first and foremost, to be able to connect with people who have every right, and reason, not to want to connect.
Many times in this field people have had previous experience with social workers, and it can leave them with quite a negative view of what we do and what our purpose is in their lives. Sometimes people view us in the same negative light as they view the police, or they had a bad experience with a social worker and have stereotyped us in a certain way.
Social work has quite negative connotations in some communities. My job as a social worker is to remain mindful of this truth, and respectful of this truth – while also remaining consistent in my work. In this field one must align their thoughts, feelings, and actions and be deliberate and honest in their intentions in order to be effective. “Being real” and authentic with people is key. Being able to have those hard conversations is a must.
We have to master the art of gentle confrontation, and be able to word harsh truths into a conversation that people are willing to have with us. We have to prevent shame by remaining open, honest, compassionate, and free of criticism and judgment. These are the essential ingredients for this type of work. We cannot “try” to be these things, we have to BE these things. For myself this is where the spiritual mixes with the real world.
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
My life’s purpose is the pursuit of social justice for women and girls who have been marginalized by family background, life circumstance, economics, culture, society, and the systems we have in place.
My purpose is being a presence, a witness & a voice in the deepest trenches of women’s oppression. For me, the frontlines for social justice lie in the streets of the sex trade and in addressing trauma in people’s lives. So many times it is sexual, physical, emotional abuse that is the root cause of drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, low self-esteem, and undesirable behaviors.
My purpose is to get to the roots, and not reject that darkness when it is pulled up in people’s lives.
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
What I find most enjoyable is seeing people acknowledge that they are stronger than they may have thought they were. Seeing kids who have every right to give up, and yet they persist. I enjoy witnessing a kid begin to recognize their emotions, and to name them. I enjoy watching kids and adults begin to link their trauma to their behaviors. I enjoy challenging kids to problem solve with me, and to take responsibility for themselves.
What aspects do you find challenging?
Apathy is the most challenging part of my work. Having kids who just do not want to take an active role in their own lives. Seeing adults make promises they cannot keep to children who have already been so let down is another challenge, because it is hard not to feel helpless when we see children being hurt.
You also share some of your thoughts though your blog: Rooted In Being. How did your blog come about? Do you have any words of advice for anyone who might want to start their own thoughts for social justice in terms of transforming their ideas to action?
My advice for those interested in social justice is to find a focus, and stick to it. We cannot change the world by taking on the entire world, but if we can take on one aspect of social justice that really moves us and gets us fired up, then we can produce change.
Turning words into action involves getting involved in our communities. It is about understanding the issue on a macro scale and then finding out how that issue affects us locally. The next step is jumping in feet first, acknowledging that we are not the experts, allowing the discomfort of being immersed in something challenging – and remaining self-aware.
What/Who Inspires you?
Somaly Mam inspires me, Gloria Steinem inspires me, Melissa Farley’s research inspires me, Mona Eltahawy inspires me – as do so many of the activists in my city that I have learned and gained so much from.
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
I know that my success so far has come from being able to see how beauty and tragedy is intertwined. Being able to witness immense forms of emotional pain day in and day out, and still ponder the trees, and the universe – and its immense beauty.
I can remember having an especially difficult time when I first began interning as a trauma counselor, and my saving grace was catching the bus home with my headphones on every night – and looking up at the stars in the night sky, taking a deep breath, and accepting that I do not have control, nor understanding of how and why the world is such a painful, exquisite experience.
Acceptance of not knowing, and being fully present in the moment – has been my key.
To learn more about Sarah’s thoughts and work check out her blog: Rooted In Being.
If you know any People Who Inspire that you would like to be featured in the series, email Relando at Relando@relandothompkins.com, or just fill out the contact form here.