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.
Scottish Survivor Groups Encourage All Survivors of Abuse in Care to Take Part in a Milestone Consultation
Survivor groups in Scotland have called on all survivors of abuse in care to take part in an important consultation, allowing individuals to share their views on a possible financial redress scheme for the first time.
The consultation has been developed and delivered through a collaboration between a range of partners including survivor representatives (Interaction Action Plan Review Group) and CELCIS (the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland).
With just four weeks left to the deadline of Friday 17 November to complete the consultation, survivor groups have spoken out about the need for all survivors of abuse in care to take part.
David Whelan, spokesperson from Former Boys and Girls Abused in Quarriers group (FBGA), commented: “This redress and compensation consultation gives everyone who has experienced abuse in the care system in Scotland an opportunity to share their views. The consultation offers real choices to the individual and survivor groups as to what it is they would like in any proposed redress-consultation scheme. It allows all survivors a chance to have their voices and opinions heard. We would encourage as many survivors as possible to take part over the next month.
“Former Boys and Girls Abused in Quarriers group fully support this consultation which was put together in a partnership with other victims-survivors, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, CELCIS, The Scottish Government and others.”
Judith Robertson, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said: “Anyone who has been subjected to abuse has a human right to access justice and to an effective and fair remedy. Everyone has the right to live and be treated with dignity. The Scottish Human Rights Commission welcomes the consultation by the InterAction Review Group and CELCIS on financial redress for historic abuse. It is a crucial part of developing Scotland’s Action Plan on Historic Abuse and we encourage anyone who is themselves a survivor of childhood abuse to take part.”
Joanne McMeeking, Head of Improving Care Experiences at CELCIS, said: “We are in the final month of the consultation process, which is a milestone in terms of seeking justice for survivors of abuse in care in Scotland. Completing this consultation questionnaire gives survivors a way to have their views about potential financial redress seen and heard.”
The consultation is open to all victims/survivors of historical abuse in care as defined by the Terms of Reference of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry and is available online.
Rescuing Sex Trafficking Victims
Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to find Lois Lee, Ph.D., J.D. wandering the streets and alleys of Los Angeles at 3 a.m.; she even did so while pregnant with her son.
Dr. Lee was looking for victims of sex trafficking and those who exploited them.
Walking miles along Sunset, Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards, the then-24-year-old would hand out business cards with her hotline number, encouraging victims to call and letting them know what kind of help they’d find.
“These are girls, boys and transgender children that would fall between the cracks of the system,” remembers Lee. “They had nowhere to go — no one was providing a bed or a school or offering to take care of these kids.”
So, she created that place.
From 1979 to 1981, Lee housed more than 250 sex trafficking victims in her own home, all while building the Children of the Night outreach program; the privately funded nonprofit organization would become unlike any other in existence at the time, or even today, rescuing children from child prostitution and providing housing, education and treatment.
But perhaps most important, Lee gave them hope.
An Unimaginable Life
Lee was raised in Los Angeles, the eldest child in a family of three girls. It was a childhood she describes as healthy, safe and sheltered.
So when, as a graduate student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, her faculty mentor Jeanne Curran, PhD., then a professor of sociology, introduced her to the underworld of sex trafficking, it was a wake-up call.
“I wanted to make everything better because I just couldn’t imagine someone living in these types of conditions,” explains Lee, who graduated from CSU Dominguez Hills with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science in 1973 and a master’s in sociology in 1977.
It was at CSUDH that she developed the skills she’d later use to address child sex trafficking. Lee also taught courses at the campus’s Social Systems Research Center, then led by Dr. Curran. The center has since been renamed the Urban Community Research Center.
“Jeanne became a mentor for me, both on- and off-campus. She influenced my life and academic choices so much,” says Lee, a first-generation college student.
“She and CSU Dominguez Hills empowered me.”
Victims, Not Criminals
Late one night in 1977, Lee received a call from a woman who operated an escort service. A 17-year-old she worked with had not returned and she was unable to contact her.
Afraid, she had called Lee for guidance. Lee went to the police, who dismissed the call and refused to help. The next morning, the girl’s body was found; she had become one of the Hillside Stranglers’victims.
Frustrated by the lack of resources that were available to these girls, Lee appeared on an L.A. news broadcast, giving out her personal phone number and encouraging prostitutes with knowledge of the case to reach out to her directly. She promised confidentiality.
“I coordinated everything just as I had learned from Jeanne at CSU Dominguez Hills,” Lee recalls. “And that was really the beginning of my work.”
Lee would go on to play a critical role in the Hillside Strangler trial, testifying in the case and coordinating witnesses for the prosecution.
At just 27, Lee garnered attention when she sued the Los Angeles Police Department for prosecuting underage prostitutes while letting their customers go free.
She won the case and has gone on to file a number of other lawsuits.
“I taught vice detectives nationwide that there were children prostituting and they needed to be treated differently,” says the President’s Volunteer Action Award recipient. She strongly advocated – and still does – to have the children referred to and treated as victims, not criminals.
Education: The Key to Success
To date, Children of the Night’s president and founder is credited with rescuing more than 10,000 children from prostitution in the U.S.
The organization’s shelter, located in Van Nuys, California, offers no-cost housing for as many as 12 children ages 11 to 17. They attend classes at the on-site school, receive individualized treatment, and participate in fun outings. A nationwide toll-free hotline is also staffed 24/7.
Lee sees education as the most fundamental of the services they offer, and attendance is mandatory for all residents.
“What’s really important about the development of any society is to educate the people,” she explains. “Through education, I was able to learn about the world. Education empowers.”
While children are offered treatment to manage trauma, their past experiences are not the focus, Lee stresses. “I don’t feel sorry for the children with whom I work,” she says. “[That] incapacitates their ability to become strong and independent. I want the world for my kids. I have very high expectations of them.”
Which is not to say she isn’t deeply empathetic to what they’ve faced.
“There is no way that I can make what happened to them go away, but I can … put distance between their old lifestyle and their life now.”
Today, Lee is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in rescuing child sex trafficking victims, raising awareness on a topic that previously wasn’t talked about. In 1981, the General Accounting Office estimated there were 600,000 children under the age of 16 working as prostitutes in the United States. Today, that number is estimated to be 100,000.
In January 2017, Children of the Night announced a new global initiative to rescue 10,000 more children worldwide from sex trafficking.
Lee is also passionate about giving back to the campus that helped turn her dream into an advocacy mission that has no doubt saved thousands of lives.
“So much of what I have done and have been able to do in my life is because of my time at CSU Dominguez Hills,” Lee says. “The faculty raised me and nourished me. They liked to take risks and they challenged traditional thinking processes. “Dominguez Hills taught me how to break down barriers.”
A Practical Guide on How to Confront Hate
In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tina Kempin Reuter, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Institute for Human Rights offers some practical tips on how to confront hate.
Know your human rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination and human dignity.
“Knowing one’s human rights is an important step that often gets forgotten,” Reuter said. “Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give people the tools and language needed to address certain issues. Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted.”
Reuter urges reporting human rights violations to the authorities such as the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice or other entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union. If an incident occurs in the workplace, inform your human resources representative or a diversity officer. At UAB, students, faculty, and staff can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the United Nations Human Rights website and by reading the UAB Institute for Human Rights blog, where faculty and students write about international human rights issues.
Speak up in the face of injustice
Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, Reuter encourages everyone to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life. Document, record and monitor what is going on around you, and if you see injustice, say something.
“The goal is to make everyday suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred that has occurred in Charlottesville,” Reuter said. “It’s these normal, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.”
Be aware of your own biases
One of the ways to overcome biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research shows that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice. This theory is called contact hypothesis. The theory suggests that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority groups.
“It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases,” Reuter said. “We all have them. Realize if you cross the street when a person of a different race walks toward you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment, and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others. I encourage people to reach out and make new friends outside of their race, religion and gender.”
Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests
Join a movement, and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. The UAB Institute for Human Rights is a part of the StandAsOne Coalition. If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights club.
“Not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers,” Reuter said. “We cannot all become Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Leymah Gboweee; but we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Think about what you are good at and how your skills and talent can be used to move a cause forward.”
Call your representatives
One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change is to call local and state representatives. Reuter says calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message or letter. She advises anyone contacting their local representative to be polite to the staff, which is who you will most likely get on the line. Their staff members do not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call and do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.
This step does not have to be formal. You can educate others by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you are having. It can happen person to person, on social media or on any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find that formal ways of education do not resonate with them.
“It is such a privilege to be an educator,” Reuter said. “It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. It’s something that everyone can do. Teach your children and young relatives about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others.”
One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights.
There are a number of organizations dedicated to ensuring the preservation of individual rights and liberties, one of which is the UAB Institute for Human Rights. You can learn more about the Institute here.
Take care of yourself
Confronting issues such as hatred, violence, and suppression can take a mental and physical toll on anyone. Reuter says it is important to know what you can and cannot do, what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are.
“Focus on the local level. Start in your own community,” Reuter said. “That world is changed person by person, but don’t forget to take care of your needs. When you start to feel overwhelmed, shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news and other forms of media. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself, and realize that real progress takes patience.”
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