A Night Ride

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CNG’s lined up in front of shops waiting for customers

I didn’t think I had a significant #MeToo story until I read this recap by an American woman who spent 10 months living in South Asia; then I realized I’d experienced harassment every single day for 2.5 years of my life. I’ve shared this story with very few people in the past because I wanted to honor my Azu’s wishes not to give his area of the world a bad reputation. However, this story is not a reflection of Azu’s town but rather of men worldwide who have not learned to respect women. As I thought about writing this story, other incidents came to mind, including those that happened in the US. I became angry thinking about how I was told to deal with them, or rather, not deal with them. My silence has shouted my complacency, and complacency perpetuates societies that tolerate abuse. So I share to raise awareness as I cry #MeToo

It wasn’t really an accident. But that’s what I told local people who noticed scars on my hands.

It was the summer of 2010 and I had returned to visit South Asia, spending about a week of my two months traveling in what had previously been my remote home town. The night before catching a bus to return to a large city, I traveled across town to spend my final evening with my former project translator and her twin daughters. Afterwards, she, her daughters and house helper accompanied me to a CNG* stop. We bid one another goodbye in her indigenous language then I boarded a CNG. My Bengali driver noticed us speaking the local dialect and struck up a conversation, curious about me.

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Sporting “tourist” attire while hanging with local friends

Unlike when I lived there and wore local attire, I was sporting jeans and a waist-length top, hand-woven by the indigenous women of the community. I knew I looked like a tourist wearing jeans and toting a suitcase—a small, carry-on in which I had transported games and gifts for my translator and her daughters. I also knew if my driver regarded me as a foreign tourist, he might expect me to pay steep fairs for my trip. Throughout most of the country, passengers haggle over the price of a taxi before hopping in, but this little town was different. Situated between various bodies of a government-made lake, a single road served as the only thoroughfare from one end of town to the other. There, CNG’s functioned more like a bus than a taxi, allowing people to hop on and off for a set fee per leg of the trip. So when my driver refused to pick up others waiting at stops along the main thoroughfare, I asked him why.

He ignored my question and instead tried to flirt. He asked if we could be friends then attempted to shake my hand. I refused, knowing that unless I was among a progressive crowd in a place like Dhaka the capitol, shaking hands was a completely inappropriate gesture between men and women in Bengali culture. As if that wasn’t enough, he asked to kiss me—repeatedly—then started stroking my knee. We were nearing a stretch of road that served as an isthmus between two sections of the town and the power was out, leaving us enveloped in the dark. If this guy wanted to hijack, rape or mug me for my money, now would be the time! I told him I was going to get off. He was driving slowly so I thought I could just step off, but as I moved out the door he sped up, turning my easy step into a hard fall as I hit the pavement on my hands and knees. My first thought was that he would argue with me about payment or try to convince me to get back in.

“Tumi karap manush!” (you’re a bad man), I yelled in Bengali.

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Local friends posing next to a CNG

Scared, he took off.  I was so shaken I didn’t even think to notice his license plate. I immediately called my host, my former landlord’s son, to come get me on his motorcycle.  Then I hobbled across the street to a shop lit by a generator’s power.  My hands and knees were bleeding and my jeans ripped. Several men sat in the shop smoking cigarettes and chewing beetle nut. They brought me a plastic chair and I sat down, my head still spinning. I didn’t say anything until I heard them discussing the fact that I didn’t understand Bengali.

“Amar malik ashte kobe.”

I told them in Bengali that my host was coming to get me and explained what had happened. They said they thought I had been in an accident, that I had fallen from the CNG. When they heard how my driver had treated me, they became angry and said if I had gotten his license plate number, they would have ensured he suffered consequences for his actions!

My landlord’s son soon arrived on his motorcycle. Hearing what had happened and upon seeing my condition, he hired another CNG for me to ride in and drove behind it to ensure I got back safely. My landlord called my translator and minutes later I was surrounded by about a dozen people, my indigenous family who loved and cared for me through difficult times. My landlord, whom I called Azu**, insisted that I not tell people what had happened. He said that their area already had a negative connotation in many people’s eyes, and if word got out about what had happened to me, foreigners would not want to come there. He particularly did not want me to tell my parents or they would never let me visit again (never mind that I was a grown woman, but I agreed at the time).

I had planned to leave the following day, but now was in no condition to do so. My mind and body were exhausted from days crammed with visiting as many people as possible, conversing in languages other than English. God knew I needed a day of rest and even though I had not carved one out for myself, gave me one through this incident. Plus I had gotten to spend precious little time with my host family, so my time of rest recovery gave me an opportunity to spend a couple days with them. I still recall sitting on the back veranda with Azu trying to carry on a cohesive conversation while his adorable grandchildren played at our feet.

For the next week, I was dependent on someone to help me clean my wounds and had to apply antibiotic cream for several days. When I arrived in India a couple weeks later, my wounds were still visible as I began the next phase of the summer: a project in the red light district of Kolkota. I entered with a heightened sense of empathy, the marks on my hands as I ate rice creating a tangible reminder of the sliver of horror most of the women had experienced.
* A mini taxi the size of a golf cart that runs on compressed natural gas—called CNG for short
**Azu is a term for “grandfather” in the indigenous language of the people I had lived among

Sacrifice for My Freedom

IMG_5248Several years ago I had a disturbing dream that left me shaken after I awoke. Yet it’s a dream that has stayed with me.

I had gone for a walk through some wooded hills where others were hiking. I hadn’t strolled far when I spotted three animals running up the trail towards us. I climbed onto a fallen tree, but the tree was rotted and my weight caused the trunk to cave in and I crashed against the largest of the approaching animals—a giant horse. The horse kicked at me, but I was near its neck so began to stroke its mane and succeeded in calming it. The other two animals—a baby bear and a beaver—rambled past. All the hikers ran up the trail, afraid of the approaching beasts.

I moved past the animals and continued down the trail until I discovered an “Alice In Wonderland” playground nestled along the edge of the path. I thought of how I would inform my friends on Facebook about my discovery as I began to explore its premises. I climbed through the playhouse and slid down the slides, thinking that someday I would bring the children I cared for as a nanny to visit. Then I heard a young girl in the basement sandbox of the playhouse singing. Perplexed that she was there alone, I found her and asked about parents. She seemed unaware that they weren’t present and continued singing and playing, immersed in her own world. I had encountered a suspicious-looking man watching me when I was on the slide and was afraid to leave her playing alone. Before I could remove her, however, the man approached us, intent on the girl. I tried to stop him, but he said he would rape me and then her if I didn’t move. So I ran for help.

“So you are going to sacrifice this girl for your own freedom!” the man yelled after me, as I jogged up the hill.

The man was ugly and obese and I knew I could not succeed against him. I also thought that even if he raped me, it would likely not allow enough time for other adults to arrive to rescue the girl and then she would have witnessed the man harming me as well. I ran up the trail, yelling for parents to come to their daughter’s rescue. Three dads and a couple of moms came sprinting and we returned to the playhouse, flung open the door and found the man on top of the girl, just finishing.

The other adults exchanged angry words with the man, but he was smug and unapologetic.

“Look, I also work at Microsoft,” he said, attempting to form allegiance with another dad. The parents let the man go.

“This is not right!” I yelled. “We must report this to the justice system. We cannot allow this man to continue to prey on children like this!”

As the man sulked away, I pulled out my camera and began taking his photo, hoping that I could document his face to show authorities. The playground had noe become an amusement park where many families had come for recreation.

~

When I awoke and pondered the dream, I recognized that the man’s words to me express an attitude towards my life purpose. If I choose to simply enjoy my life and do nothing to prevent and expose exploitation of vulnerable girls, I am in fact sacrificing them for my freedom.

To Buy Can be Better Than to Give

IMG_7900My uncle booked a group table at the event I had invited him and my aunt to attend. When I offered to pay for my seat, but he said, “I’ve got you covered. Give whatever you want as a donation to the organization.”

We were at a Nepali fundraiser dinner for Friends of WPC Nepal, an organization dedicated to helping end and prevent human trafficking along the Nepal border. The founder is from a border town herself and growing up watched many of her childhood playmates leave for “opportunities”beyond their small town, only to never return.

At the back of the room was a display table where the founder and her daughter were selling beautiful, high-quality jewelry made by women in Nepal. The jewelry enables Nepali women to have employment in a solid community and prevents them from being trafficked into the sex trade. I thought about how much money I had allocated for this night and toiled between writing a check or purchasing a piece of jewelry.

A little personal background: I don’t enjoy shopping and rarely spend money on clothing, let alone jewelry. I’ve largely adopted my parents’ and grandparents’ model of thrifty living and generous giving. However, as I’ve become more aware of systems of commerce and the people impacted by those systems, I’ve realized that buying cheap clothing in order to write a larger check to a charity working against human trafficking is counter-intuitive when the cheap clothing was made by slave (or underpaid) labor. Or pinching pennies to purchase inexpensive chocolate so that you can have more pennies to donate towards an orphanage is hypocritical when you consider that the cocoa was sourced by child labor and conditions that harmed both people and planet leading to the need for an orphanage!

Furthermore, earning something causes people to value it more and feel greater self-worth than receiving a handout. Earning money can give people the ability to make choices previously unavailable to them, fosters self-esteem and provides opportunities that would not otherwise exist. As the founder of Sari Bari, an enterprise in Kolkata, India, which enables women to leave the sex trade by providing seamstress work, wrote after the first distribution of pay checks to the women, “a job does what a hand out can not…it gives hope and belief in self” (Power of a Paycheck). Case in point: before starting the Sari Bari business, the ministry team had worked for several years in the red light district, but during that time only one woman had left the sex trade. Yet since they began the Sari Bari business in 2006, 117 women have left the trade to find freedom and new lives!

In With Justice for All argued, John Perkins wrote, “Far more than they need our money, the poor need us—people. People with skills who will work with them and teach them how to become self-sufficient” (p.13). I strongly believe that providing people with dignified work is one of the best ways to end poverty and prevent human trafficking. Because of this, I chose to purchase a necklace rather than make a strict donation. Also, I chose it for myself in order to wear it as a conversational starter and promotional piece. When people ask about my necklace, I can tell them about Hetauda House, a place of safety for at-risk girls in Nepal.

I am not against gifts or donations, but sometimes it can be healthy to weigh all options. In this scenario, I felt like buying was a better investment in a cause I believe in than straight up giving.

Note: a few of my other favorite social enterprises that do similar work include the following:

If you know of others you’d recommend, leave a comment.

 

Remembering the Women Who Sacrificed Their Bodies (Not Their Lives)

Freedom comes at a cost. Blood. Sweat. Tears.

Yes, soldiers have died for the freedoms I enjoy as the result of my citizenship today. But today I want to acknowledge the unsung women who gave their bodies wherever “our boys” have gone. The women who served as “sex toys” and “entertainment.” Their government and poverty may have forced them into the trade, but the flow of cash and presence of US troops created a steady demand in many cities that has escalated today. Take Pattaya, Thailand, for example. According to Not Abandoned founder Jeff McKinley

“Only fifty years ago it was a quaint fishing village and relatively unknown. In 1959, US military soldiers on R & R in Thailand made their way to Pattaya and with them ushered in the beginning of the sex industry that Pattaya is known for today.” (Why Pattaya, Thailand video)

Today 200,000 of the city’s 500,000 inhabitants work in the sex industry, serving mostly foreigners who patronize its 22,000 bars.

Pattaya is just one of many outposts where human trafficking has exploded as a result of US troops’ presence. In a short, ethnographic  documentary I watched this weekend, the narrator described the history of why Asian women are fetishsized and exotified by many American men:

This narrative of the exotic submissive Asian woman got further reinforced over the course of the twentieth century during America’s wars in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. After World War Two, approximately 200,000 Japanese were enslaved by the Japanese government as prostitutes for American soldiers as part of the Recreation and Amusement Association. This practice of organized prostitution continued through the Korean and Vietnam wars with 85 percent of American soldiers reporting having saw a prostitute. (from MTV’s Facebook post Why are Asian women “SEXY” but NOT Asian men?)

This is NOT a piece of history I learned from the conservative Christian curriculum that comprised my elementary through high school education. Though I doubt it’s in most secular education either. We like to cover up dirty details of the past like that. Admittedly, members of my own family have been part of this demand. But if our discourse on sacrifice and freedom were honest, we would highlight this cost of freedom too.

Healing, Hope and a Cigarette: Story From Thistle Farms

Jennifer by a Blooming Thistle

Jennifer by a Blooming Thistle

“I was born into a Catholic family, the youngest of 12 children, and abused at a young age,” Jennifer began. “At 12-years-old I started smoking pot and at age 13 left home to hitchhike to California. Instead I was trafficked and forced into a life of prostitution and drugs.”

I had just met Jennifer earlier that morning when visiting Thistle Farms, a social enterprise in Nashville, Tennessee that works in partnership with the nonprofit Magdalene to rebuild the lives of women who’ve been caught in cycles of dealing drugs and selling their bodies. In conjunction with providing housing and counseling, the program trains and employs women to create beautiful candles and beauty products from natural products such as the thistle. Last year, the successful business met the $1 million sales mark, as covered in a piece by NPR.

A month before my visit I had emailed the farm asking if I could interview one of the women there. In response, Jennifer, their PR woman, had replied saying she would be happy to connect me with one of her beautiful sisters and mentioned that she herself was a graduate from their 2012 program. I had prepared an interview that wouldn’t delve too deeply into the personal life of someone I didn’t know, aiming to ask questions concerning the social enterprise from the perspective of a woman in the program. Yet after attending the midweek “Meditation Circle” with dozens of other visitors, staff and volunteers, she had lead me outside to a table between their shop and alley so we could chat in private and Jennifer herself shared her life story with me.

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Shaped like a thistle, this art piece collects rain water. They don’t like to waste anything but to repurpose what others would discard both to care for the planet and as a metaphor for the women whose lives are being rebuilt.

“At age 16 I met a man who got me pregnant and at age 17 we married,” she continued. “I thought my life had turned around. But after giving birth to a second child who was stillborn at age 19, I became so upset with the world I divorced him. I left my other child who was two-years-old with my mother and started working at a gentlemen’s club.” She gazed off at the bleak sky. Although the day was overcast the June air was warm and humid here in Nashville.

“Before long, I was on the street, jumping into strangers’ cars and selling myself to support my drug addiction. I moved from marijuana to meth to liquid meth to heroine. I was trying to be something I wasn’t. Even my eyes changed color from their natural state to a murky brown from all the poison.” I gazed into her shining blue eyes that matched the light blue t-shirt she was wearing and wondered how they could have ever appeared a murky brown.

“Finally, I started to attend church with my sister, all the while I was still doing heroin.” She paused for a puff on her cigarette, the one addiction she had not yet kicked. “Then one day I set up an appointment with the priest for confession. While there I told him I needed a rehabilitation program that would last two years. In the past I’d gone through 90 day ones but they’d left me unchanged. He said he would find something for me and the next time we met up he told me about Magdalene. It was exactly what I was looking for: a two year program that was out-of-state in Nashville and away from Dayton, Ohio, where I was living. Hearing that a place like that existed, I walked away with a big smile on my face, the first time my sister had seen me smile in years!” Jennifer beamed as she recalled that moment.

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Jennifer next to an American chestnut tree that taught her a life lesson.

“I wanted to go immediately,but there was a one to two year waiting period! I knew I couldn’t wait that long and called regularly to see if they could get me in sooner.  Finally, out of complete desperation, one day I told them I wouldn’t make it unless they let me in. The woman on the other end of the line asked me, ‘How soon can you come?’ I wanted to tell her ‘tomorrow,’ but then realized I had to figure out a way to get there. Jennifer laughed with her raspy chuckle and brushed her chest-length, dyed blond hair behind her shoulder.

“I arrived on March 10, 2010, and didn’t unpack for 60 days.” She ended up staying, however, not only graduating from the program but moving now into the role of PR & Development, giving tours to daily guests and explaining the history and partnerships of the organization.

“It has not been easy,” stated frankly. Then with a spark in her eye she exclaimed “but I surrendered to love!”

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A scrumptious quiche and salad I purchased at the Thistle Cafe.

After hearing the story of her amazing life turnaround, it was my turn to ask some of the questions I had prepared. “Have you gotten to share your ideas for Thistle Farms? For example, improving processes or developing a new product?”

“Yes,” Jennifer replied. “I suggested that the women working at the cafe not wear uniforms. At first they were wearing all black, but that made them feel like they were separate from everybody else, and they already felt like people were coming to see ex-prostitutes on display.”

When I asked Jennifer about her own, personal dreams, she replied, “Jail saved my life; Thistle Farms saved my soul.” Then she added with a smile, “My long-term goal: get to heaven. I know there’s a hell on earth and there’s a heaven on earth and you can choose!”

Jennifer’s present reality is that she has a lot of accrued expenses like lawyer fees and child support and she plans to tackle those. “I want to be able to support myself financially,” Jennifer said. “It has taken me five years but I’m finally getting my own car and apartment and naming it the ‘GG Bandbox’ (Jennifer’s’ family calls her “GG”) But I dream of having a cabin in the country someday.”

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Me and Jennifer in front of some Thistle Farm products.

Motioning to the business beside us I asked, “How would you describe the Thistle Farm brand?”
“Healing, hope, love, all natural, community, life, abundance, joy, laughter, MUSIC!” she yelled the last word. Then interjected “Brenda, can I have a cigarette?” when another employee passed by us.

After she had lit it I asked, “In what ways do you listen to your customers?”

“With my mouth shut.” Jennifer replied. That made me laugh. But she continued, “If things don’t sell, we nix them. But we try all of them,” she said, referring to ideas customers offer them.

She told me that Thistle Farms only has one fundraiser per year because Becca doesn’t like to constantly ask people for money. Otherwise, they post concrete needs such as lumbar supplies on their volunteer page.

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The unassuming structure where this social enterprise is housed.

When I asked about partnerships Thistle Farms has with other businesses, organizations or nonprofits, Jennifer exclaimed, “All over movement. I LOVE movements!” I knew that Thistle Farms partners with multiple organizations. She had just told me about their first national Thistle Farms conference coming up this fall where Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half the Sky will be speaking. And earlier during the tour of their facilities, Jennifer had described all sorts of organizations they are partnering with globally and locally. For example, guys in prison built the cabinets in their cafe.

My final question was “What do you consider your bottom line to be? In other words, what does success look like for you?”

Jennifer replied, “Love heals. The women on waiting list get in.” Later as we parted ways, she added, “The bottom line is definitely women on the street—there’s nothing below that!” I wasn’t sure if she was referring to the business definition of the “bottom line” but in the end it didn’t really matter. I’m sure the Thistle Farm’s founder Becca would agree!

Thistle Farms is a social enterprise of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction. Thistle Farms houses the bath and body care company, Thistle Stop Café and paper and sewing studios.The community provides housing, food, healthcare, therapy and education, without charging residents or receiving government funding. Thistle Farms and Magdalene stand as a witness to the truth that in the end love is the most powerful force for change (description taken from the Thistle Farm Facebook “About” section). Their one annual fundraiser is this weekend, October 12-14, in Nashville, Tennessee. This interview is a paraphrase based on notes and listening to a conversation with Jennifer on June 4, 2014.

A Hybrid of Ideas

San Fran Mural

I love to explore. Whether hiking in the great outdoors or discovering new ways to empower trafficked women, I love to discover new places, ideas and developments.

This blog is dedicated to bringing together a fusion of the very best ideas from community development, social services, entrepreneurship and international development and fuse them into a sort of hybrid model–or at least provide a forum where they can be referred to and discussed. Hopefully the best ideas will be implemented and replicated around the globe.