The Seattle School Alumni Association is organized and led by a team of individuals. As part of that team, the Alumni Quad is made up of four alumni from varying graduating classes of each degree program. The Quad seeks to serve the Association in a variety of ways, part of which involves meeting up with alumni in the field for the sake of connection and support. Corinne Vance (MACP, MACS ‘11) has served on the Alumni Quad for the past year. For many of our alumni, she has become a face of tender care and encouragement both vocationally and personally. Aside from her involvement with the Alumni Quad, Corinne’s own vocational pursuits are worth noting as well. Here she offers reflections after volunteering (along with alumna Cheryl Bowman, MACP ‘12) at the 2017 pre-Super Bowl effort to address human trafficking in Houston, Texas with the nonprofit In Our Backyard.
I had worked with Nita Belles at the 2016 pre-Super Bowl effort, so I thought I knew what I was walking into in the Houston effort. My role included helping feed leads on trafficked young girls to the FBI and other local law enforcement. For five days, along with the rest of this dedicated group, I would scan the horrendous pictures of girls posted on online sites. These girls are posted for sale. Two hundred dollars for a date.
“No AA” meant that she would take no African-American customers, which indicated that she had a pimp and he was African-American. Pimps are very possessive of their girls. The girls belong to them and are their property. A commodity to be sold. Sometimes the photos were provocative—girls and young women in lingerie and posed in a way that was meant to entice the online customer. Other times, the photo could look like those I see on Facebook. A girl was dressed in very normal, everyday clothing. A dress or shorts and a midi top. I am learning there is no one profile that fits those being trafficked.
As I scanned the images before me, I was aware of becoming emotionally numb. I would look at an image and wonder if a particular area on her upper arm had been photoshopped to hide the bruising her pimp may have inflicted upon her. I would lean over to a team member next to me and ask for her input. Could that be discoloration on her arm? What about the dark area near her hip? Could that be a tattoo? Often pimps will have their girls tattooed with initials or words that indicate this girl is owned. “Daddy’s girl” or “I like pain.” Tattoos can go so far as to be a barcode, another indicator that this girl is a commodity. In the intensity of the work, I was not in touch with my emotions. I worked off adrenaline. I was intent on the hunt for leads that might bring a rescue. My awareness of the numbness felt odd. I knew that there was deep emotion in me, but during the work, I was not in touch with the feelings of horror and rage swirling inside. I needed to get the work done.
This year’s effort in Houston included partnering with an organization called the Landing. The Landing is just one year old, but the small staff and volunteers are doing good work. The organization is a drop-in center located in one of the areas where trafficking takes place. The Landing is open several mornings and afternoons a week. It is a safe place where girls can come and hang out. It is not a shelter. As hard as “the life” is, it is very hard to get a girl to leave and go to a shelter. The drop-in center is a good first step. Girls can come for a few hours, sleep, fix a meal, or just sit and talk. A safe place to be heard.
The staff at the Landing had organized for our team to go out on ‘the track.’ Track is the term used for the area where the girls walk slowly up and down, waiting for a John to drive up alongside and buy the girl. The term ‘date’ is used to define this exchange. Johns cruise slowly up and down the street, looking at the girls until they find the one they want to purchase. It brings the reminder of the meat section at the market. Walking slowly back and forth, deciding between cuts of meat.
The groups going out were small, by design. Three or four volunteers. Staff made arrangements for us to be accompanied by a plain clothes private security team. These detectives were former military marksmen and highly skilled in assessing danger. One detective walked with us on foot and another was in an unmarked car. Communication was going on between them fluidly, commenting on the girls walking and the pimps nearby, watching their girls.
Two girls were walking towards us from the opposite direction. They both had on short skirts and tops. Not enough clothing to keep them warm on this cold Houston evening. The time was a little after midnight, when most people are home in bed, though the night had just begun here on the track. Another volunteer and I approached the girls and asked if we could speak with them for a few minutes. A few minutes was all they could spare, knowing their pimps were watching nearby. The girl I spoke with had a woolen cap on her head with the word New Orleans across the band. She stood close to the other girl. Not wanting her to feel like I was interrogating her, I stated that I liked her hat. She replied she was from New Orleans and just up in Houston for a few days. As she spoke her voice carried an anxious, nervous quality. She spoke very quickly and her face carried an anxious quality. Not sad or forlorn as I would have naively expected of someone trapped and imprisoned. High anxiety and ready to end the conversation and move on.
A young girl from New Orleans just happened to be on the track in Houston for a few days. My mind raced wanting to believe her nonchalant comment and think no more. I didn’t want to know the backstory that she was here waiting to be picked up by customers. I didn’t want to know that her pimp was just down the street where the pimps hang. I wanted to pretend she just happened to be here for the Super Bowl and somehow by accident landed on this street. Now as I write, I wrestle with the truth. This girl is bought and sold every night—many times a night. The average number of tricks for these girls is fifteen to twenty per night. Seven nights a week. The Landing provides that place they can escape to for a few brief hours before returning to a night of horror.
I have thought long and hard of the question, “How do these girls survive?” A former professor/mentor once asked, “How is it they survive without having a psychotic breakdown?” I have been told often that to work with these girls, one needs to think about survivors of torture and war. Holocaust survivors. Prisoners of war. An incomprehensible level of trauma.
Yet there are some that do survive. Not nearly enough, but some. Those survivors that make it out of the life are sometimes surrounded by good aftercare and people who are able to hold and contain their stories and trauma. Others who can hold the trauma until there is a strong enough ego to hold on their own. A long process but not impossible, because we follow a God who is able to bear forth the impossible. He who is able to imagine and transform the work of evil into a work of art.
This girl continues to take space in my thoughts and prayers. Where is she now? There had been a shooting of another young girl on that street the night before. A life extinguished. Was my girl safe and still alive? Was she still in Houston or had she been moved to another state? I had given her a card with the Landing’s contact information. Would she be able to call and get help? Her presence is alive in my mind, and I pray that may be true of my presence in her mind. I place her in the hands of Him who is able to bear forth the impossible.