Stuck in trafficking… (originally titled: If you reach just one)

This past week during Open House at the Hawk, I helped to organize a community safety meeting that was to take place in our parent and family resource center. Like many initiatives and programs, this was an idea that was thought of and organized rather last minute, not fully leveraging our means to contact or parents and community members. This unfortunate reality of extreme multitasking that is not uncommon for many educators did not stop the event from being held. It did however drastically impact the number of parents that attended the evening’s presentation. As our community partners from Inner City Vision and I sat waiting to see what that number would be, a lone grandmother entered. She sat down and asked with nervous laughter if she could add someone to the list.

These words were written on March 26th of last year. I was going to continue to tell the amazing story of the one person who came to seek out information about child sexual exploitation and commercial trafficking, a very unfortunate reality that impacts the area along the Figueroa corridor that borders Hawkins High. I never got to complete this post before I left Hawkins.

The short of it was, on this night, that lone grandmother came to realize that her granddaughter, a former student of ours, had indeed exhibited every single tell sign of a victim of human sexual trafficking. She shared that her granddaughter had just been home after a year missing. She had come home weary, looking to rest. When grandmother noticed her tattoos, they were covered up and quickly concealed. When the questions of her “significant other” began, this young woman quickly put those lines of inquiry to an end. She was careful not to reveal what we would come to realize a week later in the Parent Center that night… a few days too late. The young woman disappeared again, leaving grandmother and family to wonder one more time.

Earlier this week I received a follow up email to an initial one I had never received. It was a request to assist in identifying and soliciting the participation of career and industry experts who may be available to see student presentations about human trafficking and homelessness, providing them feedback on a panel. This is an annual interdisciplinary project where 9th grade students in the Community Health Advocacy School choose a relevant and timely problem to explore and identify solutions to. This participatory action research project is aptly titled Rebuild Healthy LA. Pause and let that sink in for a minute. Today’s education, in order for it to be “relevant” and “hands on” (buzz terms often bandied about in the educational discourse) needs to ask youth to think through the most heinous of societal problems, how they came to be, and offer real viable solutions. It’s no small feat to dream of a world where a city’s residents can afford basic housing and shelter or where young girls and women can grow up and live safe, not having to fear that their bodies will become a mere object of a gratuitous and violent transactional underground economies.

This is both simultaneously hopeful and tragic, as often is much of the work of educators in inner cities across this country. Despite my not working in South Central Los Angeles any longer, I can never not invest in the hopeful side of the equation. So I reached out to my contacts I had cultivated around these tragic realities. Folks who had helped me think through appropriate interventions for young people caught up in gang life and consequential violence and trafficking. The same folks who helped organize my open house workshop a year ago. They responded immediately, more than willing to take another opportunity to engage young people in this most important work. It warmed my heart very much to see the unwavering commitment to the community these professionals have, and how they volunteered without hesitation to help cultivate the same in our young hawks.

A day later, yesterday I received a text from one of these professionals who had personally taken on the case of our young woman. The same woman who had helped me reach this grandmother that night at the school. We had kept in touch about the progress on her case. At one point she had been found and rescued. Awaiting programming for counseling and recovery, she had left again… reentering the trafficking world, were the cycle of violence is incredibly hard to escape. Yesterday’s text messages further helped me to know how this student’s story had developed. Below is an edited version of the text exchange with pertinent information redacted to ensure the safety and future recovery of said student.

This exchange continued and reminded me again that the world works in mysterious but often very encouraging ways. In meeting one person on one night, and connecting them with another, a path has opened up for one young girl to try and work towards hope. If there is such a thing as salvation, in my mind the closest thing we can do to achieve true understanding of it is to work together relentlessly in the name of hope.

In East Salinas, where I currently teach, human trafficking of young people and girls in particular, is indeed a problem. It is this reality that I am cautious about educating my young middle school students about, for fear of ending the last phase of childhood innocence. Yet it is the same reality that concerns me when students, like the one I wrote about in my last post, choose paths that increase the possibilities of tragedies like this. And yet we must remind ourselves at all costs that there is hope. Always.

now you get it?

this past week i had a very enlightening exchange with a student on my campus. our interactions are quite frequent, and usually predictable. i observe this student out in the hallway during class. i inquire about her frequent wanderings. she responds politely with a big smile, usually, and produces a hall pass. the importance of not missing instructional time is usually brushed aside by her admittance that her grades are fine and that the social reason that drew her out of class is more important and timely. she is not a student who is enrolled in my particular school, yet our exchanges never involve a question of my authority as an adult and a teacher… most students know me as a teacher who is going to say something.

the enlightenment began we i noticed this student sitting and talking on the phone as the last of the crowd of students were being encouraged towards the morning advisory class. i approached her and gave her the look and a shoulder shrug to communicate a, “hey? what’s the deal? walk and talk it to class.” she didn’t really acknowledge my suggestion… i approached the table where she was calmly sitting.

me: who are you talking to?
her: so and so mr. gomez.
me: why are you talking to her? you BOTH are gonna be late.
her: she’s not even here yet mr. g. she still on the bus. she by herself and i gotta make sure she get her safe.
me: why?
her: com’n mr. she all the way down by the 90’s.
me: she has to cross through some neighborhood sets?
her: (smiling) she gotta walk through the 60s…

at this point i started to walk away, satisfied that she would eventually make her way to class… and then i looked back, realizing exactly what this student was doing. she had stayed behind, risking a tardy, a possible unpleasant exchange with multiple authority figures. she had consciously made a decision to ensure the safe arrival of her friend, no matter what. i instantly thought of how our students implore their navigational and social capital to find their own way in the world… one i often don’t understand.

this student looked backed at me and smiled… “now you get it mr.?”

i think so… though i am always learning.