234 – Relentless Advocate: Rebecca Bender

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Rebecca Bender and Dr. Sandie Morgan discuss the mindset victims experience while being trafficked. They consider the reasons as to why it can be so difficult for victims to leave their situation. They also look at how media representation of human trafficking affects victims and our ability to recover them.

Rebecca Bender

Relentless in her mission to help others find their purpose, Rebecca Bender is the Founder/CEO of Elevate Academy, the largest online school for survivors of trafficking. An author and speaker she brings insight, expertise, and lived experience to her highly sought after trainings and consultations, and serves the U.S. National Advisory Council, Dept of Justice Advisory Council, and advises to a variety of nonprofits.

Key Points

  • When victims are exploited together, they often form familial bonds with one other causing them to fell a sense of obligation to stay in their position for the other person.
  • Human Trafficking is very similar to a cult mentality, this can make it. very difficult for victims to leave.
  • It’s important to listen to those who have survived Human Trafficking and value their knowledge and expertise on the subject.
  • When human trafficking is inaccurately illustrated in the media and in awareness campaigns, there is a detrimental effect on the ability to recover victims and on the perception of those being trafficked.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 234, Relentless Advocate Rebecca Bender.


Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.


Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.


Sandie [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan, and this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking.


Dave [00:00:46] Today, we’re so glad to welcome Rebecca Bender to the show. She is relentless in her mission to help others find their purpose. Rebecca is the founder and CEO of Elevate Academy, the largest online school for survivors of trafficking. She is an author and speaker that brings insight, expertise, and lived experience to her highly sought-after trainings and consultations. She also serves the U.S. National Advisory Council, Department of Justice Advisory Council, and advises a number of nonprofits. Rebecca, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.


Rebecca [00:01:20] Thank you so much for having me.


Sandie [00:01:22] I’m really excited to have this personal conversation with you. Rebecca, I’ve been following you for a while. Your book, In Pursuit of Love, is on Amazon and it has over two hundred five-star reviews. So, anybody who wants to read. It’s a very, very readable story with a lot of lessons embedded in it. So welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast.


Rebecca [00:01:52] Thank you so much. I didn’t know it had that many reviews yet. I’m really honored people would listen and read it.


Sandie [00:01:59] Isn’t that great? That’s great. So, can you give us like a 30-second overview? You know, I want to talk about the past so much, but just so people understand where you were a survivor and how long you’ve been out.


Rebecca [00:02:16] Yeah, I was trafficked. I met a young man really on a college campus. It was not the college I was attending, but it was on a college campus in Eugene, Oregon. And I was a single young mom, 19-year-old mom trying to put myself through community college. And he ended up being a trafficker who took me and my daughter to Las Vegas. And I ended up getting trafficked for nearly six years between three different men. He was just the first one then. I had a lot of stuff happen in that time. Obviously, a lot of twists and turns and multiple attempted escapes. Multiple things happen. Ended up being trafficked in a home with multiple women. And so just the trauma bonding that takes place between other victims in the home as really hard to just run when one bad thing happens because it becomes much more layered and complex. And some may argue that’s intentional on the traffickers’ part to create these false senses of family. That’s harder for you to run when bad things do happen because you feel so bonded to the other women and other children. And then thankfully, I did run, and I escaped on December 31, 2007. I remember the date because I remember watching the ball drop on the TV in the airport. That’s why I remember the day. Yeah.


Sandie [00:03:36] Big celebration for your liberation. Interestingly, when we chatted before we said we’re just going to have a conversation. But the very first thing on my conversation is to talk about that sense of family. And you led right into that. Can you expand on that just a little bit?


Rebecca [00:03:57] Yeah, well, you know, one of the things I think for so many trafficked victims is this innate desire and in humanity in general that desires to love and be loved. Right. We all need community. We all need a tribe. We all need a sense of belonging that’s just inherent as humans, oftentimes with traffic victims. There are multiple vulnerabilities that have created a real lack of community and belonging and need to love and be loved and oftentimes because of that lack. There’s also been layers of desensitization to abuse or poverty, gender, race, all of this giant cocktail that sort of makes you most at risk and most vulnerable to predators and exploiters. And so that was a lot. You know, my story’s no different in terms of that. I mean, we all have differences. But I think at the core, I felt really alone, unwanted, and unimportant with a parent’s really ugly divorce in. And so, when I found myself a young mom, my trafficker offered me that to not be alone, to be important, and to be wanted. And so, through time, I met his other trafficked… I ended up getting trafficked into a home. Towards the end of my exploitation, which was actually where I was the longest three years in this one home where there were three other women. And they became really my best friends. And one, in particular, was my very, very best friend. We bonded. We spent every day together. We had really similar personalities. We’d laugh and she became that community and tribe that I really needed more than just him. So, it’s really hard to leave her. And she ended up getting sentenced to a year in prison for tax evasion because our trafficker put everything in her name. And that’s what kept me a lot longer, was I couldn’t leave her behind. I couldn’t leave knowing she’s sitting in prison, refusing to talk, refusing to tell on me, refusing to put me and my kid at risk. And so, I couldn’t leave her home unpaid. I couldn’t leave her cars. I felt really indebted to stay for her until she was able to get out. And today she’s another survivor leader. A lot of people may know her name’s Becca Charleston. She’s actually suing the state of Nevada right now for going against federal human rights laws. She’s got a TED talk. She’s a force to be reckoned with.


Sandie [00:06:19] And oh, my goodness. We’ll put a link in the show notes. So, when you’re talking about this sense of family, I think it answers the question. So many people who don’t get it ask when we see what we can talk about recidivism. People go back. They go back to not something that is horrible in their mind, but they go back to the people, the people that were part of that family in the same sense of family that a lot of people can relate to. We do things out of duty and obligation and commitment to family that we don’t do for anybody else. Right. That is a real, real relationship. It makes it hard to walk away.


Rebecca [00:07:11] That’s such a great point. And that’s even with healthy relationships. Well, we all know the dolphin looks up some issues, but even within a healthy family, you do things for a family you might not do for others. And I think in an unhealthy family, it’s even worse. But in a cult-like setting, which is what domestic human trafficking fits, there’s even been now researched by the University of Northern Colorado that shows that domestic pimp-controlled exploitation meets all indicators of cult behavior. So, you know, it’s even more compounded and exasperated, so to speak, words you’re in this brainwashed kind of cult-like feeling. And when you study, the fascinating thing is when you study cults. And I’ve read a couple of books for a research project I was doing, then used some of the research from the Avery Center. But you see actually similar models when cult members leave cults. They have similar cycles of grief, similar cycles of regret, similar cycles of not knowing how to move forward out of survivor guilt. There’s a lot of similarities with former cult members. And I was shocked to find that it made me not feel so. It didn’t make me self-blame as much when I was able to see that I wasn’t the only one.


Sandie [00:08:22] So you bring and I love the fact that you’re using the word study so often because that’s one of our taglines for the podcast, study the issues, be a voice, make a difference, because if you don’t study first, you say stupid things. Seriously. And often people will make remarks about why did she go back? Why did she do this? Without understanding that frame of reference of family. And you are a leader in the survivor informed world. I mean, look at your bio. U.S. National Advisory Council, Department of Justice Advisory Council, and so many nonprofits. So, tell us what Survivor informed actually means.


Rebecca [00:09:11] Oh, I love this question. I mean, survivor informed, there’s been lots of, again, research out there that shows this item called a ladder of participation. And I know Gem’s has used it and the Avery Center has used it. It’s an original study from 94 and I am drawing a blank. I’m sorry I didn’t know that in front of me. But some of the things is going through this ladder of participation where it starts with tokenism or using someone just for their story, which can be really exploitive, you know, putting someone on a board or on an advisory committee just to check your own box of, welp I hit Survivor led, now I can get that federal grant. Really not taking their advice, really not hearing, hey that word is actually kind of offensive, or one small example would be, I advised, on an intake packet once years and years ago. And one of the questions was, do you have your GED? And I found it so offensive because not just me, I would say that lots of people could make the statement that when we posed that question, instead of simply what’s your level of education, it implicitly implies that trafficking victims are stupid. Do you have your GED? Instead of, and to be thoughtful around the fact that those of us with lived experience. We know how frequently our traffickers have literally beat into us. You’re stupid, you’re dumb. No one wants you. You have nothing to offer. And so, to get to a shelter and then say, do you have your GED? It’s just like… And to know that the people that are coming into an intake program, they don’t have 12 years out of trafficking. Right. It’s that abuse is very new to them. Like they just left it. And so, we want to form questions in a way that empowers them to not fuel what their trafficker has said about them. And so, it’s those little tiny things when you bring in a survivor leader to consult with that, we’ve had the separation from our exploitation long enough. And if we worked in the field long enough to be able to actually add some real value to whether your policies, your programs, your intake, whatever it is that you’re, you know, you’re working on. And so that’s to me, what being not only Survivor informed… But it can go on and on. This could be a whole podcast just on Survivor leadership. Right. In terms of as a good ally, how do you support survivor initiatives and survivor ideas, you know, goes on and on?


Sandie [00:11:39] Well, let’s take like three or four minutes and let’s dream out loud what a survivor consultant position might actually look like. One of the things I love that you said at the beginning is that tokenism thing. And we see survivors exploited again for their stories over and over and over again. And I am hopeful that we’re moving away from that. But I had to lead people into understanding that if you ask a survivor to tell their story, you need to compensate them like you would any other person who is offering content to your training, to your event, whatever. And so, the idea of actually having a plan to hire a consultant, what would that look like?


Rebecca [00:12:34] That’s a great question. And I think you’re right. It’s progressed so much over time, I think in the beginning. You know, people just wanted survivors to, they wanted to just, you know, quote-unquote, rescue survivors. And then it was, it moved to just tell your story. And then it was a small amount of survivor inclusion kind of on that beginning levels of that ladder of participation. And now it’s really at a mature field has really advanced into more of a mature survivor inclusion. I’m rung, so to speak, and then I see a lot of groups that still are on sometimes rungs one through three. But our goal is that as a field, we’ve made so much progress. And I hope we continue into that mature survivor inclusion, which is exactly, you know, to your question about what would that look like? And Survivor led organizations where the leader of the organization, when that’s able to make the decisions, is a survivor, a survivor-led org. And oftentimes we’ll see groups that say, well, we’re a survivor led, and I, I have to say, well, actually you can fire her at any time. So, it’s not really maybe the leader, but sometimes we hear people talk about, you know, survivor-led programs that, you know, have been peer-reviewed. Survivor informed. Survivor advised, though, there’s all these different myriad of ways that you can include people who have lived experience and your program and your company and only benefits when you’re able to bring on people with lived experience to give insight into firsthand what this experience feels like, not just the trafficking experience, but the recovery. The way, you know, I ran back to my trafficker multiple times. I was sort of Lofton. And so, I know that feeling. I know what that feels like when you’re in transitional housing. Your family has your kid. You no longer have, you know, custody. I know what that feels like. And so, when you can ask somebody, it’s you’re able to help create better transitional programs. And that’s just one example of a variety of ways that lived experience is far beyond just the experience of trafficking. It’s also that experience of recovery. It’s that experience of leadership, education. It’s all of that experience that we bring to a table where we get to brainstorm with, and you get to pick the brain of an and leverage to really build something better so we can continue that maturity in our own field.


Sandie [00:15:03] I feel like we’re beginning to enter the next stage, much like the domestic violence movement did. When you mention leaving and returning and leaving and returning, it’s the same thing that we saw in domestic violence. And so, we’re getting up to speed. And I’m hopeful that we’ll leverage what we learned from that movement to move more quickly in the anti-trafficking world. And also, I think that we’re getting a little better at being inclusive with labor trafficking victims, as you were talking about, being called stupid. I remember Shyima Hall, who was our first labor trafficking victim here in Orange County. And she’d said that was her name. That’s what they called her. Stupid. Do this, stupid, do that. And I think we sometimes don’t have the same level of empathy for labor trafficking victims that we do for sex trafficking victims. So, it is really interesting to compare those movements and see how we can be inclusive and bring both types of trafficking victims together and value their lived experience equally. I want to know one more thing about this. In your bio, it talks about Elevate Academy. And I didn’t write a question, so I don’t want to forget that. What is Elevate Academy?


Rebecca [00:16:29] Elevate Academy is our online school. Couple years ago, maybe six years ago, I was finishing my degree online. So, I live in a community where we don’t have any schools that would offer the degree I wanted. And we were having survivors start to reach out and ask to be mentored about, you know, how to how to find their lane, how to use their story to create purpose and solutions and calls to action. And, you know, in terms of moving on to the now what is what we refer to it as, you know, the yay I escaped. Yeah, I got out of a program, but now what am I going to do with the rest of my life. Am I good at accounting or photography and how would I even break into those? You know, people forget that no one mentors you often in that direction. We focus so much sometimes on just the intervention and restoration that we forget this empowerment part of ensuring that survivors can create something greater than before. I mean, that’s resiliency. It’s not going back to what happened before trafficking. It’s digging in and fighting to create something greater than before the trafficking, you know? And so that’s what we really focused elevate on. I replicated what my university was doing for online school. This was long before Covid. So is the first online school for Survivors of Trafficking to receive holistic support that focused on economic empowerment, regardless of where they live. And we started with five women six years ago. This month we celebrate 777 students in nine countries and three languages.


Sandie [00:18:05] Oh my goodness, that is inspiring. Say those numbers one more time.


Rebecca [00:18:10] Yeah, this month 777 students in nine countries and three languages that get to figure out their now what? And hopefully, we can partner them with different opportunities that come up and internships and scholarships we hear about. So, we not only give them access, they get a cohort and a mentor and access to all the classes. But then they’re also a part of a closed Facebook group. And we also have another one on a thing called Mighty Networks for those that aren’t involved in social media. So, they get to develop, you know, camaraderie and in friendships with one another. And then we’re on a listserve where anytime we get opportunities or hear about upcoming events or scholarships or conferences, we can blast that out to all of the students as well.


Sandie [00:18:53] That is very impressive. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well. OK, so here’s my big question. I’ve been fighting this so long, I can’t even remember when I first told someone, please don’t use chains in that flier. Please don’t use chains. I started doing a lot of active work in antihuman trafficking when I lived in Athens, Greece. And you would walk by a woman who was being trafficked and there were no chains. There was nobody with a gun to her head. She just looked like somebody else walking on the same sidewalk I was on. But I still can’t get people to stop using chains. Rebecca, what are we going to do? Tell us. Be my survivor advocate informed. Help us stop it.


Rebecca [00:19:48] Yeah. I mean, it’s so true. I think what I really want people to understand is that when we are marketing this message inaccurately, it’s fueling misperceptions not only for those that have an opportunity to intercept but it’s fueling the misperception in the victim. I tell people I grew up in the same culture and community as you. I grew up picturing human trafficking as kidnaped children thrown in a white minivan and taken overseas. And so, when my situation wasn’t mirroring that message. I thought, well, I must not be being trafficked. Actually, thought for a long time I was in domestic violence and I would call domestic violence hotlines, I would call the domestic violence shelters. I did not self-identify as a traffic victim for a very long time because my situation never matched the brochures, the fliers, commercials, the media. And I think we’re doing ourselves a real disservice because like you said, you know, I could have stood next to you in the grocery store line. My daughter for six years could have been in your kid’s very class and no one noticed. And that’s because we’re doing a really poor job at marketing this issue. And I think as leaders, we have a responsibility with our platform and our reach to ensure that we’re telling accurate stories of exploitation to fuel awareness and education and prevention. And I think that mantle of responsibility is important. And I don’t know that people realize the reach that they have when they do that inaccurately.


Sandie [00:21:33] As you were saying, that just the idea of marketing, it’s sometimes driven by profit, which is the same thing that drives human trafficking. So, it becomes exploitative marketing and it’s our responsibility. It’s an issue of integrity to tell the real story because people won’t be identified, and they won’t find avenues out of their exploitation. If we’re looking for the wrong thing. I also love it that in Orange County we don’t do rescues. We recover people and we help them become self-empowered to stay out of that exploitation.


Rebecca [00:22:20] It’s so good. We oftentimes also try to help people that use that word, find alternatives. You know, use a thesaurus. There are so many other ways that we can talk about helping people escape, responding to crises, assisting in recovery, because the person that’s has to do the work that to walk out the door to start their life over, they’re the ones that are strong and resilient and they just need a little help. I think that certain phrases can really be more about us than maybe about the people we’re serving. And like you said, it can be really exploitive, especially if you see that by sensationalizing it, it’s creating more income or more exposure for the org. Then if that’s the mission, then we’re in it for the wrong mission. We got to be in it for this unified goal of helping end human trafficking if helping recover victims of helping, you know, move the needle in terms of awareness. And I would just like to say really, really quickly before I know you have more questions, but you’ve been such a leader in this space. And like you said, there’s been so many people who have gone years and years before us. I mean, we were just looking at the history of the field and it was looking back to like the 80s with, you know, Julie Bandele and Melissa Farley and so many people like you, Sandie, who paved the way that makes us get to this more mature space in our field that didn’t come easy and that wasn’t at great cost to those of you who’ve paved the way and even like you said, the movement before us. I mean, we got to move quicker through our movement because the domestic violence field gave us a model. They didn’t have a big model to use. They had some. But, yeah, I just really appreciate everyone who’s gone before and helped get us to where we’re at.


Sandie [00:24:03] Well, and I love teaching in the university setting. And when I teach family violence, I always start off with the very first major child abuse case that was actually prosecuted under cruelty to animal law. Yeah, you can come and take my class. That be fun. I going to as I’m looking at the time, we’ve got like five minutes and we big things. I want people to understand and I’ve heard you talk about this before. Is the idea of choice, this was a choice to do this. Can you expand on choice?


Rebecca [00:24:42] Yes, and so this is these topics are so great. I hear often, you know, all the people that we get to sit around the table at night and after an event and talk through these things, so many people that have poured into my understanding and my knowledge as well. But, you know, something I heard once is prostitution is the choice of the choiceless. I believe that was, um, actually brought by Exodus Cry. And I’m sure even before that, maybe Melissa Farley. Right. So, I don’t know who said that. I’m not the original person for sure, but really, it is a choice of the choiceless. When you look at the pro-prostitution efforts that are moving forward as a false sense of empowerment when I was being trafficked, that would be fueled by your trafficker. I can remember girls on Halloween walking in costumes that were very, you know, very much like they were walking a street corner type costume, like a pretty woman type costume. And I can remember him pointing and saying these see those girls? They wish they could be you. It was just like this fueling moment of like trying to feed you this false sense of empowerment. But to be an object is not empowering. Right? It’s to be used literally. And so I think that there’s been so many variables that play into this idea of choice, whether it’s cultural, whether it’s a false sense of empowerment, how somewhere being overtly hypersexual has somehow become empowerment, female empowerment. It’s almost like it’s shifted really far. I heard Tina Fey do a really funny joke on this, sitting in one of her Broadway shows. She said, look sexy Corrin. And this is modern-day feminism. She kind of laughed. And it hit me, though, where I thought, what are we doing? How are we sharing empowerment? And how does this then also match with the lack of option when we have this cultural influence telling us one thing and we as people that come out of marginalized situations don’t have options. Single mom, putting myself through college, living in poverty, parents divorced, horrible alcoholism on my dad’s side. A lot of, you know, violence in the home. So, desensitize you. You mix all of that up and you add the cultural influence. Is it really, is it really choice? And there are so many people’s stories who have even more layers of those vulnerabilities race, gender, foster care, interactions with the juvenile justice systems. I mean, the list goes on and on vulnerabilities. You know, you could be a whole podcast on its own. But when we really start to dig into those, you really study and know the nuances and you mix that with this cultural influence, a false sense of empowerment. I think that choice becomes really something we really need to reconsider. Is it really a choice? At the end of the day, you were groomed at age 10 because your mom was being trafficked and your dad was her trafficker. You were groomed at age 10 and seen violence in the home and then at 17, you run away. Is it really a choice when the older boy comes in or girl comes and talks to you about making money because you’re living homeless? You don’t have any food. Is it really a choice? You know, I don’t know that we really think about that and talk about it enough.


Sandie [00:28:05] So if we want to do real rescue, we create on-ramps for real choice, education, and jobs, opportunities, and access to those opportunities. So, we have a lot more to talk about. Rebecca, I am so grateful for having you as my guest today. I want everybody to go order In Pursuit of Love and listen to a relentless survivor advocate, learn and figure out how you can become part of the solution. Break some bad habits using chains. I’m going to say that like three times because it’s become really annoying to me again. But we have to break through those myths. Follow Rebecca Bender, find her Web page. What’s your Web page?


Rebecca [00:29:03] RebeccaBender.org.


Sandie [00:29:05] Oh, that was hard. Okay. RebeccaBender.org. And you have to come back on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast.


Rebecca [00:29:14] I would love to. Thank you so much for having me. I know I felt like we just barely scratched. So, there’s a lot, I hope people know, there’s a lot more that we can you could really dive into here.


Sandie [00:29:24] All right. Thank you.


Rebecca [00:29:26] Thank you.


Dave [00:29:27] Sandie and Rebecca, thank you both. What a wonderful conversation. You can find all of the notes from everything we’ve mentioned and the links, of course, at Endinghumantrafficking.org. It’s a great starting point for you, especially if you’re picking up this episode for the first time or maybe the second or third time. If that’s the case, I invite you to take the first step by going over on the Web site and downloading a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know: A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’s absolutely free. It’ll teach you the five critical things Sandie’s identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. And if you have any questions that have come up from our conversation today, please take a moment to reach out to us. Feedback at Endinghumantrafficking.org is the best way to reach us. And the Ensure Justice conference. The next one is coming up March 5th and 6th, 2021 EnsureJustice.com. And we will see you back again in two weeks. Thanks, everybody.

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