Survivor advocates are some of the bravest voices in helping us all end human trafficking. Sandra Morgan, the Director of the Global Center for Women & Justice and Dave Stachowiak, one of the Center’s board members, interview Holly Smith, Washington Times columnist, on her efforts as a survivor advocate. Sandie and Dave learn how Holly has played an important role in influencing new legislation in the State of Virginia and her efforts as a columnist to educate others about human trafficking.
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Dave: Sandie, speaking of making a difference, I’m so glad that we have someone with us today that has been making a huge difference. Last episode, #29, we talked about leading community advocacy and this episode we have a great example of someone who’s been doing that and forming some wonderful partnerships and so I’m going to let you take it and introduce our guest today.
Sandie: I’m so excited to have Holly Smith with us. Holly comes to us from the east coast, so we’re on the line. I think one of the most amazing things about her is she just comes across as a very demure, quiet young woman. But behind that smile is a powerhouse of initiative and influence and drive to end HT. Now, a lot of people say things like, “well, a survivor advocate has a louder voice.” But as you understood if you listened to the last podcast, there is a lot more behind becoming an effective community advocate than having a loud voice. It takes a lot of preparation and studying and developing the growing trusted relationships so that people invite you to share what you have to share. And just as a point of making a little more of an emphasis on her credibility, Holly was invited to provide testimony for a congressional hearing so her voice is recognized nationally. Holly, welcome! We’re so excited to have you!
Holly: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you so much for that introduction. That was very thoughtful.
Sandie: I’m very excited to have you here. I think that probably when you were a teenager, you probably never had a dream to go and give testimony for congress.
Holly: No! If you told me I was going to do that even a year or 2 ago, I would have never believed you.
Sandie: Was writing for the Washington Times ever in your dreams?
Holly: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but my advocacy has taken me in a direction where I’m now writing for the Washington Times. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to be a journalistic writer, but I love it.
Sandie: You’re so effective. I’m really impressed. I see links in how important this is. I remember as a high school student myself competing in a speech contest and the title of my speech was, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” It’s a great quote and I believe that your written words will go places that you would just be exhausted if you had to go yourself. So I commend you on that.
Holly: Thank you so much.
Sandie: Let’s get into a couple of things that you talk about here. First of all, we do know that you are a survivor advocate. So can you, in like 2 sentences, just give us a timeline that starts when you were 10 and then how old you were when you escaped?
Holly: Oh, sure. It happened in the year 1992. I was actually 14. It was my summer vacation between 8th grade middle school and 9th grade high school. I was a typical kid in a typical American suburb. I went to a good school. I met somebody at the mall who was looking for a girl just like me, who would be easy to manipulate and ultimately control once I was in his possession.
Sandie: I just want to say to people, this blows all of many people’s preconceived ideas out of the water. First of all, from an average home and the idea that it can happen and it wasn’t because you were in some dark alley in some place and you were in the wrong place. It was because you were at a very vulnerable age with particular sets of circumstances and predators know how to find the most vulnerable. That begins to argue for how to we begin to protect, not just give information. A lot of things have come across my desk lately for prevention tools in junior high and high school. Did anybody tell you not to talk to strange men at the mall?
Holly: Well sure, I mean I heard not to talk to the old men at the mall, but this guy wasn’t the creepy old man at the mall. He was young. He was cool. He looked like somebody from a music video or someone’s really cool older brother.
Sandie: So, all those warnings from adults didn’t really go dinging off in your head when you met him.
Holly: No, they didn’t. I mean, I think that when I first met him I was weary of him at first. He called me over to him in the mall and I actually shook my head at him at first. But then, I wound up walking over there because I think that I was intrigued by the fact that this cool looking guy picked me out of the crowd and not my friends. I always felt less pretty than my other friends and less cool. So I felt special that he had pointed me out and asked me to walk over.
Sandie: So now, knowing what you know, do you feel like he was being pretty intentional by singling out of the group?
Holly: Absolutely. I was sort of shuffling behind my friends. I think I displayed that I was going through some depression. I was definitely struggling with the transition from middle school to high school. My friends were changing. I was afraid of the kids in high school and he was definitely able to pick up on that.
Sandie: So, one of the things about your story that really struck me was the role that teachers played in your life. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Holly: Sure. I had wonderful teachers through elementary school, middle school, and high school. My teachers in intermediate and middle school, they really tried to help. This was before I was trafficked. They could see that I was in trouble, but they just didn’t know how to help me and I couldn’t tell them. I was unable to articulate what was wrong. I think I didn’t understand what was wrong. After the trafficking, teachers throughout the different grades and the different schools that I attended, they all helped to keep me moving forward. I definitely strayed from the path a bit. But they all helped me to head in the right direction and ultimately they helped me go to college.
Sandie: Wow. Where did you go to college?
Holly: I started out at Ocean County College in Toms River, New Jersey. And then after 2 years there, I was accepted into the Richard Sexson College of NJ for the for the biology program.
Sandie: That is so amazing. Teachers have so much influence. Now I want to read a quote from your most recent column in the Washington Times. It says, “These teachers wanted to help me, they just didn’t know how.” What can we do to change that?
Holly: I think I’m going to work my next column to have some tips for teachers. I think for me the most important thing that comes to mind is to know your local volunteer programs. A program like Brothers and Sisters would have been perfect for me in intermediate school or middle school. But I didn’t know it existed until recently. I think that’s an important thing if teachers recognize that a kid is struggling maybe to reach out to them and offer them some volunteer based programs. That might help boost their confidence and introduce them to different things in life.
Sandie: So, the recent legislation, SB259, in Virginia, you went and testified to the Senate Education Committee, correct?
Sandie: And what happened as a result of that?
Holly: That was one of the coolest things I’ve done so far. I’ve spoken at a lot of different events, but speaking in front of that committee was very empowering. At first it was intimidating. I had never been in that kind of a setting before. The room was full of people. They didn’t know who I was. They weren’t there to hear me; they were there to speak on some other kind of bill, for or against it. So people we were grumpy. They were busy. The legislators were pushing people through, telling them, “You have to cut down your speech; you have to talk for less time.” I kind of sat down and nervously scratched at my speech. I whittled it down to just a paragraph. When I went up to speak I was really nervous, but I walked away feeling so empowered. It passed unanimously and I made a difference. I really felt like that speech was going to go to some greater good.
Sandie: So, what did that bill eventually entail?
Holly: It was signed by Governor Brad McDonald on Tuesday and it requires the Dept. of Social Services and the Dept. of Education to supply teachers with resources and with prevention strategies against trafficking. So that would have helped me so much. I think I’m going to try to work with the Dept. of Social Services and the Dept. of Education to come up with new materials. I would recommend that kind of prevention strategy that teachers know their local volunteer based programs and if they have a child in their care that has been trafficked to also have resources and to know who the organizations are, locally, that can offer the specialized care that victims need.
Sandie: When you talk about specialized care, I think your kind of pointing toward some of the developmental issues that anyone who interacts with this victim will have to consider. And one of the aspects that we’ve talked about before is the idea that a 14 year old girl who has been through this experience is very likely to deny everything. Is that correct?
Holly: Right. Many victims will not. They don’t identify themselves as victims because many of them have been exploited in the past. They’ve been exploited for so long that they can’t realize the difference between exploitation and a healthy relationship. And those are the kinds of kids that these traffickers are looking for so they can manipulate them. It’s easier to manipulate them.
Sandie: How would a teacher identify a student in that kind of situation if the student won’t even acknowledge that this is happening?
Holly: I’ve read ___________’s book. She was trafficked a while ago into school. She had some really great tips in her book. I’ll write some tips up for a future column. I wasn’t trafficked while I was going to school. So I can’t give a lot of tips from my experience. But I would say as far as prevention strategies, I would look for girls who are followers. I was a follower in intermediate and middle school. I didn’t have a solid self-identity. I was always going along with the crowd and my teachers recognized that because it’s in my report cards. So that’s why when I was introduced to trafficking, these traffickers, there was a female there and she bonded with me and that role of hers was important with me in getting me to follow along with what she was telling me to do.
Sandie: I didn’t think I knew that part of your story. So the traffickers had a woman in their group?
Holly: They did. There were actually 3 traffickers. One that I met at the mall and we exchanged phone numbers and I thought that I was talking to that man over the next 2 week time period. What I learned recently in my case file after driving to jersey and meeting with the prosecutor’s office is that there was a 2nd trafficker on the phone who was skilled at talking to young girls and getting them to trust him.
Sandie: And the woman was the 3rd part of the team.
Sandie: And did all of them go to prison?
Holly: They were all arrested. The main trafficker served 365 days in jail. The guy on the phone, he served less time. I forget exactly what he got. And the woman, she posted bail and fled New Jersey. She’s actually still a fugitive in NJ.
Sandie: So, when you advocate for young women, you want people to understand their developmental stage, their need for acceptance, and being able to identify those kids who are most vulnerable. And at the same time, you’re also advocating for stronger laws that will build better defenses around them, correct?
Sandie: So, what do you think your strategy next is now that you’ve been so successful there in Virginia?
Holly: I would like to introduce another law that provides materials to anyone working with kids, people in the mental health services, psychologists, counselors, anyone who might be working with a trafficking victim. I’d like them to be trained on the mindset of many of these victims.
Sandie: That desire, because I’ve heard this from you a couple of times now, that desire really comes out of your own experience of speaking to counselors and not having them really understand your experience and that your words didn’t match your experience.
Holly: I was hospitalized for about 30 days after I was trafficked. The psychiatrist that I worked with, we just didn’t connect. I think that she didn’t make a lot of the connections that need to be made with trafficked victims, there’s a likelihood of prior sexual exploitation.
Sandie: What would you recommend to a counselor or even a nurse that’s taking care of an adolescent that may have been a victim of CSE? How would they be able to gain your trust and be more effective?
Holly: As far as gaining the trust, that’s tough because that didn’t happen with me at that age. I think it’s something that can’t happen within just 30 days because I think these kids are used to being disappointed by the adults around them. So it needs to be a long term relationship between the counselor and the child. The counselor has to know that it might take a while.
Sandie: Can you explain to me what you mean by, “used to being disappointed?”
Holly: There were a couple times that I reached out for help from adults before I was trafficked, and it didn’t go well. One was a teacher, one was a family member, and one was a social worker, and the situations weren’t handled well. And what I learned from it was not to trust adults with that really personal information and to internalize it.
Sandie: So if someone that’s a practitioner working with adolescents and they’re a nurse or a school counselor, or someone who might engage, maybe they’re an after school volunteer, what would you advise them right now when there aren’t really any resources that are easily accessible for training for this kind of possible interaction? We have counselors that are highly trained now that work with victims who are already identified in many cities. But the average frontline service provider who’s just going to suddenly find themselves in a situation where they might encounter someone just like you, Holly, how would you advise them, in just a paragraph, to engage that young person?
Holly: My best advice would be that there is probably something that girl or boy is dealing with that happened long before the trafficking. So trying to talk to them about the trafficking is only scratching the surface. You need to go a little deeper and a little farther into their childhood and ask questions about how they were raised and was there some sort of exploitation at any time in their past? I think that they need to deal with those issues before they can recognize themselves as a victim of trafficking.
Sandie: So that was pretty much the process that helped you move from victim to survivor?
Holly: Right. Well what really helped me was meeting other survivors and hearing similar stories. I think that if I had met a survivor at 14 and heard his/her story, I would have been able to identify myself as a victim of this kind of crime. I would have been able to, I don’t know, I think it would have had a big impact on me.
Sandie: That makes a lot of sense. I like what you just said about meeting a survivor because you have a place to identify those kinds of issues. We’re always talking about having role models in front of our young people. We’re talking about, “Who are the role models for your teenagers?” Their music stars, pop stars may be promoting media agendas that are really counter what we’re talking about here and may actually be exploitative. How do you think we can do a better job getting your voice out there into mainstream media so you are a role model for kids who may become vulnerable and may be in a place where they’re very likely to be targeted, to be exploited?
Holly: I encourage parents and teachers or any organization that deals with kids to check out their community and look for young adults that are active in some sort of positive organization, not just promoting music but they’re really making a difference. I would bring those guys in to speak to the kids and promote sports role models, fitness role models. Get them into the schools. Get posters of them up.
Sandie: Are you going to have posters of you, Holly?
Holly: Are their pictures of me? On my website…
Sandie: I’m just joking, but I think I’d like to have a Holly poster in my office!
Holly: No posters yet! I think that there’s a lot. I’ve looked into this before. I’ve looked up teen sports role models. I couldn’t find much out there on the internet, which was really disappointing because I know there’s plenty of young people out there. Or mediation, yoga, something other than music and movies and just promoting the status of celebrity.
Sandie: Well I really like your idea for survivor role models because what we do know is, with adolescent thinking, they’re much more likely to listen to peer mentors or close to peer mentors, those kinds of youthful role models compared to teachers older than they are and people wearing uniforms and having a lot of authority. So, creating space and opportunity for survivors to be those role models, that certainly is an area that we can advocate in our community. I hope that we’ll be able to invite you to OC and put you out there as a role model for our young people. I really admire what you’ve done.
Holly: That would be great. I definitely advocate for survivors being part of the movement because what better way to show victims that these people are going to be working with that they can be successful members of the community, by involving survivors who are successful and can help growth directly. I think that’s really important.
Sandie: What did you do to get in front of the Virginia Legislators? How did you get that invitation?
Holly: The Polaris Project in DC recognized how powerful the voice of the survivor is and how meaningful it is to involve survivors. So they invited me to speak on behalf of several bills. There were a handful of bills that went through the General Assembly. The one regarding the educators really spoke to me because I had such a close relationship with my teachers. I went to a couple of meetings with Polaris Project and then they helped me through the process of speaking before the committee.
Sandie: How did you get connected with Polaris?
Holly: I actually got connected through Carissa Phelps, another survivor you interviewed.
Sandie: Oh, that’s great
Holly: Carissa’s a very big advocate for survivors and connecting survivors with opportunities.
Sandie: I love that. So we’re going to be watching your column. Is that weekly now?
Holly: It’s a weekly column. I’ll try to have some follow up tips on my blog, on my website. If you go to hollyaustinsmith.com tomorrow I’ll post some tips for future the future.
Sandie: Okay hollyaustinsmith.com. In our show notes, we’ll put a link to that as well as to your column at Washington Times.
Dave: We’re recording this a little earlier than it will be airing so by the time it airs, all of that will be up there so you’ll have access immediately.
Sandie: Terrific! Holly, I can’t wait to talk to you again. We’ll plan some other opportunities for podcasting together and we will find new opportunities for taking some of your ideas and seeing how we can implement them in our community in CA. It’s innovative and refreshing and encouraging to hear your voice and we’re very excited about the future and what you’re doing on the east coast.
Holly: Great! Thank you, Sandie. Thanks, Dave.
Dave: You’re welcome. I am so inspired by the work you’re doing, Holly and I know many of our audience members will be as well. So if you are listening to this conversation today and have questions/feedback or want to know more, and of course we’re going to have Holly back here, but we’ll of course get her in touch with any questions/comments you have. So by all means, feel free to give us a call at our listener hotline 714.966.6361 or you can always reach out to us by email. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and that stands for Global Center for Women and Justice which sponsors all of the work we do and is the center that Sandie directs here at VU.
Sandie: Thank you, Dave. And Holly, again, thank you so much for being with us today.
Holly: Absolutely. Thank you.
Dave: Thanks to you both. We’ll look forward to talking with you in 2 weeks for our next episode. Take care, Sandie.