A few weeks ago, I attended a benefit for GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. GEMS is an organization for girlsand young women who are the victims of domestic trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. According to their mission statement, GEMS is committed to “changing individual lives, transforming public perception, and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact sexually exploited youth.”
Indeed, the GEMS mentors work hard to provide opportunities for empowerment; they encourage the girls and young women in their program to develop their full potential, and try to help them realize that they do not have to be trapped in the cycle of sexual exploitation.
The benefit was held at El Museo del Barrio in Harlem. After gathering in the museum lobby for refreshments, we were led into the theater. The program began with a performance by India Arie, followed by a group of actors, including Demi Moore and Stella Schnabel conducting a staged reading of GEMS founder and executive director Rachel Lloyd’s memoir, Girls Like Us. Lloyd herself had been trafficked in Europe.
In one excerpt, Lloyd’s pimp returned home one night even more drunk than usual. He started beating her up, and then forced her on her knees while holding a knife to her neck. He said, “Tell me you’ll always be faithful.” She started repeating these words over and over again; if she stopped, he told her to continue, and pushed the knife closer against her skin. Finally, he told her he loved her and believed her. She followed him to bed, but in her head she continued to repeat the words, “I’ll always be faithful,” over and over again.
A third scene that struck me was when a girl who had just arrived at GEMS was asked to make a list of all the good and bad things her pimp had done for and to her. It was obvious the list was incredibly uneven in terms of negatives and positives; even though she had elected to leave him, she couldn’t break the habit of trying to protect him. For instance, while she gave him one point off for beating her up and forcing her to take on clients, she gave him four points for telling her he loved her and buying her Cheetos when she was sad.
However, the story that affected me most was based on Lloyd’s experience of being a mentor at GEMS. She reminded one of the girls in the program that years earlier the girl had tried to start a lemonade-stand. The project wasn’t working and the day was incredibly hot; however, though she had only made a dollar by the end of the day, the girl had insisted on staying the entire time selling lemonade.
After hearing Lloyd share this story many years later, the girl became extremely emotional. The realization that Lloyd still held
memories about the girl’s past was unbelievable to her; she couldn’t grasp the idea that someone cared enough to pay attention and remember her after so many years.
This story struck me because I take for granted people having memories about me; when a friend or family member forgets my birthday, for instance, I tend to be offended or hurt. In contrast, this girl, like so many others who have gone through her experience, treasure the fact that someone had a single memory of her. This puts my own privileged point of view into perspective.
Moreover, when Rachel Lloyd elegantly walked onto the stage I did not feel pity for her, even after hearing all those heartbreaking stories from her past, I only felt pride. I felt pride that someone could be so strong, could pull herself out of the cycle, and help other girls do the same.
She is strong enough to believe in herself even after all the people that did not, and she is strong enough to empower girls. Their stories are like hers.
After the staged reading of Lloyd’s memoir, several of the young women that GEMS has supported out of the cycle of trafficking came out on stage. They finished by telling the audience about their achievements. Some had just graduated from college and others now worked for GEMS. They all shared a common drive to help other girls who had gone through the kinds of experiences they did. This was an extremely powerful and emotional moment for me. From their passion, dedication, and achievements, it was obvious that GEMS is making an important change in our society and in many young girls’ lives.