Project IMPACT is an 8-week leadership-through-storytelling workshop for teen survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. The goal of Project IMPACT is to introduce survivors to the idea that sharing their stories is a powerful advocacy tool that can impact the legislative process and work to combat sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Project IMPACT also strives to help survivors understand that survivor storytelling is a choice- and the survivor gets to select if, when and how she wants to share her story. Project IMPACT’s pilot program featured guest speakers Amy Paulin, Assembly Sponsor or the New York Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, and a television news correspondent. The program culminated in a trip to Albany where the survivors lobbied legislatures for the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. This program has been funded by the New York Women’s Foundation and done in partnership with Equality Now, The Arts Effect, JCCA and the New York Anti Trafficking Coalition.
Meeting Ruth, Janelle, Lowyal, and Veronica of Gateways, a JCCA residential facility for commercially sexuality exploited youth, was in many ways like meeting any group of teen girls weʼve worked with over the years across the globe. Theyʼre girls – girls youʼd maybe see on the subway, waiting in line for a movie, or sitting in your classroom – young, ever-observant, headphones in, quick with a half-smile or an eye-roll. Girls who listen to Alicia Keys, gush about their nieces and nephews, and dream of go to college or opening beauty salons. Girls, who like most teenage girls, are skeptical when you inquire about their lives, feelings, ideas, and opinions: “Why are you really here?” “Why are you interested in us?” “You actually want to hear about us?” “You want us to tell our stories?” “But…why?”
What sets these bright, impassioned girls apart is that, like countless other children in NYS, they have experienced horrors in their young lives that most of us donʼt see in our worst nightmares. They are girls who deserve to be heard – bold survivors with the knowledge and power to be change agents.
In March of this year, The Arts Effect NYC came together with Equality NOW, NYSATC, and the inspiring team at Gateways, to develop and implement Project IMPACT, an 8-week leadership-through storytelling workshop for teen trafﬁcking survivors. The goal was to offer a safe space and the creative tools for the girls of Gateways to come together as a community, openly discuss their rights and the current state of anti-trafﬁcking legislation, and most importantly, discover the power and freedom that comes with telling their stories.
“I think telling my story matters because it could help other girls like me.” “I guess storytelling is important because I lived this – Iʼm the one who knows what itʼs really like.” “Because every person and every story is different and I think they all deserve to be listened to.”
Through poetry, music-writing, monologue creation, and visual arts, the girls revealed their truths – the painful reality of family strife, substance abuse, entry into the life, betrayal by the criminal justice system, brutal violence suffered at the hands of pimps and buyers, AND ALSO the details of their courageous efforts to ﬁght back, break free, and strive for a vibrant future.
Over the past 3 months, as they pieced their personal survivor stories together, the girls have learned that they are the teachers, they are the experts – that we all need to LISTEN and learn from them. On May 21st, the project impact team had the distinct honor of accompanying the girls to Albany to lobby for the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. Listening to them speak, watching these brave teens command a room of lawmakers, it was clear they refuse to let their experiences in the life deﬁne them – instead, theyʼre choosing to own their experiences and serve as gaming-changing advocates. It is their powerful voices that will lead the charge toward a safer, more just world.