Biggest Issues Facing Women Globally
Over the past ten years of building the Divine Living community, I’ve gotten to know the women of our tribe pretty well. And one thing I know for sure is that we’re all deeply passionate about empowering other women. We know that our world gets better when women of all walks of life are allowed safety, agency and the opportunity to reach their full potential—and we’re willing to stand together to see that happen.
As the Communications Director for Allies Against Slavery, writer, speaker and survivor advocate Brooke Axtell is one of the leaders of the movement to grant women everywhere the freedom to fulfill their dreams and desires. The issues she’s up against are big and complex, but not insurmountable.
I personally was moved by Brooke’s speech at last year’s Grammy Awards and wanted to learn more about the work she does to help victims of violence and human trafficking.
If like I do, you hold a vision for a world that’s safe for all women to thrive, read our interview with Brooke below to learn more about these issues and find out how you can support her efforts.
We’d love to start with your story. How did you become an activist and an advocate for women globally?
I started my healing path as a survivor of multiple forms of violence by seeking out counseling, engaging in different forms of creative expression like poetry, music and performance art, and by finding a powerful community among other survivors. Through that process I learned the vital significance of having a community of women that I could turn to to voice my truth, to speak openly about my experiences without shame. Through that process, I was also able to see incredible worth and power in these other women. As I had the honor and the privilege of witnessing their strength and resilience I was able to connect with my own. It sparked in me this relentless passion to create those kinds of sacred spaces for women to come together to share their stories, to find strength in relationship and to really harness the power of creative expression to create cultural change.
Beautifully said. Tell us about your role at Allies Against Slavery and the work that you do
I’m the Director of Communications and Survivor Leadership. So I have the honor of walking closely with survivors of domestic sex trafficking, both women and girls, who have overcome this trauma and are ready to begin new lives. I have the opportunity to mentor them, to create retreats, to help them define and manifest their dreams, whether it’s writing a book or starting college or launching a business. I have the honor of helping women dive into the heart of their own desires and what they want to bring into the world, and connecting them with the most valuable resources in their community to support them in fulfilling those dreams. The communications piece then, is about translating the powerful, sacred experiences I have in those intimate conversations and helping people in the broader community and throughout the nation understand what’s at stake with this issue, how women and girls are being impacted and the resources that they need to thrive.
What is the healing process like for a victim of violence?
One of the most painful parts of experiencing any form of violence, whether it’s physical or emotional violence, is this sense that your voice and your desires don’t matter. Part of the recovery process is helping women and girls reconnect with the extraordinary power of their desires and to begin to show them how they can reclaim their voice. I always tell them you’re the expert in your own experience and you have a powerful story to tell and you get to decide the story that you’re going to write about your life. We start there. We start with the awareness that although they can’t change what’s happened to them in the past they can choose to transform and transmute the pain of the past into a form of knowledge, and knowledge that can turn into self compassion, but also compassion in the world to serve others. When I first meet with someone who has survived violence or sex trafficking, I always hold a vision of them as a potential leader, not just as somebody who has been a victim of a crime but somebody who has powerful gifts and passions and talents to share with the community. It’s really a process of walking with them and affirming that expression and reminding them of their inherent value and their inherent power that’s always been there, but violence disrupts their connection with it. Through a healing relationship they’re able to reconnect with that inherent value and power.
For those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have experienced domestic violence, what do we need to understand?
I think the most common misconception is that a woman who is enduring some form of emotional or physical abuse is weak or not exercising her agency in leaving. The reality is that the survivors of various forms of violence that I’ve met, and particularly domestic violence, are not only incredibly courageous and incredibly resilient, but they tend to have a lot of compassion for other people. When somebody acts out against them in some form of violence they might see it as, this person is lashing out because they’re struggling, they’re in pain, they need help. It can feed this cycle of feeling like, I’m invested in this person, I care about this person and the relationship and even though their behavior is incredibly destructive, I want to persevere, I want to find them help, I want to go back to what it was like in the beginning.i> People looking in from the outside don’t see the dynamics of power and control—the threats, the coercion, how not only a person’s own physical safety is threatened but loved ones may be threatened, how over time your sense of self and your sense of value are eroded. You start a relationship and somebody tells you that they value you and they love you and you give yourself to this relationship—and then all of a sudden they become what feels like this different person. So fear is a significant piece, but the strongest bond is not the fear but the desire to help and to heal this other person and to restore the sense of intimacy that they felt like they had in the beginning.
What might we be stunned to learn about slavery and human trafficking today?
I think many people in the United States would be stunned to know that sex trafficking occurs every day in the cities they live in, and that approximately 83% of confirmed sex trafficking cases in the US involve US citizens. And the vast majority of those who are exploited are under the age of 18. The most conservative estimates that I’ve come across from the FBI say that approximately 100,000 children are trafficked for sex in the US every year. Because of the nature of it being a criminal, underground industry, we don’t yet have a clear grasp on how many people have been impacted. We do know that globally slavery is the second fastest growing criminal industry and we know that this is happening. Both labor and sex trafficking are occurring every day in the US.
Unbelievable. What kind of change is needed from our government to address this issue?
One of the major gaps that I see right now is a lack of funding for support services. There are very few support services and shelters that are tailored for survivors. I am constantly searching for resources for women and girls who need placements and we simply don’t have enough residential facilities, enough counseling programs, enough resources tailored to this population. What’s been happening for a long time is that when a child is picked up, even though legally they can’t consent to having sex with an adult, they are labeled as prostitutes and put into juvenile detention facilities. It’s only been in the last decade that we started to even recognize that these are victims of exploitation, that they’re not only underage but often there is additional force, fraud or coercion involved. From a policy standpoint there’s been a lot of stigmatization of women and girls who have been involved in some capacity in the sex industry and a lot of consensual involvement in the sex industry has been conflated with sex trafficking. We know now that the presence of force, fraud and coercion for adults engaged in commercial sex is much more rampant than we originally had acknowledged.
So far, what progress has been made toward creating solutions?
Several states have now passed safe harbor laws to address the issue of underage victims, stopping them from being immediately taken to juvenile detention centers and making them eligible for victim services. There is also the justice for victims of trafficking act that passed last year, which is a significant piece of legislation in terms of releasing funding specifically targeted for services for minors, but it’s just a small first step. And various cities are looking at prostitution diversion courts and really considering the vulnerabilities and risk factors for that population, particularly for women who have both consensual and non-consensual experiences in the commercial sex industry. So whereas in the past we didn’t have protections for youth, now we’re creating those protections. Whereas in the past we didn’t have any services for adults who experienced sex trafficking and often were stigmatized and incarcerated, we’re beginning to develop solutions to that and alternatives. I think the next step will be a survivor-informed, survivor-led response to these very complex social issues and really looking at the root vulnerabilities that make this exploitation possible—things like previous abuse in the home, generational poverty. We know that girls who run away from home or have been in the child welfare system are at a much higher risk. Looking at these root issues of what makes somebody vulnerable in the first place is so important. We can’t really prevent this kind of exploitation if we’re not addressing all these different pieces.
Talk to us a little bit about the importance of a survivor-led response.
Groups that amplify survivor voices are at the cutting edge of creating solutions because they’re disrupting the inherent power dynamic that’s set up to place a victim in a position of their voice and experience not mattering. Inviting them into a sphere of influence where their perspective, their insights, their suggestions are not just being heard but actually integrated into policy, into service provision, into training law enforcement, into legislation—is so crucial. Without survivor voices the responses will be incomplete, they will lack understanding of the realities that survivors face. There are so many important insights that survivor leaders have to share. The organizations that are not making this a priority and compensating survivors for their work and their expertise are going to be very far behind because they are not going to have that perspective that really is at the heart of being able to disrupt how trafficking works. The other significant piece is that the vast majority of survivors who find help find it not through law enforcement but through their own network. They find out about somebody finding help and hear from someone in their network this is where you go, this is where you can find help. Most of the referrals I receive are from survivor to survivor—although I’ll occasionally hear from somebody who was identified by law enforcement or victim services. The most effective way of bringing victims into services and helping them transition into becoming survivors and leaders in the community is through this extensive network that we have created.
How did having a local shelter to go to impact your own healing journey?
Our local domestic violence shelter and sexual crisis center is called Safe Place and it absolutely saved my life. I am deeply grateful that I had a place to go to meet with a counselor who had extensive experience working with complex trauma and expertise in safety planning, and that I could be a part of a community that was supporting women across a spectrum of needs, from women coming out of domestic violence relationships as well as survivors of trafficking. That kind of expertise is really important. Not all counselors are trained and equipped to offer that kind of support and therapy. The specialists working in those environments, they’re not surprised when you come in with a history of extensive multiple traumas. They know how to hold the space for you, they know the modalities to use to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. They are really on the cutting edge of studying the neuro-biological impact of trauma.
Talk to us about the Slave-Free City Network Allies Against Slavery is building.
We’ve set up our first network here in Austin and now we’ve been asked to bring it to other cities across the US. Essentially it’s a network of our top 30 partners in a city, from law enforcement to the attorney general’s office to the child welfare system—everyone who has a stake in resolving this issue from prevention to aftercare. Instead of the traditional non-profit model of all of these groups doing good work in isolation, we are bringing everyone to the table along with the voices of survivors to create collective citywide impact. After many years of good agencies doing positive work, we’re really excited about seeing what happens when people who are deeply invested are all at the same table co-creating the solution, so that it’s implemented very rapidly. Our hope is that every city in the US will have their own unified network that is such a powerful response to the issue of human trafficking that modern day slavery will no longer be possible.
Amazing. How can we support your efforts?
I always encourage people to support their local shelter and find ways to give and to volunteer. Then I also would encourage people to join our monthly sustaining donor campaign. We have a goal of bringing in 2,000 entrepreneurs, innovators and thought leaders who are in the business of transforming lives and are passionate about empowering women to contribute on a monthly basis so that we can continue to build up our services and offerings for women and girls who are ready to transform their lives and want to move from being a survivor to being a leader in the community and a voice and catalyst for change.
We’d absolutely love to support. How do these monthly donations directly impact the work you’re doing every day?
The monthly donations make it possible for us to provide mentoring, to provide career development, educational opportunities, referrals to the best possible resources and experiential learning opportunities like retreats. It helps us to bring survivors the very best resources for their own leadership development. It also enables us to take the knowledge that we have from working closely with survivors and to help other cities implement this value, culture and structure of survivor leadership in their own organization. Whether that’s a local domestic violence shelter or a network of social service agencies, we’re able to come in and work within that community and that city to bring these resources. We have a special section on our website for sustaining donors and we’ll be inviting people in the next few months to really be a part of the story that we’re co-creating with survivors. Stories of hope and stories of healing and those who are a part of that community will get an inside look on the changes that are happening because of their contributions. It’s a very exciting time.
Wonderful Brooke, thank you so much for your time. Before you go, we’d love to hear what’s next for you and what we should be looking out for.
I am currently working on a memoir that will share the healing keys that I’ve discovered in my own journey, while celebrating the creativity and resilience and the power of the women and girls that I have had the honor of walking with. I’ll be sharing more about my travels to other countries advocating for women and opening up about my own journey, how I found value in my voice, how I discovered this path of radical vulnerability and self compassion, and the inspiring and fascinating work that I’m seeing in the movement across the US. I’m very excited about that. I’m also excited to continue working with the women and girls. I adore them and adore mentoring them, particularly around their creative expression. Last year we hosted our first survivor leader retreat where we had creative writing and art workshops and jewelry making workshops and every single form of creative expression was connected back to a healing theme. I love the integration of advocacy, human rights work and the arts— I’ll be working with different media organizations, including a couple of filmmakers, to help document what’s happening in this space. Right now I’m working with one teenage girl who’s writing her first poetry collection and I’ve connected her with a professional photographer who’s going to help her take photography for her book. As I’m working on my book she’s working on hers so I’m looking forward to celebrating the release of both.