Leah Albright-Byrd, as seen on Being Mary Jane, is a human sex trafficking survivor. She is the founder of Bridget’s Dream, an organization named after another victim she encountered in the trade who never made it out. Albright-Byrd, who ran away from home as a teenager and got lured into prostitution, is on a mission to educate people about the dangers of, and end the insidious trade.
We caught up with the brave champion of human rights to chat about her experiences and what’s next for the movement toward putting a stop to human sex trafficking.
— Starrene Rhett Rocque
What was life like for you growing up, and how did you end up in the trade?
My story is pretty textbook. I came from a home where there was a lot of domestic violence and substance abuse. I had two parents that were two broken people, and had me young, and were still trying to navigate their lives and work through the issues that they had personally. In the process, I, of course, ended up experiencing a whole lot of really traumatizing things.
Most of the girls that are trafficked in our country have some form of trauma in their history. About 75 to 80% have a history of sexual abuse as well. I was also molested as a child and by the time I was fourteen, I was just ready to find a new life somehow, some way, and I ran away from home. Unfortunately, you run away from home, there's all sorts of dangers out there that teenagers are unaware of, and I was completely oblivious to the fact that pimps were real and that somebody would try to take advantage of my vulnerabilities.
What was the conversation like where you went from being a naïve 14-year-old girl to that first time someone forced you down that path of having sex for money?
I think is really hard for people to understand when we hear the word, “force.” People don't understand that force is much broader than we would like to think that it is, when it comes to referring to a child and an adult. There's already an unequal power dynamic between an adult and a child. My trafficker was an adult, and his life experience was broader than mine, and he used his ability to manipulate and coerce very well, and still does, as a matter of fact, unfortunately.
For me, it was a matter of survival. Children run away from home, and at fourteen you can't get a job when you're not in your parents' home, and depending on what state you're in, you can't work anyway, because you're not old enough. What he would do is say, "You need to contribute to this household if you're going to stay here." My best friend and I were kind of jumping from one place to another because we ran away from home together. I was clueless, I had no idea how I was going to make money, and he said, "Well, you're having sex already anyway, you might as well get paid for it." To my underdeveloped, fourteen-year-old brain, some part of that made sense, and the way that he made it seem was that it wasn't going to be a bad thing, or a difficult thing. It was just very manipulative.
What are some of the typical entry points for people who end up in sex trafficking. Are they ever victims who might have just been snatched off the street, for example?
That's more the exception than it is the rule, but there's all sorts of pimps that use all sorts of tactics. In human trafficking, what we call pimps, traffickers, that snatch girls, literally kidnap them, we call them gorilla pimps.
Literally last night, one of our girls, one of the girls in my organization was kidnapped last night by her trafficker's family members. I watched as one of my friends was snatched off the street in broad daylight, when I was being exploited. It definitely happens, it's just not as common as the pimp who uses his finesse and his age and his maturity to manipulate and coerce. That's much more common, and like I was mentioning, most of these girls have a history of sexual abuse. Once you've been sexually abused, unless you are receiving support and trauma treatment and lots of care and love, you just end up getting victimized over and over and over again.
What's one of the scariest things that has happened to you?
I would say all of it is scary, but I can definitely pinpoint one experience, but what I do want to say before I share that is, people have to understand that what happens when a person is traumatized is what we call disassociation in the mental health world, and you get to the point to where you completely disconnect from reality. If a little girl is raped by her father over and over and over again, at some point she's not going to be able to feel anything. Your sense of danger dissipates as your brain tries to protect itself from repeated abuse. That's what happened to me and what happened to so many of the girls that I work with now and women that I've known for years that have survived similar things.
I would say the scariest thing for me was at a point when I was tired, it was late, it was about 4:00 in the morning, and I had been exploited on the streets of San Francisco. When you're tired, your sense of alertness is diminished. I got in a vehicle with this person, and I wasn't paying attention to where he was taking me, and next thing you know I'm in this secluded industrial area, and unfortunately was raped by this person, and was repeatedly threatened that he would kill me. In that process, fortunately for me, and I believe it was divine intervention, five police cars pulled up for something that was happening not too far away from us and had nothing to do with us. That was my saving grace, because I think it scared him, and so he drove off. I look and I see this picture of this little girl on the dashboard, and I said, "Who is that, is that your daughter?" He said, "Yeah, that's my daughter." She had to be like four years old. I looked at him and I said, tears streaming down my face, "I'm somebody's daughter, would you please let me go?"
He did, but not after he caused damage, not after he perpetuated violence and perpetrated his lewdness on me and left me with a memory that I had to live through and fight through, when he got to go home, to the peace of his home.
The sad thing is that the average prostituted person is raped by pimps sixteen times a year, raped by johns, sex-buyers, thirty-three times a year. When you're being victimized on that level, you're not going to law enforcement because your pimp's going to come after you. Who's going to care that a sex-buyer raped you? Sometimes law enforcement is insensitive because they haven't been adequately trained, or they have this preconceived idea of what a prostituted person is.
It's just a really isolating and stigmatizing experience, because when you do get out, the last thing you want to do is talk about your experiences, which is why it's so important we do this kind of awareness, so that we can communicate to all those little girls that might be watching BET in a hotel room somewhere being trafficked, and just happen to click on, and see Being Mary Jane, and say, "Okay, wait, my community cares about me, they're talking my language, they know what's happening to me."
How long were you in that life? How did you finally escape?
For me it was four years. I was from fourteen to eighteen years old. My entire adolescence pretty much was taken.
There was a point where I got to this juncture in my heart, where it was like I wanted to die. I didn't want to be here anymore. I was journaling at the time, and I journaled and I remember writing either something's going to change in my life, or I'm going to die, because I can't live like this anymore. It was almost like when I got to that point, that's when things started to change for me and I was open and receptive to help.
My family had gotten really hardened because they got really tired of seeing me go through that. It's so important that families that tune in and learn about the stuff, that they understand how important grace is with these babies, because it was hard to want to get out, and to feel like nobody believed in me.
I had my church community. I started going to a church here in Sacramento, California, and they were really my first community of people that accepted and embraced me, and they were the first people I shared my story with.
Fortunately for me, I got bold enough to call the police on my trafficker. He put his hands on me and he hurt me, and I had had enough. He had been abusing me for years, and he couldn't believe that I would call the police on him. It was almost like an exodus for me, like the Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt. I was enslaved and trapped in that world, and I was able to get out. I know how uncommon that is, because I work with girls all the time, and these pimps do no let up. They will try. They do what we call demonstrating omnipotence. They try to make these girls think that they are God, so to speak, and basically, I know where you are, I'm watching you, I got people watching you, and I'm going to hurt your mother, I'm going to hurt your family if you try to leave me.
Those are really scary things. When you've seen this person be violent before, then you start thinking he's capable of anything. I was fortunate, but this is why it's so important that community members get involved, volunteers support human trafficking organizations, educate your kids, all of it. All of it's important. Everybody can't do everything, but everybody can do something.
What steps did you take for recovery?
At first, I really did not know that I needed to take any steps for recovery, so my whole life, my whole little world was church and work and getting to a place of normalcy, and going to school, and doing the things that normal young adults do. I was eighteen years old, I got my GED, I went to college . What happened was, the safer I got, the harder it got, because it's just like prisoners of war or veterans. They've compared that mental health recovery of a prostituted person to individuals who've experienced that level of trauma. The safer a Vietnam veteran got, the more he started having nightmares. You'd think he would get back home and be OK, but he gets back home, and all the nightmares of his combat and his war experiences are staring him in the face, and he can't function. That's the place I got to.
Fortunately, I studied psychology and I had some great professors who were psychologists, and saw me becoming really symptomatic, and started to recommend that I get some trauma therapy. My mother sacrificed, even though she didn't have the money really, but she knew; she saw how much I was in trouble. I literally felt like I was going to lose my mind, because I was having nightmares and flashbacks and anxiety attacks and severe depression. All of that interferes with your ability to live a productive life. It's hard to go to school when you're over here and you don't want to get out of bed.
I started going through trauma therapy. I went through three years of intensive therapy, I went through medication, I went through group counseling — I just like, baptized myself in recovery and healing and books and reading. It was a big journey, and it's a journey that I'm still on.
I think one of the hardest parts of recovery when you've been victimized at that level is being able to have a healthy, functioning, romantic relationship. None of us were built to be alone, we're communal people, even though we think we're super independent, and that is probably one of the biggest obstacles in my life, is learning how to open up and not sabotage male relationships, and not pick the wrong person. I think that happens to us even when we haven't been through what I've been through. You add to that, all those layers--I feel like I'm a much more trusting person now, but I'm still on this journey.
There's this phrase called a wounded healer. That's where I'm at, at this point in my life. I get to be a light, I get to talk to girls that have been through what I've been through, I get to show them that there is hope, and that it is possible to get out, but I get to be real with them about it and say, "This is going to be the hardest thing you've ever done, but you're a soldier, you already overcame stuff most people haven't even experienced."
Speaking of you being a healer, tell me about Bridget's Dream.
Bridget's Dream is my pride and joy and my calling, and I would absolutely not be able to do it without my team. I have a great team of people here that have similar hearts, and we're on the front lines battling for these girls. We are a victim service and advocacy organization.
We were founded in 2011 in memory of a friend of mine, Bridget Gray. Bridget was a trafficking victim as well, and she was actually a girl that I recruited when I was fifteen. It's really common for other girls to recruit other girls, because pimps use their girls to get other girls involved, and that sort of thing. She lost her life, sadly. She was murdered by a sex buyer in 2006. When she was killed I was in college and it turned my world upside down, because I watched how she was treated in the tabloids, how the media covered it, how it went from a woman found slain to a prostitute found slain, and how her dignity was taken from her. She was killed on her twenty-second birthday so her life was just--she was robbed.
Fortunately, we were able to start the organization in her memory.
It's a survivor-led organization, which means I'm the leader and we try to get other survivors involved as much as we can. They give input on how we develop services. We're basically a family to these girls. That's the best way I can describe it. When they're coming off the streets, or even when they're still being exploited, we get to be there with them, link our arms in their arms and teach them how to do life without being exploited.
We also get to help change systems. It's not good enough to just support a victim; you have to change the system that the victim finds herself in. What does that look like? That looks like supporting legislature, it's making sure that other programs are trained and equipped to be able to respond to the need. We go out and educate school site staff, and law enforcement, and all that good stuff, so that we can create a really healthy community for these girls, so that they can heal, so that their suffering is not prolonged.
I feel like I'm glad that I got the healing that I did, but it also took me seven years before I got into therapy, and we don't want that to happen for these girls.
Going back to you mentioning about the girls recruiting girls, is it kind of like a thing where you build a friendship and the conversation comes up?
It depends on the situation. We were sent into malls to meet girls, they got out of school and we'd start talking to them about it. It could be your friends, it could be your family. An important thing to note, because the way our minds work, it's hard for us in America to access empathy sometimes. What I want people to understand is, regardless of whether it's a peer recruiting a peer or not, that peer recruiting the peer is still a victim.
What happens is, you know that he wants money to keep him happy, you get quotas assigned to you, you get beat if you're not meeting your quotas, he wants other girls in his quote-unquote stable, that's what they'll call it. A lot of times if you meet another runaway, and you're a runaway, and that runaway is homeless, you go, "Hey, you don't have to be homeless, here's a way that you can survive." Without knowing the damage, like when I met Bridget and I remember telling her, "Are you sure you want to do this, because once you do this, your life will never be the same." I didn't know, at fifteen, what I was telling her. Pimps say things, they say, "Once a hoe, always a hoe." It's almost like a death sentence. You feel like you're just stigmatized, isolated, toe up, and I was trying to tell her, "Are you sure you want to do this, because this is what's going to happen to you," not knowing that it was almost prophetic, because she ended up losing her life.
It's sad, because pimps come in all shapes and sizes. Pimps can be peers, pimps can be women, pimps can be men. There is a disproportionate problem in the African-American community that breaks my heart, which is why I'm so glad BET is highlighting the issue. In a lot of states traffickers are disproportionately black, and girls that are being trafficked are disproportionately black. When we're talking about an issue and we're calling it modern slavery, and we all are in essence the descendants of human trafficking victims, and here we are at the forefront, being exploited all over again, on both ends, it's really scary, and it's important the black community rises up and says, "Hey, we're not going to let this be everybody else's issue and not ours."
My last question is, where are you now in terms of your personal recovery, and where do you hope to take your development with Bridget's Dream in the next five years?
In my personal recovery, I feel like I'm in the strongest place I've ever been. Of course I've been out since I was eighteen; I'm thirty-one now. I have overcome so many things, and I really feel above and beyond human trafficking, my heart is for healing. When I go out and I speak and I share my story, I have people of all walks of life come up to me and ask me questions like, "How were you able to forgive," and "What did you do for your trauma counseling?" I know that these people don't have my experiences, but we live in a society where it's really easy to end up being traumatized, and to be hurt, and to be violated.
For me, the biggest part of my healing is now being able to extend and share that healing with other people. Not that I've got it all figured out, but I have made some discoveries along the way that I can share with other people, and we can get healthy and whole together.
As far as Bridget's Dream is concerned, we're in the process of fundraising to open Sacramento's first survivor-led drop-in center. We want to have a place where girls can come to at any time of the day or night, when they're being trafficked. Law enforcement can drop them off at a place where they will be understood, they won't feel like running, and where families can get a break. We're not just serving girls, we're serving their families. Their families don't know how to navigate these girls' healing journeys, they're just stressed out and overwhelmed, and they need support. Exactly what happened with my mother. My mom was told by a cop, "Well what do you want me to do, get her home to you so you can strap her down and tie her to a bed? You can't keep her here." It was a disempowering experience for my mom.
We've talked to moms whose kids have been missing for two or three years, and nobody wants to hear it. We get to be here and go, "Okay, if you feel like, in your mommy gut, that something is wrong and that she wouldn't just run off and leave, and that something is wrong with her, then we're walking the road with you." We've literally watched as girls have been restored to their mothers and families after being gone for extended periods of time.
We want to do that in Sacramento, and we hope to do that in other parts of the country eventually, but right now we've got to start where home is, in the capital of the state that houses three of the nation's worst cities for sex trafficking. We're making our mark here, and then spreading our wings eventually. Hopefully within the next five years we'll be able to open another office somewhere else.