A Voice at the Table

“Seven women met and attempted to solicit sexual services to an undercover police officer, and all were arrested on charges alleging misdemeanor solicitation.”

My throat tightens, and I try to swallow.

“It’s our goal to make it harder for these traffickers to operate in Northern Colorado. We want to help victims.”

My heart thumps in my ears. My vision narrows.

I slam the phone down, and my chair bangs into the wall as I stand. My hands are shaking; my breath is fast and short. A rush of thoughts floods my brain as I try to control the surge of adrenaline that signals a trigger. Even though I have had five years of stability, after suffering nearly twenty years of abuse, I still struggle to recognize when I need to stop and take care of myself.

As I drop my children off at school, I grasp for my grounding techniques, trying to stay present as they tell me goodbye and leap from the car. I drive in silence to my first meeting of the day. My cheeks are hot and flushed as I enter; I’m hoping to just get through the morning. Then, someone brings it up.

The local detective asks, “Megan, why didn’t you come to the operation yesterday? Were you too busy?”

No, I wasn’t busy! I am never too busy to let exploited women know they have options – that’s literally my job, but it’s also my passion. Not attending had nothing to do with me and everything to do with agencies that do not acknowledge adult women as victims. Agencies that I had previously trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

That’s what I want to say. Instead, with tears in my eyes, I reply, “I didn’t know about it. I wasn’t invited.”

The room falls silent: A room full of allies who have worked tirelessly to train professionals and service providers, to educate parents and youth, and to ensure the survivor voice is at the table through all of it.

My mind escalates from angry thoughts to a high-pitched panic that only those with complex trauma can recognize. I know if I say anything more, I’ll drown these allies in an ocean of hurt. I also know that, even though I am publicly acknowledged as an executive director and a survivor leader, I carry a social stigma as “that former prostitute.” With that comes immense pressure to be on my A-game always.

As I drive away, I feel the adrenal collapse begin. I cancel my next appointment and head home. The crash after an emotional trigger is akin to anesthesia – my body shuts down with or without my consent. I pull up at my house and fumble for my keys, my vision dimming. I trip up the stairs and collapse onto my bed.

That weekend I thought long and hard about my work in my community. I asked myself, “Are you done now?” What was the point of training law enforcement agencies if they continue to prosecute victims? What was the point of carefully crafting brochures to be given out if they never make it into the hands of those who need them? Why continue fighting broken systems and uneducated people if the only result is me spending the weekend implementing self-care practices to avoid burn-out?

But I know myself. I decide maybe I will try just a little bit longer.

The following week a woman is referred to us by her probation officer and becomes the first survivor to enter our economic empowerment program. Within the next month, two more begin and a fourth had applied. By the end of 2017, a total of six adult female trafficking survivors have entered our program, and we connect to 40 more in our region.

Much has changed.

In January 2017, my organization was excluded from the “table,” and victims were arrested. By January 2018, we are speaking into operations and investigations and providing on-call advocacy for adult victims identified by law enforcement.

If someone were to ask me today, “Are you done yet?” my answer would be an emphatic “No!”

I’m not done. I will not be done until all women – our daughters, our sisters, our wives, our friends – are no longer forced to hang their heads in shame at what has been done to them.

I am not done until women are no longer expected to exist in ongoing isolation, until they are no longer criminally and socially punished for being female, for living in poverty, or for surviving unspeakable trauma. What a difference a year makes!

Megan Lundstrom is the founder and director of the nationally-serving non-profit, Free Our Girls.  She is pursing her MA in Sociological Theory at the University of Northern Colorado, is an avid data collector, and passionate women’s rights advocate. Megan is a happily married wife, a mother of three, and enjoys reading, writing and travel.  For more information, visit www.freeourgirls.org.