After college I searched for feminist work where I felt like I could make a significant difference. I wore many feminist hats in both my professional and personal life, from working in child care advocacy to running the education programming of the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for Women. But it wasn’t until I saw a film in 2003 at the International Film Festival where I learned about sex trafficking that something in me shifted: I had found the work I felt called to do.
When I got home after the film I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen. The idea of someone being forced against their will to endure daily rapes for the profit of another was close to unfathomable. I decided that if this was something that was, in fact, happening in my own city then I needed to get involved. And so I did.
Before I founded the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, or CAASE, I traveled to both Thailand and India to work with young children had been kidnapped or sold into sexual slavery. Seeing the faces of these young women transformed me. And hearing the stories of what they had endured inspired me to make ending sexual exploitation my life’s work.
There are countless numbers of vulnerable individuals that can be forced, coerced or manipulated into becoming victims of human trafficking. Saving them is essential, but traffickers know that victims are easily replaceable. That is why CAASE is dedicated to ending the demand for the sex trade by offering victims legal options and supportive social services and shifting the attention of our prevention work and law enforcement’s efforts to those who are the fuel behind the trade: the pimps, johns, and traffickers. We also do prevention work with high school aged boys to help empower them with knowledge to make informed decisions about sex trade patronage and to work with them to be part of the solution.
What’s it like running a non-profit?
It’s a whirlwind! I never thought I would run my own organization. But after I had found my passion and yet found no jobs in the field, I realized that if I wanted to do this work I had to take a chance and try founding a demand focused advocacy organization.
Even though I had attended graduate school and obtained my masters in Social Service Administration, I really did not know how to run an organization. So I surrounded myself with really smart and capable people, including women who had survived the sex trade industry, and I always embraced the role of being a learner. And I have grown more professionally these past six years than I could have ever imagined.
Running CAASE can definitely be challenging. I am constantly out of my comfort zone with things like fundraising and supervision- areas where I have had incredible growth but where I continue to learn lessons consistently. I also find it a challenge to maintain a life/work balance. But there are so many wonderful aspects to running CAASE! I get to work with some of the most intelligent and inspiring men and women that I have ever met. I get to represent our work throughout the country. And I have developed an internship program to help build future leaders. Not to mention the survivors that I work with who keep me grounded and inspire me daily.
How has your identity as a woman had an impact on your career?
Though I am not a survivor of sexual exploitation, I have survived other forms of gender-based violence and I know what it means to live in a patriarchal culture and the negative impacts of misogyny. The challenging experiences I have had due to my gender are also the motivators for doing the work of CAASE and for persevering even when things get challenging.
On the flip side, I feel that being a woman enables me to more easily connect with survivors. I also feel less pressure to run CAASE in a traditional way and instead try to infuse my work with kindness and compassion. I think due to gender constructs it is more difficult for men to embrace a similar style of leadership.
How has CAASE changed you as a person?
CAASE has allowed me to live life with clear purpose, which is nothing short of a gift. It has shown me that I am stronger as an individual than I once thought. It has taught me new ways of looking at the world and new ways of creating change. It has given me an entirely new community. And it has taught me that though the journey may be a challenging one, anything is possible when you believe in the change you strive to embody.
What do you want women around the world to know about you and what you’re doing?
I would want them to know that I am consistently grateful to get to do that work that I do. I know it is a privilege to spend my days working on social justice issues, and I cherish this opportunity and my work. Finally, I would want them to know that change is possible. No matter what the social injustice — whatever part we play does make a difference.