Leaning In With Victims of Child Sex Trafficking

By Kathy Andersen

"Our Circle aims to show that no matter what you have been through and no matter where you have come from, that you can step out of all that holds you back, and lean in to all you want for your future," says Kathy Andersen, founder of the Change Your Shoes Lean In Circle.

It's early evening at a drop-in center in Miami for young girls who have been victims of child sex trafficking, commonly known as child prostitution. These girls are the first to participate in a Lean In circle for girls who are often left behind by society because they are too readily judged as offensive and self-created juveniles, rather than victims of childhood abuse who need love, help and support.

What are your first thoughts when you see a young girl engaging in prostitution on the streets? Juvenile or victim? What are your first feelings? Compassion or judgment?

The Change Your Shoes and Lean In Circle aims to provide a way for victims of child sex trafficking, and other abused and neglected girls around the country to lean in. It aims to show that no matter what you have been through and no matter where you have come from, that you can "change your shoes," step out of all that holds you back, and lean in to all you want for your future.

Isabelle, 17, is curled up on the couch in the living room where we will have our circle, with her head buried in a cushion. She seems closed and disengaged -- drained of life. Natalie, 16, sits quietly on the other end of the couch with her hands stroking her stomach. She is pregnant and due in two weeks. Audrey, 15, casually strolls in and sits on the adjacent couch like any 15-year-old girl would walk into a living room and sit on a couch.

What is the stereotype of a girl engaging in prostitution to you? A drug addict? A teenager looking for trouble? A reckless runaway? Or a young girl, lost, manipulated, scared, confused, alone, fighting to find her voice to scream for help?

As we started the circle, I shared my story of childhood sexual abuse by my father. My earliest memory was at age four, and my last was at 17, before I left home to escape. Luckily, I had found a job in a grocery store that gave me enough money to rent an apartment with two other girls from the store. Over time, and working two jobs day and night, I gained better jobs, put myself through college (even eventually a master's degree at Harvard), and made choices for the life I wanted. I wanted these girls to see examples that there are options to create the life we want. We have choices. Yet often, we need help.

This circle aims to provide some of that help, in the spirit of helping to lean in by supporting each other, accepting each other, sharing our stories and our dreams, asking hard questions, listening and fearlessly taking the next steps toward all we desire.

At times, there were tears. Isabelle sobbed from that deep place inside where all of our fears, sadness and pain burn like a wildfire. Isabelle told us how her Aunt had been the only person who ever made her feel that she was worth anything -- that she could do or be anything meaningful. Yet, she had not told her Aunt what happened when she ran away from home because she was scared. She kept her suffering on the streets a secret.

As Isabelle exhausted her sobbing, a shift happened. The fog of her tears suddenly disappeared into clarity. "It's time for me to make decisions for my life because I'm 18 in two more months," she declared with an eruption of determination. "I'm trying to grow up. I'm trying to put all this bull**** aside. It's time for me to take care of me now... and I know God's going to give me a good life and make me happy one day. Everybody has a purpose to be on this Earth, to do something with your life. It's up to you."

Throughout the evening, we laughed at silly things, shared some dreams, and told more stories. Natalie will be having her baby, perhaps by the next session. It's a girl, so we will have a new youngest member of our circle.

We spoke of others who had overcome odds to reach their dreams. Oprah's story of overcoming rape and abuse was one that gave the girls so much hope that extraordinary things can happen. As we talked about the power we have to make our own choices and step beyond our fears, we used markers and sketchpad paper to answer the question that Sheryl Sandberg had asked in her book, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" The answers reveal some clues to the untold stories and struggles of these girls.

Next, we'll create life vision statements. We'll put dreams to paper so we can step closer to making them a reality, and making the extraordinary seem possible.

Through this circle, we already see a reflection of the circle of all of our connected lives. We see that we come from many different places. Yet, we share so much in common. We suffer through loss, betrayal, fear, disappointment, abandonment, judgment, hurt, and grief. We celebrate triumphs, love, hopes, dreams, friendship, faith, kindness and connection.

As we continue, our hope is that this circle is not only an opportunity to create change within the circle, but also to create a ripple of change outside our circle--to help other girls break their silence, share their stories, "change their shoes," and lean in to all they dream for their lives. Our hope is that when people see a young girl engaging in prostitution on the streets, they see a victim who wants help, not a juvenile who doesn't care; and put aside judgment to reach out with compassion.