Training Day — One Response to Sex Trafficking in SF Bay Area

Sharee is nervous. She tells me so, as she wipes her sweaty palms on her neatly pressed gray slacks.


Her rust colored blouse hangs smartly from her shoulders and her hair is pulled back into a snug bun. With just a touch of well-appointed makeup, she looks pretty much like any other twenty-something business professional ready for the marketplace. But her awkwardness is unmistakable.

Sharee is a survivor of sex trafficking in the San Francisco Bay Area. Contrary to what many people think, she wasn’t smuggled into the U.S. from Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe. Instead, like far too many, she grew up in one of those local neighborhoods where vulnerable young girls become subject to exploitation. Tragically, countless such neighborhoods fill the cities of the Land of the Free.

She has never sat through a job interview before. For that matter, she has never had any face-to-face meeting with a business professional where she expects to be treated respectfully. I struggle to hide from the thought that many other men have interviewed her — but for decidedly different reasons. Today, I would hire Sharee to work in our San Francisco coffee house; that was a foregone conclusion for me. But for Sharee, she clutches dearly to hope in a way that she has not done in a very long time.

This interview is an important part of Sharee’s training. I am supposed to simulate, as best I can, a typical job interview like she eventually will encounter “out there” in the real world. It is, of course, also important for me to set out clear parameters of what this job will entail — not just the ins-and-outs of brewing top-notch single origin coffees, espresso drinks and the like, but the bare-bone basics of what it means to be part of an employee team. This is all new territory for Sharee. Which is why we refer to her as a “trainee.”

A week before this meeting with Sharee, I had sat through my own orientation with the Not For Sale training staff. I represented one of ten different companies that would be employing a graduate of Not For Sale’s “Reinvent” program; a 16-week work-readiness program to onramp trafficking survivors into the healthy world of dignified employment. More than anything, this orientation was preparing supervisors and their teams with the proper sensitivity to work with this unique population. These girls would be atypical employees in many respects and would require extra measures of grace as they are coached along, hopefully into capable and reliable employees. As a former pastor, I got this sensitivity training. I had spent 10 years in the “people business” so I felt comfortable with the language around the conference table and was confident this would come easier for me than some of the others.

But there was nothing easy about any of this.

The woman who was running us through the orientation told us a story about a girl from the first cohort of girls to graduate from Reinvent. She got a job at a pizza restaurant. The supervisor/owner had sat through an orientation very similar to the one we were in now, except in his orientation, he hadn’t been used as an example of what not to do. Apparently, he had enthusiastically agreed to hire Desiree, a young gal very much like Sharee, but things didn’t go well.

Desiree was ready to begin her first real job — committed and eager to do things well and impress her new employer. Excited about her first day, she left her apartment with plenty of time to arrive at work early — hoping to please her new boss. Nervous but excited, she waited for the bus to appear at the stop in East Oakland — the first leg of the trek to the pizzeria across the bay in San Francisco. And she waited. With about 6 other people, she waited for a tardy bus with growing concern she might actually be late for her first day on the job. When the bus finally arrived, it was packed with passengers. As she pressed her way onto the crowded bus, the driver explained the previous bus had broken down. She asked the driver what time she expected them to arrive at the metro BART station she would need to catch her transfer train into the City. Her heart sank as she learned she would miss her connection.

She pulled out her cell phone and immediately dialed her supervisor’s number and explained the situation. “Okay,” he replied, and hung up.

When she arrived at the pizzeria, she found the supervisor in his back office. She apologized and explained what happened.

He fired her.

“WTF?” the woman sitting next to me muttered in non-abbreviated form.

Yeah, just like that. I couldn’t believe my ears. I struggled to imagine giving any employee the boot without a second chance under these circumstances, let alone a nineteen year-old girl who had spent most of her life listening to others tell her — in one way or other — that she had no intrinsic value. While in certain circumstances her body might be worth something to a John or a pimp, she had been convinced by those who held sway over her that in all other cases, she was worth virtually nothing. And here, in a first step toward discovering a new identity and human value, she was summarily dismissed. “Second chance? No. No, you’re not worth a second chance.” I don’t know what words this supervisor used to say that, but there is really no other way to translate his message. Once again, those in a position of power decided what was fair and unfair in the world; what was right and wrong, just and unjust. Desiree’s idea of those things was simply irrelevant.

Every one of us in the conference room were experienced business people. And while this was all new territory for most of us, we were appalled. We just sat there, stunned. Our leader gave us a brief moment to let our thoughts penetrate. I pleaded to know what happened to Desiree — was she quickly placed with another employer? Who? How is she doing now?

She withdrew from the program. Burned again. Bye. Screw all you guys and your empty promises.

It was just another defeating blow from a world that cared not. For Desiree, the program that seemed too good to be true turned out to be just that.

All this was fresh in my head as I told Sharee she had no need to be nervous. We were just going to have a conversation — between two people. I would ask some questions, she would ask some questions, we would talk some about our coffee bar (but not in too much detail, I light-heartedly admitted, since I didn’t even know how to fire up the espresso machine!). She laughed and seemed to relax a bit.

The office space was buzzing. Ten different hiring managers or business owners sat around in different corners, desks and conference rooms, simultaneously interviewing the young women who would graduate from the Reinvent program that evening. Everyone was more dressed up than usual to frame a decidedly more professional-looking environment.

In some ways, I was a little wound up, myself. I was trying very hard to be in tune with every word I chose, my gestures, facial expressions and my body language. As best I could, I tried to imagine what Sharee was “hearing” from me in the way I led our conversation. I knew I was being overly deliberate, but I was a typical middleclass male of privilege so knew I couldn’t even begin to guess how she was feeling around me — a man in the position of power over her. I decided to just be myself — or, rethinking that a bit, the best version of myself I could muster.

What immediately came into my mind was the epiphany I had in our orientation the week before. Our leader kept using the term, “trainee” when referring to the young women who were graduating. I noticed she never used the terms I was more familiar with: “employee” or “intern.” It wasn’t until we were nearly done with the orientation that it finally hit me. I raised my hand to see if I was warm.

“I notice you always refer to this team of women as, ‘trainees.’ I’ve been trying to get my arms fully around this idea. When I think of an intern, I think of someone who gets sent off to perform some task or project and return to his or her supervisor when it’s complete for review — sort of a ‘train by doing’ kind of a setup. When I think of a new employee, I imagine someone who requires an articulated set of expectations along with the necessary skills training for them to meet those expectations. Neither of these situations really fit, I guess. We are just working at the basics, here: showing up to work on time; phoning if they’ll be late; why both are necessary; being part of a team that depends on you and that you can depend upon. All that stuff. As supervisors, we are really training these young girls to become, well, employees. Is that accurate?”

The leader looked at me and thought for a moment. “Yes,” she finally responded. “I had never really compared those categories, but that is exactly right. And, if their supervisors think of the girls as trainees, things will go better for everyone.”

Sharee would be our trainee. I looked at her. I had been told she was 19, but like all these young girls, each had a “seasoned” look about them that seems to reflect maturity that reaches deep into their 20s if not 30s. Yet the work related basics that most of us take for granted is all new frontier for these young women. The reality is that they are really more “young” than they are “women.” They are girls; they are kids. Sharee is a kid. She is younger than my daughter, yet had seen more of the world than I hope my daughter ever does see.

I collect my thoughts and look down to study Sharee’s brief resume with intensity. I’m looking for anything I can talk to her about; affirm her for. There isn’t much experience here to speak of. But then I found it. At the bottom of her resume, she listed four character traits: hard worker, dependable, respectful of others, eager to learn new things. I reread them. It was like stumbling upon a vein of gold in a wall of drab granite. As my mind chipped away at it, the shiny treasure emerged.

I suddenly saw Sharee not as a wounded young woman (which she most certainly was), but as another human being with intrinsic worth — and a tiny part of that worth could be penciled out into four distinct traits that are ideally suited for any employee. I stop thinking of her circumstances, her background, her hard, painful life to just regard her in the moment. I saw sitting before me, a young woman who is hard working, dependable, respectful of others and eager to learn. I saw huge value in that. I saw huge value in Sharee. I wanted to hire someone like that.

In that moment, I felt myself unwind completely. My heart, which I thought had been open from the start of the interview, cracked. I swallow the small lump forming in my throat as I am finally able to break free from the noise in my head: trying to imagine Sharee’s life; how I might be coming across to her; the best way for me to treat her. I had been walking on eggshells and had barely realized it until now.

I looked up at Sharee. I didn’t doubt now that my eyes appeared trustworthy to her. I was sure my body language was safe and probably somewhat fatherly. I pointed down at her resume and began walking her through the traits she had written and carefully explained why I personally valued each of them and why they were the kind of traits that profiled an exemplary employee. I told her that those are parts of who she is; as a person. These are things she owns, like her dark eyes are coarse hair — no one can take them from her. They are also things we would not really be able to teach her. I assured her we had a staff that could teach her how to brew top-notch coffee, pull espresso shots, serve cappuccinos complete with sophisticated “latte art” and serve customers with confidence and grace. But these traits she wrote on her resume were something special and valuable. And they were hers. They are her.

She was listening; drinking it in. Her face shone like a long-thirsty soul who had finally reached a cool spring. I continued on, sharing some things about our company which at the time was called, Dignita. I explained that Dignita means dignity in some languages; taking time to clarify what dignity means, what it means to be treated with dignity and what it means to treat others with dignity. I told her that in order for our customers to experience exceptional dignity in our café, everyone on “our side” of the counter needs to first live that out with one another, as a trusting team. I paused to see if she was getting all this.

I got the impression the whole concept of dignity was something very new to Sharee. She suddenly bent down and began to fumble at her feet, under the table. She sat back up, clutching a small purse which she quickly unzipped and pulled out a packet of tissues. “I’m sorry,” was all she said as she hid her eyes with the tissue and blew her nose. The tears had come so suddenly, I had missed the cue. I apologized for causing her to cry and she said, “No. No…Thank you.”

She recovered quickly enough and we finished up the “interview.” We both stood together as I stretched out my hand, welcoming her to the Dignita team. She glanced at my hand and, dismissing all formality, wrapped her arms around my neck like a child. Then, beaming, she thanked me profusely and bounded off with glee to join the rest of the young women who had all just landed their first jobs.

Reflections

This whole interaction with Sharee gave me lots to ponder and there are a number of things I want to say about identity, value and dignity here — things I believe should hold more weight in how we engage others in the workplace and life, in general. There will be other times I can talk about that stuff. But this time, I’d rather stir the pond a bit because that seems more true-to-life.

Sharee didn’t work out. Things got off to a great start, as we all expected. But slowly her punctuality began to falter and she began to struggle with basic performance in other areas, as well. Her direct supervisor dealt with her firmly, but graciously. He came to me a number of times for guidance and I coached him along. Finally, Sharee and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting and I was consistent with the way her supervisor had treated her: firmness and grace. “We have a business to run,” I explained, “and you are an important part of that.” I reminded her that treating customers with dignity starts with treating one another with dignity “behind the counter.” When fellow employees are relying on another team member and that member lets the team down, so many things fall apart. I unpacked this domino effect so she understood how this all related to dignity — hers included.

Things improved for a time, but kept trending downward until we finally had to let her go. I told her she didn’t seem ready to complete the training program, but not being ready was different than failing. Neither her supervisor nor I viewed having to let her go as her failure and that she could continue her training program at any time in the future when she believed she was ready; just reach out and we would love to pick things up where they left off. She seemed to understand and, while there were some tears, there were also hugs of gratitude and trust.

In some ways, the most difficult part of this transition involved her supervisor. He was crushed. In his mind, he had failed Sharee. When I realized how hard he was taking this, I sat him down and sorta grilled him: “Did you always treat Sharee with grace? Extra grace? Were you clear about your expectations? Were they reasonable expectations? Were you clear about what the consequences would be should she not meet those expectations? Did you give her more chances than you maybe felt she deserved? Were you slow to bring me into the situation? Do you think if you gave her another chance, things would have still been the same? Did you do everything you can possibly think of to coach her along, gracefully and, indeed, lovingly? Do you think I did the right thing by letting her go? Do you think if we kept her on longer in spite of these shortcomings, it would have ultimately helped her?

He answered “yes” to all these questions, except the last one, as I suspected he would.

I assured him he did exactly what he was supposed to do. Our job was not to make Sharee into our personal success, but to train her to become a capable employee in the workplace and to help build up her self-worth, confidence and belief that a system existed in the world that she could trust to do her well. He had done a fantastic job training her — it’s only that her training was not yet complete. We didn’t view Sharee as a failure so, in the same way, we could not view his work as a failure either. None of this was tidy or clean or pretty. Human interaction never is. But working within the framework of dignity, value and intrinsic worth brings out the best in people, no matter the contextual outcomes.

All this took place about a year ago.

Sharee just phoned last week. She is ready to complete her training.

Does this mean the glass slipper will fit perfectly and everyone will live happily ever after? No. Of course not. And I am not convinced that scenario is as relevant as we sometimes make it out to be. But I think her phone call does validate the way we did things, and I think it’s the way we go about doing the things that we do that often matters more than the things themselves.

In the end, I think life is less about our accomplishments than the kind of people we become while we pursue them. This is because I happen to believe the kind of people we are affects the world more than we often appreciate. I’m talking about something more than just being a nice person. All of us leave a wake. Its ripples can seem small and irrelevant so we sometimes don’t give them much heed, but they lap the shores for a very long time. It’s easy to become so hell-bent on attaining our goals that we overlook this and the mess we are capable of leaving behind. To regard our wake — as imperceptible as it might seem — is to acknowledge that the cumulative impact of all those ripples on other humans, over a lifetime, is probably more meaningful than some otherwise headline-worthy achievement. And it all starts with recognizing the intrinsic value in those we encounter — no matter who they are.

Sharee rippled back into our office not because we did some things right or did some things wrong, but because we tried to be the right kind of people whenever we did things right…and whenever we did things wrong. I think that matters a great deal.

I remain tremendously hopeful about Sharee. Not because of naïve optimism, but because her phone call last week makes it clear she sees more value in herself now than she did when she walked into the Reinvent program for the first time a year ago. She believes we recognize that value. And ever so cautiously, she is beginning to believe a world exists where her value can be affirmed.

I want to continually learn how to be part of that world. And it’s in that confession I come to an important realization about life: My name is Dan. And I’m a trainee.