Child Commercial Sexual Exploitation Survivor on Being the ‘Light in the Darkness for Others’

Organizations and individuals across the country are helping survivors of sex trafficking, and survivors are raising awareness and sharing their own experiences with today’s youth. Among them is Sarai Smith-Mazariegos, co-founder of MISSSEY and CEO and founder of S.H.A.D.E. In advance of our Feb. 21 film screening and panel featuring Sarai, we chatted with her about her work with MISSSEY and S.H.A.D.E. and how she uses her own experience to relate to child survivors.

Can you tell me a little bit about your work with MISSSEY and S.H.A.D.E?

MISSSEY was founded by four women, two survivors and two allies, to provide direct services to commercially sexually exploited youth and to train systems and service providers on how to effectively serve and support trafficking victims. S.H.A.D.E. is a survivor-run human trafficking organization, empowering survivors to be leaders and bringing the survivor voice to the table, as well as providing support services for victims/survivors.

What do MISSSEY and S.H.A.D.E want to accomplish in 2017?

MISSSEY has just launched a 40-hour State Certified Human Trafficking training and looks forward to training providers throughout the Bay Area. S.H.A.D.E. is looking forward to developing and providing Survivor Leadership Empowerment programs in multiple counties in the Greater Bay Area and continuing to support survivors build on their capabilities.

How does your experience as a survivor of child sex trafficking help you help others experiencing the same thing you did?

As a survivor of child sexual exploitation, I have a unique connection with young survivors I work with. We have lived through something that is unbearable and disrespectful to our spirit. However, through endurance, hope and survival strategies we stand here today. It’s about treating survivors how you wanted to be treated. It’s about truly understanding complex trauma and trauma bonds.

Who inspires you to continue doing the work you do?

The young people I work with, they are amazing, and they show me every day that they are capable of so much — if only people would not give up on them. I have been there and understand that it takes time to get to a place where you are thriving.

I want to be there to support them through all the ups and downs. To give them the positive support and love I only got a few times in my journey. I want to be that light in the darkness for others until they find their light within.

What’s one thing you think everyone should know about sex trafficking?

Human trafficking is everyone’s problem, it affects us all on some level. A exploiter can be anyone, there is no specific look. They can be a mother, father, caregiver, uncle, friend, teacher, group home staff, police officer, doctor, etc. A buyer can also be anyone. Sometimes people are afraid to speak the truth, but a buyer can be a judge or even a senator — and we wonder why penalties for buying sex is a slap on the wrist.

Also, remember language affects how we view people and situations. We need to be careful how we refer to victims/survivors of trafficking. There is no such thing as a child prostitute or child sex worker, only victims of child rape and child sexual abuse.

What can we do to support survivors of sex trafficking?

In your journey in this movement and as you engage with victims/survivors, remember that survivors of exploitation are constantly objectified. During our exploitation we were sexually objectified, and now we are objectified for our victimhood. This affects how victims see themselves, but also how society views victims.

We do not want to be valued only for our storytelling, as a victim. If we are only valued for our trauma story as a victim, then we are still trapped and viewed as unchangeable and incapable of growing as everyone else.

Instead we need be rehumanized and empowered, not tokenized. The best way of doing this is by utilizing the survivor-leader model. Being a survivor leader takes not only the survivor but also those supporting, assisting the survivor. And let me add, it takes time. Survivor-leadership models take an empowerment approach, working with survivors to self-lead, as opposed to a dependency approach.

Survivors must be empowered to help themselves. They have to know they are worth more, deserve more and are capable. Survivor leadership is not just having a career in the movement but as well as outside the movement as nurses, business owners, school teachers and mothers. Survivors need to be able to envision themselves moving forward, like everyone else around them.

If survivors who have experienced horrific abuse can view a future full of potential, we must not set limits on their abilities. We need to realize their whole strength and value as a person. It’s not just about empathy and our story, it’s about empowerment, respect and equality.

What should people do if they want to help end human trafficking?

Get involved in the Mayor’s Task Force or some collaborative in the area. These groups are normally working on prevention, intervention and policy on a local and state level.

This just scratches the surface on Sarai’s work. Join us Feb. 21 to watch the full Surviving International Boulevard film and hear from a diverse group of panelists. Buy tickets here.