Teenage abolitionists take to the stage

By Katie Cappiello and Lauren Hersh

Editor’s note: Katie Cappiello is the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Arts Effect NYC and writer of the play “A Day In The Life.” Lauren Hersh is the Director of Anti Trafficking Policy & Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

Mira stands on the stage. At only 14 years old, she explains the devastating impact of watching her cousin sold for sex by a local Boston boy, who lured her in with "love" and drugs and enslaved her for years.

Darci, 15 years old, follows. She takes us into her home (and her head) the night her father was arrested for purchasing sex from a 14-year-old girl on Backpage.com.

Odley, 17, speaks of the repeated rapes by her mother's boyfriend that drove her onto the streets and into the hands of a trafficker when she was just halfway through the 7th grade.

These stories are inspired by real girls and real events. They are being brought to life by impassioned teen actors/activists like Mira, Darci and Odley at community centers, schools, hospitals and theaters across New York and New Jersey.

These middle and high school students are members of The Arts Effect NYC, an all-girl theater ensemble taking on the commercial sex trade with its powerful new play, A Day In the Life.

Following the girls' performances, audience members inevitably pose the thoughtful question: "Is this really something young girls should be talking about?"

We can't help but exchange a small smile each time we hear the question. Mira, an 8th grader, responded recently: "The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14, so I think it's my responsibility to talk about it.

"These girls are like me – they have hopes, dreams and futures. As long as girls are out there every night being bought and sold – I'm going to stand with them as best I can and make sure their truths are heard."

Millions of girls and women worldwide are impacted by this vicious, often invisible human rights violation. That's why we have spent the last year developing teen-centered programming to end trafficking – giving teens, both survivors and student activists, the tools to take action and lead change.

We came to this work as activists with similar passions -– a women’s rights lawyer with a theater background and a theater maker with a women’s advocacy background.

Soon after meeting in 2012, we knew joining forces to combine arts and advocacy would inspire unprecedented conversations about sex trafficking.

Our goal was to create something that moves beyond fact sheets and lectures, while empowering young girls to advocate in a capacity that is safe and effective.

We would use theater as a vehicle for girls and young women to shed light on the reality of the sex trade, emphasizing the importance of survivor voices.

Through the development of Project Impact, a leadership-through-storytelling workshop for youth trafficking survivors, Generation FREE, an anti-trafficking movement reaching hundreds of teens, and the play “A Day In The Life,” we are creating opportunities for girls to gain knowledge, engage communities, shift perspectives and improve laws.

"I believe sharing my story will save lives," explains 15-year-old Adriana, a trafficking survivor from the Bronx, and a Project Impact participant who is currently transitioning out of a life under constant threat from pimps, johns, and law enforcement.

"I want people to know what it's like for girls like me. I was homeless and hungry. I wasn't selling sex. I was getting raped repeatedly by sex buyers. I want to speak, I want to make sure this doesn't happen to other girls."

On May 13, the girls of The Arts Effect NYC, Project Impact, and Generation FREE traveled to Albany, New York, to urge lawmakers to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, which calls for stricter penalties for pimps and sex buyers and stronger protections for victims.

Together, these powerful girls have begun their mission to end slavery. Who better to advocate for change and bring a human face to this issue? They are the new abolitionists.

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