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A Summer Internship about … Sex Trafficking?

Written by: Lyn Staack, Youth Education Coordinator

This summer, thanks to the Summers of Service Program of the Tompkins County United Way, our Education Team was  able to have a paid youth intern. While we hope to provide meaningful learning experiences for all of our volunteers and interns – often we gain so much as well. This was the case this summer with Leah. 

When Leah and I first spoke about her interest in a summer internship with the Education Department, the topic of sex trafficking did not come up. We spoke about her helping us review k-12 curriculum about consent and healthy/unhealthy relationships, about how we might be able to offer programming via zoom, about the negative and positive ways social media could be used, and what we were reading. Side note: Leah and I both read a lot and can spend hours talking about what we are reading, and where and how sexual and relationship abuse shows up in YA fiction. We knew that at least one author discussion would be on her summer project list thanks to our collaboration with Isabella at Buffalo Street Books. Turns out books were part of almost all of her projects in one way or another. And one book set a theme for our summer.

The book that started this path

In July, Leah and Isabella Ogbolumani, Children’s Bookseller and Events Coordinator for Buffalo Street Books and a junior at Cornell, hosted a discussion with Kate McLaughlin, author of the YA novel What Unbreakable Looks Like. Kate’s novel, which grew out of a personal connection with a teen who had been trafficked, starts where many stories about sex trafficking end– with the police raid of the motel where the main character Lex and other girls were being held.  What Unbreakable Looks Like is both raw and realistic (words used by many reviewers) and optimistically hopeful. Kate explained that she wanted to write the story of what ‘could be’ if Lex was offered the opportunity to truly reclaim her life, to have not only a room of her own but a family, friends, and community members who were genuinely supportive and trustworthy. What, if given those opportunities, Lex chose to trust them and herself?

The independent research

After reading What Unbreakable Looks Like, Leah had many questions and, with discernment, the internet provides lots of good information. Leah also happened to have a supervisor (me) who loaned her a copy of Rachel Lloyd’s book Girls Like Us.  With an eagerness to learn that shaped Leah’s whole internship, she dove into her own research project.

If you want to learn more about the sex trafficking of youth, Leah recommends starting with these 3 places: (plus the first episode of our new podcast, but more on that in a second.)

The projects 

IG: What better way to summarize and share information than instagram! As Leah learned more about the sex trafficking of youth, we began to talk about ways to she could share what she was learning and perhaps spark questions in other people. Over the course of a few weeks, Leah and I made a whole folder of IG graphics about different aspects of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, myths and stereotypes, bits about who is targeted and how. Follow our  social media accounts @AdvocacyTC and @actiontompkins to see these.

Podcasting: Graphics catch someone’s attention for a few seconds, but conversations are a better way to learn on a deeper level. I already knew that curiosity is something Leah has in abundance and that she asks excellent questions, so when the idea of starting a podcast came up it was a natural match. With only the slightest idea about how to launch a podcast, Leah and I sat down with Bridgette Nugent from the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and Advocacy Center staff Andrea Champlin to talk about youth sex trafficking in Tompkins County. This first episode of  “Let’s Talk About…” a podcast from the Advocacy Center! Is up now!

Watch parties: You may remember that a year ago last August Jeffrey Epstein died while in custody for sex trafficking charges related to the abuse of women and girls in Manhattan and Florida in the early 2000s. Less than a month ago in early July, Ghislaine Maxwell (his various described girlfriend-companion-associate) was arrested for multiple criminal charges related to the trafficking and sexual abuse of young women and girls. 

Not surprisingly, Epstein, Maxwell, and some of the survivors of their abuse are again today’s equivalent of ‘front page’ news. We have reservations about the commercialization of survivor stories for entertainment (hey, that would be a great podcast discussion) but we had already been focusing on sexual exploitation of youth and we knew that the roots of these news stories and criminal charges went back many years. So, to better understand both the specifics of the legal case against Epstein and the factors which protected him for decades as well as to hear first hand from the some of the courageous and persistent women who have spoken with law enforcement, we decided to host the Advocacy Center’s first remote film screening event using Netflix and Zoom.  

Is there a better way to watch informative and troubling shows than together? We don’t think so. We have now had two Watch and Chat events — Filthy Rich and the 2016 documentary Audrie and Daisy. The education team plans to continue the idea, varying topics, and hopefully switching the venues up so that non-Netflix members can also join us. 

In the last few weeks of her internship, Leah moved on to other topics for podcast episodes 2&3 which will be available soon. She finished a reading list of YA books that dealt with teen sexual abuse&assault and created a discussion and resource guide for Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name. You will be able to read some of her thoughts about Know My Name in her blog which will be posted next week.

A fall author discussion with Buffalo Street Books. 

Even though her internship is ending and Leah will be shifting her focus to being a student at Binghamton University, we have one more author discussion planned. It seems appropriate that her internship started with an author discussion and that even as she is finishing up, there is another author discussion to look forward to. We hope you will join us for this very special virtual “romance panel”! 

On Sunday, September 27, 2020 – 7:00pm to 8:00pm debut author Rosie Danan will talking with romance novelists Meryl Wilsner and Adriana Hererra (who some of you may know and whose American Dreamers series is set right here in Ithaca, NY!). Leah and I will join them for part of the time to talk about writing sexy, consent based passages and relationships. Register for what is sure to be a fantastic hour through Buffalo Street Books

Happy Quarters

We have a tradition of ending our agency staff meetings by sharing “virtual happy quarters” for the wins and happy moments in our work and lives–once upon a time real quarters were collected in a jar and used for staff celebrations. My experience supervising and working with Leah this summer has brought many such moments and left a very full happy quarter jar on my desk.

Thank you to the Summers of Service Program of the Tompkins County United Way for offering Leah and us this internship opportunity! 

Thank you Leah, for bringing so much of who you are to your time with us this summer, you were a fantastic addition to our team!