As I wander though Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center gift shop, the noise of the everyday world slips away and the quiet of this splendid building soothes me. It is a place where there is plenty of space to think, to reflect and to breathe. Reverence seeps from every nook and cranny, oddly enough, even in the gift shop.
I pick up a blue coffee cup. Every time I visit this gift shop I admire the same cup. I really should just buy the cup. But I know my attraction to the cup is less about coffee and more about the words of John Lewis, the former Freedom Rider, printed on it.
It has taken me 49 years to realize exactly how this quote is relevant to me as a human being. Forty-nine years to grow up and become conscious to the fact that my life really isn’t about many of the things I thought it was! Half a century to come full circle in my journey from initial exposure to injustice, to running from injustice, achieving tremendous personal success, and finally to acknowledging where injustice is ravaging people’s lives on a daily basis.
Exposure to injustice.
As a child, I seemed to live in two parallel worlds. My “Papa” (step-grandfather), who raised me, taught me to be strong and independent. He brought me up as a tomboy, privy to the inside world of guys, and exposed me to things that would embower and challenge me. There was no time for makeup, long hair or high heels. I had goats to milk and horses to feed. There were construction projects and hunting trips. I was taught how to use a gun and that every gun is loaded. Our weekend trips were often taken in a PA-22 Tri-pacer, which was flown by my John Wayne-like Papa, who would taxi and takeoff on the gravel road in front of our farm. Our side yard, a parking spot, was where the white and red, high-winged, four-seater rested until the next adventure.
My birth father floated in and out of this version of my world, a giant of a man whose visits were as unpredictable as the weather. His stature and handsomeness belied the turmoil of his upbringing, the sexual abuse, and the tragic death of my mother. Looking back I can see that my desire to connect with him as a daughter blinded me to a script that had been written and re-written long before I was born – abuse, of any type, is likely to repeat itself from one generation to the next. My father was abused by his father, who was abused by his father, who was married to my great-grandmother. She was the product of a man who purchased my great-great-grandmother at the age of 13 – sold by her father, like horse or a gun.
For me, sexual abuse was a bit like second-hand smoke. I was a witness to sexual exploitation wafting all around me. . It was common knowledge in my family that my birth father was heavily involved in the strip club scene. It was also common for my father to parade women in and out of the house, one, two, or three at a time, on his occasional visits. They were young, beautiful and generally dressed to impress. Not surprisingly, these overtly sexual women seemed to intoxicate any man who happened to be in our house at the time. Heck, even my Papa would bounce them on his knee and grin from ear to ear.
As a young teen, I was bewildered as all the rules of behavior, which were taught to me the rest of the week, were thrown out the window upon the arrival of these sometimes moody, sometimes sex-kitten-like visitors. When I was 14, 15 and 16, I remember thinking that these “girls” weren’t much older than me. But since I seemed to be the only puzzled one in the room, I brushed off these incongruent ideas. Not realizing that my father’s business, at its core, was to attract and pimp girls. Not realizing that I was being groomed to be desensitized to the injustices of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.
Running from injustice.
Justice is a big word. I am fairly certain it was a word not often used in my everyday vocabulary at 17, which is when I set off to college. Yet somehow this word which was never uttered from my lips managed to reside, as a concept, deep in my heart. I fled a confusing home life and immersed myself in a university that would demand excellence from me. I surrounded myself with and leaned on strong, resilient, competent and brilliant women who would shine a light on the pathway to my personal success.
I thrived in a world defined by rules and achievement. This world had a noise cancelling effect from the exploitation I witnessed as a teen. I locked myself into a model and paradigm of thinking that fit extremely well with my physical skills and work ethic. My paradigm included pushing against the so-called glass ceiling, avoiding obstacles still blocking the way of women achieving personal success, taking life by the horns, a deep commitment to my team and teammates and thereby gaining a feeling of control over my life. My reward was a life enriched by amazing role models, coworkers, travel and professional opportunities. I gained a platform from which to speak. The sad thing is, I never really knew what to say.
Finding a voice. Moving into action.
The question of why I took so long to find a voice makes me mildly uncomfortable. How I managed to attend college where I was in the weekly presence of the gracious, dignified human rights leader Barbara Jordan, and not taken a stance sooner, is a point of shame for me. How is it that for thirty plus years I was content with personal success but remained an idle spectator, apathetic to the injustices I witnessed as a child at home, and which we continue to witness all across our county today as a result of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking?
Asking these uncomfortable questions proved to be the tipping point for me. And like most everyone I know, the right answers only bring more questions, which can easily be summarized as, “Yikes! What is it that I should DO?” Thankfully, Barbara Jordan’s thunderous words resound in my memory as I round the bend and come full circle in my life. I wish to use her words as an inspiration for all of us who may be wondering how to respond to a call to action.
"I've always felt that as long as you're alive, you should be doing something that makes a difference. You don't have to do big, gigantic things, just do them incrementally"
Incremental steps look different for everyone. We all have different skills, competences and emotional tolerances, which only allow us to move so far and so fast. If you are interested in changing the landscape of domestic or international sex trafficking, take a step towards action. What does that “step” look like? It looks however you decide it looks, and begins whenever you start to take it. But don’t forget the words on the blue coffee cup, which should be taken into careful consideration. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
Here are 12 possible ways to engage locally or through the use of technology.
1. Check out the 2014 report card on your state and support legislation that protects victims and prosecutes the offenders of sex trafficking.
2. Run or host a local 5k, like the Aruna Run or the R.A.T. Race, that support the ending of sex trafficking in South Asia and Arizona.
3. Take a trip to or support the ministries of a local organization whose justice initiatives support the abolition of sex slavery and support aftercare in India, Cambodia or Vietnam, like Crossroads Church in Ohio.
11. Watch any one of the MSNBC Documentary series on sex slaves and be aware of the ways our youth, women and young men are exploited.
12. Be brave and talk about these things with other people. A trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is always a good idea and can spark conversation. (Plus, you can purchase your own coffee mug from the gift shop!)
Andrea Lloyd is the founder of the Cincinnati Justice Project, who's 2015 initiative is focused on the creation of an All-Star Week Task Force. The goal of the Task Force is to effectively team-up to coordinate and impact greater Cincinnati anti-sex trafficking efforts leading up to and during the 2015 MLB All-Star Game. Andrea graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Sociology, was a member of the 1986 undefeated National Championship basketball team at the University of Texas, earned a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, and in 2007 was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Overall, she played 14 seasons at the professional level in the WNBA, ABL, Italian, and European Leagues, and worked as a television broadcaster for men's and women's basketball from 2000-2012. Andrea can be contacted at CincinnatiJusticeProject@gmail.com.