Being named a Reynolds Fellow in 2010 was an unforgettable experience. My experience of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program gave my life a second wind. Before this lucky break, I had never met so many like-minded people, driven to change the world in different ways. The Reynolds community, and my cohort in particular, energized me with their passion and inspired me to think deeply about what I had been doing since 1999, when I started Prevent Human Trafficking, the second organization in the country created to address a problem that few people believed existed at the time.
Until the Reynolds Fellowship, I had been struggling to be a social entrepreneur, and was exhausted from so many years of trying to make people listen to the stories of victims I had met teaching English in Thai orphanages as a teenager. I lived a very lonely existence working to change U.S. policy and to effect the legislative change known now as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which became law in late 2000. Strangely, as the movement gained momentum, and dozens (now hundreds!) of organizations adopted this issue, I felt burnt out. The only thing that kept me going for the past ten years was remembering the kids I was helping and running the annual anti-trafficking summer program in Thailand.
In my first year at NYU, I began to untangle my thinking and realized that I had been experiencing a form of compassion fatigue. I learned many invaluable lessons from listening to the rich experiences of my peers, most of whom had grappled with the same occupational hazards — the tremendous highs and lows inherent in social entrepreneurship. What a relief! Buoyed by the community, and by the time spent with my amazing cohort, I took a risk and told them about my life and what brought me to this point.
Growing up, I saw a great deal of injustice, suffering and human misery from a very young age. I was born into a messianic, apocalyptic cult in India and raised in poverty as my family of seven crisscrossed South and Southeast Asia “spreading the gospel.” I finally managed to leave, and came to the U.S. pregnant and without formal education. After I left the cult, I went to school nearly continuously for 13 years (this fellowship helped me to complete my education), while simultaneously founding and running my nonprofit and being a full-time mom. Looking back, if I hadn’t been given the respite of my Reynolds Fellowship, I don’t know if I would still be running Prevent Human Trafficking today.
My experience as a Reynolds Fellow allowed me to examine the relationship between the anti-trafficking work I started as a freshman in college, and the oppressive conditions under which I was raised. The combination of my work and my traumatic upbringing had begun to weigh me down. I had long hidden my background from the world for fear of what might happen if I revealed how my personal and professional life intertwined. The similarities between life in a cult and life as a trafficked victim overlap in many ways. Lack of freedom of movement, unrelenting physical and psychological abuse, deprivation and isolation, living in constant fear of consequences to the family of not complying with every cruel command, working long hours without pay, living without money or legal documents, and being terrorized by a sick, controlling leader are just a few examples.
I can talk about all of this now, unashamed, because I have now see integrating my life and work as liberating! Before the Reynolds Fellowship, I lived in fear of my past. I had not considered the damaging effects of my fragmented lives, burying so much unresolved trauma from my work and childhood. Because of the generosity of the Reynolds Foundation, I have a new freedom. I can advocate for victims and survivors of trafficking in a way that few can, because of my experiences. I remember my life as a slave to a cult leader and I can relate to their victimization, to many of their needs, and to the long and difficult journey to becoming a survivor. Free at last!
This year, my organization is celebrating its 13th year, and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Though slavery was abolished so long ago, it still exists in many forms. My new-found freedom has inspired me to continue to work on behalf of human trafficking victims and survivors in new and more creative ways, like this one. I am so grateful!