Friday, January 17, 2014

International Boulevard

Since it is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and I only briefly mentioned the issue in my prior post, I thought I would share about a side of the problem close to home. Zoe Simone Yi and Rebecca Dharmapalan, two teenagers from Oakland School of the Arts, recently won the 2013 Girls Impact the World Film Festival with their 5 minute documentary on child sex trafficking in Oakland. The film in called "International Boulevard," which also happens to be the same street of the clinic / community center where I volunteer once a week.


I had noticed many young women on the street during my 3/4 mile walk from the BART each week, and I wondered if any of them were trafficked youth. Unfortunately, my intuition was likely correct. On any given night, it is estimated that 100 children participate in commercial sex work on International Boulevard alone, with reports siting some as young as 12 years old. In 2009, Oakland was labeled a high-intensity child prostitution area. Furthermore, the Bay Area as a whole, which includes San Francisco and San Jose, is believed to account for as much as 20% - 40% of sex trafficking in the United States. My understanding is that many of the U.S. citizen children that are trafficked within the country are runaways and/or foster youth fleeing from potentially abusive situations to begin with, which has particularly caught my attention as a CASA for foster youth.

A friend and coworker pointed out that the "International Boulevard" film focuses largely on police perspectives of the problem, and that bothered her. I definitely believe it is important for police to be aware of the complicated issues involved in commercial sex work, and I am happy to see that efforts are being made to get help for children trapped in sex trafficking, rather than criminalizing their circumstances. At the same time, prostitution in general is a very stigmatized profession, with an often strained relationship to law enforcement, so it would have been great to hear more from those who are able to talk about their own lived experiences, to give voice to the actual individuals affected. Of course, this may have been difficult to incorporate in this particular short film, given that (1) the producers are themselves youth, (2) victims are minors, and (3) even now-adult former victims may prefer to maintain their privacy. Alternatively, perhaps local community members or advocates from local nonprofits - both those that provide healing services and those that fight to prevent future trafficking - might have added another perspective to the mix. Although the police necessarily have an integral role in ending human trafficking, there are many other groups also working to meet the needs of youth in the context of sex trafficking. Furthermore, many of the best solutions to community problems involve community members expressing the strengths and needs they see, brainstorming interventions and preventive measures, and taking ownership and responsibility for implementing of the best ideas. My main point is that in considering the issue of sex trafficking, we should keep in mind that there are multiple viewpoints on what constitutes trafficking, a wide array of opinions on how it can best be stopped, and a host of varied experiences by the women (and men) who have lived through it.

For those looking for a little more breadth of information from a few other perspectives, I highly recommend "Oakland struggles to protect children from sex trafficking," an article from Aljazeera America.

Regardless of the above critique of the short documentary, I think it is commendable that local youth are getting involved in important problems and raising awareness. And what a testament to their hard work that they won first prize! I hope that their documentary, and all of the press that the Bay Area has received for the child sex trafficking problems here, will lead to better programs and policies to prevent trafficking, as well as an increase in awareness and action among teachers, families, friends, neighbors, law enforcement, community organizations, and activists to end this injustice!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Emotional" Is Not a Dirty Word

Image from Google.com search
A couple months ago, in an online discussion about a complicated issue, a friend told me that if I did not have all the facts, any argument or opinion I had could "only be emotional." When the conversation was over, that one phrase really got me thinking.

Let me start by saying I do not believe that statement to be the categorical truth, as there have been many times in life when I have had to make a judgment call on what I do not know based on what I do know; as a mere mortal, it is hard for me to think of many situations when I literally know everything that could inform my opinion or decision. Basing an opinion on known facts and feelings, in recognition of many unknowns, is far from "only emotional." But my friend did have a point in some way. Sometimes having half the facts leads to incorrect and even dangerous assumptions.

But as I thought about it more, something bigger started bothering me than whether or not I needed all the facts to hold an opinion or take an action on something. I realized that the word emotional had been thrown into the conversation with a tone of disdain. As a person who majored in mathematics in my undergraduate days and has loved intellectual debate from as early as I can remember, I realized that I too have often put that which can be proven by logic on a pedestal. I too have used the word emotional as if it were an insult, as if my factual understanding of an issue were superior to any sort of emotional reasoning. Yet as I have grown older and have learned more about life, my path has increasingly shaped me into a person who relies on emotion to relate to others and make decisions. If fact-based reasoning is the pinnacle of understanding, I have to wonder why, as I have (theoretically) grown more mature, have I more deeply valued human emotion, including my own?

I have to admit that I can see many ways in which emotion can lead individuals to make poor decisions or to draw poor conclusions. Emotion has led many a person into an unhealthy relationship, supported poor public policies that seem to treat any odd scapegoat as the enemy, reinforced negative lies that people believe about themselves, preceded hurtful words spoken in the heat of an argument, and the list goes on and on. So I would never say that we should let our emotions rule our lives, or they would almost certainly take over our ability to be peaceful and patient. But does that mean we should then ignore or devalue emotions?

This is where I have to say no. Many emotions are valuable, give evidence of our purpose, and provide unique understanding of the world around us. Experiences of compassion, empathy, love, laughter, and fun are inextricably linked with emotion!

As an example, one issue that really made this clear to me is child sex trafficking. Certainly, one could try to make an intellectually logical argument why we should fight against this industry as a matter of policy, apart from using emotions. For example, perhaps one could try an economic argument about women needing to finish their education to grow their skill sets and to provide better opportunities for themselves and their children, thus improving the overall economic productivity of their countries. Of course, they are less likely to go to school if they are being trafficked for sex at a young age. So if you ran the numbers and saw a good economic result with decreased trafficking, this might prove that fighting trafficking at a policy level makes logical sense. Great! But what if the numbers said that a given country brings in more money by hosting foreign pedophiles who stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, take taxi's, and pay for sexual services, as compared to the economic potential of educating the young trafficking victims? Would it change your view on whether or not we should combat child sex trafficking? For me, the answer is a clear "no," because my primary issue with human trafficking was never about the policy logic; it is more of heart issue.

When I think about children forced to have sex with older men multiple times a day, I feel a gut-wrenching sadness and anger over this injustice deep in my soul, and I know that the logic-based arguments ring hollow compared to the emotional reality. This sense of empathy and valuing of human life far outweighs any bullet-pointed list of non-emotional logical reasons to end this evil. In fact, if I heard someone making an appeal to end human trafficking without any touch of emotional connection, I think I would find myself considering that person unreasonable and irrational.

And from that example, this is what occurred to me. Sometimes emotions are the most rational, logical, sane thing we put forth in response to this world. Sometimes our emotional relationship to an issue leads us to the best conclusion, especially in the midst of conflicting logical evidence. And just like the host of ways our emotions can lead us astray that I listed at the start of this post, sometimes our unemotional logic can lead us astray. Sometimes our unemotional logic causes us to hurt people, because we do not consider the potential repercussions of our actions or policies. Sometimes our unemotional logic decreases our ability to communicate with others. Sometimes our unemotional logic blinds us to ethical and moral considerations that need to take priority. And sometimes it doesn't.

Neither emotional reasoning nor purely factual reasoning necessarily define who is right and who is wrong on a given topic or in a particular situation. Neither provides all the right answers on its own. Rather, both are integral to understanding the world, making sound decisions, and leading an abundant life.

Today I will declare.....

"Emotional" is not a dirty word!