Shout Out to Dine Out: Local artist sheds light on human traffickingMore Info
Lenox — January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Jeanet Ingalls is committed to spreading the word. In fact, she would shout from the rooftops if she could, and her message is resoundingly clear: despite the myriad advocates, organizations and individuals that will inevitably unite to raise awareness about the issue this month, egregious errors in the conversation exist—namely, the erroneous use of terms such as “child sex worker” and/or “child prostitute,” coined to suggest that victims of human trafficking have a say. “[These terms] make it sound like there is a choice [involved],” explained Ingalls in a recent interview. “When you are a child, you cannot consent to having sex with an adult, or with anyone else, for that matter,” she added vehemently. This is why Ingalls is particularly committed not only to spreading awareness about human trafficking but also to creating a common language that is accurate, one that puts an end to the “pointing and blaming” often associated with such crimes and instead seeks to support victims.
Human trafficking is an issue that touches every community yet remains largely hidden; simply stated, the first step toward putting an end to human trafficking is to acknowledge its existence. According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is defined as “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling, which involves illegal transportation of a person across a border. The different kinds of human trafficking include sex trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude; it is imperative to recognize that any person under the age of 18 involved in a commercial sex act is considered a victim of human trafficking.
“It’s happening … and it’s happening underneath [the radar], behind closed doors,” said Ingalls. “If you have the internet, then there is sex trafficking in your community; if you have parents who are neglectful, there is sex trafficking; if there are drug issues, it must be taken into consideration that parents will exploit their children for drugs,” Ingalls explained. “Yes, there are sex workers out there,” Ingalls acknowledged. “But they are adults—real people who are making choices,” she added while making this essential distinction. Ingalls’ understanding of these harsh truths stems from her own experience: She was born in the Philippines where she was trafficked by her mother, who was a prostitute, up until the age of 7 when Ingalls was adopted into a family who lived in the Berkshires.
In the ensuing decades—Ingalls is now 45—she has been putting her foot down to raise consciousness and give a voice to those who might not otherwise have one. It was this inclination to be an advocate for herself and others that led Ingalls to found Shout Out Loud Productions Inc., a not-for-profit organization focused on raising the global awareness of sex trafficking, socially sanctioned abuse and poverty in the lives of women, men and children through artistic expression, education, advocacy, and collaboration with like-minded individuals and organizations. It was at this time that Ingalls simultaneously came out with her own story. “For me, it was hard … I was still trying to figure out my emotions as far as coming out with my story,” she explained. And then the unspeakable happened: In a 2012 article, Ingalls was referred to as a “child sex worker,” a designation that both enraged her and catapulted her on a downward spiral. “I kind of went downhill,” she recalled of the press she received, noting that she felt the journalist had used the highly inaccurate and salacious term as a “selling point.” In retrospect, Ingalls’ gut was speaking to her: “It was traumatizing … [and] it took me a while to understand how I was feeling,” she explained before continuing. “I want to use this [experience with the media] as a prime example as to why I have launched my educational training—training that needs to come to the Berkshires,” she added.
This month, the second annual “Shout Out to Dine Out” will happen throughout Berkshire County. Each Thursday between Jan. 10 and Jan. 31, various restaurants will share 20 percent of their profits earned on the allocated dates to help bring Ingalls’ vision to fruition: raising funds to properly educate and train law enforcement, service providers and judicial leaders as they communicate with, and determine the disposition for, individuals who are victims of human trafficking, a social issue that threatens the lives of our children globally and locally.
The nonprofit’s moniker is rife with symbolism; it was through her work with survivors in Washington, D.C., as well as survivor advocates, that Ingalls began “to dig down” and understand that, in being labeled, she was being stripped of her value as an advocate. “[These people] started to give me a voice,” recalled Ingalls—a strong, powerful voice with which to shout out loud, literally. Yasmin Vafa and Tina Frundt are two individuals Ingalls is hoping to bring to the Berkshires—colleagues who she has tapped as capable of “help[ing] us to learn the language from the survivor perspective … how pimps talk to victims … [and] that language is translated into training,” Ingalls explained. The basic concept is that individuals—from those in academia and law enforcement to service providers—are providing training but “possess no survival-based credentials or understanding of what being trafficked is like,” explained Ingalls, which is where connections are helpful. Ingalls is raising funds to bring Vafa, the executive director of Rights4Girls—a human rights organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence against young women and girls in the U.S.—and Frundt—a survivor of domestic sex trafficking who founded Courtney’s House as a means of protecting children from sexual exploitation and the devastation that comes from it—to the Berkshires. This educational training is a must, according to Ingalls, who has tapped Vafa and Frundt due to their track records to date: Through their respective organizations, both women are working to change the narrative as well as the policies that allow girls to be criminalized when they are victimized.
“There is a lot of work to do,” said Ingalls. “In order to do this, we need to bring [the experts] here,” she added—o the Berkshires. There are myriad issues comprising the movement—stemming from how to identify a victim, communicate with him/her and offer support—and not everyone is coming from a good place. “Judges and lawyers don’t know how to identify victims,” explained Ingalls, “and people are still saying ‘survival sex’ (defined as prostitution engaged in due to a person’s extreme need) when there is no such thing as a child prostitute,” she continued. “Service providers are going to keep training one another … using the incorrect terminology,” Ingalls explained, which is why her endeavor to fund educational training in the Berkshires is of paramount importance. In 2015, Rights4Girls launched the “No Such Thing” campaign, urging the Associated Press to abandon the use of the term “child prostitute” to describe victims of child sex trafficking. In response to the nonprofit’s efforts, AP revised its influential style manual to instruct writers to stop using the term to describe victims of child sex trafficking. This, in part, is what caused Ingalls to “fall in love” with Vafa’s work. Despite changing language, laws need to follow suit—namely laws to protect survivors of child sex trafficking and to hold buyers and exploiters accountable.
In Massachusetts, Ingalls is “not at all happy” with the language of the law, which is precisely what needs to be understood if victims of trafficking are to be effectively identified and subsequently supported. At present, Ingalls is trying to rewrite the state’s Safe Harbor Laws—aimed at protecting child victims of sex trafficking from unjust criminalization—but “there are [still] some things that need to be changed,” said Ingalls who, when she does her research, still comes across the terms “juvenile prostitute” and “teen prostitute,” which, at the root, “are the things that need to be changed not just in our state but nationally,” Ingalls posited, adding, “we are considered a progressive state; I would like to make sure we move forward to understand the stigma surrounding victims and break these stigmas.”
Ingalls’ goal, to raise $10,000 in order to bring Vafa and Frundt to the Berkshires, seems reasonable. “They understand from a survivor perspective,” she added with palpable passion. And they can teach others what questions to ask: What’s happening? Who is the perpetrator? Where is the trauma? And perhaps, most importantly, How can I help you? “Both of them are willing,” said Ingalls, and “if I don’t raise the money, I’m going to have to get a third and fourth job to bring them here,” she said with a straight face. Her goal is to make this happen soon—if not by this spring then by 2020—and she is employing an all-hands-on-deck mentality in the process. Donations of airline mileage or a place to stay are all ways to “get the community together, and get thrilled that these women want to come and help our community understand the young people who have been forced into this heinous crime,” Ingalls urged. Ingalls sees herself as a facilitator: “When I do trainings, I do lectures on the basics of what human trafficking looks like,” she explained. “I am not an expert. Finding the best people to do this job—if people want to call me an expert, that is my expertise.”
Ingalls is quick to cite the ardent champions in her community of supporters as getting her this far. “If it wasn’t for my mentors, my teachers—the people around me that took care of me—I would not be here today,” she shared. That said, trauma will forever be part of Ingalls’ story. While searching for a foundation, as a student at Lenox Memorial High School, Ingalls turned to art and painting in particular. “I started to realize how art was calming me,” she recalled, noting that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Painting was “a therapeutic kind of thing for me to do.”
“It’s interesting, when my life gets direction, my art kind of diminishes … it means I am healing, but it’s also sad,” she added before trailing off.
Herein lies the bittersweet: To be human means we are forever resetting, reinventing and moving forward. “I like to think I am strong,” said Ingalls. But she is not stopping there. “Everyday life struggles can swallow you—it’s the quality of being human,” she said. But here is the zinger: “When a struggle is presented to you, how do you display it? Mold it? Make it work for you? Survive through it? That is a question everyone should be asking themselves.”