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Meet Mary David of Journey Out in Van Nuys and South Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mary David.

Mary, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I first came face to face with human trafficking in college through a study abroad program. As soon as I landed in Cyprus, an island country about 70 miles from the coast of Syria, I noticed that I was being treated differently. The lowest class of society in Cyprus are the domestic workers, who are mostly from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Because of my features, I was often mistaken for a domestic worker and faced discrimination unlike any that I had ever encountered in my life. As a result, I wondered what these workers were facing inside the home behind closed doors. Initially approaching them at bus stops, I struck up conversations with them and many opened up to me. I began meeting with them frequently, and some even let me into their living quarters. The majority of the workers had been trafficked into Cyprus. Although they were mostly trafficked for labor, many of them also experienced sexual assault at the hands of their traffickers.

After publishing research to document their experiences and policy prescriptions on how to limit exploitation, I returned to the United States and was shocked to discover how prevalent it was in our own country. Never had I imagined b0ys and girls were being trafficked from Baltimore to Washington D.C., or sometimes at home by their parents. I was really disturbed by it all, and that motivated me to act. I started engaging in grassroots advocacy and became Deputy Chair of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, where I led state-wide trainings for emergency first responders, school counselors, parents, and any other groups who wanted to learn more about human trafficking. In conjunction with the Governor’s Office, I was able to help draft some of Maryland’s first laws on trafficking. Through that work, I was inspired by colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other attorneys who showed me the difference a legal background could make to strengthen my advocacy. That led me to law school and eventually to becoming a prosecutor in Baltimore City, where I screened for human trafficking in prostitution cases and referred victims to diversion programming instead of incarceration. I also handled all petitions for vacating convictions of sex trafficking victims within Baltimore. It was incredibly rewarding, powerful work. At the same time, I yearned for a more direct role in the prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation of victims.

I’m able to be involved in those very things at Journey Out. As Communications Director, I shape and direct our messaging as far as outreach to the public, trainings for law enforcement and other service providers, and sharing our clients’ successes. These directly impact getting victims proper care at the earliest opportunity. Whether that be cluing in a teacher about warning signs from a “disruptive” student, working with our partners in foster care or domestic violence institutions on how to screen for and respond to victims, or engaging law enforcement on how to coordinate a victim centered response, I love seeing the lightbulb go on in people’s heads. We have had some powerful outreach campaigns. One is the Human Trafficking Posting Project, an initiative that requires businesses to post notices of the human trafficking hotline for potential victims and tips from the public.

One of the most rewarding things I do is run our teen prevention programming, where I co-create youth-centered content for at risk teens on the realities, risk factors, and methods traffickers are using to engage them. We also have very real conversations about links of exploitation to the media, pop culture, and entertainment.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
When I first got started, I had no idea how to gain experience and legitimacy in this space. Back in the early 2000s, the term trafficking was virtually unknown. Getting into schools to talk about the dangers with educators and children was extremely challenging. Networking, going to events where I could meet and see policy makers, raising the question among leaders in a public space, that was where magic happened. When you put someone on the spot and stand in front of them asking to get involved, it opens doors. That was key for me.

It has taken me some time to figure out where I really thrive in this space. The hard thing when you’re so passionate about a topic is feeling like you want to do it all. I remember at one point very early on in my advocacy, I wondered if I should become a social worker or a counselor. But for me, I function more optimally on the macro level/ideas/driving solutions side of this work. It’s important to recognize where your strengths are and make sure you are tapping into those so that you can really make the biggest impact.

We’d love to hear more about your organization.
Journey Out is a space where victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation are empowered to leave a life of abuse and violence, overcome their fears, reach their full potential, and achieve their goals. We also provide resources through prevention programming to keep those at risk of sex trafficking and exploitation from ever entering the life in the first place. Our services include emergency housing, clinical counseling, street outreach, law enforcement crisis response, legal referrals, survivor mentorship, and job training. Through an initiative with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, we offer a program through which clients can have prostitution charges dismissed from their records. We also provide food, clothing, and other basic necessities for those who are in the life of commercial sexual exploitation (also known as “the Life”).

We specialize in serving adult victims and survivors, although we do occasionally have overlap with cases involving minors. 89% of our clients are people of color, so we really understand the dynamics of systemic racism, generational trauma, and a host of other dynamics that go into complex trauma for people of color.

One of the things that I am most proud of is that half of our staff are survivors themselves, which is a powerful model for our clients. Clients at Journey Out know they are working with people who have been in their shoes and are now thriving. It’s a powerful reminder and message about the resilience of the human spirit and channeling pain into a greater purpose.

The other thing that I am wildly proud of is that, as a result of our programming, 60% of our clients leave the Life altogether. While that might not sound high, the fact that over half of the women who walk through our doors, the majority of whom have been exploited for years, sometimes most of their life, can actually transition to a new normal for good… it shows that clients are truly finding healing and hope like they have never experienced before after working with us.

What were you like growing up?
I was always very social, imaginative and into creative arts. My friends and I would play outside at the park across the street and pretend to be lost on a deserted island. I also used to love writing poetry and novels. When I moved to a new neighborhood when I was 10, I made some of the girls in my class characters in my stories to get them to be friends with me. It sounds so funny to say that now, but it worked!

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Image Credit:

Ron Knerem Photography

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