In this limited podcast series, Melanie Thompson, survivor activist and advocate, leads discussion around what life can look like after being trafficked. Touching on both the challenges and the opportunities for young people who have experienced human trafficking, Melanie, in conversation with other survivor leaders, bring their perspectives to help inform and empower young people who are on their own journeys of healing. These podcasts were created to supplement the newly released graphic novels for young people who have experienced trafficking, published by the Office for Victims of Crime.
Together, Nikki Bell, survivor activist and the founder of Living in Freedom Together, and Melanie Thompson talk about trust in the context of both the criminal legal and child welfare systems. They examine some of the challenges around privacy and confidentiality and trusting those who work in the system while also outlining ways young people can become confident in their own voice and power.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
So I think for me, trust was everything. Being exploited had me feel like I couldn't trust anybody. Women and girls are really pitted against each other. Instead of being allies and sisters, you are competition and, it becomes very complicated and challenging to overcome. But I will tell you that, people can't exist without support and community. I really believe that. We need other people, human beings just naturally need other people. And so for me, it was finding those few good friends that I could count on and really trust.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Hi, my name is Melanie Thompson, a survivor activist and advocate. I’m partnering with the Center for Court Innovation on the Child Witness Materials Project, funded by the Office for Victims of Crime. The project was created to empower and support youth, who have experienced human trafficking, by providing them with materials and information to better understand the criminal legal and child welfare systems.
This podcast series focuses on discussions around life after trafficking, including both the challenges and opportunities there are for young survivors. Today I’m joined by Nikki Bell. We’ll be discussing building trust and healthy relationships within the system. So welcome. I'm here with Nikki Bell, survivor activist and the founder of Living in Freedom Together based in Massachusetts.
NIKKI BELL: Thank you, Melanie. Thank you for having me.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. So when we're talking about the justice system, we're talking about both the criminal legal side and the child welfare side, and as you know, young people interact with the justice system in different ways, and it can be really difficult to know who to trust and who to open up to, especially when you're younger and new to the system. So what were your main worries when you first had to speak with people working in the system?
NIKKI BELL: Well, I think for me it's fear, right? I mean you see other kids interacting with the system and being removed or actually being punished for what's happening to them. And so I think my biggest fear was that I would say something that was happening to me and I would get in trouble, I think number one. And not knowing who to trust and who you could open up to. Even from the criminal side, it’s like especially survivors that are survivors of the sex trade and trafficking, it's like we've been blamed for the things that happened to us. So I think for me, it was the worry of punishment or that you'd be removed from your home or all of those kinds of fears.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And I definitely agree and can identify with that feeling. We know that trust is really big for us and something that I think all relationships between those exploited and those in the court system need to have. And we know that in order for us to maintain that healthy relationship and to move forward, we need trust. So what advice would you give to some young people who are distrustful of the system and what helps you overcome your distrust?
NIKKI BELL: So I think my advice would be to trust your gut. I think when we look at the system overall as a whole, we know that it is not designed to support people that have experienced violence. We know that it's been used as a weapon system to oppress people of color. So we know all of this, but I will say, the system is broken, but you can find champions within those systems who you can trust. And so I think for me, it would be, really trust your gut. And I just remember this one certain probation officer that when I met her, I knew she genuinely cared. You know what I mean? And I felt like I could trust her. And I think at first, for people that have been abused and exploited, our intuition is something that we rely on to keep us alive. And so I would say continue to trust that, and you can find people within those systems that will care, and you can trust.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm. I think we all need to find that one person for each of us. So in thinking maybe about the probation officer or anybody in your life that you felt like you were able to trust unexpectedly, I should say, do you think that allowing yourself to trust that person helped benefit you or helped you navigate the justice system better?
NIKKI BELL: Absolutely. I had been cycling in and out of the system and systems. And for me, at that point, I hadn't found anybody that I felt I could connect or trust too. And then here I meet this woman and I was actually able to be truthful and honest with her about what was going on in my life at the time. And I will tell you, because I was able to do that, she was able to get me connected to a community of other survivors and people that I was able to use as a support system. And also she was right there to advocate for me. Which I think is super important. We also oftentimes navigating these systems with really poor representation or no representation at all. And so having her standing beside me and saying, "No, she's trying, she is doing the right things," really helped me.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Yeah. I definitely think that I would agree with you on that. I think finding that one person is super, super imperative. And as you know I've been in and out of the foster care system and juvenile detention, and for me, trusting was extremely hard. But when I found that one worker that really seemed they gave a crap about me, it made a whole difference in how I viewed the people that I was interacting with.
And going off of that, you know, trusting somebody really means being able to feel you can open up, be a hundred percent comfortable with yourself and share the experiences that you've had. Can you talk a little bit about sharing your experiences with those associated with the system? So maybe your interactions with law enforcement, lawyers, social workers, et cetera, in the context of privacy and confidentiality, how did you go about that? Or how did you feel about that?
NIKKI BELL: I kept a lot of what was happening to me as a young person to myself, because first of all I didn't even have words to describe the situations I was in and what was happening, right? I didn't really understand fully my experiences until much, much later. But also, it can be really scary sharing your experiences with those in the system. Because sometimes you really just want to talk with somebody about what's happening to get support. Maybe not to start a criminal investigation or maybe not to have consequences or have people say that your family is unfit. So it can be really hard, I think, to be transparent and honest about our experiences, because sometimes we'll share those experiences and then the results of what happens from that conversation are really out of our hands. Right? If that makes sense.
MELANIE THOMPSON: No, I absolutely agree with you. And I think that that was a really real response that is necessary for folks to hear. It's not always going to be easy developing relationships, especially healthy ones and trusting ones with individuals whose jobs are to not necessarily be your friend at first, but it's to prosecute your case or to get the really ugly details about some of the experiences that you've had. So with that in mind, what would you say is a way, or what advice would you have for young people in setting boundaries when talking to these folks and on the flip side of that, in addition to setting boundaries, how can young people feel more confident in expressing themselves and advocating for themselves on what they need and want from these folks?
NIKKI BELL: Yeah. So for me, I think that the first thing is to ask, really ask questions about, who are you going to share this information with? What are you going to do with this information? So that you don't feel used or exploited afterwards. And so I think that when we're talking about setting boundaries, we can't set boundaries until we also know what the other person's intentions are for the information that we're giving them. So, I always encourage people to ask a lot of questions. “What is this process going to look? Who is this information going to be shared with? Why?” And then I think you can begin to advocate for yourself.
Then maybe it's not law enforcement you want to talk to you and it's a social worker. I think asking a lot of questions and having those answers. And then I think you can be able to start advocating for yourself and being confident that what you're saying is going to be shared with people that you want it shared with. And also that what you want and need is going to be addressed.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. I'm going to second that actually, and say, don't be afraid to ask questions. I know I was for many years. And I think that it's necessary to figure out before you open up what the person you're talking to, what their role is. What they, like you said, plan to do with that information. And who does it go to after? Because then you can better navigate who you want to speak to, and you can better navigate who you're going to advocate for in your circle and the team that's there to help you. So in general, whether it be in the justice system or in your personal relationships or your friendships, what role would you say trust has played in helping you move beyond your trafficking experience?
NIKKI BELL: Yeah, so I think for me, trust was everything. Being exploited had me feel like I couldn't trust anybody. And especially in the life, women and girls are really pitted against each other. Instead of being allies and sisters, you are competition and, you know, it becomes very complicated and challenging to overcome. But I will tell you that, people can't exist without support and community. I really believe that. We need other people, human beings just naturally need other people. And so for me, it was finding those few good friends that I could count on and really trust. And I think also learning how to trust somebody. I think we often go into relationships and we either share nothing or share everything and are hurt either way. And so learning how to have a trusting relationship, you share something, the other person shares something, and it's not just this one-sided relationship.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. We all need that person. And you're so right. In many of our experiences, we were taught to go against each other. We were taught not to be friends. We were taught to not share commonalities and similarities, and I think that that has really impacted the way that we view trust in relationships and friendships. And it's so necessary for us to try to reverse that mindset and really gravitate at least to one person. What advice would you have for young people who are say just entering a juvenile detention facility or a group home or child protective services who are looking to connect with other young people?
NIKKI BELL: I would say again, trust your instincts and try to find others that may have that shared experience that you can connect with. I would also say, I recognize it's really scary being in those facilities and programs. And so make sure that you find your champion within that program and advocate for yourself.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And I know for me, it was extremely nerve wrecking and terrifying going into my first facility, not knowing anybody with young people who were already there looking at me as if I stepped into their circle unannounced and unwanted. And I think that something that I would add to what you just said Nikki, would be to keep in mind that all of them entered at one point themselves and were also just as nervous. And we were all there for a very similar reason. So I think keeping that in mind and recognizing that you're not alone in that feeling of uncertainty, can be really helpful in navigating fostering new relationships.
I know Nikki that you've done and continue to do a lot of work both nationally and internationally. And I know that you have connected with a large survivor community here in your adulthood. I want you to talk a little bit about those relationships and the importance of fostering those connections within the survivor community, both in and outside of your professional work.
NIKKI BELL: Yeah. I can't tell you how many challenges I had both personally and in this work, right? And being able to be connected to this greater sisterhood, that have those shared experiences that we can connect on. And I look to people that have been doing this work much longer than I, and have this experience, and they have helped me through so much and even supported me when others were telling me that I should pass this on and let someone else that knows what they're doing take over. And so, having this sisterhood and these people championing me, was really important. And I will say just like any other community, you're always going to have challenges.
I mean, no community is perfect. And so just finding your people, and for me, I probably have a handful of survivors that I can call when I have a challenge. Whether it's a young person that I need to get back from New York, whether I'm having a personal challenge in my family life, whether it's something related to business, it's just amazing to have those folks I can count on when I need them.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And I think that applies even outside of the survivor community. Just friendships in general. Find your people. I am so pro saying that. Not everybody is made for everybody. And I think that when we talk about trust and fostering relationships, there's this misconception that we need to find a way to connect with every single person we come into contact with. And it doesn't have to be like that. For me, it took one individual in a facility that I was in shortly after I left court for me to feel comfortable enough to get through the rest of that sentence in my personal experience, and to this day, we're still best friends.
So I think it's just super important to just remember that you're not alone in that. Remember that there are other individuals around your age group who are just as scared and nervous in going through whatever process it is that they're going through and keeping in mind that having that one person can really be the difference between, for lack of a better term, life or death. And I think that we really need to continue fostering those relationships and continue trying to advocate for ourselves and the things that need so that we feel comfortable enough to trust another person. Because like you said, Nikki, we all need somebody. That's just how humanity works.
NIKKI BELL: Yeah. And I just want to add to that, Mel, when you're talking about that feeling of fear and nervousness when you're coming to this community that all know each other that that is normal to feel whether you're a young person or adult. So, I feel we've been drilled into our head that we shouldn't be afraid and put up this kind of false bravado, but it's normal to feel like that. And I just want people to know that.
MELANIE THOMPSON: It's absolutely normal, and it doesn't matter how old you are.
NIKKI BELL: Yeah.
MELANIE THOMPSON: So with that, looking back on everything that has occurred in your life thus far, is there a point or a time in your life where you felt you've made it, for lack of a better term, you've moved past your trafficking experience or do you believe that point even exist at all?
NIKKI BELL: So I believe that growth and life is constantly changing and evolving. So I don't think there's this place of I've made it, I am out, it will never affect me. I think being prostituted and trafficked will affect me for the rest of my life. And it's something I'm going to be healing from for the rest of my life. But I will tell you that there have been times where I remember there was one specific time where just hearing somebody, even with a shift in language, it really kind of shifted my whole mindset of "Wow, that's not something I was, that's something that happened to me." And for me that was this really freeing place where I could really start to dig in and start to do some of the necessary work, because that shame was lifted.
MELANIE THOMPSON: I absolutely agree. I personally also feel that there's no point where you really feel like you'd get out of your experience completely. You may be physically removed from the situation, but there's always going to be a piece of you internally that feels somewhat connected to the experiences that you've had. And healing is a lifelong journey in whatever that looks like for you. It could be holistic or yoga or deep breathing or therapy, whatever it is. But I do feel that there is a point where you could say, I'm no longer letting this affect me the way I once did. And I think that that's where the growth comes in. And I think you can relate to that as well.
NIKKI BELL: Absolutely.
MELANIE THOMPSON: What message would you tell a young person who's currently involved or just recently finished going through the justice system?
NIKKI BELL: I really want to validate how hard it is and let them know that they aren't alone. And that so many of us have had to go through that really difficult process and that there is healing afterwards. And also I just always to be really frank and transparent with people, oftentimes the system in itself can really victim blame. And I would just also want to say that none of what is going on is your fault. That's what I would say.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And that's so necessary. We need to hear it. I think I definitely didn't hear it enough as a young person. So I think that we need to hear that a lot more.
NIKKI BELL: Yep.
MELANIE THOMPSON: So with that in mind really briefly, what kind of practices would you say practitioners in the criminal legal and child welfare systems, what do you think they should adopt, to better support young people?
NIKKI BELL: I think there's this real push for trauma and prolonged service provision and all of that kind of language that we hear people using. But I do think that we really need to evaluate what that actually looks like. And so I really think it's always showing up for people with unconditional positive regard, no matter how difficult people are or you see them to be, because typically that's a trauma response, right? And so I think always treating young people with kindness. And we need to have more resources available and help kids navigate those resources, right? Because we don't do that enough. Oftentimes we hand people a pamphlet and they're like, "Here you go." That young person's going to huff it across the city to actually do that. It's scary trying to find support. So, I think we need to implement more resources, and connecting young people that are involved in the child welfare or criminal justice system to other survivors, I think is a really important component that is missing in the court system.
MELANIE THOMPSON: It's absolutely important. So you talked a lot about some of the things that you've seen and experienced as a younger person. So tell me some of the work that you're doing now and the work that you've been doing with other survivor leaders around the country.
NIKKI BELL: I, myself have been out about seven years, and I founded an organization and it initially just started as a support group, but as I got really more involved in this work and connected to other sisters around the country, I realized, we opened a couple of programs and have really created a lot of resources that are specialized for survivors of prostitution in our community. But in doing so I met other amazing survivor advocates, like you Mel. And was able to learn more. And so I've been working on that specifically here in Massachusetts, really trying to get the equality model implemented. So that's what we're doing now. But I love what I'm doing, I love working and supporting survivors and being able to provide employment opportunities for those of us that have exited the life and being able to use my experience to help impact other’s lives.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely, and I heard you talk a little bit about the equality model and that's a domestic effort, right?
NIKKI BELL: Sure. So the equality model is legislation that has been implemented in 10 countries around the world, I believe at this point, and I could be wrong, but I believe it's 10 at this point. And it essentially decriminalizes for the exploited and provides pathways out of the life while upholding trafficking legislation and continuing to penalize buyers in hopes that we can reduce the demand and reduce the vulnerable people that are trafficked into the sex trade. So currently there are multiple Bills around our country. There's one in New York, there's one in Massachusetts, there's one in Maine, that we're really trying to shift to. And so that's what we're working on currently.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Amazing. And just to end things off, what is some advice that you would give to young survivors or tell me something that you would have told your younger self?
NIKKI BELL: I would have told my younger self to not give up on myself, I think. I spent so long trapped in prostitution because I didn't believe that I deserved any better. And I thought that was all that I was worth in this world. And so I think I would say that to my younger self. And I would also say that there is a whole community out here of other people, survivors that have experienced what you have and don't be afraid to reach out and connect with your sisters and ask for help and support because that's how we get through the challenges and the trauma that we've experienced. We lean on each other.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. We are all about sisterhood and brotherhood here. And thank you so much, Nikki for your time and all of your expertise.
NIKKI BELL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MELANIE THOMPSON: This has been such a great conversation. Nikki, I want to thank you for your wisdom, for your boldness, and your incredible work. To learn more about the work that Nikki and her organization are doing visit, you can visit liftworcester.org. That is liftworcester.org (alphabetical spelling). And if you want to hear more podcasts like this, we encourage you to check out the rest of the series that covers topics such as building connections and trust within the justice system, creating a community of support, and the opportunities for the future.