Survivors of Trauma: You are more than your story

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times


WASHINGTON, August 16, 2012 - This is a letter to trafficking survivors interested in speaking (continued from July 19th).

Dear Survivor,

It is very important that you realize you have more to offer audiences than just your “survivor story.”  You bring to the table a unique and vital perspective to the many issues and topics surrounding human trafficking.

You have the ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are vulnerable to falling victim to predators, those who have already been victimized, those who want to better protect and care for victims, and those who want to prosecute the predators.

Your story matters in so many more ways than just providing an example of human trafficking. You are the expert in topics like prevention strategies, victim aftercare needs, and prosecution pitfalls, as they relate to your life experience.

If you have made the decision to speak after reading the first article on this topic, then I’d like to pass on the following advice regarding speech writing.

Know your audience:  Tailor your speech according to the age, size, and make-up of your audience, as well as the focus of the event and the setting.

For example, as a survivor of child sex trafficking at the age of 14, I will tailor my speech as follows:

Teachers / Social Workers:  I describe my experiences with teachers and social workers before and after the trafficking incident.  I explain the warning signs that were missed prior to the incident, the ways teachers / social workers helped me after the incident, and how I think things could be improved, from a survivor’s perspective.

Middle School Students:  I describe myself as I was in middle school, and I explain the vulnerabilities which my traffickers looked to exploit in a teen.  I will share where and how a trafficker was able to deceive me.  I will touch briefly on the trafficking incident only to drive home to them the dangers of trusting a stranger.  Last, I will share with them how they can spread awareness, how they can encourage friends to seek help, and how they can support others in need.

College Students:  I share a similar speech with them as I do with middle school students.  Then, I encourage them to join in the fight against human trafficking by sharing my story with younger siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, and any other younger kids with whom they interact.  I also encourage them to be role models for these younger boys and girls, to stay actively involved in their lives, and to ask them questions about school, friends, and personal goals.

Churchgoers / Fundraisers:  I will touch briefly on the trafficking incident, and then I will concentrate on all that I have accomplished since the incident.  I will encourage them to give to a cause that helps other survivors grow to their full potential.

Law Enforcement:  I will describe my interaction with the police before, during, and after the incident.  I will explain what helped me and what hurt me so that they can continue to better their system.

Keep it Short:  If you are inexperienced at speaking, then I recommend keeping your speech short.  You don’t know yet how well you will handle stage fright or how you will feel after speaking.  Lengthen your speech over time, as you gain experience.

Focus on Before and / or After the Incident: Do not tell the gruesome details of your abuse.  It’s nobody’s business, and you deserve to feel as comfortable as possible while speaking.

Write it Down:  Write your speech in a clear legible manner.  Reading your speech will help you stay focused.  Writing it down also enables someone to take over reading if you become overwhelmed.  As you gain confidence and experience, you can switch to listing bullet points to cover in your speech.

Relax and Breathe:  Take your time reading.  Stop to breathe if you are feeling anxious.  Pause as needed.  Make eye contact with the audience when you are comfortable and if there is a natural pause.

Have your speech ready well in advance so that you can prepare yourself emotionally.

In closing, I would like to encourage you to eat well and exercise the morning of the event.  Exercising can help to ease the jitters.  When it is over, I strongly recommend sharing your experience online or over the phone with other survivors for feedback and support.  If something just doesn’t feel right, talk to someone about it.  Working with other survivor speakers or advocates can help to improve your speaking experiences, or they can help you determine another way to express your story or use your talents in your journey.  You don’t have to publicly share your story in order to be involved in the anti-trafficking movement or to be an empowered survivor.  And, remember, you can change your mind about speaking at any time.

Good luck!


Interview with Keisha Head: Professional speaker and trafficking survivor

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Keisha Head Headshot

WASHINGTON, DC, 8 August 2012 – I first met Keisha Head at a conference in San Antonio, TX where she and Stacy Lewis presented a segment on professional speaking and interviewing to survivors and advocates for survivors of sex trafficking.  Keisha’s grace and posture were both inviting and powerful.  A passionate advocate for survivors of sex trafficking, Keisha Head was awarded the Paul Howard Voices for Victims award by the Fulton County District Attorney’s office.

“I am not a survivor because I escaped something horrific,” Keisha stated, “I am a survivor because I allowed my pain and losses to transform me into God’s instrument of greatness.”

In April 2012, Keisha stood with other survivors to deliver closing remarks at the U.S. Department of Justice Trafficking in Persons Symposium in Salt Lake City, UT.  Keisha’s experience with speaking includes working with such organizations as Juvenile Justice Fund, Polaris Project, the Boys and Girls Club, Job Corp, and the Law and Society Association, along with several colleges, churches, and grade schools across the country.  Keisha’s experience with the media includes interviews with Fox News and CW 69 In Contact, along with many interviews with her local news.  Keisha also served as an expert panelist for the United States Attorney’s Office Human Trafficking Summit, which was held at Georgia State University last year with over 400 participants.

Keisha did not always know she contained such a commanding quality for success and self-confidence, however.

“I was very angry, shy, and withdrawn [when I was young],” said Keisha, “I used to call myself unlovable [because] I felt like I was different from my peers.”

Born in Atlanta, GA, Keisha was raised in a troubled home where she suffered verbal and sexual abuse from an early age.  Her mother suffered from schizophrenia and was unable to properly care for her.

“[I] never knew my father,” Keisha said, “My mother has no recollection of him due to her mental illness.”

Removed from her home by age 12, Keisha cycled through foster and group homes and often ran away to escape the instability.  By age 16, Keisha was a single mother with a newborn baby for whom she was unable to care.  Forced to give custody of her daughter to her boyfriend’s family, Keisha ran away from child protective services.

Without anywhere else to turn, Keisha says a childhood friend from church introduced her to someone who could help her.

“I did not have many friends,” Keisha said, “[But] I always trusted people and believed their intentions were good.”

That’s when Keisha met Charles Pipkins, a pimp known as “Sir Charles.”

“He said I was beautiful and [that] I did not have to be homeless,” Keisha said, “He knew of a way for me to make money.”

“When you have suffered from starvation and someone hands you bread,” Keisha continued, “You instantly bond with that person, that’s what happened to me.”

Keisha said she had no idea Pipkins was a pimp.

“To me, a pimp was someone who wore loud colored suits and talked in riddles with all the words rhyming,” Keisha said, “Th[at] was what I saw in movies, and boy was I wrong.”

Charles Pipkins was ultimately sentenced by a federal judge in 2002 to 40 years in prison for running a child sex trafficking ring.

After facing many challenges, Keisha turned her life around and regained custody of her daughter.  Now a mother of three, Keisha says she advocates against sex trafficking not only to inform the community but to protect her own children as well.

“When I look at my sixteen year old daughter, I see the child I could have been if domestic sex trafficking had not derailed my life,” Keisha said, “It is a joy to see her surpass my accomplishments, and I marvel at her passion for life.”

Keisha’s story was featured in a Public Broadcasting Atlanta (PBA) documentary titled “How to Stop the Candy Shop,” which focused on child sex trafficking and those working to stop it.  This documentary recently won the Southeast Regional Emmy Award under the “Television News Gathering Excellence: News Special” category.

For those still trying to overcome their circumstances, Keisha had the following words of encouragement:

“It took me a very long time to build up enough self-esteem and courage to leave the sex trade.  For so long I thought that I was worthless and invaluable. But now, when I look at my family and the community that I serve, I understand how valuable my voice is in the lives of others.  I feel fulfilled because my life has purpose. If you have fallen victim to sex trafficking, please know that there are people who genuinely care about you and want to see your life flourish.  One of those people is me.”

Keisha’s goal is to start the first survivor-led organization in Georgia that will assist victims of domestic sex trafficking and help them emerge as thriving survivors.  If you would like to contact Keisha to speak at an upcoming event, please email her at

In follow up to a recent article outlining advice for new survivor speakers, I would like to list here ten tips for survivor speakers from Keisha Head.  Thank you, Keisha, for all that you do!

Pray. Your spiritual health is vital.

Dress for success. You represent countless victims. Show the world our potential to succeed!

Speak clearly and boldly.  The world needs to hear and remember your voice!

Be prepared. Make sure you know statistics related to your state.  Accuracy is important when trying to raise awareness.

Be honest. If you don’t want to share information, don’t. Untruths catch up with you. It is YOUR experience, own it.

Stand your ground. The media will try to make you answer tough questions. If you do not want to, don’t! It is ok to say No.

Have a plan. Know what you want out of the interview and what messages you want to send out.

Be a survivor, not a victim. Always paint a picture of success so that the world knows there is hope worth fighting for.

Always ask, “What will be the title of the article?” And request the reporter NOT use titles like “Teen Hooker” or “Child Prostitute.”  These titles do not portray a victim.

Smile! You are a survivor. Be Proud.


Interview with survivor Stacy Lewis: Stolen – From Playgrounds to Streetlights in DC this weekend!

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Girl in hoodie in tunnel

WASHINGTON, August 1, 2012 – “When I was child, I loved to act,” Stacy said, “I actually went to California and trained with actress Penny Johnson for a summer.”

From movies to plays, Stacy said she loved to watch the dramatic arts.   Her first play in middle school sparked her dreams to act. Stacy entered several competitions which led to her student internship with American actress Penny Johnson.

Raised in the DC metropolitan area from age five, Stacy’s dreams to become an actress were cut short at the age of 19.  After accepting a ride from an elderly man in the neighborhood, Stacy was held at gunpoint.

She explains how the man’s gentle and grandpa-like personality suddenly changed to a violent nature.  Stacy said she learned that the man had been paid by a trafficker to abduct her.

In an interview with KSAT in San Antonio, TX, Stacy stated, “They had followed me for quite some time and knew my pattern so they knew where I lived and threatened my family if I did not go…When I was told they knew what street I lived on and [that I] had a child, it felt more real to me than ever before.”

Stacy said she spent the following two years working for a man who treated her as a slave.

“Manipulation and physical abuse kept me at his beck and call,” Stacy said, “until one day I decided I couldn’t take anymore.”

Just before her 21st birthday, Stacy escaped “the life.”

It took me ten years,” Stacy said, “ten years after leaving the life to realize and understand that I had been a victim of sex trafficking.”

Stacy turned this realization into a dramatization called “10 Years and 1 Day.”  This spoken word performance includes her testimony of personal torments and her witness to child victims of sex trafficking.

Stacy not only captivates audiences with this performance, but she inspires them.

“The performing arts can be a powerful tool in creating public awareness,” Stacy said, “bold words and heart-wrenching performances can certainly ignite a call to action.”

“While it took ten years to fully understand that I was a victim, it only took me one day to believe in the sun,” stated Stacy in an interview with Fox 13 News in Salt Lake City, UT, “God was in the light all along [and] I escaped my prison while all the vampires were asleep.”

Stacy has been asked to perform “10 Years and 1 Day” at several events hosted by such organizations as the U.S. Department of Justice, Shared Hope International, The Araminta Freedom Initiative, and the Baltimore FBI Special Task Force, among others.

Marlene Carson, Founder of Rahab’s Hideaway, stated the following after watching Stacy’s performance at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Office (OJJDP) Trafficking in Persons Symposium in April 2012:

“It was like she was there when I was being trafficked.  I [have] never been able to precisely describe what happened to me as a victim of domestic minor trafficking; however, Stacy has used her creative ability to depict what victims/survivors couldn’t find the words to say.”

Nancy Winston, Senior Director and Board Member of Shared Hope International, invited Stacy to perform at an event which was held at the University of Texas in San Antonio.

“I have seen Stacy[’s]…dramatic performance deliver a message with the impact that an hour lecture could not,” Nancy stated, “Her brief powerful performance delivered the message full force and was talked about long afterwards. She is an amazing spokeswoman for our movement.”

Today, Stacy dedicates herself not only to her own recovery but to the recovery of other survivors through the performing arts.  Through her organization, Who is Stolen, Stacy offers survivors a platform to tell their stories for audiences across the country.

As stated on the website, the mission of Stacy’s organization is to represent “a voice, a face, and a story behind the truth of sex trafficking in America.”

In a brand-new production titled, Stolen: from Playgrounds to Streetlights, Stacy brings to life the stories of several survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution.

“Each of their soul-stirring monologues will take you from tragedy to triumph,” Stacy said, “You won’t be able to turn away [from the stage].”

“It’s a great opportunity to clear up common misconceptions people have on the issue of sex trafficking,” stated Shamere McKenzie, survivor speaker and Policy Assistant with Shared Hope International, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to use my talent as an actress.”

Stolen: from Playgrounds to Streetlights will debut this Saturday, August 4th, at the ATLAS Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC.  Show times are 3pm and 8pm.  Click here to purchase your tickets now.

Click here to request Stacy as a performer or motivational speaker at your next event.