Volume 22, Number 03 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 29 - June 4, 2009
Photo by Andrew Marks
Janice Erlbaum hosting the recent GEMS benefit at Bowery Poetry Club.
Helping sex-trafficking victims learn to shine
By WILL McKINLEY
It was a Friday night at the Bowery Poetry Club, and a group of ethnically diverse young women in their late teens and early twenties were preparing to take the stage. But these girls weren’t performers. They were survivors of New York City’s commercial sex industry. And they were about to share their pain in spoken word and song.
“Trafficking is something that people think isn’t happening in our city, or is only happening in certain neighborhoods,” said Rachel Lloyd, founder and executive director of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS. “But that’s not the reality. Girls as young as 13 are being sold on Craigslist every night, and then that same girl is often criminalized by law enforcement.”
Lloyd, 33, a U.K. native and herself a survivor of sexual exploitation during her teen years, started GEMS in 1999 as a one-woman advocacy campaign. In the decade since, the program has become one of the largest providers of services to youth subject to commercial sexual exploitation and sexual trafficking within the United States. GEMS staffers engage in outreach on the streets and in residential and detention facilities. GEMS offers transitional housing, healthcare, educational incentives, career training and Criminal Court advocacy.
“These aren’t kids who get an Amber Alert when they go missing,” said Lloyd, author of the upcoming book “Acceptable Victims.” “Last year we served 280 girls from all over the five boroughs. They all need support and love and a family.”
In addition to Lloyd and her staff, the extended GEMS family also includes Janice Erlbaum, author of the award-winning “Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir.” The 39-year-old longtime Downtown resident teaches a weekly writing workshop for GEMS members at the organization’s Harlem headquarters.
“Writing changed my life for the better, and that is what I want for these young women,” said Erlbaum, whose first book spun the harrowing tale of her own toxic adolescence on the streets of Lower Manhattan.
In the moments before the GEMS anniversary benefit began, a handful of current members sat next to the poetry club’s small stage, snacking on pizza and cupcakes and bouncing in their chairs to the reggaeton beats of D.J. Jools Palmer.
Erlbaum, a former comedian and East Village art star, welcomed the audience with her succinct assessment of GEMS: “It works.” She introduced the opening act, singer Imani Uzuri, who entranced the crowd with a stirring a cappella performance. Uzuri dedicated her final song, a cover of “I’m on a Long Journey Home,” to “strong women everywhere, including all of us” and led the crowd in an emotional singalong.
“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ ” Uzuri said later. “The community is very important, and the GEMS organization is a loving, empowering community.”
Next, with some playful prodding from emcee Erlbaum, the first GEMS girl was coaxed to the stage by enthusiastic cheers. Her hands lightly trembling, she read two poems from a dog-eared sheet of paper. Her second piece, called “Reality,” ended with the words, “What’s the point of my fight? What’s the point of life?”
“’Cuz we love you, Jen!” came the immediate and full-throated response from a sister GEMS member, followed by squeals of approval from the others. The young woman lifted her head proudly, smiled and made her way back to her seat, as if carried.
The final performer, a self-possessed 21-year-old GEMS graduate who joined the program at 14, sang the hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She concluded with the lyric “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.”
After the show, dragging on a cigarette in front of the club, Lloyd’s eyes were moist with pride.
“Some women get to have one or two kids,” she said, on the cusp of Mother’s Day weekend. “But there are hundreds of girls that I’ve gotten to see finish high school, to start their first job, their first day at college, to grow up. I get to share in their lives. These are my babies. I love them.
“There are no longer open-air sex markets on 13th St. or Chrystie St.,” she said, gesturing north, then south. “But it’s just as pervasive. It’s gone underground, indoors, online. It’s anywhere there’s a computer. It’s in these little second-floor nail salons on 14th St. It is happening on our blocks, near our homes. The work that GEMS is doing is vital and, with my big mouth, I want to talk about it with anybody who will listen.”