“Did my voice shake?”
I was taken aback by the question Kimberly asked me as she brushed her bangs away from her face.
“No, your voice didn’t shake,” I whispered. “Are you kidding me?”
Kimberly, who omitted her last name for this interview, had every reason to be nervous. She had just descended from a stage after introducing the dean of a prominent graduate school to more than 200 guests. On the night of December 12, 2013, students, professionals, policy makers, and concerned citizens from all over Pennsylvania and New Jersey filed into the large meeting room of a cozy mainline teahouse. The purpose? To watch the screening of a documentary Kimberly had obtained, to ask questions to a panel of experts that she had secured, and to hear the keynote speaker she had arranged.
The event featured a screening of an abridged version of Not My Life, which tells the stories of numerous individuals who were trafficked for labor, war, or sex. The keynote speaker for the event, Senator Stewart Greenleaf, is the sponsor of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 75. SB 75, which passed in the Pennsylvania senate just a few days before the event, is designed to educate law enforcement about human trafficking and to eliminate prosecution against trafficking victims who committed crimes while enslaved. “These are victims, not criminals,” the Senator firmly asserted.
Greenleaf’s speech was followed by a panel that featured Stefanie Fritzges, Special Agent of Homeland Security; Shea Rhodes, attorney and former Assistant District Attorney for Philadelphia; Sister Teresita Hinnegan, founder and president of Dawn’s Place and member of the Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking for the Pennsylvania Joint State Commission; Carol Metzker, author of Facing the Monster: How One Person Can Fight Child Slavery; and John Rafferty, attorney and Fulbright Scholar to Ecuador as an advocate for anti-trafficking efforts. The panel was moderated by Dr. Darlyne Bailey, Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research of Bryn Mawr College, Professor, and Special Assistant to the President for Community Partnerships. The panelists explained how to identify human trafficking and discussed serious systemic issues facing victims. They frequently visited the topic of inadequate shelters and protection for trafficking victims. Guests learned that youth victims are often placed in juvenile detention centers if other shelters are unavailable.
Mere hours after the conclusion of the event, guests began filling Kimberly’s email inbox with overwhelmingly positive support — something she had not expected. Guests found the event to be educational, but also left with a sense that their lives had been changed forever. Kimberly learned she had inspired many to become activists themselves.
I had the privilege of hearing the story of the woman behind this event, and to highlight her as a social worker and an activist.
I have always been inspired by Kimberly. She and I graduated from our undergraduate social work program together, and we are cohorts in our graduate clinical social work program. I am honored that she agreed to share her story and her work with me for Gazillion Voices.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kimberly describes herself as being an “orphan.” She knows nothing of her mother or father and believes that she was abandoned as a baby. She has no birth record or any other records that would verify what she knows of her origins or legacy. “The rest is unknown,” she told me. Her never-ending search for self-identity was the result of what would define her today. Kimberly recounted the many traumatic and heinous events of her life, but what is important to her is to relay the message that learning to survive and never give up hope is what brought her to where she is today. And, as she said, “It took me 44 years, but I am here now.” Hers is a story that gives us all hope for all children who endure abandonment as a child.
Kimberly found herself in the U.S. foster care system as a young child and recalls studying people — observing their emotions, traits, and behavioral influences — at a very early age as a matter of survival. At 13, she ran away from an abusive foster home, taking only a change of clothes and her stuffed animals with her. “You have to think of how young and innocent I was that my stuffed animals were the most important thing in the world to me,” she told me. “One day, I just I knew I had to leave. I literally said to myself, ‘If I stay here, I will die.’”
After slipping out of her foster home undetected one evening, Kimberly lived for the next six years as a homeless youth until she secured herself housing when she was 19. It was then that a local business school sparked her interest in business. Kimberly began working in business in New York at the age of 20, and described herself as having climbed up the corporate ladder for the next 10 years. “I did not have the background these places were looking for,” she recalled. “They want people with privilege, people with MBAs, people who went to Princeton and Harvard who are vetted for this work.” When Kimberly secured a high-ranking position in a prominent financial firm, she proudly remembers being the first person in the history of the firm to hold a position without a degree.
After a year in this position, Kimberly realized that this work was not what she wanted in life. She felt strongly that she needed to leave her job to embark on a process of self-discovery. Kimberly recalled thinking to herself, “If I spend one more day doing a job that is just not me, my life is not worth living.” The day following this visceral realization, she resigned from her position at the firm. One month later, she turned in the lease to her apartment, got in her car, and left life as she knew it. She relied on her savings to carry her through the road ahead.
At the beginning of this journey, she rescued a beautiful German shepherd named Josephine K-9. “I needed something outside of myself to love,” Kimberly said. With Josephine K-9 by her side, Kimberly taught herself to train dogs and opened a dog-training business that rapidly gathered frustrated clients in need of support and a listening ear.
During this time, she focused intensely on her own identity and issues. “Every day I turned over a new issue. Not a day went by that I did not work on myself.” It was through this focus on personal healing that Kimberly met a therapist who identified her aptitude to understand and connect with people. “He told me that I should get paid for the work I do with people. He told me I could go to school.”
Kimberly added poignantly, “It sounds strange to people that I would need someone to tell me to go to school, and that I would not know that I could go to school. That is the thing with not having any parents. When you do not have parents who can tell you that you can go to school, you do not know that you can.”
Kimberly began researching education paths that would allow her to pursue a career as a therapist. After choosing social work, Kimberly began interviewing graduate social work programs. Why did she seek out graduate level institutions first? “I knew this is where I needed to end up,” she explained. “I started where my goal was, at Bryn Mawr College, and I asked them, ‘What do I need to do to go here?’” Next, Kimberly interviewed undergraduate social work programs. Finally, she interviewed community colleges where she would take her first classes that would allow her to enter into a four-year school.
In 2010, Kimberly entered the undergraduate school of baccalaureate social work at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and in 2013, she graduated summa cum laude. Her GPA, high marks, and recommendations from her undergraduate program led to her acceptance into the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research program at Bryn Mawr College. There, Kimberly has advanced standing and will graduate with a master’s of social services in clinical social work in May of 2014.
I asked Kimberly why she chose social work. She replied that she was attracted to social work’s systemic focus on issues that surround people and their problems. She disclosed something that shocked even me as her classmate and fellow policy enthusiast. Prior to finding social work, Kimberly was absolutely disgusted by policy and avoided it. “I realize now that this was because I felt as though there was nothing I could do about the issues I cared about,” she said. Her social work education gave her the tools and frameworks she needed to address tough social policy issues.
When enrolled in a self-directed course at Bryn Mawr College, Kimberly’s passion to educate others about human trafficking and slavery soared. By the close of the semester, she had exchanged over 700 emails and countless phone calls that brought her incredible event to fruition. She advocated for the event to push beyond her academic community and to reach the surrounding mainline community. She worked tirelessly to coordinate vendors and volunteers. During my experience volunteering for Kimberly’s event, I was a witness to behavior directed toward her that appeared to be racism. It opened my eyes to the difficulty of pulling together a human rights event when unchecked racism of those intending to help out stands in the way. I admired Kimberly’s strength, tenacity, grace, and steadfastness.
Kimberly concluded that her traumatic experience in foster care influences, at least in part, her passion to end human trafficking and slavery. “I worked and worked and worked in that foster home. I was treated like a slave.”
At the close of the interview, Kimberly and I discussed the pieces of our narratives that we share in common, specifically our searches for mother, self, and identity. Once again, Kimberly poured her wisdom over the conversation. “The details are not important to me anymore,” she said. There was one point in her life when she believed she would never be whole. “I cannot subscribe to the broken pieces because it would be like admitting that I could only ever be a broken self.” She added, “The longing for my mother is gone. At the age of 44, I look inside myself to see my mother. I know she is a part of me; I emulate her.” Not knowing, the pieces can still be uncomfortable. “I have learned to find comfort within the discomfort. I have to,” she finished.
As our interview ended, we said our good-byes and a mutual “See you next semester!” My mind immediately drifted back to the moment I watched Kimberly introduce her event.
Melinda Massaro Ingersoll, MMI Photography, http://www.mmiphotography.org/
Standing on a stage where she had arranged couches, chairs, and a coffee table for her panelists, Kimberly delivered her introductory speech, explaining why she chose to create the event. “I believe we have a moral imperative to address this crime against humanity. These enslaved people are human beings, and their rights are being violated and stripped from their lives.” She ended by calling upon those in one of the wealthiest communities in Pennsylvania to utilize their resources to end human trafficking. “I think it is important to raise awareness and increase education among the public if we are going to change the discourse surrounding this issue and become a zero-tolerant community of human trafficking.” She had the attention of the entire room.
No. Her voice did not shake.
Join Kimberly and other activists seeking to end the trafficking and enslavement of people across the globe. Please contact your local anti-trafficking organizations for ideas on ways that you can help.
~ Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston