This post is from the Pedal the Pacific blog. Pedal the Pacific is an advocacy organization that raises awareness about sex trafficking through a 1,700 mile bike ride down the Pacific coast.
A few years ago, I learned about sex trafficking for the first time and knew I had to do something. I was unsure of myself and of my passions, and completely unaware that this movement would shape what I want to do with the rest of my life.
In college, I joined my university chapter of the International Justice Mission and interned for Redeemed Ministries–one giant, global organization and one tiny, local ministry fighting the same injustices. As I learned more about every form of trafficking, I began to talk to people about it all. the. time. People weren’t very surprised to hear about global slavery, but they were floored to hear about sex trafficking in the US. In Texas. In our city. The more people I talked to, the more questions I found.
Who are the victims?
Where do they come from?
How many victims are there?
Why doesn’t law enforcement bust down doors?
Why don’t victims leave their traffickers?
Why does the demand exist? Who, what, where, why?
In the anti-trafficking movement, there are a lot of people trying to answer these questions. In fact, we have to have these answers in order to sustain the movement, understand the crime, fundraise, and prevent it in future generations. We have scrounged up answers, but many of the them are shots in the dark at best. This crime is too big and too hidden to make accurate estimates without extensive research. We are making progress (see the IDVSA’s human trafficking mapping project), but we will never defeat this beast without a continued pursuit for answers.
As a student of sociology and journalism, I am trained to ask questions carefully and with a grain of salt. Though I do not yet know what it will look like, I know this is my place in the moment–to answer the questions that will keep us going. I hope to join other researchers to bring the intricacies of this issue to light and pass on what we find. To be a movement that accomplishes anything, we have to know what we are up against. Going into my last semester of college (WHAT), I have no idea what this next step will look like. But I know I am not alone in this pursuit for justice, and I know the only way to keep this movement rolling is to keep talking.
To make even a dent in the commercial sex industry, we need a lot of people with diverse passions, ideas, and personalities. For this reason, I am fired up to be a part of the Pedal the Pacific team. I get to add my voice to an incredible team of advocates who all came to this crazy 1700 mile ride with different dreams. And I am honored to fundraise for an organization that will offer holistic care to survivors and TRIPLE the amount of beds available for sex trafficking survivors in the state of Texas (wow!!).
So, after sharing a bit of my story, I encourage you, no matter who you are or what you do, to consider where you might fit in this fight. Whether you are a counselor, volunteer, researcher, financial supporter, advocate, we need your voice. Our 11 voices on this journey will undoubtedly be loud, but to be heard, we need you too. So help us spread the word!
At 8am on a Tuesday in February, masked and hooded figures gather across the rural counties of Louisiana. It is quiet and calm, but it won’t be for long. The people carry an air of anticipation. Everyone is clad in bright hues, primarily of purple, green, and gold, with fringe running up and down the sides of their costumes. My photographer uniform, dark jeans and a cargo jacket, are intended to make me blend in, but instead broadcasts that I am an outsider. Repeatedly, I am asked, “you ain’ never run Mardi Gras befo, huh?”
I am unprepared for the day’s festivities. I knew there would be costumes, floats, and horses—all things appropriate for a family friendly event. But I didn’t expect the insanely high volume of alcohol. If I was in New Orleans, I would expect drinking to be the main component for a successful Mardi Gras, but I wasn’t expecting the 13-mile parade through Eunice, LA to be composed of several hundred drunken Cajuns.
As I take in the crowd, I noticed a large group of teens, blissfully hugging one another and handing out beer. There are cops on ATVs, but they ride by the underage drinkers with nothing more than a nod hello. Even before the parade begins, almost everyone has a beer in one hand and a Jell-O shot in the other. The parade was supposed to start at 8am, but we don’t start moving until almost 9. I hop on a float and meet Pat, a woman in her late 60s who has an affinity for Malibu Rum. “Hangover tomorra will blow, but it’s wort’ it!” she says to me between gulps.
A song I have never heard comes on the float speakers, and immediately everyone begins to sing along: “I don’t like golf, I don’t like swimmin’. I just like chasin’ them big butt women. We gonna do that butt thing”. I don’t know what “that butt thing” is, but the locals clearly do. One after another, songs I can only describe as a country-jazz-accordion blend with outrageous lyrics, come through the speakers. “You ain’ never heard Zydeco music befo?”
After the first couple of miles, the parade stops. From the middle of the line, we can’t tell why the front has stopped, but we find ourselves next to a four-foot wide ditch filled with muddy rainwater. The young men in the troupe are sufficiently buzzed at this point, and dare each other to jump over the ditch. With a running head start, the first man clears the ditch, with inches to spare. The next one takes the same head start, and falls straight into the mud. The third gets up to full speed, then slows, and deliberately belly flops into the murky sludge. Within the next few minutes, several more jump in, and it becomes difficult to tell who fell short of clearing the ditch, and who jumped in willfully. The crowd peals with laughter as the parade lazily resumes.
We pass by houses in the middle of the country. People on the floats throw beads at families sitting in lawn chairs at the end of their driveways. The Coureur de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras runners, walk up to the spectators and ask for alms. When I hop off the float, a masked Coureur comes up to me and kneels at my feet. He rubs my shoes and exclaims in a faux-French accent, “coins, Mademoiselle? May I have some coins?” I regretfully have none to give, but he wishes me a happy Mardi Gras anyway as he looks ahead for more generous prey.
When we stop again, a man walks to the middle of a field, holding a live chicken. He is flocked by twenty costumed teenagers. He throws the chicken up in the air. It goes up and up, and then bolts as soon as it lands. The teens go after that chicken the way young women go after the bouquet at a wedding, simultaneously carrying on the importance of tradition and the thrill of competition. They tackle and scratch one another, and a young woman at the bottom of the dog pile scoops up the chicken. She stands up and runs, chicken in one arm, the other thrust victoriously in the air. Again and again, we stop in grassy fields for the chicken run.
Around noon, I start to see people walking by the floats with fists full of sausage. I am told it is boudin, a sausage made of rice and meat. Immediately I worry I will be offered some boudin full of former chicken-run chickens. But the boudin runs out before I’m offered any. Merci a Dieu.
All my photos are hastily composed. Focusing on a single object seems impossible with all that is happening around me. One of the women on the float offers me a Jell-O shot, and I feel obliged to accept her gesture of hospitality. I accept it again, and again. Before I know it, I am beginning to feel like I belong. The spirit of the day is contagious.
But as the day goes on, I begin to understand that the mellow attitude of the locals holds solemn undertones. Courtney, a woman in her early 20’s who grew up there, tells me she left after high school to work in Monroe, but came back home to get away from some bad people. She doesn’t elaborate, but I can tell she is confiding more than she would if she were sober. She says Eunice isn’t a bad place to be. It is quiet and calm. The only bad part, she says regretfully, is the heroin epidemic, giving the impression that she knows people affected by the drug. As I spend more time with her, she points out a rich family whom everyone envies, young women who got pregnant in high school, and people she can tell are using much more than alcohol to get into the party spirit. As we pass families, Courtney repeatedly jumps off the float to make sure the youngest and the shyest kids get just as many beads as the older and more spirited ones.
The people I met today have hard lives the rest of the year. Their community is poor and isolated. It seems many high school students don’t go on to college, and most of the older women I met had spent their entire lives in Eunice. Their jobs as farmers and factory workers are thankless, and they can never get away from people who know too much about them. Mardi Gras is their day to come together as a community and forget life’s worries. Everyone I spoke to said they have been running Mardi Gras since they were 18, old enough to legally participate. Courtney and her friends even slipped under the radar at 13 and have joined the parade every year since. They take a day and forget their poverty, broken homes, and monotonous jobs. Like many other holidays, the religious origins of Mardi Gras have all but worn away, but the anticipation and tradition remain. Courtney said, “It’s better than Christmas.”
My hometown is the kind of place where people easily get stuck. Different people get stuck for different reasons, some good and some bad, but the slow pace generally has the effect of making people think they have all the time in the world. This story is about a good kind of stuck, one that involves building a life with a family. The first part of it is common, the second part not.
Temple, Texas is walking on a highwire balancing between town and city. It has as an arts community with the occasional cultural festival. It has four Starbucks locations, boasts one of the top hospitals in the country, and has a monstrous high school football stadium–the kind with a megatron you can see from the highway. But under this city-facade, Temple hasn’t yet shaken its small town attitude. It is still a one-highschool town where everyone is somehow connected. Everywhere you go, you run into a former teacher, a lady from church who you have apparently known since you were “this high,” and your friend’s mom who gossips to no end in the deli meat aisle at the grocery store. Young families are drawn in by this small-town ease, and before they know it, they have been in Temple for generations.
There was nothing wrong with our life there. It was a good place to grow up. There are well-kept parks and swimming pools, Sonic stays open a little past 10pm, and driving to a friend’s house never takes more than 15 minutes. I lived in a beautiful home, went to a fairly good school, and made lifelong friendships.
My mom was raised in Temple, and so was her mom. I don’t think she ever wanted to stay as long as she did, but I didn’t understand that until I was ready to leave. Nineteen years, and I was done. But my mom grew up in that town, and then she stayed to watch all three of her kids do the same. And then I didn’t understand why she had stayed until she was finally leaving.
Even more astonishing is that my dad had wanted to stay. He never lived anywhere for more than two years before college. His dad’s job with the State Department took them all over Asia—Indonesia, Korea, Thailand—, but he settled in Temple with my mom to raise their children. After my brothers left for school and it was just me at home, my dad would bring up the idea of moving somewhere. Sometimes it was California or Colorado, sometimes it was Germany. I think he meant it, but he would dismiss the idea when he saw how nervous I was to make friends all over again. Never mind that he had to do it every other year when he was growing up. But for all the times he acted restless, he stayed because he wanted me and my brothers to have something he never had — a hometown.
My dad always reflects on a day in Temple when he called my brother Garrett home for family dinner. When Garrett walked in the door, four of Sean’s friends sat around the dinner table while my dad finished cooking. Garrett commented that he thought we were having family dinner. “This is the family!” one of the neighbor boys shouted. Those neighbors were so comfortable in our house, and never in his life had my dad put down roots that deep. My parents stayed to give us that, and after over 25 years, Temple became my dad’s hometown too.
For all these reasons, I am proud to call Temple my hometown. But it was time. I was leaving, and they they had to leave too. They were tired of seeing the same thing every day; their bodies tired of walking the same paths–or rather driving the same path from work to home everyday. It was time for them to unstick their shoes and get going. So after I left for college, my parents moved to Manhattan.
During my first college summer, we began to pack up and sell the house. For me, that was the hardest part. Leaving the house. Or maybe it was was getting the house ready for someone else to call it home. I watched the obnoxious green walls of my bedroom be painted over with white and the scratches from my cat who had lived for 19 years be buffed out of the doorframe. We paid people to make the house generic through obliterating my memories from its surfaces. Not only did it mean I wouldn’t come back, it meant that it wouldn’t be the same house even if I could.
I still drive by. Last time I was there a neighbor drove up and saw my VW Beetle turning around in the cul-de-sac. Rolling down her window, laughing, she shouted, “just driving by?” I told her I was going to my best friend’s house across the street, hoping she would believe I hadn’t been staring at my blue-shuttered childhood home, the door still painted that resolute red my mom picked out. It looks the same, which is unsettling.
I remember clearly the day I walked out and drove away for the last time. It was July 4th, 2015. I didn’t want to let go of the handle as I closed the door. I stretched my arms out, my mom laughing as I hugged the house goodbye. I didn’t cry until she did. We both realized I wasn’t just leaving a house, I was leaving the last place that would be our home together. It was like donating the book of my time with my parents to let someone else read it, knowing they wouldn’t connect with it the same way I did. I would rather just keep it, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it again.
My parents now live in a two-bedroom apartment on the 9th floor of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. From their balcony you can see glimmers of the Hudson just past the other apartment buildings. Every little facet of life is different there. My parents don’t have a car. They don’t load up on groceries every other week like we did back home. When they need eggs or apples, they walk to the little grocery shop across the street. And if that shop doesn’t have eggs that day, they walk a couple blocks to the next one or wait until tomorrow.
My dad is working part time, learning Spanish, and taking guitar lessons. My mom spends her time meeting up with friends, reading books she never had time to read, and visiting every museum in the city. She was taking Spanish too, but she dropped out and has a little more time to watch Netflix now. They are constantly meeting new people and learning new things. They have grown in both knowledge and compassion. Like mine, their worldview is changing to see and understand people who are different from them. It’s as if we are all in college.
Many small-town Texans think that New York is too harsh a city to do more than visit. Their misconception is that New Yorkers are too cold to connect with. But that is not what my parents have found these last two years. If anything, my mom says, New Yorkers have a more community-oriented perspective than many Texans. In Texas, she explains, you get in your car alone, drive to your job, do your work, and drive back to your house at the end of the day. In New York, you get on the subway, where thousands of people from all over the world are made equal. You get off the subway and walk a few blocks by storefronts, pick up some groceries on your way home, and step on the apartment elevator with your neighbor. Even if you don’t speak to anyone, it is impossible to isolate yourself from the world around you.
People often ask me what it’s like to go home to New York. I have to explain that Austin is really my home now. Most other college students feel they are just here for now. Home is where they grew up and where their parents are, and they will have a new home wherever they get a job. When I go to Temple, I am visiting my grandparents, and when I go to New York, I am visiting my parents. Neither one is home.
Home is not where you grew up or where your parents are, and it is not where you know you will be for the next ten years. In one year, I may not be in Austin anymore and my parents may not be in New York. But we are learning that home is not where you have spent your life, it is where you are experiencing life. It is where you learn who you are and how to connect with the people around you. And though it doesn’t have all the trimmings of a family in a red brick house, it is more than enough to make a home.
I recently bought a new toothbrush. A simple, curved toothbrush made from 100% recycled materials. It came in purple, red, green, and blue. Trivial choices usually present a great dilemma for me. I didn’t want the next couple months of brushing my teeth to have a small pang of regret. I stared at the options, thinking through how the new toothbrush would look by my sink. My roommate got a purple one, so that narrowed my choices by one. I started to reach for the red. Then, peeking behind that red, I saw the white one. “I need the white one.” My roommate knew what was coming next and began her eye roll. “You know, because I’m a minimalist.”
This comment is not a new one. I have been on the minimalism train all year. Each item I buy is chosen with purpose. I don’t want to clutter my life with anything insignificant. This is a fairly new development for me because growing up, I was a hard-core hoarder. I was one of those kids who saved every note passed in class, even when it wasn’t juicy; one of those kids whose parents worried about bugs finding old Halloween candy under the bed. I had countless stuffed animals, boxes full of random treasures, binders with every homework assignment I had ever done. My brothers, who shared a room, eventually switched bedrooms with me so that I could have the room with two closets. Though I knew I didn’t need any of it, I kept everything with the seemingly logical purpose of well maybe I will want it someday.
Though I slowly matured out of the chaos, my sudden conversion into a clutter abhorrer came in high school, when my first dating escapade ended. It needed to end because I don’t think we really like each other that much. But I did like the confirmation I felt in being someone’s girlfriend for four months. And conversely, I hated the sinking dejection of someone not wanting me to be his girlfriend anymore. With this sudden loss of composure, I had to find a new way to regain control of my life. I began to clean. It gave me something to do so I didn’t have to think about what happened. I brought empty trash bags into my room, my closet, my bathroom, carrying each one down until I was satisfied by the new simplicity. I began to breathe again and to feel the contentment of uncluttered space. It was a refreshing restart to my state of life. Since then, I have been addicted, not to being neat, but to resetting my neatness. I can’t start a new assignment or project until my room is tidy.
I didn’t discover minimalism until college, but for the last year I have been bombarded with messages to minimize my wardrobe and live in simplicity. Ask any blogger babe or Pinterest addict, and she will tell you that minimalism is hip. These people are going nuts over capsule wardrobes. I have explored this topic, trying to find the right project for my life, and almost every capsule wardrobe article I have read follows the same pattern. You pick 30 items–including tops, bottoms, dresses, shoes, and accessories–, and make your outfits with those 30 items for 3 months.
For the last year, I have been carefully whittling down my closet, working my way into being ready to have a capsule wardrobe. I have consistently surpassed my ambitious goals of cutting out 30 pieces in 30 days. I have purged my jewelry and nail polish, my school supplies, of excess. And yet I still have so much, as I always have. I have become more mindful about what I buy, looking for staple pieces that will last and stay in style. I bought space bags and put all of my off-season garb under my bed. But throughout it all, I have still been shopping. I can’t help but think how complex this simplicity has been. Am I really living simply if my simple consumerism clouds every thought?
The idea is admirable: convert women who have too many clothes and nothing to wear into mindful consumers with stylish, but versatile pieces so they can stop fretting over their outfit every morning. On the surface the point is to reorient life to think about what you do, not what you wear. But this obsession with reorientation is still consumer driven. We are not breaking our shopping habits, we are finding excuses to shop and feel good about it. After each season ends, the capsule bloggers instruct you to pick new items to fill in your next capsule wardrobe for the next 3 months. And for those who think 30 fresh items every month is too restrictive, the disclaimer always follows. It is not about the number. Do you need 20 pairs of shoes? Don’t count the shoes in your capsule then! Make the closet fit your life. Don’t actually change anything, but trick yourself into thinking you are.
The consumerist cycle continues, and it was never about minimalism. Real minimalism exists, but it does not call for buying new clothes for each season, even if it is just a few items. True minimalists wear something until it wears out. They don’t hate their possessions, but they are not obsessed with new ones. This faux-minimalism that the internet is touting will never make life simpler.
I am reading a white-girl-Christian-feel-good book with a group of fellow white girl Christians. The author talks about her experiences of being over burdened and burnt out. It is about letting go of things you don’t really enjoy and recultivating a life that truly brings joy. I can relate. We all can relate. But she talks so much about how her stuff helps her to find this peace–her white Converse sneakers remind her to be grounded, her small golden star necklace reminds her to look up, her conservative kitchenware reminds her to breathe, her pared down book collection reminds her to read books she loves. And I get it because I do that too. I obsess over how letting go of the things I don’t love will spark greater appreciation for the things I do love. But the work is never done. I will always need a new toothbrush or want a new dress. And if my obsession continues, it will never stop being about the stuff and start being about life beyond what I own.
I believe materials have the ability to enhance our experiences, as long as the experiences do not become about the materials. My camping trip’s success does not rest on a french press coffee maker. My education is not about my ethically made backpack. My health has nothing to do with my sticker-adorned water bottle. And my body’s worth is not determined by what I wear. I am far from being a minimalist because I love new clothes and I can’t walk out of a Half-Priced Books without a modest stack. But still I see the good in simplifying. I do agree with these bloggers and book writers that by letting go of what we do not love, we can see with greater clarity what we do. But there is another step they don’t tell you. You have to let go of the process too.
When we first moved here I was angry. I wanted to hear the cars go by my window at night like they did on Cottonwood Drive. There wouldn’t be traffic in the culdesac to shine their lights in my window at night and hum softly as they passed. “I want to go home,” lauded four year old Kelly. Now fifteen years have passed and I can’t believe it’s over.
Why do we become emotionally connected to houses? I learned to ride my bike out there. I learned to sew in here. I watched Pretty in Pink and Gilmore Girls for the first time. My loud mouthed neighbor became my best friend. For some reason God gave us the emotional depth to look at wood and plaster and call it memory and comfort.
I left this year for school, and came back at Thanksgiving. I thought I didn’t belong anymore. I thought I grew out of home. It wasn’t necessarily my dorm that I felt deeply connected to. It was UT. (Of course it was the people too, but that’s a different post for a different time. This one is about physical locations). The campus became my new comfort and my new memories, and foolishly I thought I had moved on. I didn’t realize how much moving on there was left to do. Not until this week. The green walls will be painted white and the cat scratches will be buffed out of the doors. The house will look better, and the memories will be fewer.
My parents are moving from Temple, TX to New York, NY. It’s time for them to trust and hope and leap. They need something new. I have my new experiences and memories to make in Austin, so how is it fair if they are made to stay in little old Temple? I’m not angry or sad. I’m elated to know I won’t ever again ask “How was work today?” and hear the reply “awful” or “the same”. I can’t wait to see what is in store for them in New York, but I’m definitely feeling more than elation.
The word for what I am might be sentimental. The apartments I live in during the next several years will have some of the same pictures and books and movies. I will use curtains and couches to make them home-y. But never again will I feel at home without the added stressors of rent and utilities and water and keeping the fridge stocked and finding that lost sock without my mom’s help. To be as dramatic as possible, it is the end of an era. The era of a teenage homebody.
But I still have a month left.
So far painters and plumbers are coming and going. As are bugs. I’ve killed 11 flies today that were let in by the man painting the front door. (One of them was killed with my bare hands while writing this post). But in the midst of preparing for the garage sale, the move, and selling the house there are a few things I intend to do. I intend to watch a lot of movies on our big blue couch. I intend to eat food I don’t have to buy and use the washing machine and shower as many times as possible. I intend to make new crafts and throw old crafts away. I intend to laugh with my mom and I intend to relive memories through pictures and stories.
I’m allowed to be sad, but I won’t let myself become mopey. I’m going to accomplish things through my sentimental filter. This is the last month in this house. This is the last month in my home. And I am going to enjoy it.