This post is a series of blogs contributed by SMW NYC media partner Differences Magazine. To learn more about Differences Magazine and to see the original post by Jessica Bender, please click here.
You wouldn’t think that Rachel Lloyd had been through any hardships just by looking at her. Decked out in an animal print cardigan and fiery red pants, the executive director and founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)was the model for how powerful women should appear. When Lloyd strutted up to the podium at her own keynote at Thomson Reuters on Tuesday afternoon, she had a certain air of confidence to her, one that you can gain when you go through a traumatic experience like she has.
Lloyd is living proof that any girl, regardless of race or income, can be a victim of trafficking. For a good chunk of time in her teens (until she was 19), she was struggling to get out of the sex trafficking industry. When she eventually found a way out, she wanted to do nothing more than help other trafficking victims. “Squares would treat [these victims] like they didn’t belong,” Lloyd began. “If [society] didn’t change public perception about the way girls were being treated, nothing was going to change.”
With only a computer and $30, Lloyd started GEMS in the comfort of her own apartment in 1998. Although she first started to spread awareness about trafficking using typical grassroots techniques (petitioning, picketing, handing out flyers, etc.), Lloyd wanted to get the word out in a more creative fashion.
A book and a documentary put out by Lloyd and GEMS completely changed the future of the non-profit. Starting with the book Breaking the Silence, GEMS members told their heart-wrenching stories using personal stories, prose, photography and other forms of art. What really got GEMS the attention it rightfully deserved, though, was the film Very Young Girls. According to the non-profit site:
Very Young Girls is an exposé of the commercial sexual exploitation of girls in New York City as they are sold on the streets by pimps and treated as adult criminals by police. The film follows barely adolescent girls in real time, using vérité and intimate interviews with them, documenting their struggles and triumphs as they seek to exit the commercial sex industry. The film also uses startling footage shot by pimps themselves, giving a rare glimpse into how the cycle of exploitation begins for many women.
While the film had success at film festivals across the country, the documentary exploded on premium cable channel Showtime. Lloyd admitted that praise came from the strangest places, since the filmed aired during the late night on TV – even drug dealers in Rachel’s neighborhood raved about the movie to her!
Success may not have come overnight for the organization, but their achievements are undeniable. GEMS is currently the largest non-profit in the country working with sexually trafficked young women. They mentor over 300 girls each year through recovery and leadership programs, and currently have three distinct housing programs, providing the girls with services they need to conquer life.
GEMS’ current project has Lloyd hoping that sexual exploitation awareness will hit the mainstream. In partnership with trafficking organizations Free the Slaves and Polaris Project, mtvU’s Against Our Will Campaign was launched in September 2011. The campaign’s main focus is to empower college students to learn more about modern-day slavery and inspire them to take action to end trafficking for good. While being on mtvU is a big stepping stone, Lloyd dreams of getting the campaign on MTV by the end of the year.