Student Blog Entry: Baby Steps

Students who will be traveling to Cambodia for this year’s service learning trip are currently enrolled in a preparatory practicum class. Throughout the semester and while in Cambodia, each student is required to write blog posts based on the material we are studying in class, our readings, our fundraising events, preparations for the service-learning trip, and experiences during the trip. The “Student Blog Entry” is a result of this educational requirement. This first series of posts centers on the learning that took place when students had the privilege of engaging in a virtual “Skype” discussion with Zara Zimbardo, co-founder of The White Noise Collective, professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, and an all-together invaluable resource for facilitating important dialogue around cultural humility. We hope you enjoy reading it and will offer your own thoughts and feedback.

“Baby Steps”

By Paula Ulrich

What are the first things that come to mind when you hear the term “sex trafficking”?  What are your automatic responses?  How are you informed?  How have you been misinformed?

I struggle in presenting a brief and complete “why” when I tell people I am traveling to Cambodia for school.  I often say something along the lines of, “I am going to learn about the culture, collaborate with people there, and offer trauma-informed, social action art therapy to local NGOs.  I will be working with teen survivors of sex trafficking, young orphans, staff, and groups of women.”  Sometimes I am eloquent.  Most times, less.  But in naming what I think is the best synopsis of what I will be doing, I have neglected to consider what impact my words may have on the people whom I am speaking with.  I have found by mention of the words, “sex trafficking,” people miss hearing the rest of my words and follow their own stories about what it could mean.

What spurred this consideration for me was our group’s recent Skype discussion with Zara Zimbardo, MA, professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies and co-founder of The White Noise Collective.  She mentioned how important it is for us to not only consider our own biases, norms, and assumptions, but to also be aware that those we speak to about our project will bring their own assumptions to the conversation.

For example, I mentioned this project to a medical doctor a few weeks ago.  He was immediately “hooked” and curious to hear about it, but became quickly dismissive.  “I can’t believe the things people do,” he exclaimed.  He, like others, was quick to praise my perceived efforts, and continue no further with the discussion.  Can you blame him?  Sex trafficking is a heavy subject for casual conversations about what you are up to over the summer.  Heavy or not, it is a real issue and a loud cry of suffering in our world.  Or as Zara stated, “Sex trafficking is a symptom of a sick system.”

We may find sex trafficking to be such a horrible subject we separate ourselves from it.  Yes, I am going to Cambodia and will be working with survivors, but it is not only a foreign problem.  Human trafficking of girls for sex happens in the U.S. as well.  For example, during our group’s Skype session, Zara mentioned the Super Bowl as the largest event for sex trafficking in the U.S.  My jaw dropped.

Here is just one of many articles: http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2013/02/former_sex_trafficking_victim.html (I appreciate this article for its highlighting of Clemmie Greenlee’s personal story connecting to the greater issue.)
And another: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/03/super-bowl-sex-trafficking_n_2607871.html

The issue of sex trafficking alone is a huge struggle for me.  It feels so much greater than myself, my group, this project, and three weeks in a foreign country.  Pile that on to the rest of the issues we will be facing in Cambodia, from cultural differences, to language and communication differences, to historical interactions of the U.S. with Cambodia, to issues around power and privilege, and more.  I feel overwhelmed.  I wish I had an answer to this painful systematic cry.  And right now, without an answer, all I can do is breathe and trust the process.

In the end, we want to struggle with questions, conflicts, and ethical considerations.  It means we are trying, learning, and growing.  I assess my experiences from both a personal and more global/social level.  The examination of my exchange with the world I live in is an ongoing practice, as it is a relational process, and therefore continually changing.  I hope to sustain this dialogue well beyond this project.  I also hope to find more successful ways to inform others, spark discussions, and eventually affect change.

It starts with each one of us.  Please, question what you hear.  Inform yourself.  Color the cultural air you breathe by examining what you have learned is “normal” and why.  Look at your place in the system.  Draw connections between your personal self and the stories you hear about others.  Take action.  Find those baby steps to begin great change.

I hope this process begins my baby steps.

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