"Jahra" by Jeremy Vernon is one of several illustrations by the artist that appear in the documentary film, "Still I Rise." Credit: courtesy Jeremy Vernon

On a clear night in February 2016, a group gathered in downtown Oakland for a candlelight vigil. The attendants were dressed in black; one wore a t-shirt that read “The Black Woman is God.” At the vigil, held in honor of the survivors of human trafficking, people spoke about the trauma held in Black women’s bodies. 

How to watch

“Still I Rise” can be streamed online for free at: www.stillirisethefilm.com.

Producer/director Sheri Shuster and advocate Holly Joshi will be teaming up for a 1-hour panel discussion on Zoom, hosted by Parlay House, about the intersection of racism and sex trafficking on March 11 at 5 p.m.

Six miles away, girls strode in stick-thin heels on a strip of International Boulevard in East Oakland known as “the walk” or “the blade,” where hundreds of teenage girls are trafficked each year. Though sex trafficking happens across the country, Oakland has been identified since the early 2000s as a hub for the exploitation of girls; that exploitation is especially visible on the strip. But the vigil called attention to a fact that’s less widely discussed—Black girls are far and away the most common victims. 

Standing a few feet from the vigil with a video camera was Sheri Shuster, the filmmaker behind Still I Rise, a new documentary about human trafficking released in December. Set in Okaland, the film follows the interweaving stories of Leah Albright-Byrd, an advocate who survived human trafficking in the Bay Area as a teenager, and Holly Joshi, the former chief of staff of the Oakland Police Department who left to address trafficking through non-profits, and now works as a community-based researcher. The film humanizes survivors of sex trafficking in the Bay Area and does something that most examinations of the topic haven’t: provide an intersectional analysis that considers race and gender. 

“The fact is that next to nobody—legislators, mainstream media, even many advocates—is saying that race is one of the biggest risk factors for being trafficked,” Shuster said. “If you’re going to ignore the relationship between race and sexual exploitation, you’re going to perpetuate the crime.” The documentary addresses why Black girls are disproportionately exploited by examining the historical legacy of slavery, gendered expressions of trauma, connections with the movement for Black lives, and the changing role of police and punishment.

Holly Joshi (left) and Leah Albright-Byrd in a still from the documentary film, “Still I Rise.” Credit: courtesy Sheri Shuster

Understanding sex trafficking as a product of intersectional oppression

People tend to think sex trafficking—which includes anytime someone is forced to sell sex, and any commercial sexual activity with a minor—happens only outside of the United States. When it comes to girls on street corners in cities across the U.S., there’s a lack of empathy: Girls are seen as prostitutes, not victims. “When it happens at home, it’s ‘those girls,’” Albright-Byrd says in the documentary.

The film is Shuster’s attempt to bridge the empathy gap. Shuster, an Iranian woman, spent years supporting young people who were being exploited or vulnerable to exploitation in Oakland, first at a non-profit called Covenant House that serves homeless youth and then as a volunteer at MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth). Despite the direct service, she wanted to do more. “I thought to myself, ‘Someone needs to do something. These kids are being fed to the wolves,’” Shuster said. 

Eight years ago, with no experience in filmmaking, Shuster bought a video camera, a Mac computer, and started collecting footage. She interviewed neurobiologists about the brain science of trauma, state senators about policy, and a host of survivors. When she met Joshi and Albright-Byrd, the documentary’s focus on African-American women and girls began to crystallize. 

As Shuster sought funding, she found people in the movie business unwilling to support a film about sex trafficking that focused on race. “I can’t tell you how many times funders were initially interested in the film.” When she started talking about race, she said, those same funders turned her away. 

Shuster persisted, following her two heroines with a camera for years—Albright-Byrd through speaking engagements, policy and advocacy work, and Joshi as head of the OPD’s Vice and Child Exploitation Unit and then as the director of MISSSEY. 

Albright-Byrd said helping to make the film was therapeutic to her personally, as an African American woman who’d experienced trafficking firsthand; she was exploited for four years in the Bay Area and Nevada, beginning when she was 14 years old. In 2011, she founded a non-profit called Bridget’s Dream to fight trafficking, work that ranged from educating police departments to providing direct support to girls. She described herself as bringing a “deep understanding of the therapeutic and healing needs of someone who’s been through that level of trauma” to her advocacy efforts.

Leah Albright-Byrd, a trafficking survivor, in a still from the documentary film, “Still I Rise.” Credit: courtesy Sheri Shuster

Abuse that Albright-Byrd experienced earlier in her life made her vulnerable to exploitation as a teenager. Many girls who enter “the life” are already victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, or other trauma. “The more systemic oppression you’re dealing with growing up, the more vulnerable you’re going to be. Child sex trafficking is only one manifestation of that vulnerability,” Shuster said. 

At the center of that vulnerability is an all-too-human yearning for love. In the film, Albright-Byrd describes herself as “a 14-year old girl who’s been through domestic violence and has cultural identity issues and just wants somebody to love her,” a desire for love that her pimp manipulated for his own financial gain. It took Abright-Byrd years to understand that trauma-bonding, in which victims of abuse develop attachment to their abusers, had been keeping her there, a phenomenon she later witnessed in her work with survivors. 

“When we’re talking about love, I also want us to ground in that lack of justice,” said Joshi, referencing Cornel West’s famous quote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” “When we’re talking about systemic oppression, lack of access, historical trauma, we’re still talking about love or the lack thereof, or lack of recognizing the full humanity of people. In that sense, love is central to understanding trafficking and all the intricacies that create the vulnerabilities.” 

In a city where extreme wealth juts up against extreme poverty, those vulnerabilities intersect brutally with exploitation. Close to a third of families in Oakland earn over $200,000 per year, while a third of Black families in the city make less than $30,000 per year. “Oakland is surrounded by really affluent communities and people who are actively buying sex. Because of that, if you have a highly vulnerable population surrounded by a growing demand, there’s going to be a significant problem,” Albright-Byrd explains. While most victims of trafficking are girls of color, most people who buy sex are middle-to-upper class white men.

The same forces that put Black girls at risk for exploitation do the same for Black boys, but how that vulnerability manifests is gendered. In the film, Joshi recounts a conversation she had with a girl who was being exploited and, immediately after, talking to her pimp. She realized that the circumstances of their lives, the abuse and neglect they had both experienced, were mirror images of each other. “We are beginning to understand as a society how we’re creating the vulnerabilities to be an exploiter just like we’re creating the vulnerabilities for victims,” Joshi said. 

“We have to look at the fact that a group of people who are all the descendants of slaves are now disproportionately represented” in human trafficking, Albright-Byrd said. “There’s a correlation there that we can’t overlook.” 

Criminalizing Black girls, and the role of police

When Albright-Byrd was 15-years-old, she and another victim of trafficking took their pimp’s car and made an attempt to escape. As they drove from Oakland to Sacramento, they were stopped by the police and arrested for driving a stolen vehicle. It was 1999, and Albright-Byrd faced a punitive law-enforcement system with little compassion for the circumstances that led to her arrest. Her probation report described her as a “15-year-old who seemed to prefer to work the streets with the assistance of a pimp.” 

“It’s laughable when I think about it now, because to attribute my victimization to a preference just spoke of how uneducated our systems were at the time, because that was absolutely not true,” Albright-Byrd said. “I was not seen as a victim of anything, but being treated as a criminal,” she said.

Too often, Black girls are arrested for behaviors that are manifestations of abuse: “The most common crimes for which girls are arrested—including running away, substance abuse, and truancy—are also the most common symptoms of abuse,” according to a 2019 report called The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline. And sexual abuse in particular is one of the most common predictors of girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system. 

The perception that a girl being trafficked is engaging in a criminal act is inextricable from the racist, patriarchal foundation of this country, according to Shuster. “Hyper-sexualization and exploitation are fundamental aspects of the way that Black women have been treated in this country for hundreds of years,” Shuster said. “I think of child sex trafficking on a continuum of oppression that started with trans-Atlantic slave trade and has evolved into what we see as modern day human trafficking.”

Albright-Byrd held onto that probation report, “not to shame our law enforcement but to highlight our evolution,” she said. From her perspective, police have come a long way in understanding and supporting victims of trafficking. Years later, when Albright-Byrd was in her 30s and visiting her mom at a truck stop, Albright-Byrd was confronted by a law enforcement officer, who peppered her with questions. He had mistaken her for a victim of trafficking and was trying to get her help. The experience was heart-warming to Albright-Byrd; it was a sign of the changing tides. In 2016, California lawmakers passed SB 1322, which decriminalized child prostitution, a necessary step to getting survivors of trafficking help. Still, advocates like Joshi would like to see adult survivors of trafficking decriminalized as well.

Though there’s been progress, the police, who too often inflict additional harm on victims, have a long way to go before they are part of the solution, said Joshi. The film tracks Joshi’s own trajectory from an undercover police officer with a traditional “protect and serve” mindset to an advocate who is skeptical of the role police should play. 

Joshi worked for years to reform the Oakland Police Department, which was riddled with scandals rooted in what Joshi describes as a misogynistic, anti-Black culture. “Jokes and references to female anatomy were commonplace in the police academy, conversations and condemnations about the sex lives of female officers were everywhere from locker rooms to formal tactical team meetings,” Joshi wrote in an op-ed in The East Bay Express after she finally resigned from the police department in September 2015. 

That culture boiled over into scandal just 9 months after Joshi left when it was exposed that 14 OPD officers took advantage of a 17-year-old girl who was being trafficked on the streets. Joshi was shaken by the incident. She had spent so long trying to “train the police and change policy and change our practices” only for the culture to rear its ugly head in the most damaging of ways. “I had a lot of compassion for her and felt a personal sense of responsibility for what we weren’t able to accomplish, obviously, while I was there,” she said.

“That scandal was not the first or the last,” said Joshi, who argues that misogynistic, anti-Blackness is entrenched in the culture of OPD. “Police culture lives at the intersection of gendered and racial oppression. Any serious police reform effort has got to have an intersectional analysis that addresses both of those things.” 

After leaving the police department, Joshi opted to provide direct services to trafficked girls instead, a move that left her questioning the role of law enforcement. “It starts with us redefining what American policing is. We all know it comes from slave-catchers. That foundation is not going to work,” Joshi said. Now, Joshi supports both efforts to reform the police, as well as efforts to reallocate funds toward other services. Having seen law enforcement save lives in life-threatening trafficking emergencies, she “can’t say there isn’t a role for law enforcement.” But it needs to be “redefined, and survivors need to be central to the conversation, not our moral projected judgements about what they need.”

While Oakland is a hub for human-trafficking, it has also been a leader in the fight against it. In 2007, MISSSEY became the first organization in Oakland to focus specifically on serving trafficked youth. Since then, the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition and Alameda County HEAT Watch, created by the District Attorney’s Office in Alameda County, have emerged to join the movement to end exploitation. And Oakland has become a national center for conversations to defund police and reroute funding to other programs. 

But work specific to anti-trafficking is only part of a complex network of intertwined solutions needed to address this issue. “Anything helping to address the root causes and conditions [of trafficking] could be considered contributing to the solutions,” Joshi says, citing efforts to put in place reparations, redistribute wealth, and work on homelessness, women’s health, community safety, and access to early childcare, as well as her current work in community-based research. “Those are all anti-trafficking efforts,” Joshi said.

“In order to get to the deeper root causes of human-trafficking, America needs to have a deep reckoning with its past,” Joshi said.