Renee Jones Empowerment Center offers hope and the bonds of community to human trafficking victims
by Silk Allen
(Plain Press, February 2020) Horse therapy, fashion clinics, camping, yoga; the activities read like the brochure of a swanky social or country club, but no; these are some of the services provided by the Renee Jones Empowerment Center (RJEC) for victims of human sex trafficking and sexual assault.
RJEC believes in combining services designed to provide survivors with holistic healing and restoration, and has helped victims and survivors of human trafficking and sexual assault since its inception in 2002. The center has even bigger goals after moving from a small storefront on W. 65th in the Gordon Square area of the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood and expanding to a large two story multi room building on W. 25th and Archwood in the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood.
Speaking of the reason for the move from the Gordon Square area, founder, president and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Renee Jones said, “The community changed, and the population is not from that area. We want to reach people that would benefit, and there was limited space.”
The RJEC started off as an idea that Jones had after creating a weekly empowerment program for homeless men at the Bishop Cosgrove Center to help them get off of public assistance and into a home of their own with dignity and self-sufficiency. After realizing the continued success of that program, Jones envisioned a new community center that would address specific needs of the community and help empower vulnerable individuals. As time went on, Jones noticed more human trafficking victims needing help, and in 2008, she created Project Red Cord as a response to the urgent and unique needs of the women. Project Red Cordwas designed to provide those with the courage to break the chains of trafficking with life coaching and after care services.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Ohio ranks in the top five states for human trafficking due to several factors including having large urban and rural areas, a massive transient and immigrant population, and five major highways that lead to other states and Canada.
RJEC helps victims and survivors by providing them with resources and services that are otherwise unavailable to them and all in one place. They receive help with housing, medical and legal concerns, but also through holistic healing and restoration programs and events designed especially for them with the suggestions from survivors. This act creates a much-needed sense of empowerment for the women to see things that they suggested, being implemented. Activities like journaling, art therapy, intergenerational support groups and social outings do more than just help the ladies; they are also beneficial to the communities that the ladies live in.
“You need diversity and exposure. It can’t be all sanitized,” Jones said when asked of the extracurricular programs that include women of all ages, races and socio-economic backgrounds. The support groups, especially, are all inclusive and a way for victims and survivors to share resources, discuss problems unique to them, and offer up solutions and ways to cope with the trauma that they have been subjected to.
“Love is the most powerful force in the world. You heal the whole person by showing them love, hope, self-esteem and self-confidence,” Jones said. And the way to do that is through community events and outings that connect the survivors to their passions and talents by building relationships. Trafficking is a very isolated lifestyle and some victims and survivors lose their family in the process. Even though everything has been traumatic for them, they learn the beauty of friendships through bonding with others, all while creating new memories and experiences that connect to happy memories.
The annual Break the Chains of Human Trafficking Gala, now in its 8th year, is held every November and is one event that helps the ladies step out of their comfort zone as well asraising funds for the center. There is a cocktail hour, a raffle, auctions, $100 plates and live music, but the highlight is the Survivor Spotlight where some of the ladies tell their stories and give updates on their life as a survivor. They all step out in style with dresses donated from “INSERT HERE” and debut their elegant looks on the dance floor as they ballroom dance with gentlemen volunteers. What may be seen as a fancy fundraising party to the naked eye is a golden opportunity for the women to present themselves to family and friends in a new light and to take up space replacing old traumatic horrifying memories with newer better ones.
Recently there has been an uptick about human sex trafficking in the news and while awareness is being raised on the act itself, it is important to know how you can identify victims and SAFELY help them. Here are several indicators and red flags according to the State of Ohio’s website on human trafficking that could alert you to someone being exploited:
- Living with employer
- Poor living conditions
- Multiple people in cramped space
- Inability to speak to individual alone
- Answers appear to be scripted and rehearsed
- Employer is holding identity documents
- Signs of physical abuse
- Submissive or fearful
- Unpaid or paid very little
- Under 18 and in prostitution
Some victims may be too afraid to receive your help, but if you are able to speak with the individuals alone, then ask them questions like- Can they come and go as they please? Have you been hurt or threatened if you tried to leave? Has your family been threatened? Where do you sleep or eat? If you think someone is being trafficked, do not try to save them yourself because you could possibly end up doing more harm. Call 911 for immediate help and then follow up with the 24-hour, multi-lingual National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888.
Other ways that you can help RJEC are by going on the website to find out how to donate money, time or provide a service or expertise for victims and survivors. If you are a business, first responder, federal employee, educator or in law enforcement, human trafficking training is available to you. For more information visit the RJEC website www.rjecempower.org