By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer
There’s not much you can say that will phase a woman like Rena Williams. As the founder of a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting survivors of sex trafficking and a former prostitute herself, she’s seen it all, heard it all, lived it all, built up walls around all those hard experiences.
But no matter how thick those walls are, her heart is on full display when she works with her clients. So it’s the smallest thing, like a poem that a client once wrote for her, that tug at her heart and make those walls come crumbling down.
It has been a long, hard path for Rena to get to the place where she could help others. When Rena was pushed into the lifestyle as a teenager it began a vicious cycle common to sex trafficking victims: a sense of shame led her to accept violent behavior from pimps and others. To cope with the violence, she turned to drugs. To feed the addiction, she relied more on prostitution.
Prostitution, she says, is itself a kind of addiction, a fleeting sense of power that disappears quickly and leads back to shame. That shame also kept her in an abusive marriage for years until she finally began to wonder if she didn’t deserve more in life. At that point, she also had to face the guilt she felt for the example she had set for her two daughters, one of whom had followed in her footsteps.
Despite all this, her strong sense of self managed to break through and she began to take the lead in her life. First, she enrolled in a training program called Prostitution Alternatives that helped her envision a life outside of the streets. Then she kicked a nasty crack cocaine habit and went into recovery. She never went back to either one.
“It’s about helping them redefine in their own terms what right and wrong are.”
In her training, she learned an important lesson: it wasn’t her fault. She could stop blaming herself for what her younger, underage self did to survive. She took that lesson and ran with it when, a few years later while attending a seminar about sex trafficking, it dawned on her that there were countless others like her who needed help, just like she did. So she decided right then and there to begin Another Level, her support group for survivors, and soon after became a Certified Recovery Mentor.
Her role is complex, difficult and exhausting but she makes it sound simple: it’s just about listening to her clients, understanding them, and leading them to recognize triggers and unhealthy relationships. It’s about helping them redefine in their own terms what right and wrong are; what’s right for them, what’s wrong for them, what being loved means. It’s about helping them break the cycles that have left them reeling from their own personal histories.
In a world where sex trafficking is little understood and often stigmatized, the services Rena provide are a lifeline to survivors of the industry. She has helped dozens of women make the transition, building trust on their shared experience.
But government services for survivors are still sorely lacking and only recently has there been movement from lawmakers towards tackling the issue in a meaningful way. This has put Rena in high demand from policymakers who are eager to gain an understanding of how to approach such a complex issue.
Rena’s own story offers hope to others who are hungry to see that a life can exist beyond the streets, beyond the violence. She is living, breathing proof of the power of hope and faith, a testament to the idea there is something better waiting for all of us if we are courageous enough to learn from our own experiences and reach a hand out to help others.
Another Level is always looking for support, financial or otherwise, to continue doing this work that has saved the lives of so many young people already. Find out more at https://anotherlevelportland.com/