Mobilization Director of Elijah Rising, Sam Hernandez, and the host, Elaine Andino, discuss the roadblocks survivors face in life after sex trafficking and how the social enterprise of candle making paves the way to freedom.
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Welcome to I Dare You: a podcast by united against human trafficking. I’m your host, Elaine Andino and we believe that together we can end exploitation. Today I have the wonderful Sam Hernandez who is a friend of mine, but also a colleague over the years. She is the Mobilization Director of Elijah Rising. She has been in the anti human trafficking fight for quite a while, what, seven years?
Like 8 to 10 years, but full time, like seven and a half years.
Seven and a half years. And Elijah Rising is one of the big organizations in Houston that is really working to end sex trafficking. Can you tell us a little bit about Elijah rising?
Elijah rising was founded our 501c3 was official in 2013. We’re fighting trafficking through prayer, awareness, intervention and restoration. So we began as a prayer meeting of people. So that’s why we have become this faith based organization. we mobilize communities, other faith organizations, churches, people, and then we really dove into intervention for a while, going to the places where we believe that men and women were being exploited and giving them resources to hopefully get out of sex trafficking, and then restoration. So we have a safe home and restoration campus that we’re building out to be a place where we will have residential program for adult women survivors of sex trafficking. We’re all a nonprofit. So we all do hats and my hats have changed over time. For a long time, I was the intervention director, so overseeing all of our outreaches going on the street, making sure that we were reaching people who needed help out of exploitation. But now my main portion of what I do, other than mobilizing people through like awareness, we also have podcasts and different media. But I founded a social enterprise that hires the women in our program so that they have a fair wage and opportunity to get employment while they’re in a program that will help them when they get out of our program.
So I want to go back a little bit to the beginning of Elijah rising just because you guys have been doing this for a while. And that means you’ve been part of kind of the growth of the human trafficking movement as a whole, which is a relatively new movement. So there’s a lot of infrastructure and learning,
I think national average is like five years old for organizations that fight trafficking.
Right, and so you compare that with, say, a homeless organization where people have been fighting homelessness for years, they’ve got a pretty good understanding of the issue, what needs to be done, how to help people, we’ve all been learning this together and what the issue actually is and how to be effective. So you all started doing intervention with women. So you guys have been for years on the frontline seeing the women in the middle of their exploitation? Talk to me a little bit about that, and what you think that taught you about sex trafficking in general?
Absolutely. I feel like going on outreach, reaching women who are being exploited, that are on the streets, that means they’re walking, they’re being sold on the streets, being prostituted on the streets, you know, sometimes in strip clubs that we knew had prostitution, illegal sex trafficking, happening in illicit massage, businesses, things like that. So go into those places, talking to those women, it really trained me to understand the complexity of the issue, the intensity of that states of change, like the the decision making process that a woman would have to make, in order to really step away from a trafficker, even if she has all the best resources, the amount of trauma that she’s been through, the trauma bonding, the PTSD, and how difficult it is for her, to even begin that journey of restoration, to really believe that people could be alongside her in that journey, because she’s been, you know, so convinced through abuse, and so many terrible things, that there’s no one who cares about her, there’s no hope left for her for anything different. So going through that process really taught me because you know, we all have this like, savior mentality of like, I’m going to go out there, I’m going to tell them that I love them. And then I want to help them and then I’m going to rescue them. And that’s really such an ignorant way for me to go about it. So being able to be there and see like, Oh my gosh, like I don’t even know your story. Like you are an individual person with your own struggle, your own story, your own situation. And you know, having a young woman kind of yell at you to say, hey, if I get out of here, you’re going to feed my kids. And to realize that I you know, sometimes we don’t have all the answers, but what can we do that is actually helpful. I feel like that was the best possible training ground for me to then move into a restoration capacity where I’m helping women who have exited sex trafficking, to, to not understand understand, but in some way have a framework to communicate with them about what had happened to them in the ways that they had walked through sex trafficking, and not just think that Oh, I know the stories and of the statistics so I have your whole life figured out.
What are some common things that you see that push women into exploitation, and they find themselves trapped?
Elijah Rising, focuses specifically on sex trafficking, and these are the ways that we see a lot of people so we met one woman in a Latin American Cantina, she said, she had a jewelry shop in Central America got burned down by a gang. She had nothing and so she basically wanted to come to the US for a fresh start, but ended up being trafficked and forced to work in a Latin American Cantina. And then there’s, you know, women who are in foster care, don’t have a family have this kind of foundation of feeling alone without a foundational people around you know the thing that we all want, you want to feel loved, you wanna feel accepted, met an older girl who said, Hey, I want you to be a part of my family, my daddy will take care of you, follows this older girl that she looked up to ends up getting trafficked and ends up in jail, you know. Then there’s like, they’re all American Girl, great family, good grades cheerleader who meets a guy online, wants adventure, feels a lot of pressure from school; he sells her a false dream, and she ends up leaving her, family running away, and being with this guy. Trafficking is an exploitation of vulnerability, we all are vulnerable at some point. You know, there are some women who have been forced into pornography, because maybe they had a stepdad or a dad who said, “look, we can make the bills. And you’re gonna have to do this. And if you don’t do it, your younger sister is going to do it.” She feels like she has no choice. And then familial trafficking is a very large, but really not as much talked about issue, right? where parents traffic their children, at very, very young ages for their whole lives. And it’s crazy, because people think, Well, that doesn’t happen. I don’t see that these kids are in school, they’re at church, they’re being trafficked on the summers when they’re traveling, you know, and they are, you know, at school, just like everyone you wouldn’t know, you wouldn’t know that that was happening. And so and sometimes a lot of times are traffickers are respected members of society, you know. So those are some different ways that people can get introduced. And then of course, there’s a lot of other ways that we could go on forever talking about.
A common theme that I hear you saying is just those vulnerability pieces. Kids, obviously, are defenseless against their own family. But then the marginalization that we see a lot of times happening.
Yeah, in poverty, you know, survival, prostitution is a real issue where maybe there isn’t a trafficker, but at the end of the day, there is a sex buyer, who is gaining benefits off of this person having no other resources. And they can face tons of violence and lack of opportunity. Even more marginalization and then high, high risk of getting a pimp or trafficker when they’re on their own out on the street working.
I worked alongside you guys probably about three years ago, and you had the idea to start doing some social enterprise work to help these women get out. And now you guys have this full blown line, the Elijah Rising goods. Tell me a little bit about your process on why you wanted to do social enterprise and how that’s morphed over the years?
Well, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Thistle Farms wasn’t a huge inspiration to see how they did what they did. And it just seemed like a real good fit. Because I have always been very entrepreneurial in my mindset and what I want to do, but I work for a nonprofit, so I didn’t have a lot of places to let that piece of meat thrive. So we have this idea of like, what could we do. And so on my own, I actually started a candle business for me and my friends. And it didn’t work out. And we’re still all good friends, which is amazing. But I said, you know what I want to give this model that I think can really work to Elijah Rising. So we started in my kitchen, just making candles. So a couple candle pours, a couple things a wax, some YouTube learning. And the first year was really mastering just the product itself. So how do we make this product? How do we make it good? How do we make it better? How do we make it ethical? And then from there, you know, so imagine we made a few 100 candles, we sold those candles, then we have a little bit of money. And then we hire our first ladies. And then those ladies make candles. And then I learned and this is the cool thing is I’m not like a business major. I’m not a person who understands business. You know, I recently understood like what depreciation means and things like that not fully convinced at what it means still, but like I’m learning business terms, business, math, retail math. What I like about that is that I get to communicate to the women that we serve, to say, look, we don’t have to know everything, we have to believe in ourselves to find the information we need to succeed. So took this little candle business moved it into the back of our shop, we had nothing that we needed. So we were making candles, we had no childcare. So at some times, we had ladies that had kids and their kids were in the back, like spilling stuff. And it was just a mess. It was a mess. From there. We just kept growing and growing and learning and growing and learning and growing. And now I can say that it has become this beautiful, well oiled machine. I feel like we’re finally about to hit the trickshot trampoline. Right before you get to the dunking it. That’s where I feel like we’re at right now in the most efficient business sense.
I mean, yeah, absolutely. And your goal is for this all to be completely run by survivors. And to give them a place to start creating some job history.Tell me a little bit about your process. Why is it so important to you for these women to have a landing space to start working?
You know, you see this woman get out of the hardest possible situation and you’re so proud and you’re like, “man, she’s so strong. She’s so amazing.” And then you look for employment. Maybe she has a felony, maybe she can’t even open a bank account because her trafficker stole her identity. So she goes into what first you know, entry level jobs right? And most entry level jobs are in things like subway, McDonald’s, you know, where you’re literally being treated like garbage, or you’re doing data entry, which if you have like PTSD or anxiety, and you’re sitting in a small cubicle trapped and you can’t really move in, it’s an office etiquette that you don’t understand in a world that you’ve never been a part of. And everyone talks in a language that you don’t even get like, it can be so overwhelming, and they don’t have a place to figure out how to deal with those things. So I wanted a trauma informed work environment where we could allow those triggers to come up, allow the fear, because imagine if your previous let’s say, boss, but really was your trafficker was abusive, and you had money and you had goals in the work world, we might say key performance indicators on the street, you had a quota. And these things can feel the same, even though they’re not. So I wanted a place where they could be pressed to be good employees, but also in a place where if you’re gonna have a panic attack, like we know how to deal with that, we can take a break, it’s still people over profit. And then also, we wanted them to have something on their reference sheet. My biggest fear that I have is that someone would feel like they have to disclose in an interview, why they have five years of missed work. And then it can become very awkward and very uncomfortable. And imagine going to an interview and being like, Oh, yeah, I was raped repeatedly for the past six years. I’m totally normal now. You know, because people will judge and not that they mean to or that they’re being mean, they might just feel bad, they might pity you. And we don’t want that. So we want them to be able to say, well actually worked for Elijah rising, helping with this social enterprise. And they’ll go, Wow, that’s so cool that you helped women, you know what I mean? Yes. And we want them to be able to communicate their skills. I call it the holy hustle. Like they have hustle. They have just this drive to succeed and to do something. And it’s cool, because they know it’s not just about me, when they walk through the door. They don’t say, Well, this is this is my program. It’s helping me I say, No, no, this woman sold candles so that you can have a job here and make away and you’re working so that the girl tomorrow can have a way. We’re in a sisterhood on the street. It’s a woman against woman for the man. But in here in here ain’t no man trying to take our money. And we’re women. For women, our quotas are never individual, their team quotas. That’s one thing that’s very important. When we hit goals, we hit them together. When we miss goals, we missed them together. We are coming as a sisterhood to empower each other to make a way for women behind us. And that holy hustle is like this thing that we’re learning, we say, Hey, we might not have the cards stacked in our favor. But that’s not going to stop me from doing the best dang job that I can do.
I brought this to share not only my piece of social enterprise, but the women’s piece, and we all got together and wrote poems about our experiences. And so this is a poem written by we’ll call her B. And her first day of social enterprise. She didn’t show up, or anxiety got the best of her. And this is her poem about that experience. When we had this poetry project, I didn’t say write a poem about social enterprise. It just happened to be the poem that she wrote. Okay, here it is: I was a no call no show my first day. You could only imagine. Flight. Where could I go? I’m in a new city on a new road. a dot on the map my feet have never been. Freeze. Yeah, that sounds more like that day. I wanted this so bad. I had it all planned out. And I froze. I told myself I was ready for this ready to give back. Fight. That’s what I do. I fight for my life, fight for the depths fight for the truth. So I came back, I stepped in. Captivated by the relaxing scent, my mind traveled to the front of the sea. The clear melted wax was like the water and I poured it into jars that would soon be an inspiration. I wonder who will read this? I wonder what their dream is? Have they ever swam in the sea? Do they know who this contributes to, that it contributes to me, tell them I’m grateful. Show them my joy, may the ocean speak their deed. Forget the page, I’m gonna change the book. There will be a candle that she designed in February of our candle the month club called under the sea that will be available. And then one of our other ladies has a candle called CJ’s dream that’s going to be out in January.
And it’s incredible because I find that there is so much skill in so many things and gifts in them that I’m like, Man, I’m not I’m not doing you a favor. You’re doing me a favor by running this business because you’re intelligent. You’re so smart. And you just needed a place where it can thrive in a way to communicate it because even as women, it’s difficult to say I would like a raise or I think I’m good in this way. I’m an excellent communicator. I’m this we the weird woman thing where we downplay ourselves and even you know, alleged risings a faith based organization. Yeah, I always read to them, approximately one was like half of it is about her selling merchandise and being profitable and being a real estate investor. And that she goes in her family is like wearing imported goods and purple and this and I said, Look, this is who we’re supposed to be. Not meek and mild. We’re supposed to be bosses and we bring that out of these women and it’s so great. And in the beginning, I did everything I made the candles. I sold the candles, I designed the candles. I did this then I slowly was like, Okay, now I’m not making them. Now I’m not this. Now I really don’t even touch the operations of fulfillment or inventory or making anything that’s passed off to a survivor graduate. Like, it’s almost completely run by women who survived trafficking and then are using that as a full, you know, business. I just do sales, strategy, marketing, product research and development.
That’s beautiful. You talked about the complete mentality shift that this business is providing, talk to me a little bit about the contrast of where they come from, and what stripped from them, and how really, they’re having to think about themselves in a completely different way that they’d never thought before.
Yeah, it is such a stark contrast, because everything that a trafficker exploiter does, is to break them down, right, and to continue that mentality of I’m not worth anything, and that you need me, we’re instead in this situation, I’m saying, I believe that you are amazing. And anytime I correct you, I’m doing it because I want you to be better. And I know that you can be and also like you are free to leave, you are free to quit, and you are free to take advantage of your sick time and your your off time. And like I don’t need something from you, I would like to work with you. And so it’s it’s such a different contrast to say, hey, you actually did this wrong. But let’s see how we can make it better. Let’s make an improvement plan for you. So that you can understand how to hone in your skills as an employee. And it’s can be very difficult. There can be attitudes, there’s can be a misunderstanding, everyone responds to trauma differently. So it could be that I say, hey, you did this wrong, and they fall into pieces, and they overly apologize. And then they turn it around. And I and I have to communicate, hey, I don’t need you to comfort me, I don’t need you to even apologize that much. I just want you to know and us move forward. Because also when you’re connected to your trafficker, that it’s all mixed. It’s not just professional and emotional. It’s all together. So even teaching like, hey, that’s actually not a conversation we need to have at work. And they’re also in a program where they’re always talking about their feelings, overcoming and teaching them that I’m not their caseworker, I’m-I’m their boss. You know, I feel like maybe every young professional struggles with like communication in short, brief? I think so. So if I say when will this order be ready? Well, you know, Teresa came in here. And now this isn’t this was I said, no, no, no, I asked you when the order is going to be ready. And you know, and one way that we help with all of those things is when they start we have a list of core values, says I’m professional, I’m on time, I’m a team player, I’m willing, I’m not overwhelmed by the struggles of someone else. And we read these together. And it’s agreement from her to me and for me, to her to say this is what we agree upon the core values, and everything’s measured against that. So it’s based on equal respect. I mean, it’s black and white compared to where they come from, but they just, they deal with the same things like money. You know, there’s even times we’re like measuring out things and on scales that can trigger some of those old memories, but we just have to remind them, this is totally different. Safe.
I love it because it’s such a holistic approach. You’re giving them skills that are practical for them to use outside the work environment, you are creating work history for them to be able to go interview, like you said, but you’re also dealing with so much of their own perceptions of who they are. And their responses to triggers. Which is beautiful.
And helping them compartmentalize your life, your trafficker tried to become everything. But here’s how these very many and complex relationships, work and appropriate way to protect yourself. You know, sometimes we get really close and intimate. But we try to allow them to say, hey, you don’t have to actually you don’t have to tell me that.
Teaching them how to have those boundaries and protecting their hearts.
And you know, the best way to teach boundaries is to have them yourself, right? The more that I communicate that my time is valuable, and my boundaries are appropriate, the more that she will see, oh, maybe mine are too.
And when you talk about familial trafficking, we know that so many people end up and trafficking as an adult. So these might be skills for a lot of these women that they’ve never been taught ever. So they’re literally learning all this for the very first time and then seeing it modeled for them for the first time.
And we try to individualize our program to to say not everyone’s going to go through the same track of learning. When people excel in one area, we might push them to, oh, you’re actually going to be helping us with our vendors in this or no, we’re going to have you in the back doing inventory. You’re not really good at labeling candles, you don’t have that attention to detail. And then some people it’s like, oh my god, you are so anal about everything, you are quality control, you know, right, helping them find those pieces of themselves that are exceptional.
Talk to me about what it would be like for somebody that’s listening to hire women entering the workforce.
Absolutely. And we just have this whole mentality of like, Oh, these poor, wounded, sad, ladies. Like we just want to give them a chance. And that’s really kind of insulting. You know, we’ve kind of created this like really disempowering idea. So when you’re hiring someone who may have a past like this, you’re not being a voice for the voiceless, you’re actually creating space for someone to be the amazing person that they are, you hold the same boundaries. But even understanding trauma just a little bit and then giving space for people can be so so unbelievably powerful. So if you’re considering hiring someone, and you say you know what we want to be an organization that has opportunities for women who’ve survived trauma or men who’ve survived exploitation, just look up maybe a TBRI class or look up a trauma informed workplace class and, and realize it could be little things. My husband actually works for the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD. They do these great little newsletters, one of them said, “Hey, everybody, the holidays can be really triggering to some people with pasts of childhood abuse with this or that, be careful with the way that you handle the holidays.” Having those kind of things open, not pressing someone about their employment history, if there’s gaps, you know, just saying, Hey, is there anything you want to say about this, but really just not seeing someone as a victim, seeing them as someone who has just as much talent as anybody else that you would hire, and giving them an opportunity, developing them, I think that would be really important just for people to have a chance, but not feel pitied or small. Give them a chance to have vertical opportunities in your organization, because I think people will be shocked to see how amazingly driven some of these women are.
I remember talking to a police officer up in Virginia, who worked for years with human trafficking victims and survivors, helping them get out. And he would talk about the drive that they had, and how caring and nurturing and skilled they want to be. He said, so many of them want to be teachers want to be nurses, they have that hustle, they have that drive, they’ve been working hard. But it’s all about what you said, it’s not being exploitive, they understand boundaries, getting jobs where they are empowered
And just having mutual respect. And you know, having a healthy workplace in general is good for anybody. But especially people with trauma, because they pick up on the manipulation, they pick up on what people want from them, where they don’t have boundaries. And I feel like even more, so they’re waiting to see that and also just giving people information. Maybe if you don’t have a past of trafficking, a major change inside your organization, would be not a big deal. But sometimes people who’ve survived trauma need as much information in preparation for transition as possible. So like if someone’s going to be moving offices, or you’re going to change their work environment, give them a heads up to say, hey, this might happen in two weeks, right? And then when it’s decided little things like that can be really helpful for people with trauma to cope, right.
Most of us have gone through some trauma at some point. If we want to be a better organization, or corporation, having some trauma training, like TBRI is beneficial, whether or not we’re working with trafficking victims, but really is just increasing our EQ and our ability to connect with people where they’re at versus maybe where we’re at
Yeah, and look at your hiring protocols. If you just have a big swipe this is we don’t accept anybody with a felony, maybe put a some sort of thing that says will this but if they do, they can have a referral. Or they have another reference to quote that, hey, they’re in a really great place. they’ve overcome this. It was 10 years ago, things like that. Think about how you can be more inclusive with still having some protections for your organization, or business.
I’ve loved chatting with you on the subject. I’d love for you just to have a moment to give a plug about Elijah Rising goods, what you’re selling right now, where people can get it.
Yeah, yeah, if you want to find Elijah Rising goods, you can just go to elijahrising.org, you can click the shop button. We’re also on Instagram Elijah Rising Goods. We have the most amazing candles we buy soy wax that doesn’t deforest in South America, we buy American wax, we are ethical brand. And we also do a Kindle subscription. If you do not have a present for you know someone’s birthday, if you can just buy them this monthly subscription where they get a new candle every single month. So check us out. We’re great. We also sell in stores across country. If you know someone with a small shop, tell them they need to support us. And if they don’t that they’re a bad business. Let them know right there know that exactly. *laughs* But yeah, you can find us online. Google Elijah Rising and we’ll be there. Perfect. Wonderful. Yeah, you have to support this. If you say it, it’s fine. I can’t say that. I’ll say it. I’ll say
We love to end our podcast with a dare to our listeners so they can enter this fight of human trafficking, where they’re at. So what would be your call to action for our listeners?
Absolutely. And I feel like some people either take an extreme, they’re like, I have to change everything in my life. Or if I only have to buy Fairtrade, but maybe find one thing in your life, maybe it’s not our candles, maybe it’s a piece of jewelry, maybe it’s a soap that you use every single day. See if there’s something in your life that you buy somewhere else that you could buy from a survivor made brand, like this whole, this whole farm survivor made from refuge for women, you know, Elijah rising goods, and there’s many, many more, and see if you can take one little change to support someone who’s rebuilding their life through enterprise.
I love that. That’s wonderful. And what would be your advice to-I know we talked about this a little bit-but to people about getting into hiring somebody that’s trafficked up so how would they begin that process?
I think that’s a great question. I think connecting with organizations like UHT allies rising saying Hi, I would like to be a trusted business. What would you suggest? I think definitely connecting with a local organization that they they can then connect hires. That would be an amazing first step and then also like subscribing to this kind of podcast, staying informed. The more that you hear stories from people who are fighting this and people who’ve been affected by it, the better you’re going to be as an employer of someone who’s walked through that.
Great advice. I appreciate that. Well, to all of our listeners, thank you so much for joining us today and joining Sam Hernandez from Elijah rising. Please go to the website, check them out, buy something from Elijah Rising goods and support their store and we will see you next time. Thanks so much.