Survivors from the world of drug addiction and the dark world of sex trafficking and violence often have heart-wrenching stories; girls and women with so much potential, lost to the pain and suffering of sexual exploitation. The hope in these stories can be found in the resiliency of survivors and their ability to create meaningful lives for themselves, even in the face of tremendous adversity.
The story of LD, a thriving business owner, is one of these stories of hope. LD owns a gallery and coffee shop in the center of a blossoming artist district in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., and is also an active member on a handful of boards of directors. Although she is now a proud small business owner, like many survivors of sex trafficking, the path she traveled to get to this place was harrowing, dangerous and filled with struggles.
As a child, LD was surrounded by artists and musicians in Greenwich Village in New York and in Alabama, an experience that taught her from a very young age the value of the arts. She grew up, married, had a son, and worked as an executive for a large convention group and traveled around the country speaking. During those years, LD describes feeling set apart and terribly unhappy and as a result she began drinking heavily.
In her professional life she found that her charm coupled with the alcohol brought her attention that relieved her feelings of discontent. She became increasingly dependent on nightlife, spending most evenings in bars. Eventually, she was introduced to crack cocaine and as a result, left her 11-year marriage, child and career.
It was a quick decline as LD became immersed in the drug use; soon she had lost everything and was living in burnt out cars and struggling every day with her addiction. Hoping a change in her environment would help her sober up, she traveled from Florida to Arizona, but ended up living on the street, sleeping behind bushes and being sexually exploited daily.
Change is a difficult and lengthy process, and like many who have struggled to overcome addiction and sexual exploitation, LD’s road to recovery was long and winding. She tried multiple times to get out of the “life” of sex trafficking and prostitution, finally finding a source of strength and joy within her art.
She began to draw and sketch during one of her stays in jail, and realizing she was a good illustrator, began to sell her work as a way to earn money to get the things she needed from the commissary.
While in jail serving time for a prostitution charge, LD met her sponsor. Eventually, she began asking questions like, “Who am I, and why am I living this way?” LD began to explore the role she was playing in the way her life was going.
Once she was released from jail, she entered into a residential recovery program and actively engaged in the City of Phoenix Prostitution Diversion program. Diversion is an intensive outpatient program and LD said that receiving these services really helped her work through her addiction.
During her recovery process, she began to give back to her community. LD has lead hundreds of 12-step meetings, continues to sponsor many individuals also in recovery and is a mentor to several sex trafficking and prostitution survivors.
LD has been in recovery and out of sexual exploitation for four and a half years. She has steadily rebuilt her life, maintains a full-time job, has been renting the same house for four years and has reconnected with her son.
Ten months ago, LD opened the gallery in Phoenix. This gallery is a space to show beautiful art and drink coffee, but also a place to fund-raise and give back to the community. A percentage of sales and event fees are donated to various social service groups. LD has been very successful in her fundraising endeavors and was able to raise $2,000 for ChildhelpUSA.
In reflecting on her life today as a gallery and coffee shop owner, LD said, “I am responsible for everything — every decision.” Starting a business was a huge leap of faith for LD, who is now 50 years old with no retirement or 401K. “So much has been given to me in my life through the kindness and support of the women who have walked the path of recovery before me, but starting this business was totally on my own. I tried to work with a business assistance organization and they told me that I would need over $100,000 as a start.” Not having that kind of seed money, LD did all of the renovations on the building herself with the help of her friends
She wishes that there was more assistance for women like her. There seems to be very little in the way of mentorship or support in the business community in general to assist people who are working so hard to recreate their lives. It takes up to two years in some instances to even qualify for a small business loan, if you can survive for two years.
LD says she has had to fumble her way through the process of learning to handle accounting, bookkeeping, staffing and tax laws by trial and error. Although keeping the doors of her gallery open is still a struggle, she is totally focused on “creating an environment that supports art and the community in a humanitarian way.”
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a conversation with Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, associate professor of social work, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona, drawn from her work with a person called “LD” in this article.
John Hoffmire is director of the SaÏd Business School Venture Fund at the University of Oxford.