“Let’s just jump in,” she replied, ignoring my lack of response or brain function. “I’m going to pull up Google.”
And this is how the morning of June 1, 2015 began -- two women in a room, neither of whom knew where her research would lead or what to expect from a summer spent examining one of the darkest areas of the human experience.
I became involved with Stories in Blue when I was chosen to participate in the McGregor Summer Research Fellowship program with Stephanie, who I had worked with on several other occasions on theatre for social justice. At that point the project was called Child Trafficking in West Africa: Creating Theatre for Development, and the end goal was to create two pieces that examined the similarities and differences between human trafficking in Ghana and the United States.
We began by reading and absorbing as much as we could about domestic human trafficking, about trauma, and about national organizations that assist victims and survivors. But we were always drawn back to the plight of women in our own city. It was heartbreakingly apparent that this was an issue that had always existed in Grand Rapids but went largely unaddressed. Most people are surprised to know that humans are bought and sold on the street of West Michigan. As we researched, we found that the general population sees modern-day slavery as an international issue, despite its substantial presence in our own country.
After spending hours in the library and watching documentaries, Stephanie and I set up interviews with local survivors who were willing to tell us their stories, have the conversations recorded, and allow an actress to portray them in the theatrical production. Confidentiality and safety were our highest priority, and we allowed the interviewees to be in complete control of the entire process. Each interview was one to two hours long and had an emotional intensity to them that is difficult to describe; pain and guilt, warmth and honesty, and even resilience and healing.
By the end of the summer, Stephanie and I had recorded and transcribed six or seven interviews with human trafficking survivors. Although each one differed in its circumstances and origins, a common factor tied them all together:
They were all trafficked in Michigan.
That, I think, is the point at which I realized the necessity of this project.
Stories in Blue has taught me a lot of hard lessons. But what I will always carry with me is the knowledge that there is healing from human trafficking. For every horrible narrative that was placed before us, there was an incident of hope and joy amidst the darkness. The real-life women whose stories are painted by the actresses in Stories in Blue are the most resilient, courageous, and beautiful people that I have ever met. This process is so important. It includes us all.