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The Interview: Theresa Flores

“Everyone thinks slavery was abolished. No. It was just transformed.” For many years, people had no idea of what happened to Theresa Flores. In fact, if they had, they wouldn’t have had a word for it. When Flores was 15, she was a regular, all-American high school girl, living in Michigan. One fateful evening after [...]
Jeni Ruisch

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“Everyone thinks slavery was abolished. No. It was just transformed.”

For many years, people had no idea of what happened to Theresa Flores.

In fact, if they had, they wouldn’t have had a word for it.

When Flores was 15, she was a regular, all-American high school girl, living in Michigan. One fateful evening after school, she was drugged, raped, and photographed by a classmate. This young man blackmailed Flores with the photographs, using them, as well as threats against her and her family, as fuel to force her into an increasingly nightmarish cycle of traumatic servitude. For two years, Flores was bound into involuntary prostitution. She suffered repeated harrowing violence by night, while hiding the abuse from her friends and family by day. Her trafficker worked within a network of other young people and adults, exploiting women and girls for profit. Only when Flores’s father took a job far away and her family moved, was she able to finally escape.

Flores was able to find the strength to continue on, go to college, and begin a career in social work. All while quietly carrying the secret pain of the still un-named ordeal she survived. At a social work conference, looking for information with the intention of helping to relate to the refugees and immigrants on her caseload, Flores was presented with the concept and definition of human trafficking. Never was a set of words so powerful as when it gave a name to the horrors Flores had faced, and let her know that she was not alone. With this revelation came a heavy sense of responsibility. Flores immediately came forward and offered to lend her voice to help others by testifying before congress, speaking at conferences, and educating everyone from politicians to the public.

Her tireless efforts only grew when she discovered the lack of knowledge of this crisis. During one such trip, she found herself in Detroit, having sworn she would never return to Michigan. Catapulted back to the darkest time in her life, she searched for a way to connect with the lost women and girls that she knew were out there. How could she reach them in their bleakest moments?

And then it came to her. The hotels. The bathrooms. The only time the trafficked women are alone. Flores began the SOAP initiative (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution). To those tiny bars of hotel soap, Flores and her army of volunteers affix labels that are emblazoned with the phone number to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A tiny light in the darkness. After eight years, SOAP has distributed over a million bars with potentially life saving resources printed on them.

Affixed in their situations by drug addiction, coercion, and abuse; trafficked people are stripped of all agency. Whether they are held for manual labor or sex, they are used for a profit by their traffickers. Make no mistake, this is slavery in the modern day. Like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth before her—Flores lends her experiences and indefatigable spirit to lift others out of servitude.

This is a modern issue, a women’s issue, a human rights issue. Flores and other abolitionists are still very necessary, and still very hard at work.

A huge part of your work involves repeatedly reliving and retelling this traumatic experience you had as a kid. What effect does it have on you? And also, what effect does it have on your story, and the way you view it?

[I do] take a physical and emotional hit every time I do it. But it’s something I’ve chosen to do, so it’s my responsibility, because I’ve said yes. Because there are so many others that can’t do it, because they haven’t found their voice. I’ve gotten my voice back. I’ve gotten good counseling, I’ve gotten degrees. I’m healed enough that I can do this. I think that’s what makes an activist. When you’re very passionate about something, you push beyond the emotional damage to try to make this world a better place.

How do you deal with disbelief?

There’s disbelief of my story that I have to deal with sometimes. There’s disbelief that this happens in the United States. It can be so negative and so hard, that you can understand why there’s not a lot of survivors that are speaking out. Like with the #metoo movement, you see a lot of women coming forward, and the number one thing I read on Facebook is ‘Well, why did she wait 40 years?’ You see this with rape culture, where people tend to not believe you because you waited so long. It’s like ‘Do you understand what it’s like to go through something like that?’ When one person says ‘me too,’ it gives the rest of us permission to find our voice again. It empowers us.

How do you think people like Roy Moore and Donald Trump affect the lives of regular people, even though they are removed by class and by distance? Do you think there’s a connection to this type of behavior, and what happens to the women that you work with?

It’s not politics, or political affiliation, or what religious affiliation you have. I think it has to do with these are men. And that’s the bottom line. We’re tolerating men doing this. When women get together and say “We’re not gonna tolerate this anymore,” that’s when we find our power, and that’s when we take it back. Human trafficking is a women’s rights issue. We have to start arresting the men, and seeing the women as victims, and not criminals. Politically, this has been made socially acceptable. Even though it’s illegal, until we as a society say it is socially unacceptable to sell another person, we’re not going to change anything. And that takes men and women to do.

Do you think that the opioid crisis overlaps with human trafficking?

If you have a drug problem in your community—you have a human trafficking problem. It goes hand-in-hand. If you have a trafficking problem, you have a drug problem. One way it goes is the trafficker, or the pimp, whatever you want to call him, will have the woman, and get her addicted to drugs to be able to control her. He’ll say “Go out and do this, make me this amount of money, and when you come back, I’ll give you more drugs.” After a while, he kicks her to the curb because she becomes too addicted. And then you see her on the streets, and she’s a druggie, and she’ll turn tricks to be able to get the money to do the drugs. But people don’t look and see “How did she get there?” “What happened to her in the beginning to be in that spot?” Because nobody wants to be in that spot.

Does this affect a lot of immigrants?

It does. There was the egg farm bust. [In Marion, where people from Central America were being used for labor.] Salvation Army and Human Trafficking Task Force were involved in those. There was a big one with a massage parlor with locations in Powell and Worthington. There were 19 Asian women being trafficked. So now you have 19 women that don’t speak English. Where are you going to put them? What are you going to do? There’s a lot of planning that takes place, even beforehand. And then getting them the services. A rescue is pretty intense.

Once you get these women, can you then follow the chain back and get the person who is selling them?

That’s what the police are mostly concerned with, getting the trafficker, getting the guy at the top. So they can potentially stop it from happening to other girls. We’re concerned with the victim, getting her whole again. And then you’ve got the middle ground. Who are the people that are buying her? What if we went for that middle person? Cause no one is going for that middle person. If we made a major statement saying “We’re gonna catch you if you’re buying somebody,” it would really stop the demand. And that’s my passion. If we started to go for the middle dog, then we could really stop it. You have to convince law enforcement officers, and you have to convince prosecuting attorneys. It’s tough to convince them to go for the John.

What’s problematic about events like The Super Bowl and The Arnold?

SOAP is centered around large events. Any time there is an event with a lot of people coming to a town—it doesn’t have to be for sports—human trafficking will quadruple. The reason we know that is because of backpage.com. I would go on [the site] a week before an event, the week during, and a week after, and count up the number of ads of women for sale. It was always quadruple. Even for things like a concert, even for things like The Columbus Marathon. When you say The Super Bowl has more trafficking, it’s not saying The Super Bowl, or the Columbus Marathon is bad, it’s just that this is what organically happens. Same with the Detroit Auto Show. It’s a two-week event and a million people come to Detroit for that. Mostly men, and a lot from other countries, where this is legal. So we see a huge spike. There’s usually 800 girls for sale during the Detroit Auto Show per night.

Besides large events, what role does Columbus’s geography play in human trafficking?

Any time you’re on an interstate where other interstates cross—any time you have lots of universities or casinos or truck stops. Geography affects how many risk factors you’ve got. If you have any of those in a geographical area, you’re going to have more trafficking. Minnesota is a huge trafficking state, and no one would ever think of it. But you have a lot of truckers going through there. Most people wouldn’t think Ohio…

What was the in-between time like for you? Thinking back to when you were able to get away. Before you went into social work, got degrees, and were able to put a name to trafficking, and start your work.

There was a lot of years in between there. Gosh, it’s harder for me to think about those in-between years than what I do now, which is so hard. I want to say it was being a zombie. Never knowing the word of what happened to me, what it was called. That was hard. Because it wasn’t “rape,” it was more than one guy, it was more than one time. I got into a very domestically violent marriage, because I didn’t feel worthy of anything else. I never thought anybody else would ask me to marry them. I thought “This is the best I’m ever gonna get,” so I married someone I shouldn’t have, and couldn’t get out for many, many years. Luckily, I got three great children out of it. That’s why I went into social work. I wanted to help somebody, even though nobody helped me. It starts with the smallest little ripple.

What does shame mean to human trafficking?

If you asked a hundred survivors, what’s their number one emotion that they have felt, it would be either shame or guilt. Which is really sad. Especially when they didn’t do this to themselves, it always started off with someone doing it to them. It’s associated with the word prostitute. I don’t ever consider myself having been a prostitute, but if you look at the definition, it’s like ‘I guess I was.’ It’s hard because survivors tend to internalize it. ‘I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that.’ Similar to rape victims. That’s a hard thing to overcome. To me, the negative word is shame, but the positive word is worthiness. You need to make a survivor feel worthy, and when you do, that shame will go away.

Fittingly, January is national human trafficking awareness month. Those wishing to assist the cause can attend the next SOAP outreach in Columbus, 2.17 at the Martin De Porres Center. For more, visit soapproject.org. If you see someone who looks like they need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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Former OSU player starts career as Columbus Firefighter

614now Staff

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Former Buckeye and New Orleans Saints running back running back Antonio Pittman is trading the pads and helmet of the gridiron for a fire hose and a...different helmet in his new career, according to ABC6.

https://twitter.com/mariawsyx6/status/1228415062051819520?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fabc6onyourside.com%2Fnews%2Flocal%2Fformer-ohio-state-nfl-running-back-opens-new-chapter-as-a-columbus-firefighter

Having recently graduated from the Columbus Fire Academy, Pittman is now on his first week on the job at fire station 12 on the city's west side.

A native of Akron, Pittman played for Ohio State from 2004 to 2006, and was part of the number 1 ranked team that defeated number 2 Michigan 42-39 in the "Game of the Century."

Pittman was then drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but was forced to retire from the NFL following a persistent knee injury.

"My goal was just to play football and honestly, I did that. And the dream was to have a ten-year career and to retire at 32 years old and be off in the sunset and just living comfortably. But you know, plans change and in life, you have to adapt to the change," Pittman told ABC6.

"My goal was to one day give back to a community, a city that's given me so much. A city that changed my whole outlook on life as a kid growing up in Akron."

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People

The Rest Is History: Couples in Columbus share their stories of falling in love

Mitch Hooper

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Illustration by Sarah Moore

If Hollywood would ever pick up a romantic comedy about a couple falling in love in Columbus, how would it look? Would it be an epic story ending in an intimate proposal on the Scioto Mile, or two strangers bumping into each other at the Varsity Club on game day?

Funny enough, both are very plausible.

This month, we wanted to answer the question: what do love stories in Columbus look like? And what we found is sometimes love stories don’t happen in Columbus; instead they happen because of Columbus. While some folks were high school sweethearts who rekindled the flame, others struck up conversation in countries far away just because they shared the same ZIP code. In part, where you’re from shapes who you are, and for these couples, the capital city holds a special spot in their hearts. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Rachel Grauer and Aaron Guilkey

Aaron and I first met in the early 2000s at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin. He was my first boyfriend in fourth grade and broke my heart on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the young folk). We didn’t speak a word to each other all of high school, thank you high school social hierarchy. I went on to OU and he to OSU. We reconnected after college while on a bar crawl in the Short North and the rest is history. We are getting married September 2020!

Lauren Sheridan and David Tripp

All of this is true: We met at a Clippers baseball game. It was a team outing for work. I worked with his mom and she was setting us up. This story is meant to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Our first o cial date was at 16-Bit, where we would take our engagement pictures over two years later. He lived in Arizona for 10 years before moving back to Columbus in 2016. It’s been fun reintroducing him to the city, especially our food and beer scene. I can’t imagine having these adventures with anyone else.

Misty and Erin Dickinson

We met at Rendezvous Hair Salon, where she is a hairstylist. Then we spent time together at Drauma at the Bluestone, followed by a night out for a Nina West show at Axis complete with dinner at Union and after party drinks at Macs. We were with my friends and I o ered to walk her to her car which had been towed because, well, Columbus. I stayed with her until we finally found her car at 3 a.m. We started hanging out a lot after that while we both swore we were “just friends”! Almost five years later and we are back in Columbus after a two year move to Tampa. We married (twice, but the story will be way over 100 words! Second time at LaNavona), and have a thousand Columbus stories. Columbus is our home. The place we love and always come back to. There is no place like it.

Kellie Anne and Carl Rainey

I moved to Columbus from LA in 2014 and met my now-husband a month after the move. We found out quickly that we were both California sports fans and went on our first date on Halloween. Lakers vs. Clippers was on the TV at the bar, so we made a bet and the loser had to pick up the tab. My Clippers beat his Lakers, so he had to pay up. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married March 23, 2019, and I’m so happy to call Columbus my forever home now!

Daniel Custer and Jenny Harris

I met Jenny on a wine cruise in Santorini, Greece. I saw her from across the pier before we boarded and knew I wanted to chat her up—she was gorgeous. She and her friends sat by me on the catamaran and we began telling one another where we were from. When it got to Jenny, she said she was from Columbus. I said, “Where?!” and she said “Grandview!” We spent the rest of the weekend together, along with the past three years.

Brittany and Ethan Monk

We met as employees at Scioto Country Club in UA. He was a broke server and I was a broke student working as a hostess. We spent many holidays away from family but with each other. We are complete opposites that were impossibly attracted to one another. We married and have 2 children. Still opposites—I work in clinical research and he is a musician and stay-at-home dad. We both have made Columbus our home!

Nicole Erdeljac and Andrew Crowell

We spent the day (separately) at the 2019 Memorial Tournament and were hanging out at the Bogey Inn afterwards. He was standing at the bar and I was behind him, waiting to be served. His friend kept accidentally hitting my shoulder while trying to reach over me to get his attention. I was visibly annoyed when he asked me to tap him. But, I did. We spent the rest of the night dancing to the live band and had our first date a week later at the Columbus Arts Fest, once again, dancing to the live sounds of Anderson East. The rest is history!

Tracie Lynn and Adam Douglas Keller

It was one month to the day after my mother had lost her battle to cancer in 2007. It was one of my favorite nights for being out in Columbus—Red, White, and Boom. After my sister’s and my friend’s group persistently encouraged us to go out for fireworks and time with friends, we agreed. We needed something light and fun. What could possibly come of that?

I’ll never forget the moment that I made eye contact with this handsome, tall and smiling man. He had happened to be out with a mutual friend of our group. We made small talk, listened to live bands, and, well—the rest is history. Nearly 13 years later, we now have two great kids, two dogs, and a rich, full life in Columbus. This is the city we met in, and the one we made a life in. I couldn’t ask for a better love story.

Rebecca Scha er and Peter Yeager

We met at Ledo’s, the first bar on our OSU senior bar crawl list. Flash forward 12 hours later at World of Beer, we bumped into each other again and he handed me a raw russet potato with his name and number written on it in Sharpie. Super weird and random but it did the trick. I called him my soul mate to his face that night. Last winter he took me around town. We stopped at both those bars, reminiscing about our time together. He asked me to be his wife in the middle of the same World of Beer where he gave me that first potato, hiding the ring in a large toy Mrs. Potato head. There’s no other way I would have liked the beginning of our story to go.

Victoria and Ryan Metzinger

I met my amazing husband in Columbus on a blind date set up by mutual friends (sounds very 1995, but it was actually 2011). He suggested a casual drink at Grandview Cafe and I upped the ante for dinner at Third & Hollywood. We continued to Spagio and ended at Grandview Cafe and the rest is history! Now, with two beautiful boys, our WiFi network will always be labeled “Third and Hollywood” as an ode to the perfect setting for a first date. We also visit the restaurant every year on our anniversary and it will never lose its luster.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Author Saeed Jones

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Saeed Jones has traveled across the country promoting his new memoir and chosen Columbus for his own next chapter.

Author and new Columbus transplant Saeed Jones finally has a break after wrapping up his 16-city tour to promote his new memoir How We Fight for Our Lives. It’s a book that isn’t solely about his past, but is designed as an earnest conversation with readers. The book succeeds Jones’ previous poetry collections and a stint as Executive Editor of Culture at BuzzFeed, and is already receiving numerous honors and highly- publicized acclaim.

“It took a long time to write the book, almost a decade. So, I had a lot of time to think about writing it [being] one thing, but when you publish it, it becomes something different. I tried not to think so much about other people and the audience, but I think I trusted that if I could write to myself sincerely [and] candidly, that would be a bridge for other people,” he said. “It’s like you’re encountering someone when they just had a transformative experience. Something that’s really important for me in my writing is the cost of silence and the ways we silence ourselves. I think it’s powerful—as a writer, with the fortune I’ve had in my career—for people to be like, ‘I’m going through it’, and for me to be one more person who goes, ‘Me too.’”

Though some authors intend to tell their stories later in life, Jones wanted to focus his story on the time period from his upbringing in Texas through his mid-twenties to capture a specific ethos that informed his narrative. Concerned that segments of his life would become deemed irrelevant to readers, he found the immediacy of the news sparked him to publish the book sooner than later. Soon after Jones considered writing in detail about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which shifted the LGBTQ+ conversation, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred.

“Whenever I would get a little hard on myself about the book’s intentions, it felt like America would go, ‘We gotta do this now,’” Jones said. ”Everything’s not perfect but a lot has changed from 1998. [While writing,] I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be a perfect book, but it’s gonna be the book that I want and need now.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After his mother’s passing in 2011, Jones is attentive to their relationship in How We Fight for Our Lives, endearingly dedicating the book to her even after a moment of uncertainty that occurred when he came out. In spite of having a vibrant relationship with his mother, Jones jokes that the two weren’t able to naturally discuss sexuality. Promoting the memoir before Thanksgiving, Jones mentions that some LGBTQ+ readers confided in him about their own awkward conversations with family.

“Sure, it’s important for us to write about clear and present danger, whether that’s police brutality, homophobic or racially-driven violence, [but] I think that it’s also important for us to pay attention to the more subtle hurts that come to define us. Sometimes those hurts are a result of failings; loved ones who just can’t support us because they’re like ‘I don’t get it’ and they kind of give up,” he said. “My mom was working two jobs, so a lot of times she was just tired. She was like, ‘Sorry, we can’t have a heartfelt conversation today, I gotta go to my second job.’ That had an impact on me, and I know that has an impact on a lot of other people in those moments. In any meaningful, long-lasting relationships—certainly family relationships—it is going to be complicated. If you don’t have multiple colors in how you’re thinking about that relationship, the truth is that something is being deadened, something is being intentionally or unintentionally ignored or silenced.”

An avid reader of works by Margaret Atwood and Audre Lorde, Jones recognizes a similar urgency from his memoir through his influence James Baldwin, admitting to reading his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room repeatedly, revisiting it at different points of his life to gain a new perspective. Identifying with different characters each time, Jones focused essentially on Baldwin’s deconstruction of queerness and social dynamics, which intersected American politics with racial identity. “[Baldwin] wasn’t going to pretend that there was this monolithic Blackness. He wasn’t just going to pretend that there weren’t Black men—who he was advocating for in terms of civil rights— who weren’t homophobic. He was like ‘We’re gonna do all this together’” Jones said. “He’s drawing from his background in Christianity, but he’s changed; he’s not practicing his faith in the same way. He [was] just doing a very good job of showing how we’re in flux and that it’s natural and better to embrace that. I feel like that set me up to start paying attention.”

Habitually enthusiastic about settling in Columbus (or what he calls “the promised land”), Jones speaks gleefully about The Great Migration and Ohio boasting essential Black authors—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacqueline Woodson, Hanif Abdurraqib and Toni Morrison. While he notes that Black authors have thrived

in Ohio through a formidable writing scene, in How We Fight for Our Lives, Jones touches keenly on the fragility of Black life. Days prior to our conversation marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 16-year-old Julius Tate, who was shot by Columbus police during a sting operation.

“If we’re able to villainize people we have wronged—and Julius was certainly wronged—it eases the rhetoric of brushing the wrong aside,” Jones said. “It happens so often and so much of our culture grooms all of us to move on. I’m not the one to say what justice for Julius and for Black people impacted by that violence looks like, but I would love to hear it. I have no interest in telling people to be quiet. I’m a writer, so I think a lot about editing and revision, and how you polish and the drafts you don’t want people to see. Cities are text, too.”

While Columbus continues to be a work in progress through systematic tensions, Jones is embracing the city’s tangible LGBTQ+ scene after residing in New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In support of the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, he attended the Columbus March for Black Trans Women in November, where he felt a sense of cohesiveness within the city. “I feel like the march was a great example of waking me up—unsurprisingly, it’s easier for cisgender gay men to live and feel embraced here than Black trans women in Columbus,” Jones said. “The stakes are high, but it feels possible. Here it feels like, ‘start reading up, go to that march, talk to people,’ as opposed to ‘here’s the finished story.’”

With a story far from over, Jones reveals that his next life work is to write about joy to balance the scales with his past struggle within How We Fight for Our Lives. Avidly writing about pain and loss, he vows to dabble into more written frameworks outside of his comfort zone. “I feel like I’ve written about myself so damn much, maybe learning to write in other forms—fiction—would be fun. I want to learn more, I feel that’s when I’m most alive, when I’m learning and realizing that I’m learning,” he said. “That’s when I feel fully present as a person, not when I think I know the beginning, middle and end.”

Follow Saeed Jones on Twitter and Instagram at @theferocity.

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