Originally published on Turnstylenews.com and NPR.org. Turnstyle News is a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.
By: Denise Tejada
Photo Credit: Denise Tejada/Turnstyle NewsA billboard that reads "Here to buy sex? Stop it!" overlooks 13th & International Blvd in Oakland, California.
Parents and advocates in one East Oakland, California, neighborhood have stepped up their activism in response to pimps targeting their middle school-aged daughters.
Last year, All Things Considered and Youth Radio collaborated on an investigative series from young people's point of view that revealed what it's like being trafficked and also how police efforts to combat the problem often criminalize young women. Since then, the community has stepped up their response.
Nhuanh Ly is the Program Coordinator for Banteay Srei -- a group that works with neighborhood girls - to build self-esteem and to teach them how to avoid being recruited by pimps. School district officials say it's hard to prevent because the pimps just look like regular guys.
And recruitment can happen anywhere, says Ly. "It happens at the bus stops, it happens in front of homes, and it happens in front of schools...Not too long ago, one of the girls who attends our afterschool programs called me and she was really, really distraught. She was like 'Nhuanh! Nhuanh! I can't believe this just happened! A pimp just tried to recruit me and he actually picked me up in his car."
Ly says, as shocking as it seems, the average age that girls get recruited into trafficking in the US is 12 years old. It's a common misconception that girls are trafficked after being kidnapped. But many times it's more subtle than that. It can start with a seduction or even a relationship. So Ly encourages families to have frank conversations early about dating and sex. "Yeah, it's awkward talking to your parents about sex, right? ... A common response for parents is to try shut their children away from seeing this. But the reality is that it's so visible and it's so prevalent that we can't do that."
It's so prevalent that families can look outside their windows and see pimps. Reynaldo and Jody Terrazas raised two girls in this neighborhood. "See that corner over there, see that corner over there? Pimps are coming down here," says Reynaldo Terrazas. "They go down the alley...They'll go to the hotel on the back side rather than on the front side. They kinda sneak in here."
The Terrazas live a block from the National Lodge motel that the community has been fighting for years, saying pimps run their business from it. From their living room, the Terrazas also have a view of International Boulevard where girls, some barely teenagers, stand on the corners.
"Little girls, you bet. Very skinny. They probably weigh 100 pounds, maybe 115 pounds. Some of them look very confident and bold about what they are doing. And then there are times, they look like they are trying to get away, to hide. They don't want to be here," Jody Terrazas says.
When you walk up to the National Lodge motel you have to be buzzed in. A small woman sits behind a thick glass window, like a bank teller. She refused to answer any questions on the day Youth Radio came to the motel office. However, during a follow-up phone call, we reached Rita Patel. She is part of the family that owns the motel. Her response to neighbors fears about sexual exploitation of minors? "No we don't accept prostitutes here...Good people come with the family and the kids."
But a lawsuit filed by the Oakland City Attorney alleges otherwise. Andy Nelson, Deputy Director for Organizing and Public Policy at East Bay Youth Center, is pleased that the City of Oakland has officially joined the fight and is suing to shut down the National Lodge motel for allowing prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors.
"Since we started pushing, there were a couple more officers who were assigned here and there is been a lot more willingness to talk to us and to try to work collaboratively...The concern is, you know, what would happen if we stopped pushing?," Nelsen says.
That pushing includes marches, rallies, and meetings with the mayor, the city council and the police. Andy Nelson's motivation to keep pushing? His four-year-old daughter.
"As she gets older, it's going to be challenging. But every time I see a young girl out there, I see my daughter," he says.
Until recently, Nelson says a lot of neighborhood parents felt there was nothing that could be done to stop sex trafficking. He says getting rid of the National Lodge motel is not going to solve the problem, but it would be a big accomplishment. Nelson and others won't give up the idea that Oakland's San Antonio neighborhood can be a good place to raise kids.
Youth Radio Investigates: Trafficked, on NPR's All Things Considered tells the stories of two teenagers who were trafficked on the streets of Oakland. The investigation uncovers how the city's law enforcement has responded to a sex trafficking industry that is thriving in plain sight. The series continues on Turnstylenews.com, youthradio.org and The Huffington Post, where multimedia reporting goes deeper to reveal the varied perspectives of girls sold for sex on the streets and online, and a pimp "business plan" provided by prosecuters.