Seated in a circle eating fried chicken and fries, the girls at the Dreamcatcher Foundation are listening to their director, Brenda Myers-Powell, tell a story. Her voice is loud and becomes increasingly intense; her whole person conveys an energy that puts the room on edge. But close up, her eyes contrast with her loud energy; they’re gentle and soft, a bit sad even, as if they’re catching a glimpse of a painful scene from the past.
Danielle’s grandma used to tell her that she was too pretty to be lonely. Darrell, the boy she just met, seems to agree, but it’s more than just that–he really gets her, sees her inside and out. They start spending time together in smaller groups, then alone. He brings her little things; he’s crazy about her. Danielle’s friends are jealous, but she doesn’t mind them too much. She and Darrell have a special connection.
Darrell is older and works, and all his business connections seem to be women. Danielle has to admit to herself that this bothers her just a little. Even though he promises her “it’s just business” with those girls, she feels like they’re taking him away. She wants to know what Darrell’s business is and why she’s not a part of it. Because she’s in school, he answers, and wouldn’t be interested. But he’s the boy who understands her: doesn’t he realize that she belongs in a better world than school and watching her younger brothers, that she’s ready for a real business, too? She’s done with school, done with babysitting, done with the squalor of home–that cramped two-bedroom that feels like it’s made of nothing but noise and dirt.
She’s ready to work, and Darrell gives her a chance. She starts with him, then gradually adds his other clients, one by one. A percentage of every payment goes to Darrell, since he’s the one who connects her. Working with Darrell will help bring their old connection back, Danielle thinks, and she works more; she does every kind of work he wants her to do. It will only take a little more to get things back to the way they were. She walks the streets later and later, does everything under the sun, but the past is gone. No drugs, no nothing can bring it back. It’s over, and by age 20 Danielle is dead in a dumpster, after some business goes bad and Darrell decides he’s had enough.
Brenda Myers-Powell tells this story to illustrate how young girls become prostitutes. While stories vary, Danielle’s is the basic outline. Myers-Powell experienced one not unlike it during her 25 years as a prostitute–years during which she was shot five times and stabbed 13, a period during which she felt desperation and learned how to survive. “I know what it feels like to work for a pimp, to want desperately to get out and not be able to…I know why I survived. God saved me to do this for these girls: this is my passion.” The girls she speaks of are the at-risk young women she and Stephanie Daniels-Wilson recruit and encourage to participate in the Dreamcatcher Foundation, an organization to prevent girls from going into prostitution.
Dreamcatcher is a young organization, begun in Daniels-Wilson’s living room in 2006 and funded entirely out of pocket by its directors, Daniels-Wilson, Myers-Powell, and Angela Roguenses. The influx of baby carriages pushed by girls ages 13 through 15 in Daniels-Wilson’s neighborhood of Englewood confronted her with the painful truth that young motherhood had become the norm for black girls in her area. During the summer of 2006, when sitting in the park reading or walking along the street, she began to ask some of these girls about their experiences and what led them to have children so early. Many were victims of sexual abuse or were involved with drugs and drug dealers.
She invited some of these girls to her apartment once a week to gather to talk about their experiences and feelings. In 2007, Daniels-Wilson and her friend Myers-Powell received permission from Bishop James Dukes to hold their group sessions at an Englewood church, the Christian Liberation Center. The group became official, and Daniels-Wilson called it the Dreamcatcher Foundation, fearing that a reference to prostitution in the name would turn people off.
The church is now becoming their satellite office, and the Dreamcatcher Foundation is moving to a new location on 87th Street. They have expanded their services: besides the weekly group discussion sessions, called the Youth Empowerment Project, they provide tutoring for girls over age 16 in a computer lab. The directors also do their best to find summer and after-school jobs for the girls, and they provide health service programs, including HIV and STD testing.
All the directors work full-time jobs outside the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Their search for outside funding has so far been fruitless, and Ms. Daniels-Wilson believes their relative newness is the reason. It is too early to judge whether or not they are effective at saving girls from the violence of street prostitution. They have no statistics or numbers, but the directors can already see that the girls who come regularly have changed. Daniels-Wilson recalls how most of the girls were when she first met them, with few goals and little but anger and bitterness growing inside them. Before joining the group, most of the girls had no idea what they were doing after high school; now, most respond to that question with “going to college!” as if the answer is obvious. The anger management help they receive in the group sessions has changed their attitudes, at least in part. A few of the girls are former prostitutes who have quit the work. There are about 28 girls who regularly attend; almost all are black, and about 95 percent live in Englewood. Most of their parents know they’re involved, but only a couple of parents are active with the organization themselves.
Both Daniels-Wilson and Myers-Powell worked in and were victims of the violent sex-trade industry themselves. Knowing how the industry works, they recruit specifically among the most at-risk girls. They hope to catch them young, teach them the dangers they face, and inspire them with dreams of better lives. Most of their membership consists of young girls whom they convinced to come: girls they saw hanging around drug dealers, prostitutes, young mothers, victims of sexual abuse. If they become sex workers, these young women will not be call-girls or escorts working of their own volition. They will face every kind of violence at the hands of their clients and pimps, and they will find themselves trapped.
What makes these girls at-risk? The girls attending the group seem to have the same energy and attitudes as most teenagers. But they often live in homes with only one adult, who is away working all the time. They are often, at age 16, responsible for the care of several younger siblings. Danielle’s two-bedroom apartment holding 16 people is not unusual. The directors asked the girls to make wish lists of anything they wanted; deodorant and socks were common items listed. Living in poverty with no adult supervision or attention, with the burden of heavy responsibilities and little knowledge of the opportunities in life, these girls are primed for a situation like Danielle’s.
It seems farfetched to say that all sex workers have followed a path like Danielle’s, but Myers-Powell insists that this is a typical path. The “understanding” a girl receives from her future pimp, probably the most attention she receives in her life, is enough to make the girl willing to do anything to maintain their relationship. At-risk women are in danger of falling prey to love, which, in their stories, is equated with abuse and even death. It’s an unhealthy love born of low self-esteem, but it is undeniable that love is often unhealthy in this way; the case of the prostitute working to please her pimp is simply an extreme degree of the sickness. It’s during the beginning of this type of abusive relationship that the Dreamcatchers wish to seize and change the girls. They are not catchers in the rye, saving the young from the loss of innocence, but they wish to turn the path of growing up from one of falling into a rotten love story into one of finding and achieving dreams of a better self. The directors of the Dreamcatcher Foundation know intimately the prostitute dead in a dumpster, and they see that her life could have been entirely different. Her potential was destroyed and her story disfigured by what could have colored it and made it better: by the dirtiness and roughness of the ghetto, by noise and crowded homes, by poverty and loneliness.