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A Discussion with James Pond, Executive Director of Transitions Global

With: James Pond Berkley Center Profile

February 2, 2011

Background: This conversation between James Pond and Ethan Carroll took place in Phnom Penh on February 2, 2011. James discusses the formative experiences that led to his founding Transitions Global, including his realization that victims of human trafficking deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams. He explains his inquiry into the nature of success in aftercare, the need to professionalize service-provision, and Transitions’ aim to rehabilitate trafficked girls to the point that they can make self-actualizing life decisions.

How did Transitions come to exist in Cambodia?

When I started doing aftercare here in Cambodia (we began in 2005, as the co-founders of Agape International Missions), we came with the primary goal of providing quality aftercare services to sexually trafficked girls. We were told by the U.S. State Department that the greatest need was for safe homes that girls could be safely held in until their traffickers’ trial. The State Department’s interest in aftercare initially was primarily for prosecution and had little to do with victim protection. I had some expertise in security and intelligence and thought that I could offer something to how those facilities were put together. The idea behind Agape was to create an amazing, safe place for girls. We created this oasis of swimming pools and palm trees, high walls, magnetic security gates, closed circuit television, and DVR uploads on security; we could monitor entrances and exits, and it was a pretty fantastic system as well as an amazing place, basically Fantasy Island for girls. But aftercare has very little to do with facilities and has a lot to do with the services you’re providing for girls, along with the kind of environment they have to heal in.

You have to realize that the majority of sex trafficking victims fall within Cambodia’s cultural grey area. We did our first intake of 19 girls, the majority of whom were 15 and 16 years old. Not quite the 9- and 10-year-olds I had imagined in my head. We previously had the idea we would be putting all our girls back through formalized schooling and linking them into the education system, but in Cambodia 15 is considered working age. You’re primarily considered an adult; there is a lot of ambivalence in Cambodian society, but basically a 15-, 16-, or 17-year-old girl is no longer a girl, she’s a woman. Trafficking also falls within America’s grey area. In the United States right now, we take a 15-, 16-, or 17-year-old girl being trafficked in Atlanta, Georgia, to be a girl who made poor choices rather than a trafficking victim.

I had a number of instances along the way that were really formative to the decision to form Transitions Global. One was that we had a suicide attempt. A 16-year-old girl who was in our shelter had climbed up on the roof and was going to jump. She didn’t want to be locked up. She didn’t want to be in a shelter, so combined with all the things she had already been through and now being in glamorized incarceration, she wanted out. I ended up going up on the roof to save her, and she almost pulled me off. She almost killed both of us. I started rethinking what we were doing here. If you give them all of this and something like that happens—then something is terribly wrong.

About a week later, I was at the shelter in the evening. I go there every night from about 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. to work on my language with the girls, and it is an opportunity to spend time with the girls after-hours: to just be there for them. I was leaving the shelter, and I opened the gate and I felt a tug on my shirt. It’s this 15-year-old girl who says "Can I run in your yard?" What do you mean run in my yard? She says "Can I run in your yard? I promise I won’t run away." What are you talking about? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. She said "There’s nowhere to run in this shelter. There’s nowhere to be free. Let me run in your yard, I promise I won’t run away. I just want to run once." I went back to my room and told my wife "We’re doing something wrong." No 15-year-old girl should be telling me she wants to run in my yard because there’s nowhere to be free.

There was another pretty formative experience for me. My 10-year-old daughter came home from school and she said "Dad, I know what I want to be for the rest of my life," and I said "What do you want to be?" "An architect." I was thrilled, and we got online and looked at Amazon for books on architecture and talked about what colleges she might want to go to and planned out what kind of degree she would need, what kind of internship she’d like to do, and we were just having fun. She’s 10 years old. Tomorrow it could change, but why not entertain somebody’s dream for the future? At the time we were weighing what to do with girls who have third grade educations; they’re Cambodian-Vietnamese, and they come from really broken backgrounds and distressed families. So after my daughter left the room it occurred to me: This is so simple. Why not go back to the shelter and tell the girls "You guys can do whatever you want to do. Pick something you want to do and aim for it." That sounds super simple, but it’s not. At the time, I didn’t realize that complex trauma means you don’t really have any dreams and if you did you certainly don’t remember them now. We needed to create a system to help girls dream again.

My wife and I had worked with at-risk teenagers for most of our lives. We raised five other teenagers besides our own, so we had a decent idea what it takes to get later adolescents through their teen years and adulthood: it is creating the opportunity for there to be both freedom and consequences. That’s how we all learn. Dad tells you that you can take the car out until 10:30 p.m. and he wants you to put gas in it, and you bring the car back with no gas at 11:45 p.m.? I guarantee you’re not taking the car out again. That kind of system of logical consequences but ample freedom to exercise young adulthood is critical.

So within my time at Agape we started looking at the idea of creating a Transitional Living Center, with the idea that girls in later adolescence would come and begin the process of learning adult life skills, aiming toward some kind of a vocation. We started the Transitional Living Center with two social workers, a director, a driver and a really great idea. We put it into a typical Cambodian home with the idea that it was helping girls to aim higher than the typical living situation, but at the same time it was something they could realistically achieve. After we opened the Transitional Living Center in 2006, in 2007 my wife and I left Agape and started what became Transitions Cambodia, Inc. We kept the Transitional Living Center as our concept and idea, and we just kept building this system out into a really vibrant program.

The first thing we realized when we started on our own was that I wasn’t a business person. My wife and I had an intuitive sense of what to do, but these are real people and they deserve to have as much professional input and influence as we can possibly provide. So we started getting really great people around us. We started getting different social workers involved. We have an amazing clinical psychotherapist that works out of Los Angeles who provides our therapy programs. We’ve put together a life skills program that, bar none, is probably one of the best out there for giving girls the skills training they need to function in adulthood. The result has been that over the last several years girls have become counselors, teachers, and we just had one girl who was hired by a human rights organization as an investigator and aftercare coordinator. We are looking at girls who really want to do something of significance in their lives, so we continue to find new ways to find them new opportunities. We also do a lot to strengthen families for girls that can go home. If they can go home to a healthy family there is no replacement for that.

In designing out programs at Transitions, I decided to tackle the question "What is success?" I spent 10 years in corporate America selling plastics and had been successful at managing $9 to $11 million a year, and yet here, we are dealing in human lives, which are way more valuable, and we kind of just waltzed through the system without realizing how imperative it is to ask what success looks like. So I started asking people "What is success?" and I got lots of shoulder shrugs, lots of "You can’t quantify it, you can’t measure it." I don’t think you can ever measure a human life, but I believe you can measure success. It may be a more qualitative measure but a quantitative quality to it can be ascertained. We went to one of the most well-known aftercare programs here in Southeast Asia and talked with them about how they measured success in their program. They said "Give me a definition and I can tell you what we have." Girls who graduate from your program, have successful jobs and are living freely; they’re not being re-trafficked or re-exploited and are not intentionally or voluntarily engaging in commercial sex work. Their answer? Eight percent. I walked away stunned. An enormous donor pool is literally digging holes in the sand; they just keep digging and the hole keeps getting re-filled. Other organizations were having some modicum of success in their programs: 15 percent, 22 percent. If you were a business investor and invested in somebody getting a 22 percent result, that’s not even an ROI! You would be in the red so bad you might as well shoot yourself! If you talk to organizations that deal with addiction programs in the United States and ask them their rate of success, 25 percent is pretty typical, so it wasn’t as though aftercare facilities were managing below level. Instead, I think that we had given too much credit to the fact that there are not factors that are qualitatively and quantitatively measurable.

So we started really considering what’s going on and why there were such low rates. We started surveying organizations around the region about their programs, and we heard a lot of things. One of the baseline things we heard was "We offer counseling." It occurred to me that you can offer a lot of things to teenagers that they’re not going to take. I can offer teenagers a book on wisdom, but it’s going to hold up all of their other books or it’s going to be something they leave their iPod on. The other thing we heard over and over was that in terms of vocations, girls can become tailors, they can become hairdressers, or they can make handicrafts for an NGO. Same thing everywhere. I had to ask the basic question: how many hairdressers can you have? How much can they make? Don’t get me wrong, I have friends who are hairdressers in the United States who make $80,000 or $90,000 a year—you can do well for yourself—but here, where a haircut goes for no more than 3,000-5,000 riels [$0.75-$1.25] and you have overhead and payroll and other expenses, 5,000 riels quickly becomes a pretty scant salary, so girls were making $30 to $40 a month in the city. Within a strong family system that might be okay, but take a girl in a weak family system and she’s literally one tragedy away from having to either sell herself or put herself in a vulnerable situation.

Many Christian rehabilitation centers in Cambodia offer girls the opportunity to go to church but also not to go to church, if that is their choice. The experience is that a lot of girls do emerge having converted to Christianity. You previously mentioned the high degree of complex trauma experienced by your target population. To what degree does their trauma allow them to make an informed decision about religious conversion?

That’s an excellent question. The key advice we got from professionals in the trauma field is that faith should be the last element a person is confronted with. Based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs you have a basic need for safety and security, shelter, food, clothing, and then we move all the way up to altruism at the top of the triangle. We deal with girls who literally have no foundation for safety. We were told that we should take faith off the table, initially, when working with girls dealing with the level of trauma that this population is dealing with. Let the faith that the girls come with, whatever they have, carry them. Find out what that is and tap into that rather than try to influence them from the outside. Cambodian and Vietnamese girls in a faith-based shelter, because they want to be a part of a community and a part of a system, are going to adopt whatever that system is regardless of whether they have a sincere faith experience. We followed up with former graduates who had made a faith commitment to Christianity early in their program, had graduated and had been out for a couple of years, and their response was that that experience was for that time. It was not a meaningful, life-long experience for them. They had gone back to either their Buddhist faith or some had found some other form of inner-strength. We had girls who had gotten into yoga and were finding some satisfaction from spirituality, rather than some kind of a religious system.

Raising three kids of my own I’ve never tried to influence their choices or their personal faith experiences in that way. So we took religion off the table. Not faith; religion. We felt that with the level of trauma the girls were dealing with, the culture we were in, and the culture they were going to return to, it was the right thing to do. Phnom Penh has a percentage of evangelical Cambodian Christians living within the city limits, but most girls come from the provinces and they’re going to go home to completely a Buddhist culture to try to interpret what faith looks like within that context. How it will impact girls later in life is imperative. Faith should be something that is based on a person’s experience and decision of what allows them move up in their hierarchy of needs. I think our goal, as a human race, is to help people move further up that hierarchy to make those altruistic decisions for themselves.

We wanted Transitions to be a professional organization. It’s kind of like the old question: "Are you a Christian rock musician or are you a rock musician who’s a Christian?" The debate for us was not “Are you a Christian or not a Christian organization?" but “Are you a quality organization that works with integrity?” Everything else comes after that.

Will faith-based organizations’ trajectory of involvement in Cambodia’s anti-trafficking sector change significantly in the next five to 10 years?

I think that faith-based organizations, in order to be truly successful, are going to have to become more ecumenical and open to working with other organization that don’t necessarily share their ideals. The table is getting bigger and everyone has to come to that table. I think if you are a faith-based organization and you are driven by the ideals of your faith or religious practice, you risk limiting the number and types of partners you can have in the field and the breadth of work you can accomplish. We have found that many secular organizations within Cambodia would like the resources and knowledge base that faith-based organizations have, but are afraid that they can’t come to the table as peers and that the religious organizations would either deny them access based on not being a part of the same religious system or would treat them as lesser-than.

As an organization, faith, religion, and God should direct us toward a model of quality and transparency. We should strive to provide the best possible care and solutions for those we are caring for. As well, we need to have greater transparency and accountability for the work we are doing. These are precious and real lives we are responsible for; we need to direct our faith toward a model of greater accountability, not isolation.

Is there any truth to the idea that human trafficking in Cambodia is in some way a cultural problem?

Sex trafficking is not a cultural issue; it’s a global epidemic that has to be addressed in a much broader context. The United States is struggling with it. I gave a lecture to a university in the United States, where a woman stood up and very indignantly asked "What motivates a mother in Cambodia to sell her own daughter?" My response was "The same thing that motivated a mother in Tualitin, Oregon, to sell her daughter: desperate poverty, lack of opportunities, several other siblings, and materialism." The mother in Cambodia sells her kid because she has three other kids to feed; the mother in Tualitin, Oregon, sold her daughter so she could get a big screen TV. There are aspects of Cambodian culture that allow human trafficking to happen, but they’re the same cultural issues we struggle with on a global scale. I think we’re talking about broader principles like men’s perceived entitlement globally. When we have a system that allows for commercial sex to be rampantly acceptable it creates problems.

What effect do police raids have on women and children in the long run?

There are two things that have to be addressed in order to see sex trafficking come to an end. Within that is woven a lot more complexity, but it we are to overly-simplify it, the first is that you have to raise the status of women and girls globally. When you can create a commodity in a human being, particularly a woman, you create a lack of status and a lack of voice. Women are admittedly more vulnerable globally than men. For us as an organization, that means finding women better, more secure, and dignified jobs that give them a voice. That voice matters.

The second factor is dealing with the entitlement of men. There is a status among men that anywhere that we go globally, sex can be purchased. To address that there has to be prosecution, there have to be consequences for actions in order for behavior to change. If you just create a system that says you can purchase a person for a price, then your capacity for entitlement continues. Key raids go after the facilitators and then eventually move toward prosecuting the buyers. You have to address demand down the line in order to be effective.

When the State Department says "We’re going to move you down on the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report if you don’t follow these particular protocols that we’re asking you to follow, and if you’re down on the TIP report we’re going to impose sanctions which could impact you economically," then Cambodia’s response is to send all their police out to do week-long raids, stings, they close down six or seven clubs, impacting let’s say 200 non-trafficked girls to be generous. Those are called suppression raids. Where do those 200 women go? They’re not arrested and their only skill, for lack of a better word, is practicing prostitution, so where are they going? When you look at the impact of suppression in general, it disperses women. It could put them in more dangerous and vulnerable situations. When I worked in the investigative field we called it PDPU: when you Push something Down, it has to Pop Up somewhere else.

In fairness, and this is where I’m very supportive of SISHA and other intervention organizations, it’s a natural part of a process of learning how to investigate these kind of crimes. We begin to suppress, it forces the criminals to become more complex at what they do, which then forces us to become more complex in how we intervene. One of the natural evolutions that has to take place is that there is going to need to be a growing level of intervention. I think that there are a lot of positive effects of suppression raids, but in terms of how it is going to affect non-trafficked sex workers, it is going to increase their vulnerability. It’s going to create forced migration situations, particularly in vulnerable populations like Vietnamese girls, into more dangerous areas that you’re not going to be able to monitor. That’s one of the scariest situations. People said years ago that at least you knew where the pedophiles were on the riverfront because everything is out in the open. Once you start suppressing it and making arrests it’s going to go underground. Well that’s the risk that you take, because you can’t allow children to be abused and raped. It’s an asinine argument. We don’t want it out in front of us, we do want to begin suppressing it and we do want to begin making key prosecutions, we do want to begin working on the roots issues, but you can’t ignore the realities of what’s going on. It’s going to become harder for us, but we have to do it because it benefits the victims.

Does having funding from churches make it easier to collaborate with other organizations? Is it a steadier source of funding?

Definitely. We actually consulted for an organization called Compassion First working in Indonesia, and they have really been an exemplary organization to work with in terms of what partnership can look like. We have relationships with key churches in the U.S. They are critical on two levels: one is funding, because the reality is that a great deal of wealth sits within the American church system. Someone told me that at one time that there was $876 million was on the table for foreign missions, which is pretty powerful. It’s also a broader community, so it gives our organization’s mission a voice. It gives the girls a voice. We brought two of our graduates to the United States in November and they had an opportunity to speak at Crossroads Community in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is a church of 13,000 people. The girls had a voice that still continues to echo because 1,400 teenagers showed up, and they all went back to their high schools and spread the message. Churches have the ability to be ventricles for organizations to thrive. They are distinct from foundations. A foundation might have a year-long funding cycle or a two-year funding cycle. Churches, if they’re intentional, take on an organization much longer-term. It gives some stability to the way an organization can function, as well as increasing its effectiveness.

Is there an equivalent to karma in other religions?

Sure, I think every religion has some form of karma. When you look at religions over-archingly, there are the ideas of sin, guilt, and shame. All of those things create inroads for people to feel like they are getting what they deserve. Christianity has it with hell, punishment, and sin, as well as the notion that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon their children. The idea that we carry around generational curses is a biblical idea passed down through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So yes, I think we are very small-minded when we suggest that the idea of karma or that someone is living out the past sins of an ancestor from their past life is unique to Buddhism, because it resonates in just about every other organized religion.