Jeff was nominated to be a featured changemaker on ATL 1X1, and this is what the nomination form said – "He tirelessly and selflessly fights sex-trafficking at every and any opportunity in Atlanta and around the country. Jeff goes above and beyond constantly. He is totally committed. He is genuine. He is the real deal." It's true. Jeff is authentic, and when I sat down to talk to him about Out of Darkness I could see how his passion for seeing women rescued is pervasive in all areas of his life. It's not just about the rescue of women, but it's also about shifting mindsets, perceptions and behaviors. Interviewing him provided perspective and insight that has helped me view trafficking in a different, more realistic light. I hope you also find wisdom in his words and a challenge to change things as we know them in ATL.
How long have you lived in Atlanta?
I was born in Parry Sound Ontario, Canada, and we moved to Atlanta when I was about 4 years old. So I’ve been in Atlanta for about 28 years.
What were you doing before you started Out of Darkness?
I was a lawyer at a small firm in Buckhead called Hollberg & Weaver, and I did civil litigation. I would do small business disputes, jail civil rights cases, family law cases, wills and things like that.
Did you create Out of Darkness entirely by yourself? Because I know that it’s now attached to the Atlanta Dream Center.
Yes. I started Out of Darkness in the Spring of 2011, and then we merged with the Atlanta Dream Center in January of 2013.
Where you aware of the issue of human trafficking, especially with women in Atlanta, before you started Out of Darkness?
Effectively, no. I had seen the movie Taken, but apart from that I didn’t really know anyone working in the anti-trafficking field. I hadn’t seen anything about it during my undergraduate or graduate studies. So prior to reading a book called Not For Sale which kind of launched me into getting involved with Out of Darkness, I didn’t really know anything about trafficking.
Once you learned about this global issue which Atlanta has become infamous for, did it start to overwhelm you?
I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed. I think I had a clear picture of the role that I wanted to play, and once I had that picture I started meeting with all the other anti-trafficking organizations in Atlanta and getting a sense of what they were doing. Was my idea needed? And if so, what did I need to know before I went about to do it? Probably just in my naiveté, it seemed very doable. I remember it was intimidating being the one to do it, because I didn’t have that background. I hadn’t been involved in trafficking. I wasn’t specially educated in it. It was hard to get to the point where it was time to pull the trigger and launch. But the days and months leading up to that I remember just mostly being excited.
You made a decision to quit the corporate world and pursue this new, unknown thing. Was that scary? Were you excited? Or was that still when you thought it was all doable?
Actually, I didn’t leave law practice until December of 2013. So I started Out of Darkness within the context of continuing my legal career. That was overwhelming, because I was doing my normal job during the day and then nights and weekends I was doing almost entirely Out of Darkness. It was like 2 full time jobs. But I loved it so much. I was so passionate about it. It didn’t feel burdensome. I felt like there was a special grace on my life for that season to do both. I knew it wasn't sustainable forever, but for that season I felt strengthened and able to do it.
I was actually constantly asking God, “When can I leave law and do this full time?” Because this was my passion. I just kept feeling like no, it’s not time. And I remember kind of asking that question again in August if 2013 and suddenly feeling like I wasn’t getting a no anymore. So I spent the month of August praying about it and over those few weeks felt more and more confirmed that it was time to do that.
The first week of September I told my bosses at the law firm that I felt like it was time to do Out of Darkness full time. I was supposed to become a partner within two years of that, and they had invested a lot into me. There was a part of me that felt like I was letting them down, and I remember one of the partners said, “We’re going to be sad to see you go, but more than anything we want you to be in the center of God’s will for your life.” That meant a lot to me, because I felt like they were blessing my transition. I helped find a friend of mine who was a lawyer looking for a job, so they decided to hire him to replace me. That happened really quickly. So I transitioned all my cases over to him and was able to leave in December of 2013.
A lot of people think that volunteering just looks like one thing. Can you talk about how you took the skills and passions that you had and turned it into something larger?
Before Out of Darkness was fully operational and I had that passion for trafficking, I did volunteer with other organizations in Atlanta. One of those, Wellspring Living, had a young woman in their program who had her children taken out of her custody. They were with their father, and she was trying to set up where she could begin to be a part of their lives again. And hopefully become their full time mom again. She had been through some rehab programs before and because of that the father of the kids did not believe that she could get clean. He completely opposed her being involved in the girls’ lives again, and she kind of had everyone in her life pull away and say, “You just can’t get well.” So because I was a lawyer and had experience in family law, I was able to represent her while she was within the Wellspring program to go to court and make her case to start being a mom again. The judge was awesome and set up phases of visitation that correlated with the phases of the program. So she went from supervised daytime visitation to having longer periods of visitation to having overnight to having regular overnights. As she continued successfully through the program, it triggered those additional things. That was an opportunity for me to take the skills and background that I did have to make an impact in somebody’s life.
I remember something that the judge said to her too that was life changing for her. When she went through that trial, it was pretty hellacious. Because she has the attorney for the dad saying, “Well you’ve been through rehab before, and you’ve failed every time. So why should we believe this is going to be any different?” And she’s crying on the stand and probably asking herself the same question – will it be any different? But I remember at the end of the case, the judge commended the father and said you’ve stepped in and done your role as a parent. I commend you for that. So he honored the dad. But he also said to the mom, “I believe in you, and I believe this will be different. I see all the signs that this will be different for you. So I just want to applaud you and encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities you have now.” That was very impactful for her to have someone in the judge's position actually saying I believe in you and rooting her on.
What kind of change and impact have you seen in the lives that you’ve been able to impact since 2011?
There’s varying degrees. We’ve rescued close to 600 women which that represents going and extracting them out of their situation when they call us. They’ve got to be ready. They initiate that process – will you help me? And then we go get them. On a very small scale there’s been women who've come out of that immediate situation of danger, violence, drugs, exploitation, whatever it may be. But then some of the stuff we’ve been able to see over the long term for those who’ve stayed in that journey of healing – we’ve seen women get their GEDs. Because they’re adults now, but they never finished high school. Gone through professional apprenticeship programs. Have children. Get married. Get their first job. Work multiple jobs. Get their first apartment. Get their first car. It’s all the stuff that we kind of take for granted that just happens as you go through life. We get to be a part of that as family with them. Celebrate those milestones. Go to graduations. Be there in the hospital when they’re having babies. Being by them when they’re going through surgeries. All the things that come along in life that they see us as their family now. Because lack of family is a big reality for the women we serve coming out of trafficking and prostitution. They probably wouldn’t be there if they had a healthy family in the first place. So when they come out, that’s still a reality, and they need to have new family come around them. All kinds of stuff that we’ve been able to see. Even women who’ve begun their own healing now reaching back out to help other women who are still where they once were, which is really neat to see too.
How does it make you feel to know that you are helping people one by one?
The culture at large says tell me your statistics. They’re very interested in quantifying success. There is an excitement to that, but it would burn out really quickly if you didn’t get to see the individual lives that were being impacted. The face, the name, the story, the very real emotions and circumstances of that one person.
For all of us on staff, we can’t all have 300 people that we’re helping at once or being a big brother or big sister to. But each of us has 5 or so ladies that we’ve kept up with and stayed in their lives as they progress. So just getting to see that long term change, and not only that but you’re really talking about all their future generations being changed. Because they’ve stepped out of cycles that have been generational. If grandma was in prostitution and mom was in prostitution and now I’m in prostitution, and I have kids that I’m raising – chances are they’re going to be in prostitution or they’re going to become pimps. Because it’s normalized for them. So when you can break them out of that cycle that they’re in that’s being passed down, then you’re changing their kids futures too. Watching that is fun.
Seeing these kids grow up in a healthier, not always the healthiest, but a healthier environment, and having a mom that’s present and attentive and not on drugs or consuming alcohol or bringing unsafe people into the home. We said when we first launched the hotline – if we only ever have one person call and we can make a difference in their life, then the whole thing has been worth it. It’s worth it for one life that’s changed.
Has anything about your time with Out of Darkness changed your previous perceptions about volunteering or helping those in need? Have your perceptions shifted between now and then?
One thing I’d say is I’ve realized how no amount of volunteering is insignificant. Every chunk of time, even if it seems small or infrequent, is very valuable. Giving one woman a ride to a doctor’s appointment is one ride that our staff doesn’t have to give and can continue doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the safe home. On the other hand I see the power of committed and sustained volunteerism. Where people have really plugged in and become dependable, regular volunteers to fulfill different needs of the ministry in the women’s lives. Another thing I realized is the importance of equipping volunteers. So not just pulling them in, giving them a task and sending them out. But giving them a sense of confidence in what they’re doing by answering questions, training where it’s necessary and teaching what they need to know. So that they can feel that they’re not just doing something because it’s needed, but I feel competent in what I’m doing. I’m not just giving one hour of my useless time doing something that I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’ve been taught this, and I know how to do it well. Not just treating them as a commodity to spit up and spit out.
For me personally, I’ve almost felt as much of a burden to minister to our volunteers as to the women we serve. We’re all living lives and have difficulties and struggles along the way, and we need that community and intentionality as anyone else. Even to invest in them and grow them and encourage the resources and skills and talents and passions that they have. Even if that means them leaving our organization, because they discover that’s not really what their purpose it. Then we don’t want to try and hold on to them and convince them why they should stay. We want to encourage and bless them and send them to wherever their purpose lies.
What’s the best way you’ve discovered to teach volunteers how to show these women the dignity and respect they deserve when the volunteer may not be able to empathize directly with the situations of prostitution or drug addiction?
One thing that I’ve learned about training is that it’s not about sitting in a room for an hour and going over a bullet point list of protocol. It’s more of an immersion. If you’re really going to shift people’s perception about things and have it go from something they’re just looking at on a piece of paper to where it permeates their mind and their heart – they’ve got to sit in it for awhile. Most of our areas of involvement require a 2-day training. It’s 2 days back to back.
For one, the volunteer makes the commitment that they’re going to give up this chunk of their time because they are committed. That’s a big problem we have today is commitment. People have a difficult time sticking to one thing. That helps people discover – is this really for me? If they make that commitment and come out of it saying, this is for me – that’s a good thing.
You’ve got to use storytelling, because it brings those bullet points and facts to life. Ok, you’re telling me I should be compassionate, because of all these variables that this person has likely been through in their lives. But when I can illustrate that to you through something somebody's really walked through, then it’s going to become more real. We have to identify where we have misconceptions and stereotypes, and then we have to very intentionally target those. Identify it out loud and then say now let me tell you why we have to come away from that. I usually start by saying, “Let me tell you what I believed myself before I got involved that had to be corrected.” In the work of prostitution and trafficking it’s – she made a choice, she can leave at anytime, why doesn’t she just call the police? So you’ve got to answer those questions for people and not just say you shouldn’t think that way. They’re real questions, and they’re valid questions. But you’ve got to be able to answer them in a way that begins to change their understanding.
One thing we talk about in training is how trauma affects the brain. As a volunteer if you’re interacting and trying to help someone, and they’re throwing stuff at you, cussing at you, seeming to want to have nothing to do with you – it’s easy to say they don’t want my help or they don’t deserve my help. And you just disconnect. But when you understand how trauma has impacted their brain which has impacted their behavior, you can say not how are they behaving but why are they behaving this way so I can stay connected and address the deeper heart issue that’s going on. So bringing in people who can speak to that from their knowledge and experience. Professional counselors. People from law enforcement. Bringing in a lot of resources that specialize in different areas that can present more of a holistic picture of what volunteering will look like and what the big picture is apart from that one specific area where you’re going to be involved.
What would you say breaks your heart most about Atlanta?
It’s different every day. Right now the thing that breaks my heart the most about Atlanta is we could see a lot more of these men, women and children be rescued. We could be in a lot more jails reaching them. We could be in a lot more areas of the community doing outreach. We could be rescuing a lot more people, and we could be housing a lot more people if all of the resources that are available in Atlanta came to bear. We have so much wealth. We have so many families. We have so many churches. Yet, we’re finding ourselves constantly in need. We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough vans. We don’t have enough money. And it’s not because there’s a lack of things. There’s a lack of awareness. There’s a lack of understanding. And sadly there’s a lack of compassion. So even sometimes when someone is aware and they do understand, they just don’t care. That’s what breaks my heart.
I don’t say that to get onto people or to point fingers. But it is heartbreaking when you see the depth of suffering that people are going through, and the reality is for most of these kids and men and women who are in prostitution they’re estimated life span is 7 years. We’ve had people die that we were in the midst of working with. So every single night that someone is not reached could be the last opportunity. That sounds sensational, but it’s true. We have lived that reality out. If people would stop and let that sink in, then it would change the sense of urgency that we don’t have. What breaks my heart is seeing the stories of these women and their children and knowing that we’re not doing everything we could be doing yet to help them.
It’s sad. Sometimes as Americans we’re better at looking at a third world country and saying they need help rather than looking in our own backyard to see what’s actually happening that we could have an immediate impact on.
That’s so true. And I think there’s a comfortable distance. If I start to say I’m going to give within my own community, then that means it’s happening around me which means I can’t distance myself. So there’s a lot more discomfort in acknowledging that this is happening here.
What is your challenge to the citizens of the Atlanta to step up and help these men, women and children in need?
People have to realize this is not a lost cause. There is so much hope. There are so many people coming out of these circumstances. And not only coming out but having incredible, purpose-filled lives after that. They’re becoming productive, whole, awesomely contributing members of our society. We work mostly with women, and these women possess incredible resilience, creativity, skills, compassion. They’re such amazing people to know and call friend. It really is a privilege.
For people who are on the fence about – Should I give my time? Should I give my resources? It’s not investing into a lost cause. It’s investing into real people who then you get to see and hear the stories of life transformation that’s happening. I hold onto hope that we can really eradicate the phenomenon of sex trafficking in the state of Georgia. I wouldn’t keep doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe that. But wholesale change isn’t going to happen until as a community there’s wholesale buy-in. We have way more people that could help the trafficking issue than are within the trafficking industry. We have more way more resources outside of trafficking than what the trafficking industry has. And if we really put a focused attention on that we could make an incredible impact on the current circumstance of trafficking in the state of Georgia.
How can people take action and make an impact with Out of Darkness?
If anybody is thinking they might be interested in learning more or getting involved, I would say sign up and come to one of our 2 day volunteer trainings. That’s not a commitment. Come, listen, learn, ask questions. Then wrestle with whether you see an area, because we have all kinds of areas people can plug in. We have street outreach. We train medical professionals. We visit women in jail. We have people answering the hotline. We have people going to do the rescue pickups. We have people coming into the home to taking girls to movies, baking lasagna, doing crafts, painting, music, taking them to church, becoming mentors. There’s a whole array of opportunities for men and women based on where you feel drawn.
If you know that getting hands-on isn’t really for you, then you can sponsor a woman financially through the process of her recovery. Amazingly, the average cost for a woman to be reached, rescued and go through her first 12 months of recovery is only $7,650. It’s a lot of money, but when we think about what it costs us to live for a year it’s so far beyond that. Within that 12 months of recovery, they’re getting counseling, life skills, job skills, healthy relationship teaching, so it’s very holistic.
One thing I would challenge every single person to do is look at the narrative in culture and begin to challenge it. So when you hear women in prostitution written off as – “Oh, they like having sex and they like making money.” The reality is most, if not every single one those pennies she’s making, isn’t going to her. It’s going back to a pimp, controller, trafficker. Her life is not advancing at all. That whole concept of a choice implies alternatives. So I had options before me. These women have not had options. They’ve been runways, foster care, poverty, been a single mom trying to raise 3 kids without having ever graduated high school. So the choice of prostitution is no real choice. Only as a society can we offer the alternatives of housing, meaningful income and employment and education.
We have to change the way we talk about people. Because if we continue to talk about them as though they’re written off, then they’ll believe that. That’s the message they’re getting from us. There isn’t anything else for me. No one cares about my life. No one wants to help me.
And as men specifically, challenging pornography, strip clubs, going out and buying sex. So when we hear our buddies talking about a bachelor party and “hey, let’s bring in a stripper.” Or “hey, let’s go to this strip club Friday night." Knowing that exploitation doesn’t happen in a silo, it happens on a continuum. I could talk for 2 hours just about how pornography, strip clubs, prostitution and trafficking are interconnected. Because they’re not divided like we want to believe in our minds so that we can engage in one or the other without feeling guilty. They’re the same women, and they’re moving through a spectrum of exploitation. Ultimately we have to say humans are worth more than their sexuality. Commodifying and objectifying a woman to where her only value is her body is damaging not just for those people involved but for our own daughters that we’re raising into that very culture. And our own wives and girlfriends and sisters and mothers. We have to really take a hard look and begin to speak and participate in the culture that doesn’t continue the hypersexualization and objectification of women.
As told to Kristen Green on August 12, 2015 in Atlanta, GA.
Kristen Green Consulting is the digital consultant for Atlanta creatives. Kristen helps cultivate ideas into a meaningful business through workshops, consulting and 1-on-1 coaching.