Survivor Leaders Leeanna and Sylvia Advocate for Change
Daria Mueller of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, along with survivor leaders Sylvia and Leeanna, and Lynne Johnson of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, traveled to Springfield, Illinois in April 2012 to lobby for changes to Illinois' human trafficking code.
Editor's note: Sadly, Sylvia Naif passed away in July of 2012 from a chronic illness. Her leadership and advocacy have left an important legacy. Please read more about her here.
by Kristin Claes
Sylvia and Leeanna are laughing on the train. They’ve been walking around the Capitol in Springfield all day, talking to senators about the latest End Demand Illinois legislation to hold sex traffickers accountable. Now they’re getting a well-deserved rest while traveling back to Chicago, giggling across the aisles. “I grew up real fast,” Sylvia says. “That's why I like to joke around a lot now. I didn't have a childhood.”
Sylvia and Leeanna are survivor leaders with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, an End Demand Illinois campaign partner. In late April, they traveled to Springfield to lobby for changes to the Illinois Trafficking code, HB 5278, which will help prosecutors hold more sex traffickers accountable in Illinois. Leeanna testified before the Senate Criminal Law Committee, explaining how pimps and traffickers use schemes and plans to ensnare people in the sex trade. She talked about her own trafficker, who called himself Messiah. The committee listened to her intently and passed the bill on to the next stage.
Leeanna has been working with CCH for five years, speaking out about the harms of the sex trade. She described why survivors’ voices are so important: “When you speak to someone from the heart about your experience, they're more willing to help.” Leeanna emphasized that she doesn't lobby for herself, "It's my compassion for people still going through it.”
Sylvia was also excited about how her efforts paid off. “Today gave me a lot of hope,” Sylvia said. “This needs to happen. There are so many people who are getting hurt by the traffickers out there. We talked to so many senators yesterday, and they were all for it.”
Sylvia was in the sex trade for 28 years. She ran away from home as a teenager after being molested by family members, and while on the street she became addicted to drugs. She’s suffered incredible violence at the hands of pimps and johns. “I've had a lot of guys threaten me and my family. I've got a lot of really bad scars on my body from dates.”
Now an advocate for survivors of homelessness and prostitution, Sylvia is adamant that more services need to be available in Illinois. She worries about the young women she sees on the street. “I see younger girls out there every day. They think their pimp really loves them, but they don't.”
Programs have helped Sylvia on her journey out of homelessness and prostitution. The last time she was arrested, she was brought through WINGS, a new specialty court for women in prostitution. She is now a leader with CCH’s Prostitution Alternatives Round Table, and she has an apartment provided by Heartland Alliance. “These programs make a girl think that she's got a chance,” Sylvia says.
Leanna and Sylvia plan to return to Springfield again soon, and they’re optimistic about the change happening in Illinois. Reflecting on her experience lobbying, Leeanna said, “It's always exciting when we as a team go and we meet with the legislators, and it makes a difference. That lets you know that it's moving forward.” She added, “The real excitement is when the law takes effect.”