Women’s group meeting at Silent Images sheds light on tough issues

Matthews – Mint Hill Weekly

Women listen as local human trafficking advocates speak out at Women in Focus.  Crystal O’Gorman/MMHW photo

MATTHEWS – Women darted across East John and Trade streets, shaking off the rain Thursday, March 19, as they visited the downtown headquarters of Silent Images for the third Women in Focus meeting.

Women in Focus is a monthly gathering where women engage in conversations about local and global issues and learn from local experts. The group launched in the fall and has grown in popularity.

Silent Images founder David Johnson said his wife, Andrea, wanted a space where women could gather and discuss topics important to them and society.

“We have a toddler and baby at the house, and she was longing for in-depth conversations with other women, besides talking about babies and naptime, where content can have more depth, a space for intellectual conversation about our city and the world,” David Johnson said.

Shannon McCrory, a Matthews resident who attends Carmel Baptist Church, worked with Andrea Johnson and Julianne Bash to brainstorm the creation of Women in Focus. McCrory has attended every meeting since the group’s inception, and said she appreciates the opportunity it offers women.

“I was excited about this community-wide effort, getting different social circles together to meet (and) focus on and learn about these issues in a welcoming environment,” she said.

More than 40 women from the greater Charlotte area mingled over coffee and sweets, breaking the ice before delving back into the storm – a serious discussion on the realities of human trafficking in Charlotte.

Johnson, the only man in the room, started the presentation by showing a short film Silent Images produced about human trafficking in Charlotte as a part of its “Get Off Our Donkey” DVD series. The lights were turned down, and the crowd watched as two Charlotte women shared stories of how their lives were torn apart by being coerced into a local sex trafficking ring.

These personal stories set the stage for three guest speakers on human trafficking: Aimee Johnson, executive director of Rise Up and vice president of Justice Ministries; Debbie Hancock, co-founder and executive director of Compassion to Act; and Hannah Arrowood, executive director of Present Age Ministries.

Each speaker explained how her organization helps women and girls who are or have been in the sex trafficking industry. Aimee Johnson spoke about her outreach service, where she works on the frontline picking up girls and women as they’re fleeing from their procurers. She told a harrowing tale of picking up one young woman from the hospital, and all the woman had was the bloody hospital gown she was wearing.

“It’s been 75 days since the beginning of the year, and I have helped 40 girls flee from sex trafficking … 40 lives saved in 75 days,” Aimee Johnson said

Hannah Arrowood discussed her focus on awareness and the risk-assessment seminars she conducts with teenaged girls in area schools, as well as her after-care housing facility for 12- to 18-year-old girls who’ve survived sexual abuse.

Hancock discussed her faith-based approach, going into strip clubs and showing “love and compassion” and praying for strippers, who often fall prey to human trafficking. She said her organization also provides housing and after-care services for survivors.

After introducing their organizations, the women answered questions from the crowd, such as how girls are forced into the industry, the difference between prostitution and human trafficking and how activists reach out to and find survivors. The conversation ended with how the crowd can help these organizations.

Hancock said she felt blessed to have the opportunity to share information about her cause.

“Education leads to prevention. If someone can learn about this – they can solve it,” she said.

Alynne Davis, a Matthews resident training to become an expressive arts therapist, said she attended the event because she previously volunteered with Aimee Johnson and wanted to find ways to continue helping organizations fight human trafficking.

“I am interested in creating an awareness art project to send a message to the community about the realities of human trafficking,” Davis said.

Gretchen Reid, also a Matthews resident, said she’s been to each of the Women in Focus meetings and looks forward to attending every time.

“It really puts things into perspective,” Reid said. “All my daily issues don’t mean so much after I come to this.”

Silent Images is a Matthews-based nonprofit that tells the stories of oppressed and impoverished people in the U.S. and abroad through photojournalism and videography. Visit http://www.silentimages.org/women-in-focus/ for more information about Women in Focus or to sign up for the next gathering.

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