From sex trafficking survivor and luncheon speaker Cyntoia Brown-Long to ProtectHER Award Recipients Natalie Nanasi and Brittany K. Barnett, to an exciting announcement of a new life-changing partnership with the Dallas District Attorney’s Office, the 2020 New Friends New Life (NFNL) Luncheon, presented virtually on September 18, featured a consistent and powerful message emphasizing the critical need for criminal justice reform to ensure victims of sex trafficking have a path toward restoration. A testament to unwavering community support and involvement, the virtual luncheon was a resounding success as the agency adjusts to raising funds and educating the community amid a pandemic.
Luncheon Co-Chairs Jane A. Rose and Jessica Turner Waugh and honorary co-chairs and community advocates Elizabeth and Eric Gambrell kicked off the luncheon reiterating that while it seems the world seems to have slowed with COVID-19, sex trafficking and exploitation of women and girls is still happening, and prevention and intervention models provided by New Friends New Life are critical. NFNL Board Chair Ashlee Kleinert added, “While the realities of COVID-19 are heartbreaking, the successes and perseverance of NFNL staff and members are a testament to all that is good in our world.”
Arrested at the age of 16, Cyntoia Brown-Long was a juvenile sentenced as an adult to life in prison for killing a man who solicited her for sex. She served 15 years before receiving a commuted sentence by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. She is the author of Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System and the subject of a documentary about her life.
“I always felt like everything was my fault, and I was ashamed,” said Brown-Long. “Some of the biggest lies I was told had to do with my value as a person. I was told that my identity as a person was determined by other people and what I did for them. While in prison, I decided to take back my life, and I enrolled in a college program, surrounded by a community of people who believed in me. I received two college degrees and earned two 4.0s. I am living proof that a new life is attainable.”
Brown-Long empowered viewers to take all the things they share with friends and tweet about, and put that energy into something positive, making things happen. “When young girls are trafficked, they go through so much, they are tired, they react, and they can easily snap out of trauma,” added Brown-Long. “We need to have compassion. They are defending themselves and their right to survive and be free. Let’s not throw them away and lock them up. Let’s provide them with a support community, rehabilitate them and help them re-enter the community.”
“The public needs to understand the history of these women and the trauma they may have suffered,” added Jessica Brazeal, chief programs officer, New Friends New Life. “New Friends New Life provides a clear way out, nurturing a deep multi-generational impact that breaks the cycle of abuse and exploitation.” (It’s Not a Choice Animation)
The Dallas District Attorney’s Office recently partnered with New Friends New Life on a new initiative to help break this cycle of abuse. NFNL Board Chair-Elect Tracey Nash-Huntley announced the new pre-trial intervention agreement in which a woman who is arrested on a prostitution misdemeanor will be offered the opportunity to enroll in the Phase 1 of the NFNL women’s program. Upon successful completion, her case is eligible for immediate expunction. “This is life-changing because a criminal record is one of the largest barriers these women face to gaining new employment and making a new start,” added Nash-Huntley. “This is what reform looks like.”
Natalie Nanasi and Brittany K. Barnett were recognized as the 2020 ProtectHER Award recipients for their tireless work for criminal justice reform. Nanasi, director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women and assistant professor of law, Southern Methodist University, organizes pro-bono legal defense for victims of sex trafficking. She became a lawyer to help people and is proud of the center’s partnership with NFNL. “The women we help from NFNL have been debilitated by poverty and trauma since an incredibly young age. They are not the type of people who should be punished. Helping them to get their records cleared not only serves justice but also helps them to move forward and heal. I can think of no better use of a law degree. I dedicate this award to these women as well as the teams of SMU law students who do the hard work.”
Barnett, an attorney, author, co-founder of the Buried Alive Project, and advocate for criminal justice reform, is the daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother and knows the impact of mass incarceration. She has also founded Girls Embracing Mothers, dedicated to empowering girls with mothers in prison. Barnett helped secure her mother’s freedom as well as dozens of others serving life without parole in federal prisons with outdated drug laws. “The work that we have to do is much more than reform,” said Barnett. “We cannot keep rescuing people and restoring them to poverty. We must completely reimagine what criminal justice reform means to us.” She thanked NFNL for the work they are doing and for “amplifying the voices of victims to create empathy and love.”
NFNL Interim Executive Director Bianca Jackson emphasized that sex trafficking is a crushing global issue and empowered viewers by stating that every one of us can make a difference. “Now more than ever, support of sex trafficking survivors and vulnerable teens in the Dallas community is critically needed as many of our members are facing economic and emotional setbacks in wake of the COVID-19 crisis.”
The event concluded with a special thank you from Tracey Nash-Huntley, “Thank YOU for taking a stand for her.”
Special thanks to all New Friends New Life Luncheon sponsors, including media sponsors The Dallas Morning News, NBC 5, and PaperCity magazine.
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About New Friends New Life:
Founded in Dallas, Texas in 1998, New Friends New Life (NFNL) restores and empowers formerly trafficked and sexually exploited women, teen girls and children. By providing access to education, job training, interim financial assistance, mental health and spiritual support, New Friends New Life helps women, teen girls and children overcome backgrounds of abuse, addiction, poverty and limited opportunities. In 2019, NFNL served 372 members (clients). NFNL also educates the community and works to eradicate the epidemic of human trafficking through advocacy, legislative reform and strategic partnerships that address systemic causes. In 2018, NFNL opened a drop-in Youth Resource Center (YRC) in partnership with the Office of the Governor to serve trafficked and high-risk teen girls. More than 100 girls visited the YRC during its first year. In 2015, NFNL organized its Men’s Advocacy Group to engage men in the fight against sex trafficking and exploitation. For more information, visit http://www.newfriendsnewlife.org.