OIn light of January being Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we’re focusing on the global epidemic by highlighting both sides of the coin. Last week, we brought you the inspiring story of Lexie Smith, a human trafficking survivor. This week, we gain perspective from Sara Beth Myers, an attorney and passionate advocate who lobbies on behalf of trafficking victims. She’s an Assistant United States Attorney, the founder and Chairman of the Board of AWAKE: Advocates for Women’s and Kids’ Equality, and next week, she’s bringing her knowledge to Conversations at OZ, where she’ll be hosting a table to introduce much-needed discussion around human trafficking happening locally. Please welcome our newest FACE of Nashville, the eloquent and inspiring Sara Beth Myers.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m originally from St. Joseph, Missouri, which is the home of the Pony Express. I went to undergrad at Duke, then I got my Master’s at Yale, and then I went to law school at Vanderbilt. I didn’t know exactly what kind of law I wanted to practice, but I began volunteering in a street law program. During that year, we went to Thistle Farms, and we worked with survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence — women who also had a history of prostitution and drug abuse — I was inspired by those women. I thought about how grateful I was for my own very stable and healthy childhood, and how everyone really deserves to have a shot at a healthy and stable childhood like I did.
I ended up interning in the district attorney’s office here in Nashville, and I worked with a lot of domestic violence survivors. That was a very moving and inspirational experience as well. That experience — being in the courtroom, being an advocate and making sure that women (of course, men are victims as well, but mostly women) got the resources that they needed. I found being in that position at the DA’s office really put me in the best position possible to make sure that women were able to get the resources that they needed to help their kids, to get counseling and, if they wanted or needed, shelter. That we could get for them right there, that day. That was very rewarding.
Now, I’m an Assistant United States Attorney. I am the Civil Rights Coordinator and the Human Trafficking Coordinator, and then I’m also in the White Collar Crime Division. Those are sort of the three hats I wear within this office.
Tell us about the history of your organization, AWAKE.
It was the time that I spent as an assistant district attorney in the Domestic Violence Division here in Nashville that really led to the idea of AWAKE. There were so many issues that I saw on a daily basis in the courtroom, where the law didn’t line up with people’s actual experience. That meant that there were gaps in the law that needed a policy fix to ensure that women and kids were going to be in the best, safest, healthiest position possible, so they could break those cycles of violence and poverty in their own lives. We started meeting in living rooms all over the city — just women who were interested in talking about these issues and brainstorming — and we decided it would be a really good idea to not only look at the policy perspective but at prevention. That would be addressing kids in the classroom, at any age, because so many children witness violence in their homes. How do you break that cycle when you’re working with a 6- or 7-year-old? We focused on middle school kids because their bodies are changing, and socially, things are changing for them. So, it’s a good time to address those issues. We developed a curriculum on healthy relationships and finances because one of the main reasons that women tend to stay in unhealthy relationships is for financial reasons — it may be child support, a place to live, food on the table — but it’s very difficult to leave. And then there’s the other complicating factor of, they often still love the person, and they have children with that person who’s also their abuser. So, that’s why we did it. Since then, we’ve passed eight laws — drafted, lobbied and passed eight of them!
What is AWAKE’s mission?
We advocate for the advancement of women, kids, education and policy change. That is very much, in a nutshell, what we try to do every single day.
How can the Nashville community help support AWAKE’s endeavors?
There are so many ways to get involved with AWAKE. We rely, almost solely, on volunteers. We have our executive director, but our volunteers form the heart of the organization. It depends on a person’s passion. If they enjoy advocacy, they can lobby for legislation on issues that we are supporting, or lobby against issues that we have targeted through our discussion with other women’s groups. But we make it very easy. We do trainings on advocacy and lobbying 101. And we send people in with a partner and a script, so they have a one-page to explain what the legislation is, and why it needs to be done. If there are any questions, we have an advocacy director who will follow up. If they teach — if they decide they are more comfortable working with kids or with survivors of human trafficking, then we send them in with a lesson plan and at least one volunteer partner, and we have an education director who will train them. So, they should feel very comfortable when they go in – that’s our goal. Then they spend that hour-long meeting getting to know the women and facilitating those lessons in the lesson plan as well as figuring out the issues they’re seeing and where we can help direct them to other resources.
Can you tell us about Conversations at OZ and what guests can expect?
There are going to be a number of tables with a variety of topics, and each of those tables will be hosted by a person like myself, who has knowledge in a subject matter that the group thinks would be interesting to the larger community. Then we will be directing the conversation. People who attend the event can state their preference for which table they would like to sit at and which conversation they would like to have, or which issue they would like to learn more about.
I can’t wait because I love talking to people and, more importantly, I love listening to people — getting their perspectives on what they perceive to be the biggest challenges with issues, or what they even first perceive the issue to be.
What is your table topic?
It’s conversations around human trafficking in Nashville, which I think is a nice way to put it because I do hope that they are conversations. I’m certainly not going to be sitting there talking at people; I really want to hear what they have to say about it and if they have any experiences with it, or what their perceptions are.
There’s just so much publicity around human trafficking, and there are so many different perceptions based on where you’re getting your information from. I’m interested in facilitating a conversation around awareness — identifying it and then giving people an opportunity to plug in with organizations in the community if it’s something they’re interested in learning more about. There is a lot that people can personally do to help break the cycle of trafficking.
Who has inspired you either personally or professionally?
My dad. He was a real mentor to me, not just in the field of law but in terms of community service as well. He showed me what it meant to be a problem solver and a person who can make a positive impact where you live.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever given or received?
If I could boil it down, it would be, “Be the yeasayer, and not a naysayer.”
It’s very easy to shoot down ideas and to be dismissive; it’s very difficult to come up with a lasting compromise to solutions that will have a positive impact. I think my personal pet peeve is when I hear I can’t or I won’t, and I don’t hear a good explanation for it. That frustrates me. Because I always want to try to work toward something. If there’s a goal, there’s a way to get there, and you need yeasayers along the way who will help you get there.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
In no particular order, my three things are (unabashedly) chocolate, good books and laughter.
A special thanks to Sara Beth for the interview, and to Leila Grossman for the photos.
Whether you have lived in Nashville your entire life, or you are just stopping through for a couple of days, the SB Guide is full of things that you don’t want to miss!