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A Slave No More

By Paul Feinberg '85

Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Carissa Phelps brought herself out of a life of forced sex and drug use.

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Photo by Matt Harbicht.

"Don't use the word 'prostitute.' "

After introductions are made, that's the first thing Carissa Phelps M.B.A./J.D. '07 says. She's referring to the thousands of girls and boys in the U.S., victims of human trafficking, whom adults have forced into the sex trades through systematic rapes and abuse. For Phelps, it's an important, sometimes misunderstood, distinction that's intensely personal and essential for her current work.

Phelps did not publicly discuss her own saga until she was a graduate student at UCLA. Since then, she's been the subject of an award-winning documentary, Carissa (directed by UCLA Anderson classmate David Sauvage M.B.A. '07 and viewable at www.davidsauvage.com), and written a memoir, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time. It's the kind of story one wishes were fiction, because it's painful to know that Phelps' harrowing story is true.

Phelps was a runaway by age 12, escaping a troubled and dangerous home life. She fell under the control of a pimp and began a life of forced sex and drug use, ending up arrested multiple times by age 14. That did it. She began taking steps to rise above the streets.

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Carissa Phelps turned tragedy into triumph as she rose from runaway to holder of an M.B.A. and a law degree from UCLA. Now she helps other former runaways and survivors of sexual exploitation. Photo by Matt Harbicht.

Encouraged by a youth counselor at juvenile hall and a math teacher, she returned to school after a three-year absence, eventually graduating from high school and Fresno State University, where she earned a B.A. in mathematics, with honors. Then she became a high school math teacher and ultimately made her way to UCLA. There she began to tell her story.

"When I was at UCLA Anderson, I planned to go into private equity," Phelps says. "I wanted to start a fund through local investing that would focus on costly social questions. But I stepped away, went back to Fresno, wrote the book and formed Runaway Girl in early 2012."

Runaway Girl, a California FPC, or for-profit entity with a "special" or social purpose, creates employment opportunities for former runaways and survivors of human trafficking. The company hires survivors to work as trainers, consultants and advisers with local and community-based organizations that help victims of human trafficking. Trainers also work with legal, medical and law enforcement groups to teach them to see the girls and boys they meet not as prostitutes committing a crime, but as victims. "We get them to treat survivors as experts instead of criminals," Phelps says.

According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, there were 27 million people in modern-day slavery in 2007. Phelps believes the numbers are higher, because many victims don't come forward out of shame. "Anyone can be trafficked, from skilled workers to college students from stable, loving families," Phelps says. "Basically it is a buyers' market, and whatever buyers demand is what will be sold. Putting a price on a person's heart and mind is bad, but what's worse is some of the physical and mental control tactics that traffickers use."

Through Runaway Girl, Phelps restores some control to the victims. The company currently has 24 trainers and experts-in-training, including Rachel Thomas, a survivor who is also a Bruin (M.Ed. '08). Though Phelps' organization is predominantly California-based, Runaway Girl collaborates with trainers and organizations across the country, including in Oregon, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky.

Phelps' passion for her work becomes palpable when she is discussing the success of those she supports. "Some of our trainers get hired by our partners," she says, adding that three of them were hired without high school diplomas because they were considered experts.

"Most of us are uncomfortable with impossibly cheap labor and young children as sex symbols, but being uncomfortable is not enough," Phelps says. "What we buy, what we watch and what we talk about is up to us. We decide when doing nothing is no longer an option. We decide when to act, and of course I believe the time is now."