Before award-winning filmmaker and anti-child-sex-trafficking activist Rebecca Dharmapalan ranked among Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year and Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21, she was a young feminist looking for a cause.
As a young artist of color, the Oakland, California native, now a senior at UC Berkeley, demonstrated a passion for effecting change at an early age, and traces her feminist roots all the way back to kindergarten, where she was the only person of color in her class. “Feminism really comes from my experience of being a brown person, being South Asian, and I think being a woman just adds on to that,” says Dharmapalan. “Being a brown woman growing up had a huge effect on my power and really helped me embrace who I was. My race was definitely involved in becoming an activist.”
As the musician and aspiring activist continued to explore this power and cultivate her voice, her parents urged her to channel her passion. “My parents were like, ‘You’re a rebel without a cause, find your cause,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I know what my cause is, I am my cause!’” she laughs. In high school, a sixteen-year-old Dharmapalan found her cause after hearing about the sexual exploitation of one of her female classmates. Even as a teenager herself, Dharmapalan immediately recognized this issue as more than just high school drama.
“At that time, it wasn’t being talked about as human trafficking. She was being referred to as a prostitute, as a ‘ho,’ and he was ‘pimping her out.’ So we as high schoolers didn’t really have the language to discuss or address the issue, per se, and I think that’s what sparked my interest in creating a film and bringing an awareness to an epidemic that, at the time, I didn’t know was such a large issue in the United States,” she says. Dharmapalan had found her cause—one outside herself, but still shockingly close to home.
“Before we can do anything about it, we need for American people to recognize that this is an epidemic happening here in this country to children and adults who were born here,” says Dharmapalan of the rampant misconception in America of sex trafficking as an exclusively foreign issue. “I think that Americans love to empathize with issues that are happening abroad and kind of fetishize global trials. So I think it becomes a whole lot realer when it’s our own country. We don’t want to recognize what’s happening in our country because that makes it our problem. I think that’s why it has taken so long for us to address human trafficking in this country, even though its been happening since the birth of this nation.”
“Being a brown woman growing up had a huge effect on my power and really helped me embrace who I was. My race was definitely involved in becoming an activist.”
Eager to start the conversation, Dharmapalan turned to her first passion: art. A lifelong musician, art has been Dharmapalan’s primary source of self-expression since she began playing the piano at age five. As a high schooler at Oakland School for the Arts, the young artist began to channel her growing passion for activism into a new artistic medium. The result was “International Boulevard,” a five-minute documentary she filmed with the help of the Oakland Police Department.
Featuring interviews with prominent Oakland law enforcement figures and anti-child-sex-trafficking activists, the documentary sheds light on the widespread epidemic of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) within the United States. Since its 2013 release, the short film has gone on to receive a number of awards and acknowledgments from film festivals and organizations across the country, taking first prize at the 2013 “Girls Impact the World Film Festival” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as second place in the 2014 Adobe Youth Voices awards. “I just thought, how can I educate people in the most efficient way possible? Through art, of course,” says Dharmapalan of her entry into filmmaking. “Film is a really incredible way of sharing a message. Visually, along with audio, it’s just a perfect way to represent an issue.”
Following the success of “International Boulevard,” Dharmapalan continued her anti-CSEC activism, raising awareness about the issue in the TED Talk “In Our Own Backyards” at the 2015 TEDxTeen event in New York, as well as taking a position as chair of the Oakland Youth Commission, where she continued to develop campaigns and reforms with a focus on CSEC prevention. These days, the UC Berkeley student, now twenty-one, is preparing for a future in activism, either as a law student of international human rights or as a potential Fulbright scholar researching women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka. In her time at UC Berkeley, the Sociology major has learned new ways to navigate and express her beliefs, which are reflected in her ongoing CSEC activism.
“I got to Berkeley with this mindset that this is a school for change-making, that change happens here,” Dharmapalan says. “In high school, I was a filmmaker and a musician. I really found myself through the arts. Then when I got to college, I learned the language. I was able to put words to what I was feeling and that was the most empowering thing that has ever happened to me. I had all of these feelings about oppression, I had all of these feelings about racism and classicism and what it meant to be a woman of color, and when I got to college, I was taught the language,” she says.
According to Dharmapalan, this intersectional approach to human rights activism is also the key to understanding the greater systems at play in the epidemic of sexual exploitation, systems she says are rooted in the history of this country. “The creation of this country started with genocide and slavery and that is what built it. Until we acknowledge that, we’re not understanding the true history of this nation. And if a country is built on genocide and slavery, then hundreds of years later you can’t expect it to be gone,” she says, noting that human sex trafficking is a modern example of ongoing slavery in America.
“This issue of child sex trafficking is intertwined with racial politics, is intertwined with transatlantic slave trade; it is completely paralleled to the prison industrial complex and criminalizing black bodies and Black Lives Matter and all the current issues we are trying to alleviate. I think that when you’re looking at these complex issues, such as child sex trafficking, you have to look at the systems that create the problems to begin with,” she explains.
Echoing Dharmapalan is Holly Joshi, the former supervisor of the Oakland Police Department’s Child Exploitation Unit. Now the Executive Director of MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), Oakland’s first non-profit organization dedicated to the fight against CSEC, Joshi also maintains the importance of addressing the underlying issues at work in the sexual exploitation epidemic. “It’s about root causes,” says Joshi. “It’s the same issues that impact all marginalized communities in this country. It’s the lack of access, it’s poverty, it’s racism, it’s sexism, it’s all of the ‘isms’ that impact this country. It’s a huge, large-scale issue about equity. Seeing ourselves in alignment with a lot of other movements is going to make the most progress.”
Fellow activist Regina Evans, founder of Regina’s Door, an Oakland boutique that employs survivors of human sex trafficking, espouses similar sentiments about the intersection of oppression at the heart of sexual exploitation. “Trafficking is at the intersection of racism, greed, misogyny, sexism and colonialism,” says Evans. “Our own nation is built around those issues, and we don’t have a high regard for the black body in this country. People think fighting trafficking is just about raising awareness, but you can fight it by fighting poverty, you can fight it by fighting racism.”
“The buyers of trafficked people are men of all races, all socioeconomic statues and from all professions.”
Keenly aware of the impact of her race on her own life as both an artist and activist, Dharmapalan maintains that race is inseparable from nearly all issues. “When you’re dealing with any issue in this country, race is always involved,” says the student activist. However, Dharmapalan cautions against seeing the issue as one purely involving people of color.
“One thing to keep in mind is that human trafficking affects all bodies. It does not discriminate. This issue affects literally all different types of people, including white folks as well,” she says. Illustrating the racial and economic diversity at work in the sex trafficking industry, Dharmapalan points to the often overlooked third party of the sexual exploitation trifecta: the buyers. “The buyers of trafficked people are men of all races, all socioeconomic statues and from all professions. This includes police, this includes ministers, this includes doctors, lawyers, judges, homeless folks—everybody,” she explains.
Joshi, too, calls attention to the relatively diverse population of buyers in comparison to other involved parties, blaming the more privileged demographic of buyers for a huge legal imbalance that has no small role in perpetuating the sex trafficking industry. “Both pimps and victims are coming from very challenged socioeconomic backgrounds,” explains Joshi. “We don’t see that same pattern with johns and tricks and that part of the equation,” she continues, echoing Dharmapalan in her assertion that buyers come from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, including privileged ones. For this reason, says Joshi, buyers seldom face legal repercussions of the same severity as those imposed on exploiters, and previously, even trafficking victims themselves.
This leniency, says Joshi, perpetuates the cycle of supply and demand at the heart of the sex trafficking industry. “The problem now is that there are no real consequences for the demand side of the equation. As a community, that’s where we really should be focusing: ending demand, holding johns accountable for coming into our communities and buying children.”
Dharmapalan also emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and addressing the demand driving the industry: “I think we need to take a deep look at ourselves to understand that these are men, primarily men, in our communities that are a part of this industry, that are buying children. And this means that these are the men in our lives. They are the ones that are creating this epidemic, unfortunately. And most of the time it’s men that are critiquing me and my work, most of the time it’s men that are so shocked and surprised that this could be happening in this country. And it’s disgusting, it truly is disgusting.”
Dharmapalan has even encountered this kind of gendered criticism of her CSEC activism among her mentors at UC Berkeley. The student recalls a recent interview with a professor who expressed skepticism about the relevance of domestic sex trafficking. “He was almost trying to argue with me about it happening,” says Dharmapalan. “And it was embarrassing, it was truly embarrassing that an educator at one of the top public universities in the world didn’t know that it was happening here, in Berkeley, in Oakland, in San Francisco.”
In spite of her disappointment, Dharmapalan used the experience as motivation to work harder in her efforts to raise awareness. “I think that our first step in enacting change and eradicating sex trafficking is educating the people around us and having the tough conversations. This is an epidemic, and we can’t enact any further change as individuals unless we educate ourselves and we educate the people around us. So that’s my job in this movement.”
“The problem now is that there are no real consequences for the demand side of the equation. As a community, that’s where we really should be focusing: ending demand, holding johns accountable for coming into our communities and buying children.”
In spite of all of her success as a young activist, the student and artist knows her work is nowhere near done. “We still have a huge issue on our hands. We have a lot of work to do, and, at this point, there is no silver lining, truly, aside from the community of activists that I’ve surrounded myself with.”
Fortunately, those activists envision a better future in the hands of young advocates like Dharmapalan. “Although I don’t believe that trafficking is strictly a women’s issue—I think it’s a societal issue—women are most marginalized and most impacted by it. So it’s going to take a movement of women helping women to end it,” says Joshi, who points to Dharmapalan as one of these women.
“Rebecca’s an amazing asset in that she’s a real life example that there’s a place for everyone in the movement. It’s about where the demands of the world meet your passions, that’s where the magic is.”
Dharmapalan has clearly found this magic intersection. In channeling her activism through her art, Dharmapalan has found that the two have always gone hand in hand.
“Art is political. Art has no purpose unless it’s political,” she says. “I think that most artists are political because they’ve been so alienated from their communities. Artists are always alienated, so in that sense, everything that they create—everything that we create—has a purpose.”
For Dharmapalan, art and activism continue to intersect, sometimes in surprising ways. Since gaining success as filmmaker, the student artist has learned that her role as woman of color is not only central to her activism, but to her art as well.
“I realized that the rates of filmmakers of color are extremely low,” she says. “I was like ‘Oh wow, I am the only brown person here at this film festival, or I am the only brown person working on this issue, or I am the only brown person in this conference room.’”
However, Dharmapalan has always made sure to use this position to her advantage. Her work as both an artist and activist remains informed by the feminist identity she traces back to her earliest days as a student:
“I think that being a woman of color, I was able to express my message to girls in Oakland specifically and I was able to really make a statement. I really had to represent and recognize what a privilege it was for me to be an advocate, to have that voice. I was speaking on behalf of so many women of color and it has been a privilege to be able to be in that position. And I don’t take that lightly, I really don’t. It’s an extremely important job that I have.”