Graduate Profiles - Shamere McKenzie
Social justice in action: Trafficking survivor on mission to help others
By Drew Sottardi | Senior writer
You never know how strong you are until you’re pushed to the brink. Until you get to that point where you realize, “This is it. I could die.”
Loyola senior Shamere McKenzie, 31, has been to that point—and beyond.
For 18 months, she was held captive by a brutal pimp who forced her into a life of prostitution. She was repeatedly beaten, threatened at gunpoint, and forced to drive minors across state lines for sex.
“It was torture in every sense of the word,” she said.
So how did McKenzie—an outgoing and articulate student who on May 8 will receive her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and criminology—end up in this nightmare? And, more importantly, how did she go from a human trafficking victim to an advocate for others in similar situations?
The answers are not what you might think.
A promise of easy money
McKenzie was born in Jamaica and at age 6 moved with her family to New York City, where she lived a perfectly normal life in a perfectly normal home. A model student and track star in high school, she won an athletic scholarship to St. John’s University. But an injured hamstring in her junior year in 2004 ended her running career—and her scholarship as well.
She soon met a man who was sweet, charming, and intelligent; the two of them would have in-depth conversations about race, politics, and world affairs. As they got more involved, McKenzie opened up to him about needing money for college. He offered to help by arranging for her to dance in a nightclub. She wouldn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do, he promised, just dance.
“That first night I earned $300 in two hours, and I thought, ‘I just need a few thousand dollars to return to school; I’ll be able to make this money in no time,’ ” she said.
After that night, however, the man pulled her out of the club and put her into a house—where she eventually would be forced to work as a prostitute.
“That’s when I realized what this was really about,” McKenzie said.
The term “human trafficking” seems almost too polite for people to understand how horrible it actually is. It’s also an extremely vague term, one that leaves many people uncertain of what it even means.
Several groups and government agencies have created official definitions to try and clarify the issue. One such definition, from a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of State, reads: “ ‘Trafficking in persons’ and ‘human trafficking’ have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”
McKenzie has a much shorter way to describe it: “It’s modern-day slavery,” she said.
If you do a side-by-side comparison between colonial slavery and modern slavery—while there certainly are some differences—there also are plenty of similarities, McKenzie said.
“In modern-day slavery, you don’t have people working in a field picking cotton,” she said. “You have people who are sold for sex or who are working in a field picking tomatoes or digging in gold mines for little to no pay under harsh conditions.”
The numbers behind modern-day slavery are staggering. Although estimates vary widely, experts generally agree that between 21 million and 36 million men, women, and children are enslaved around the world today. Of that amount, an estimated 78 percent are trapped in some form of labor slavery; the rest are victims of sex slavery.
And even more shocking: In the United States today there are an estimated 60,000 people who are enslaved, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index.
Her guardian angel
People often ask McKenzie, “Why didn’t you just leave or go to the police?”
It’s not that simple, she said.
“It’s very easy for people to understand physical enslavement,” she said. “But what’s much harder to understand is mental enslavement and how someone can have that much control over you when they are miles away.”
For McKenzie, that meant the constant threat of severe beatings for not following orders. Or worse yet, being told that she and her family would be killed if she ever ran away.
“Fear,” McKenzie said, “is the No. 1 reason that girls don’t leave.”
But after more than a year of forced prostitution and several failed getaways—each of which resulted in a vicious attack—McKenzie knew she had to escape. So in 2006, while living with her pimp in a gated community in South Florida, McKenzie hatched a plan: She would stop working for him.
“I figured all the other options had failed, so I thought if I stopped making him money, he wouldn’t want me anymore,” she said. “I hoped he would get rid of me.”
But that didn’t work either.
After a day in which McKenzie brought in no money, the pimp took her back to their home and quickly went upstairs. McKenzie nervously waited on the first floor. That’s when she heard the sound of a gun being loaded.
Fearing for her life, she dashed out the back door in a pair of stiletto heels. It was a far cry from her days as a sprinter, when she ran on synthetic tracks to win medals. Now, she was sprinting on manicured lawns to stay alive.
She came across a father and his young daughter in their garage. The man took McKenzie inside, shut the garage door, and let her use his phone to call her family.
“He was my guardian angel,” McKenzie said, adding that to this day she still doesn’t know his name.
Finally, McKenzie’s 18-month nightmare had ended. But another one was just beginning.
‘Hard pill to swallow’
Victims of sex trafficking face a terrible irony. Although they are sexually exploited, they are often prosecuted as criminals for doing what their captors demand they do.
McKenzie was no exception.
Shortly after escaping her pimp, she was arrested by FBI agents in early 2007 at her mother’s home in New York. Authorities charged her with conspiracy to violating the Mann Act, a federal law passed more than 100 years ago that makes it a felony to transport across state lines “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
It didn’t matter that McKenzie’s pimp had put a gun in her mouth and forced her to drive those girls into another state. Prosecutors considered her the pimp’s “bottom girl,” or main confidant and helper.
“I couldn’t believe I was being arrested,” she said. “I was fearful about talking to the police, not sure what was going to happen, but I cooperated with them. I kept thinking, ‘Why are they arresting me? Can’t they see that something was done to me?’ That was a very hard pill to swallow.”
She eventually agreed to a plea deal that kept her out of prison, but it left her with a felony record. It also left her convinced that she needed to do something to change how the courts treat victims of human trafficking.
“I’d love to make a difference in our justice system so that the United States can say, ‘We no longer criminalize victims,’ ” McKenzie said. “I tell people all the time: We don’t criminalize victims of any other crime. So why are we doing it to trafficking victims?”
Sharing her story
Kevin Bales is one of the world’s leading experts on 21st century slavery. He’s a professor at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, co-founder of the modern abolitionist organization Free the Slaves, and a prolific author whose books paint a chilling picture of slavery today.
He’s also the man who helped McKenzie find her calling and, ultimately, find her way to Chicago.
The two met after Bales had co-written a book called “The Slave Next Door,” which featured a two-page account of McKenzie’s story. Culled from court documents, the passage drove home the fact that trafficking victims don’t fit into a single stereotype. They’re not always minors, runaways, or drug addicts from broken homes; they come from all walks of life, just like McKenzie.
Bales, who received an honorary doctorate from Loyola in 2010 for his human rights and social justice work, encouraged McKenzie to share her story with others—both as a way to help fellow victims and as a way to help herself. She had spent years in therapy, going from one counselor to the next. She had attempted suicide several times. And because of her criminal record, she had a hard time finding a job. She felt as if the world were conspiring against her.
Bales thought otherwise and told McKenzie that speaking to others might be therapeutic. He also talked to her about returning to college.
Her journey to Loyola
Quick with a laugh—and just as quick with a quote—John Donoghue is a history professor at Loyola. He teaches courses on early America and the Atlantic world, specializing in the study of slavery and abolition.
A few years ago Bales was a guest speaker in one of Donoghue’s classes, and the two men struck up a friendship. So when Bales called Donoghue and told him about McKenzie, the Loyola professor was happy to lend a hand.
Donoghue contacted Justin Daffron, S.J., who at the time was Loyola’s associate provost, to see if there was any way the University could help. Father Daffron reached out to several departments around campus and was able to piece together enough scholarship money to cover most of McKenzie’s expenses.
“Her story is very compelling, and I thought it would be important that we give her an opportunity to finish her education at Loyola,” said Father Daffron, now the Vice President of Advancement at the University. “Shamere’s a voice for the voiceless, and we can use more people like her in the world.”
As McKenzie’s mentor, Donoghue helped her re-adjust to college life and learn how to conduct scholarly research. The learning process between professor and student, however, was a two-way street.
“She’s been a mentor to me in terms of my education as a modern abolitionist,” Donoghue said. “Trust me, I’ve learned more from her than she’s learned from me.”
But it’s McKenzie’s positive attitude that Donoghue admires most.
“Shamere’s taken something horrible and created redemption out of it,” he said. “She’s fully realized the life of liberty against the death of slavery. She has not let slavery kill her human spirit. If anything, she’s taken that dehumanizing experience and become a more profound human being in the service of others.”
When asked if he’s ever had another student like McKenzie, Donoghue wastes no time with his response.
“Never,” he said. “And I never will again.”
A new beginning
McKenzie started at Loyola in January 2014, and even though she had never been to Chicago before, she felt at home. At Orientation she took the student promise—“Care for myself, care for others, care for the community”—and knew right away that she was in the right place.
“I felt instantly connected to Loyola at that point,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly what I believe.’ ”
She vowed then to share her story with others on campus. And in January, she helped organize Loyola’s first-ever Human Trafficking Week.
“Having gone through what I did and knowing firsthand that young people are often targeted by traffickers, I feel like I have a heart for young people and a duty to help them,” she said.
McKenzie, who hopes to attend law school and eventually defend trafficking victims, now travels across the world telling her story to others. She speaks to high school and college students, as well as church congregations and government officials. She also trains various professionals, including law enforcement officials, on how to identify and respond to victims of human trafficking.
She’s involved in several anti-trafficking organizations and is the CEO of Sun Gate Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit group that provides educational opportunities for trafficking survivors to help them get back on their feet and lead independent lives.
Over the past decade, McKenzie’s life has taken twists and turns she never could have imagined. She’s suffered unspeakable trauma and seen the absolute worst in humanity. Yet somehow, she’s emerged from it all—stronger than before—with a powerful message to share with others.
“I want people to know that trafficking is happening in America, in our communities,” she said. “And I want people to know that they can do something about it, because it’s everybody’s problem.
“It’s not a Barack Obama problem. It’s not a law enforcement problem. It’s not a church problem. It’s our problem. We all can play a role to eradicate this issue.”
• Visit the Free the Slaves website to learn more about modern-day slavery.
• See the Global Slavery Index’s map of slavery rates across the world.