Cynthia Luvlee-Austin is doing what she was told could not be done. Her non-profit organization, Shyne San Diego, seeks to equip survivors of human trafficking with tools and skills to improve their economic security.
“Business investors told me I was crazy,” Luvlee-Austin says. “They said the women are too broken, too traumatized, or too much of a risk. And I was like, ‘What? I see the most resilient, highly intelligent, capable women.’”
It’s a Friday evening in mid-January, and we’re sitting in a small meeting room in You Belong Here, an event space in City Heights. The door is closed, but loud voices and pulsing music on the other side require us to lean in and talk loudly to hear one another. Tonight, the 950-square-foot space is packed for an exhibit of eight photographic portraits of survivors by Amari Dixon Photography. The exhibit’s stated purpose is to bring awareness to issues of human trafficking and shift the stigma for survivors. Each of the eight women in the photos is involved with Shyne.
In January 2018, after a two-year ordeal involving a friend’s court case and the subsequent 15-year conviction of a sexual predator, Luvlee-Austin began to research human trafficking. She put together an advisory team that included David Hubinger, the former chief executive of Nestle; Priya Bhat-Patel, who is now a member of the Carlsbad City Council; and Annie Rodriguez, executive director of Generate Hope. Together they took a look at the services available to survivors of human trafficking and found services in career and professional development, Luvlee-Austin’s forte, lacking.
Whisper James survived religious cult prostitution.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“So I stood up and said, ‘I’ll do it,’” she says.
Investors said she should teach resume writing and interviewing skills, but she was bored by the idea. Instead, in June 2018, Luvlee-Austin started Project Seen, a photographic memoir class that teaches photography, creative writing, and art. Through this project, she identified the six women who participated in the pilot of her business fundamentals program, which she launched in January 2019. Luvlee-Austin provided them with business tools and guided them through startup logistics and bringing in outside professionals to help with accounting, marketing, and business skills.
“They had their missions and their visions,” she says. “But the byproduct I couldn’t have known was their collaborative nature and how they saw themselves as pieces of a puzzle.”
One woman needed a website, for example, and another one knew how to get the URL. Another knew website design, and so on. But it went beyond the everyday tasks involved in growing a business. Some of the women who were further along in their personal businesses or ready for non-profit work saw how their larger visions fit together to strengthen community support for survivors. The Well Path offers emergency exit services for people who want to leave the life of exploitation. Free Coalition Inc connects them with basic needs and healthcare services and aims to provide a safe place for short-term stays (90 days) while they get comfortable with the idea of creating a new life for themselves. And Victory Garden Sanctuary is developing a transitional homestead where residents will receive therapeutic and career development services.
“My mission with Shyne is to support them in whatever capacity they’re drawn to give back,” Luvlee-Austin says.
Two days after the art opening, Luvlee-Austin and some of the women return to You Belong Here for a Survivor-Owned Business Pop-Up Boutique. Booths set up around the space, are occupied by a self-publishing services company, a therapeutic cannibis product company, a massage therapist, a clothing company, and an event management company.
A few of the women are survivors of The Children of God cult, also known as The Family, The Family of Love, and The Family International. Founded by David Berg, it is a cult known for religious prostitution. “I wanted to get out for a long time, but I didn’t know that there was any other life,” 45-year-old Whisper James says. “We were completely isolated from not just the world but any information from the world. No music, no books, not even any news. So I just didn’t know that there was anything else, but from the time I was 17 or 18, I knew I wanted to get out.”
It took several more years, but she eventually found both the courage and the means to escape with her then-husband and their four children, ages 2 to 7. When they did, it was with just $500, $300 of which they used to take a taxi from John F. Kennedy airport to upstate New York, where her mom was waiting for them. In the 17 years since, she has had to learn how to be in a world that she didn’t know or understand.
“Growing up, if you were a woman, you only knew two things. You were going to be a mom, and you were going to be a wife. You were not allowed access to education above a certain level. If you can read and write, that’s all you need to know, because you don’t need to know any more than that to serve God.”
Bethany Kelly: “We all have a shared understanding, not necessarily of the exact circumstances, but of the impact and the damage and what it takes to heal and to show up in the world.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
James had been “matched” with her husband through the cult, and about five years after their escape, she separated from him. Although she’s had corporate jobs and managed to make a life for herself and her children, launching her own business has been a scary experience. Luvlee-Austin helped her through the process of registering her business name, Velvet Tent Events, filing the proper paperwork, creating a Facebook page, drawing up a marketing plan, and other tasks to establish her business. In September 2019, James began working with Shyne to organize Kindness Fest, a music-and-art fundraising festival in Oceanside. The festival took place in November 2019, and was her first official job as Velvet Tent Events. The art opening was her second. “Probably 24/7, I have doubts,” James confesses, “and I worry that I’m going to come across like I don’t know anything or I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s very easy to talk yourself down,” she says. “But that’s been another benefit of getting involved with Shyne. The more people you have around you who are wanting to lift you up makes you feel like, ‘Ok, I think I can do this.’”
Ngozi Smith, a massage therapist, is new to Shyne as well. She graduated from massage school in 2009, but she started working with Luvlee-Austin right around Kindness Fest. They’re just getting started on the work of growing her business, starting with the logo and brand materials. She’s also begun to sell her handmade body products, which she previously only made as gifts for friends and clients.
“I always focused more on the massage therapy side of my work,” she says. “This has been a really good platform for me to just jump in with savvy business women who know exactly what to do.”
When Bethany Kelly, founder of Publishing Partner, met Luvlee-Austin, she was further along in her business than some of the other women were, but she was able to collaborate with Luvlee-Austin on Project Seen and participate in some of the leadership trainings. But she’s also found comfort in the community.
“One of the things that being involved with Cynthia has provided me is a support system, and it’s connected me to a lot of other women,” she says. “We all have a shared understanding, not necessarily of the exact circumstances, but of the impact and the damage and what it takes to heal and to show up in the world in an empowering way.”
Like many of the other business owners in the Shyne community, Kelly’s commitment to anti-human trafficking work includes hiring people who have been exploited. Her project manager, assistant, designer, and some of the editors are all survivors.
“People say it’s so smart that we’re doing this,” Luvlee-Austin says, “but it’s just logical to think that survivors who have gotten themselves transitioned out of the life know how to help others do that.”