Kelly Cruse is the Executive Director of New Friends New Life. Since 2012, she has helped usher its reach and impact to new heights, transforming the lives of hundreds of formerly trafficked women, teens, and children.
In 2014, Model Behaviors collaborated with NFNL to help organize a market focus group and develop a campaign to better understand the perception of human trafficking in boys and young men and to educate them on their impact. Led by the Men’s Advocacy Group, The manKINDness Project teaches high school male athletes the power of language when it comes to talking about girls and women. It also gives them the opportunity to take ownership of individual and community solutions regarding exploitation. We’re so excited about the amazing results this program has garnered so far. We love NFNL, and we will continue to support and follow them as they introduce new initiatives and perform groundbreaking work in our community and in the world of human trafficking.
Throughout the first installment of our two-part interview, Courtney talks to Kelly about NFNL, The manKINDness Project, and this year’s special guest at the annual WINGS Luncheon—Ashton Kutcher.
KC: Before we get rolling, I just wanted to say that I feel grateful that you guys want to highlight NFNL this way. I know it’s called Woman of the Month, but I wanted to mention that any one of the women who work here or our one man on staff could be equally recognized for the work that they do.
MB: You know, it’s funny. Pretty much everyone we talk to says that. They’re all so passionate about what they do and they’re like, “I work with an incredible team, and I couldn’t do it without them.” I’m not surprised you feel the same way!
So, let’s start with NFNL. Can you share a little bit about it and about yourself within the organization?
KC: Well, we’re entering our twentieth year as a service provider. As the story goes, we started with one woman reaching out for help in getting out of the sex trade, and then forty women reached out the second year. We help formerly trafficked and exploited teens, women, and children. We do this holistically.
We have evidence-based therapy models. We have case-work management, spiritual support, job-skills training, and access to education. It takes a woman about two to two and a half years to be self-sufficient and to move forward in the transformation of her life. This year we started counseling groups for parents of trafficked teens, and we piloted our manKINDness Project in schools.
We also launched our No Harm Network last year, so we’ve got a lot of exciting developments. Along with these developments, we have an interest in legislative reform. Because we can do all this to support the survivors (which is so important) but this issue takes an entire community’s involvement. That includes law enforcement, legislators, schools, churches (whose support we’ve had for twenty years), and also just men and women alike.
MB: It sounds like there are many different directions you could go with your resources. You listed off a ton of services already, so I’m kind of curious… how do you decide which direction to go?
KC: For member services, those are always developed around the needs of the member. We practice trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy. Also, right now the entire staff is being trained on dialectic behavioral therapy, and that is the evidence-based model for people who might have suicidality or any kind of self-harm tendencies. That’s going to help our members see success much sooner.
MB: Does NFNL ever work with other nonprofits or programs? Anything like that? Or do you mostly keep it in-house?
KC: We sure do. We partner if we don’t think it’s wise to reinvent the wheel. For example, for financial empowerment, we partner with the YWCA to work with their budget coaches. We partner with Promise House, doing educational groups there for homeless youth aging out of foster care, so they can avoid a life of trafficking.
MB: And how does NFNL find its members?
KC: The majority of our members come to us through word of mouth. They’re often referred by law enforcement, the courts, or possibly other nonprofits. In some scenarios, we’ll go into the juvenile detention center and offer educational groups with other nonprofits, like The Ebby House and partner with other agencies like CitySquare. For counseling services, they come to our location.
MB: That makes sense. I’m curious about your role as the Executive Director. I’m sure you wear many hats, especially when it comes to deciding how to prioritize and what direction the organization wants to go. What does an average day look like?
KC: I started here five years ago as the Advancement Director. That’s essentially development, or fund-raising. There wasn’t a development department here yet. Then in June I was promoted to Executive Director.
Every day varies at work. One day I might be working on legislative reform. For instance, Friday I was in a meeting with law enforcement at the government’s office with other nonprofits, trying to determine what our community response would be for trafficked youth. As you may know for a child abuse victim, they go to a children’s advocacy center and receive services there and forensic interviews and evaluations. We don’t have that in place for trafficked youth in the state of Texas. Therefore, our government is working on trying to develop a solution and a proper response.
MB: What would that process look like and how long could it take for something like that to be in place?
KC: The governor’s office would like to start working on something by June. It looks as though there would be an advocate that would meet the victim (either at the police department or hospital, wherever she’s been located) and be a person of support for her as she moves through the process. This would also include a medical exam, a psychological evaluation, and possibly prosecution for the perpetrator.
MB: Is that up to the member to decide if they want to press charges?
KC: It’s up to law enforcement, but it’s up to the member to decide. Sometimes being on the witness stand is not the best for them. But you know, sometimes it’s empowering for them. It just depends on the person.
MB: I did a little digging on you on the NFNL website. There were a couple things I wanted to ask you. First, it mentions that you’re involved with something called The Marcella Project.
KC: I’m the first board chair on The Marcella Project, and Dr. Jackie Roese is the author and speaker and preacher behind The Marcella Project, an organization which strives to ennoble women by changing the way the church views women—improving the world’s view of women.
MB: What sort of things do they focus on?
KC: They focus on teaching women how to teach The Bible. Teaching women to be critical thinkers from a theological standpoint. There’s an annual summit where they bring in theologians and other specialists to talk about social issues. It’s also a forum to bring men and women together.
MB: Sounds interesting!
KC: It’s very interesting! The Marcella Project also has Bible studies in Dallas and Austin.
MB: How would one get involved?
KC: It’s not affiliated with a certain church, so anybody can show up and come. The new Bible study sessions started Monday, so it’s the perfect time to jump in.
MB: Great! Going back to NFNL a bit…it says that joining NFNL helped you see some of the root causes of why individuals end up in the sex trafficking world. I think there may be a lot of people who either a) don’t know much about sex trafficking or b) maybe have some misconceptions about it. I was wondering if you could share some of the major misconceptions that people might have and also share some of those root causes.
KC: There are two main misconceptions. One is that it doesn’t happen here in Dallas. And two is that the women choose to be prostituted, when in fact, they have early childhood sexual abuse.
We use the word prostituted, rather than labeling someone as a prostitute because the majority of the time, over ninety percent of the time, trafficking and exploitation are symptoms of abuse. Early in their childhood there was an instance of abuse, and then there was another one and another one. By the age of twelve, they run away. As we know in Dallas, a runaway will be approached by a trafficker within forty-eight hours of being on the street.
Traffickers are savvy, they’re manipulative, and they prey on the vulnerability of people. They’re able to detect when someone doesn’t have a safety net around them and can isolate them, pretend to be a friend or a boyfriend, and then later begin trafficking them.
MB: And that’s why you like the distinction between they’ve “been prostituted” rather than labeling them as such.
KC: Exactly. Because I know when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, that never even entered in as an option or a thought. A lot of these women aren’t deciding between going to law school or dancing in a strip bar. That never enters into many people’s mind as an option, and when it is an option, it might be one of the better bad options that they have. Could be for survival, for example.
MB: What are some ways that people can counteract these misconceptions?
KC: One thing to know is that the sex trade in Dallas, as reported by the Department of Justice, is a $99 million a year industry. We call it a criminal enterprise. So I think, first, to just realize it’s alive and well here. The simplest thing people can do is start talking—talk to their children, talk to any child in their midst, talk to their colleagues and neighbors and friends that this issue is prevalent.
One thing we’re very excited about is our annual luncheon. Ashton Kutcher is going to be our keynote.
MB: Say what?
KC: Yes! He has his own anti-human trafficking organization.
MB: I had no idea.
KC: He’s quite the philanthropist and just innovative in the way that he’s approaching this issue. He created some technology called Spotlight that’s used by law enforcement. Last year alone, six thousand trafficking victims were recovered, and 474 of those were from Texas.
MB: Can people buy a ticket to the luncheon?
KC: We have tables for sale right now for sponsorships, and then if there are individual seats available, we’ll sell tickets toward the end of March.
MB: I know people are going to be excited about the cause, but I’m sure they’ll also be excited about Ashton Kutcher.
KC: He’s brilliant and he’s done so much, so I think it will be a meaningful experience.
Watch: Ashton Kutcher testifies to congress about how to combat the sex-trafficking industry
MB: Okay, there’s one more thing I wanted to touch on before we dig a little bit deeper into The ManKINDness Project, and I feel like Ashton Kutcher is a great segue. I’d love to know more about the Men’s Advocacy Group (MAG). I think it’s kind of a cool thing that NFNL does. One misconception I’ve personally encountered is that sex trafficking is a woman’s issue. Could you share a little bit about this part of NFNL for our readers?
KC: Sure! A few years ago, we knew we couldn’t do this alone as women because women and men, I believe, are created to work together. We wanted to give men a meaningful way to support the cause, so we established the Men’s Advocacy Group, which the manKINDness Project falls under as does our No Harm Network.
The No Harm Network is geared toward corporations. Corporations have this amazing opportunity to educate their employees about trafficking and exploitation. Not only that, they can be proactive with their corporate policies to deter their employees from engaging in activities that exploit other human beings. Businesses lose $17 billion a year from employees viewing pornographic websites between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
MB: Oh my gosh.
KC: So yes, it’s a win-win for everyone.
MB: Do most corporations jump at the chance to be involved once they know the facts?
KC: Yes, and we focus on other things, too, like not to entertain clients at strip bars and get reimbursed for it. There’s a lot that companies can do here in Dallas to change the way that this looks. And that’s working on the demand side. It’s preventing this from happening in the first place.
MB: Like what you said earlier, we’re always going to be there for the members, to support them, but we also have to think about why it’s happening in the first place.
KC: Absolutely. More prevention. We have our No Harm Network. We have our manKINDness Project in the schools. And then our legislative reform.
MB: Sounds like NFNL is doing lots of cool stuff. Are there any other programs that you guys have that you would like to highlight?
KC: We do have a Second Chance jobs program, and we’re always looking for opportunities for our members.
MB: What does that look like and how does it work?
KC: Members take some classes here. One is called Quality Camp. It was designed by an organizational psychologist. It addresses shame and all other kinds of issues that create barriers for human beings who are moving forward. It also talks about what “quality” means. What does it mean to be a quality employee?
And then they go through another class called Career Works where they write their resume and they do mock interviews. For women who would like, we can connect them with internships in the community. Sometimes they build their own confidence and they move on and don’t need any support from us in terms of finding a job. But sometimes they like a little bit of assistance.
MB: It’s just for your members, correct? Or do you ever connect with particular businesses?
KC: We do. Sometimes businesses will say, “I have a job opportunity. Who do you have that might be a fit?” Then we’ll send some candidates for the interview process. Or there are organizations who…maybe it’s another nonprofit, and they need someone to work there twenty hours a week, and it becomes an internship opportunity.
MB: This all sounds so great! Switching gears a bit…I’m guessing NFNL has some public education programs?
KC: We do! That’s part of The manKINDness Project that Model Behaviors helped with. We did two market focus groups with Toni. And we learned that there was a big disconnect between the public perception, which we spoke about, between someone who might be working in a strip bar versus someone who is trafficked by another individual. A lot of times the impetus of those two things is the same—it goes back to the abuse—but it can also be happening to someone who’s working in a strip bar. There can be prostitution happening or trafficking happening. So all of this is one big piece of the pie. But the perception between “working in a strip bar” and “being trafficked by another individual” was very different.
With our manKINDness Project, we started at the end of last year. We piloted it in two schools, and we took this curriculum to male high school athletes athletes. We talked about language toward girls, for one thing. It’s a sixty-minute, interactive learning experience, and in the course boys learn the power of their words, how their thoughts influence their actions and behaviors, and they also examine the ties between respect for women and girls and the socialization of human trafficking and exploitation.
It is so cool to watch. The boys break up into groups, and they identify individual or group solutions in their schools and communities that demonstrate positive and healthy attitudes toward girls and women, and ultimately to themselves.
I believe that when one human being exploits another or speaks harsh words to another, they also hurt themselves. A lot of this is about resensitizing people to the humanity of others.
MB: I feel like people don’t think about that part of it sometimes, of what it feels like when you hurt someone, what it does to you. I know this is still pretty new going out there, but what kind of response has it received so far?
KC: Tremendous response. Nine out of ten times we get rave reviews from the students. These boys want to know how to treat girls! They want to know how to respond and what to do because they know it’s happening. They’ll write an entire flip-chart page of all the negative words they hear about girls and women. They see it happening, and our culture promotes it, but this is giving them tools to counteract against it.
MB: Every school needs to have this!
KC: That’s right. That is exactly right. We’re in Richardson ISD starting right now. We’ll go to all four high schools there.
MB: That’s so exciting. I can’t wait to see how it develops and grows. One thing we’re curious about…from when Toni worked on this project to now, how did it evolve and how did it actually get out there?
KC: She was so instrumental. You know, coining the term “manKINDness Project” and doing the market focus groups and so forth. Then as we were starting our men’s initiative—we had just hired someone on to work on that—it’s our one man on staff here
He’s a great guy. He was actually one of the volunteers that helped figure out what our Men’s Advocacy Group would look like. Toni was working with us before he came about. He was able to see the market focus groups, so they were sort of passing each other. Now what’s happened is the curriculum was built with some child development experts and counselors and psychologists on staff on how to go into the schools and reach the youth.
What happened is…with this manKINDness idea, the MAG determined where they really wanted to focus. They chose youth and corporations. The manKINDness Project is what we’re calling our youth program, and there could be other initiatives that develop from that.
MB: How long did it take to develop the curriculum?
KC: That probably took about four months I would say? First we had to get our men’s board built. From that point we started working on the curriculum, and we piloted it last fall in two schools. We wanted to make sure it was right.
We knew from the market focus group that we also had to make it relatable to boys. They wanted to know how things affected them.
MB: Yeah, they might be thinking, “Why should I care about this?”
KC: Why should I care? How does it benefit me? We also knew the importance of connecting the dots, so we wanted to make sure it was interactive for them as well.
MB: Is it just one lesson each? Or is it a series of lessons?
KC: So far it’s one lesson. It could be where it becomes a series. It could also be where we tailor it for younger boys because we’re starting out high school. Feasibly, we could make it middle school also. Or we could take it to college.
There’s a lot of possibilities. We’ve had people say, “Oh, I want my girls to know this.” We would have to tailor it for sure, but it’s important for girls to know as well.
MB: Like you said, kids… young adults get so much thrown at them, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s right, or know why something could hurt someone, and just having this there to spell it out seems like such a good thing.
MB: Something I forgot to ask earlier—which I can’t believe I forgot—you said you started with NFNL five years ago. I was curious what you were doing before that and what drew you to the organization. Why is the mission so important to you?
KC: I think if I were to ask my parents, they would say from a very young age I always knew there was some sort of difference between the way men and women were treated in the world. I studied women’s issues in school, have a bachelor’s in psychology, and I also studied sociology. I worked at a domestic violence agency for five years, and I knew people who worked at NFNL. When NFNL had this opening for their development officer at the time, they called me. I felt like it chose me.
I feel like this is something God’s impressed on my heart from a very young age. You know, helping people be free of any kind of oppression. Anyone you would ask here at NFNL would have a passion for the same kind of thing. We’re all here for a very, very similar reason.
Check back next week for Part II of our interview with Kelly Cruse!