A photo series lines the wall above Lisa Goldblatt Grace’s desk: Serene but haunting black-and-white scenes from the paths along the Charles River.
A girl who worked with Goldblatt Grace’s organization, My Life My Choice, took the photos as part of a project retracing the steps of her abuse. Other girls in the program went to the hotels where they’d been sold. This girl went back further, to a peaceful place, where she used to bike with her father, whose death set her on her own rocky path.
“She wanted to go back to that moment before,” as Goldblatt Grace put it.
This is how My Life My Choice sees the world — from the perspective of survivors — as it fights the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Goldblatt Grace is not herself a survivor, but her cofounder and more than half of the organization’s 28 employees are. And they believe that the best way to promote understanding is by amplifying the real voices of real people. Audrey Morrissey, associate director and national survivor leadership director, tells chilling stories of working the Combat Zone as a prostitute during her awareness training talks.
Another photo on the wall focuses on the hands of a young survivor, wearing a bracelet that spells out, “hope.”
My Life My Choice works with girls who are most vulnerable to exploitation — because they’re already experiencing abuse or neglect or abandonment — pairing them with mentors who have survived the sex trade and training them to be savvy through a survivor-led curriculum.
“In order to help prevent them from being exploited, they need more than a 45-minute awareness lecture in their high school,” said Goldblatt Grace. “They needed in-depth information, skill building, support, relationships. They need to meet survivors and understand what the path in looks like and also what a path out looks like.”
About a third of the organization’s funding comes from city, state, and federal funding, a third from philanthropic contributions or foundations, and a third from reimbursements for training. The organization began running its program in one group home or juvenile justice setting at a time, and federal grants helped the group promote and circulate its curriculum. Trained facilitators in 33 states now work with programs around the country.
And the group’s work is showing positive results. A recent study by researchers from Northeastern and Boston University, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found that young teenagers who went through the Exploitation Prevention Curriculum showed signs of being less at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, including reporting fewer episodes of sexually explicit behavior and less dating abuse.
My Life My Choice is among the agencies housed in a former school that was converted into the Family Justice Center on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton. Created by the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former Suffolk district attorney Daniel F. Conley, the Family Justice Center serves as a single destination for families to meet with police and prosecutors in the same building where they visit victim advocates and mentoring programs such as My Life My Choice.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the wall also displays phone numbers to call “in case of emergency”: police department extensions for the detectives’ offices, the domestic violence unit, and the sexual assault unit.
The office, crowded on this day with employees gathered for a staff meeting, is set up as a communal workspace with a few separate pods in a sprawling former classroom. One wall is painted the organization’s trademark purple. In the center are two couches — one purple, the other tossed with purple pillows — that are used by visiting survivors or employees having lunch. In the back of the room, by the massive pipes that still run water through the ancient school, a desk as nondescript as any other is adorned with plaques and paraphernalia that say “Boss Lady.”
That’s the desk of Goldblatt Grace, the program’s executive director, who has embraced her staff’s ironic use of the nickname.
“When I think about our work, to me, it’s always about the collective,” said Goldblatt Grace. But she also knows that she bears the responsibility of keeping the it afloat.
So her desk even holds a mock Oscar for “Most Likely to Win the Best ‘Boss Lady’ Award.”
“It’s not a job you get a lot of trophies for,” she joked. “Nor do you need them.”