Sex Trafficking Survivor’s Inspiring Political Run in Portland
Jeri Williams was raped and forced to turn tricks. Now she's running for office. John Avlon reports.
In the summer of 1989, Jeri Sundvall-Williams was raped by 10 members of the Crips gang. She was then locked in a room, let out only from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night to turn tricks. She was required to return with $300, or around "15 dates a night,” she estimates.
Today she is running for the Portland City Council in a campaign that proves that life can go on when the nightmare ends. The primary is May 15th.
A native of Oregon’s Klamath tribe, Jeri was born in Eugene and got married at age 19. After bearing four children and moving to Rhode Island, her husband turned abusive and she returned to Portland and moved in with a woman she thought was a friend.
The woman was a former prostitute and her brother was a leader of the local Crips set, and was paying his pregnant sister in crack cocaine to recruit new prostitutes. And so began a heartbreaking but typical cycle for victims of sex trafficking.
As Jeri witnessed it:
“[The gang members would] pick up young girls to recruit downtown in Pioneer Square, bring them back to my apartment and pull trains on them on my couch.” I stopped her for clarification. “Trains. Gang rape them. You know, one after the other. And then they would say, ‘you’re a whore, you need to go out and walk the streets or we’ll tell your mom. Or if you get arrested, you know, it won’t be our fault, it’ll be your fault ‘cause you hung out with us.” Psychological enslavement facilitated the physical enslavement.
The woman Jeri had thought was a friend would even babysit her children while she was sent out on the street, perhaps using them as “bait” to draw in other young women.
Jeri got her chance to break free months later, after a john tried to rob her after a ‘date’ and stabbed her. Bleeding, she fought back to get her money that she was expected to bring “home” each night, and then went back to the house to find her pimp had been arrested on unrelated charges. With the authorities now involved, she was placed in counseling and so began a long path, neither easy nor straight, to her current city-council campaign.
While getting a degree from Portland Community College to become an alcohol and drug counselor, she fell back into a pattern of abusive relationships, dating a man who let drugs be sold out of her house while she was at school. One night, when the cops broke down the door there were Uzis on the kitchen table surrounded by 17 grams of crack cocaine. Jeri received a felony conviction and was sent to the county jail. Her children for a time were placed in foster care. When she was released, Jeri was briefly homeless and then lived at the West Woman’s Shelter for 14 months, a time which she describes as the “the turning point in my life.”
She got a job changing beds at a local Red Lion Inn and soon became exposed to local unions and community organizing. She cofounded the Urban Workers Union that unionized parking-lot attendants in 2001 and took a job as the executive director of the Environmental Justice Action group, where she helped defeat “the expansion of the I-5 freeway that runs through the low-income communities of color in Portland.”
She was subsequently appointed by Governor John Kitzhaber to two task forces, on transportation and trade issues.
After winning the Alston Bannerman Fellowship Award for activists of color in 2006, she was offered a job by the city of Portland involving the Diversity Civic Leadership Program, which she says “teaches civic engagement to communities of color and immigrant-refugee communities.”
During this period, Jeri also began speaking to church groups about her experience as a sex-trafficking victim. “If you can put a human face on it, you can change a person's mind. In one church setting, in one 10-minute sermon, you can change the judgment of people.” And wherever she speaks, she says, it seems that another person comes up and tells her, “that happened to me too.” So many women reached out to her, in person and on Facebook, that she helped start a support group called Survivor to Survivor. “There are a lot of women out there who have very successful jobs who have risen above it with not much help,” she says.
Now a 50-year-old grandmother of eight, Jeri’s passion extends to environmental issues as well as combating the epidemic of human trafficking for which, sadly, Portland is still a magnet. “Currently in the state of Oregon, you do less time for selling women than you do for selling drugs,” Jeri says. “And so gangs have taken this as a moneymaker. They’ve been doing it for years but it’s really become more popular. Gangs will trade women across Blood-Crip lines or whatever because women are worth less than drugs to them, but they also will do less time in jail for selling women than they will for selling drugs.”
Jeri decided to run for office after successfully lobbying for antitrafficking legislation, and working with local police to more effectively combat the problem. “We have had to create a significant mind-shift in the way society looks at these girls or ignores these girls because we have a serious issue here. And so in order to get those things done that I am most passionate about which it doesn't appear currently that anybody else on council is that passionate about, it was my time to step up.”
She began her campaign for city council by detailing her past, including her criminal record, to the Oregonian. “I said look through it, call me. I don't want any of my opponents to come up and say this person is this, this, and this. Here is all my dirt.”
Her campaign for a position that oversees the fire department and water bureau has its share of skeptics. “I’m getting interviews where people ask, ‘why would a person like you want to run—a relative unknown?’ I'm not a relative unknown to all the communities I've been helping for the last 20 years here in Portland … No, I don't have $200,000 and no, I won't take money from polluters, and no, I won't take endorsements from newspapers that use Backpage.com,” the site owned by Village Voice Media that now dominates the “adult services” online listings market vacated by Craig’s List.
"She's a very bright person and [has] a great background for understanding peoples' problems and finding solutions," says former Portland Police Chief and Mayor Tom Potter. "I think she can see a broad range of individuals in our society who have not been represented well in politics or in city halls. She has real talents in terms of bringing people together to solve problems—she'll have an excellent bully pulpit in terms of drawing attention to human trafficking and helping focus resources in those areas."
Already her campaign has engaged new participants in the political process, and is producing passion uncommon in city-council races.
"For me as a survivor, it's a traumatic thing," says Sara Hunt, who spent three years being trafficked, beginning at age 17. "I felt I had no value, no worth—and Jeri is so honest. She's willing to speak about things people might to keep on the down-low or hush-hush. It’s about teaching people—not putting people down—and speaking up about the issues. I've called her multiple times at 3 or 4 in the morning, melting down, and she just shows love and compassion. She is an example of what happens when you push through."
Sara, who’s volunteering for Sundvall-Williams’ campaign, ends our conversation by saying: "Jeri for Portland!"
“Jeri represents the fact that we can overcome and can be more than that broken person,” says her friend and fellow trafficking survivor Dawn Schiller, author of The Road Through Wonderland.
“We had our voice taken away and she has a very solid, balanced voice. To have such a horrific life and turn it around completely takes such courage and that’s why she’s an inspiration—a beacon for us on this path of coming out of darkness. We don’t have to hide and be ashamed. We can be solid members of our community.”
With the primary for the six candidates in the nonpartisan election just weeks away, Jeri is gearing up for this perhaps unprecedented challenge for an acknowledged survivor of sex trafficking. “My goal is to encourage them and show them that your life is not what society says it is. You are not broken. You are not irreparable,” Jeri says. “The reality is no, only if you believe that.”