Lisa Williams and Sharon Cooper
DescriptionLisa Williams (56) talks with her colleague Sharon Cooper (68) about her work in the military and the federal government, and how that influenced her work at Living Water, which provides refuge and resources to women and girls who are survivors of trafficking. Lisa discusses vicarious trauma and advocates for building futures for survivors.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Lisa Williams
- Sharon Cooper
Recording LocationVirtual Recording
Partnership TypeFee for Service
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00:07 Hi, my name is Sharon Cooper. I'm a Developmental and forensic pediatrician. I'm 68 years old and I'm really excited about being able to have this conversation today.
00:20 Hi, my name is Lisa, C Williams. I'm a philanthropist and activist. I'm 56 years of age. Today is April 16th 2021.
00:31 And my interview partner is dr. Sharon W Cooper. She is my friend, my mentor and my confidant.
00:40 I'm so happy to be here today with you. Lisa. And from him henceforth. I'm going to call you Miss Lisa as I always do. And so, let's start with how we first met. Do you remember how we first met? Of course? I do. I thought someone had made a mistake and was truly going to be in trouble because they sent me right next to you at a conference in Washington DC. And I'm thinking, oh my gosh, I'm sitting next to in the great world. We now. The Sharon W Cooper. How did this happen? Someone is in big trouble.
01:15 You are so crazy. Well, it's good that I'm very grateful that I had a chance to be in that conference at that time. Because I came to know a person who really had an extraordinary vision and it has been very, very wonderful to get to know, you better and know how you are, and who you are to tell me where you were born and how you were raised. I was born in Long Island, New York and I was raised Here There and Everywhere. And I think that's the actual title of it, John Lennon and Paul McCarthy's son, but it is free to about how and where I was raised. And do you remember much about your childhood?
01:59 I do remember everything about my childhood, but there were probably three defining moments of my childhood that come to mine today. The first one being at the age of 7 and I'll start my childhood Journey there. That's when I had to become the protector and advocate for two younger relatives and myself.
02:25 And then at 12 years of age, I discovered the power of survival.
02:34 And that is,
02:40 And that is, when I decided,
02:43 That that which had been inflicted upon me was not become my affliction.
02:53 And then it's 17. I enlisted in the Air Force.
02:58 And i n s, I look back now.
03:01 It was that survival Instinct that played a major role.
03:06 And my interest in the military and it offered me, the military, a home, and a sense of belonging. And it also offered me a little more, it offered me.
03:20 Access and opportunity to education to realize my goals of advancement and Leadership. And that led me to becoming a commissioned officer. That is something that we certainly have in common. Since I to decided to voluntarily joined the army. After I had finished medical school and decided and discovered that that was going to become a significant part of my life, and so because I know the impact of the military in government service and how it can change people and their whole Vision, tell me what impact your military and government service had on you, especially when you made the decision to establish, Living Water for women, Living Waters for girls and Living Waters, Learning Resource Center.
04:21 My work in the military and in the federal government.
04:27 For sure and formed my work with my Living Water programs, The Living Water for women, The Living Water for girls in the Living Water Learning, Resource Center and my sense of discipline and organization goals setting and it certainly quipped and empowered me to establish a sense of discipline in an environment of chaos and uncertainty and to realize the goals and objectives. I had four living water for women girls and the Learning Resource Center.
05:01 I can relate to that because after I retired from the military, after 22 years of service, I never could say to myself. I'm having it rough because I felt like I already knew what rough meant. So therefore I know that you can relate to that as well because as women and particularly women of color in the armed services, there are good. There is the bad. And there is the ugly that we have seen during our lives. And that is one of those dynamics that I think makes a big difference in our resilience and how we can tolerate things that happened. Because we know that it's not always going to be the end of the world, even if we think it is at that moment, which makes me want to ask you a little bit about the end before the beginning of more details about living water for women and lemon.
06:01 Living Water for girls and the Living Water Learning Resource Center Center, what led you to decide to dissolve? Your nonprofit and established three endowments at Boston University and the Lisa C Williams Listening Room at the Howard. Thurman Thurman's Center to at Boston University.
06:30 I wanted to head to.
06:34 And what's required to rescue myself. And so I took the same advice. I had given to my girls and the young women and boys that I happen to have an opportunity to walk alongside of in their life's journey and I made myself my most significant priority.
06:55 I was in a Health crisis and so truly, as I told my girls, you must become your first priority and care for yourself before you can care for anyone else, or be concerned with what others think of you and want you to do or what for you. And so I pruned toxic behaviour people from my life. I invested in myself, in an intentional way, with full joy and exuberance, and I did the things necessary to regain a sense of Health that would allow me to not just come back from that brink of Extinction, but come back in a stronger way than I had ever been before. And I took 4 and 1/2 years to rescue myself and two.
07:53 Make myself the priority and start living a very intentional life. And so I dissolve my nonprofit in order to save me.
08:05 I understand that because knowing how many things happened while you were responsible for almost two, decades of care monitoring surveillance protection and most of all advocacy of many hundreds of girls who were lost in so many ways had to be both spiritually and physically draining for you. It was and you know, we would like to say that I'm I'm I'm extremely good at compartmentalizing things and situations and those kinds of things. But vicarious trauma is a huge thing. Many people don't talk about it. They don't recognize it, but they are wearing the symptoms of it and I recognized it and I saw it in the mirror and my body was telling me, it was basically revolting against me.
09:05 And say you must use something different or you won't be here to assist any longer any girls or boys. And so the military also taught me about survivorship and so I certainly began that process. It was not a difficult one. I I knew that I was worth it. And so I hope I answered your question there, but if not just bring it back to me, but you know it is the wreck is recognizing this thing.
09:40 That we see.
09:43 And choosing to do something about him.
09:47 I can completely appreciate what you're saying. And I appreciate your observations. A lot of people don't know that individuals who are exploited in life often have had extraordinary adverse childhood experiences. In fact, what the literature tells us is that many individuals who have been exploited have had already multiple forms of victimization as children. And it's referred to as poly victimization. And when you have poly victimization as a child exploitation as an adolescent, then we know that you will have toxic stress and that toxic stress with elevated. Cortisol levels that are just
10:34 Seeping through our blood vessels everyday, causes us to become highly unhealthy. It isn't just that we try to cope by over eating or drinking, or having self-injurious types of behaviors. It also actually wears down our immunity. And so we know that when we are in an environment of Fairly constant toxic stress, like this autoimmune disorders, become our bed buddy, and before we know it we're seeing doctors who are telling us that we have blood test evidence of any buddies that are going to give us arthritis. That make him a chronic renal disease. That may give us liver disease that may even give us neurodevelopmental and neurological disorders.
11:32 So in keeping with that trajectory, the vicarious trauma is already being heaped upon, underlying trauma lutely where we already. Are Wounded Spirits. Tell me about the you-know-what very interesting because most would think that that vicarious trauma is coming solely from the rescue of our girls and the boys, but there are other players in this. In this work that we do in trafficking in it. And we have the family members, and we're dealing with all of their uncertainty and unknown and their daily issues and whether or not they can adequately care for their child. Once that child returns back home or is found dead or alive. We're dealing with the perpetrator that trafficker that pimp and making sure that they are not interrupting disrupting rather there.
12:32 With income. And so having people, follow you home, who mean to harm? You is a big deal that we deal with. And I don't know if the average citizen recognize the fact that we're dealing with family members, that criminal, who is also could be a family member and or a stranger to that family and we're dealing with all the systems that we have to plug into for the care of this child. In my case. I was working with first women over 18 and then children 11 to 18 years of age and then I'm dealing with the societal issues and dealing with them not caring as much for my black girls and brown skin or my brown girls and brown skin or choosing to send them through the criminal justice system versus the drug court as they do my
13:32 Caucasian girls that are sent to me. And so I'm dealing with all of that trying to bring Justice to an end, just to chelation and be that advocate for that child, that family and making sure that the court systems recognize them as victims. Because so often they do not, they know their victims, but they choose not to treat them as victim or provide the services and or funding necessary to help in their therapeutic care. So that's a lot for one person to carry and we said for 20 years. Plus, I've been doing, but the truth of the matter is, I've been doing this work for over 50 years because when I told you my three most defining moments of my life, the first one started at 7 and that's when I became a protector of girls and an advocate of girls and for myself, so this is not only been 20 years which 20 years.
14:32 Wait more than enough, but fifty years, you know, as of today's date.
14:40 That is really amazing and it is. It's what I have to say to you, is that you are a tremendously small minority. You represent a very small minority of a survivor of reaching out to other people, because most of the individuals that I know who have had rescue shelters or have had programs for outreach, don't last as long as you do and did, because it is so traumatizing and there is such a sense sometimes of hopelessness and helplessness, things are better now than they ever were. Twenty years ago. When Justice was not really a, major part of the equation, we would usually be rescuing and trying to help the medical problems in the psychological problems and the drug. Misuse problems that we would see and there would be no, no,
15:40 The trafficker was not the person that was under the microscope. It was in what 2004 that we began to recognize in our country that the majority of money that was being spent on Rescue and Rehabilitation of trafficking victims went for internationally trafficked victims, not American citizens and I can recall when Really Brave and outspoken women spoke before Congress and say what about our own children who are born and raised in Florida and taken to Las Vegas and sold on a strip club. It took a lot for our country. The stop looking at our children as offenders.
16:21 And maintaining them in the Juvenile Justice System, but the very same kind of child, very same age, the very same kind of victimization the very same, kind of expectations. If you were a foreign National Survivor, you would have a totally different model of rescue and recovery for sure. And you know, the fact is some things have changed but we still have a lot of gas in this system of care that were offering to victims of trafficking and some things have not changed. But what if things we did was to look at legislation and that's when we worked really hard with the, i m Rachel campaign and it was January 11th 2015. When We Gather 400 lawmakers college, students of clergy people from all different face, backgrounds to go.
17:21 And, and student and decided that we would take the next 22 months for an awareness campaign. The, i m, Rachel campaign and we took it across the state of Georgia because we needed legislation. It was. So we're working on the Safe Harbor Law, and we needed Georgia to the governor to sign that into law and we were successful in that effort on May 15th, 2015. The governor sign, Georgia Safe, Harbor Law, and to law. And also, for a resolution of Senate resolution, that allowed us to come back that November and vote on a constitutional amendment. That would allow a commission to be established for the funding of the services of that Safe, Harbor Law. So that we could truly provide care services access to those.
18:21 Who were under the age of 18 and who have been recognized as a victim of sex trafficking and or a sexual exploitation? And so we work very hard to make that happen and it's called the Georgia Safe, Harbor Law and Rachel's law and Rachel's law.
18:37 Was the first Safe Harbor in the nation. In America, to be named after a youth trafficking victim, Survivor and Rachel was a part of the Living Water For Learning Resource Center and was able to have access and opportunity to go to college and graduate through that program. That we were very careful on designed to make sure we had successful outcomes for girls who were ready to take advantage of what we were able to offer. And Not only was it the first and at that time and still may be the only Safe Harbor to be named after a you've got to keep Survivor, but at that particular time it was the only law in America named after a living black woman, Rachel had entered into adulthood and
19:37 That's, that's a whole nother conversation, but we worked really hard and she stood straight up in her empowerment, not in her victimization. We taught our girls, not the traffic and victimization enough. People would do that for them. We didn't want them to do it. And so when she testified before the Senate panel, she stood up in her empowerment in her worth, in her right to be heard in her humanists. If you will, that she did not commit the crime of trafficking against herself and the should not be treated as a criminal and should be afforded all the services and therapeutic opportunities necessary to help bring her back to wholeness. If one to ever be brought to be, brought back to a whole state of being you are really
20:36 A Visionary to have established your program and then eventually bring it to the legislative level like that. I remember, as a doctor who worked a lot of child abuse over my career that in the late 1990s. When we started hearing about children, who were being sold online. I can remember saying to myself, this is not in any of our child abuse books. There's there's nothing about this and as I began to look a little further and had an opportunity to travel to other countries and see what other countries were doing about children who are being marketed online and sold online there for becoming hidden no longer on street corners, but still being exploited extraordinarily. So, when I saw that, I felt moved to, as, you know, write a textbook that was going to be focused on child sexual exploitation because
21:36 All of our pre-existing books for all about child abuse, but nothing very focused and specifically focused on sexual exploitation. So, in the process of writing that textbook, you will recall that I spoke with one of the prominent writer for the Atlanta, Journal-Constitution. Jane Hansen was her name, and I contacted her, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and said, would you help me I include a chapter in our book for journalists so that they would know how to write about this kind of exploitation without re victimizing victims. And she was very, very, very wonderful in the way that she responded to that. And she co-wrote a chapter in our text book with a woman from the University of Washington School of Journalism that provides an award every year in the United States called the dart award to any kind of journalistic treatise that treats victims of
22:36 Prime with respect and doesn't try to use exploit further exploitation in the process of selling a story and it was that picture. I know you, and I recall that picture that was in the article, entitled the selling of Atlanta's children, that Jane Hansen wrote that had a little girl who was only 11 years old. She was ten years, older sister was 11 by a little girl who is only 10 years old. And all you could see where her legs from just below the knees to her feet and handcuffs were around her ankles because she was seen as an offender and not as a victim and she was 10 years old. I know that that really lit a fire. Well, that is why we know I Savage Living Water for girls. I saw that article, I saw that picture and I said, excuse me. There's something wrong and
23:37 Perhaps it's just me, but we should all be up in arms at this moment that a 10 year old first and foremost.
23:44 Was being charged with the act of prostitution. There's no such thing as a ten-year-old. Cannot make an informed decision to be sold and bought 10, 20, 30 times a night, not one time of night. She's a child. The other thing was that she was not accompanied by family members and that her sister to have been sold and was waiting for her time before the judge who was 11 years old to come before the judge. Next and I was outraged. And I also understood that had that child been a Caucasian girl of ten years of age. She would have never been arrested for the act of prostitution. She would have never been handcuffed Shackled and put into the tension, which is just another word to say a prison for children.
24:39 As if she had committed that crime against herself. I was outraged. And what I knew was that my silence was not an option.
24:50 And an action was not an option. So I did what I do best and I picked up the telephone and I called the people who were named in that newspaper. I know it's after my call to them. They were like, please never put my name in a newspaper. Again that Lisa Williams will call us. And I said, this is a travesty, any American should be ashamed that this is on the front of a newspaper anywhere and that it is true statement to what is happening. And I said, what is it that you need? Because I'm going to make it happen today. And again, that goes back to our discipline are working at military and goes back to being an advocate starting at seven years of age. It goes back to saying, hey, I am worth being healthy and hold. It is knowing that if my sister, or my neighbor or my friend is in Dire Straits and if they are not being treated fairly or just Lee, then neither am I and we must stand up to that and that is how I start it.
25:50 Living Water for girls home. And that is why I do the work that I did for all of those years, because the sea and Injustice on my watch is unacceptable and I really did not care if anyone wanted to join me in this effort, you know, it's always nice to have others opinions and helping to hold you up and for you to hold up and to walk alongside of. But at that moment, it was about me doing my part. And that child had been turned out by her cousin who put her on Stewart Avenue and her sister. And yeah, it was, it was, it was that Clarion call for me and it was Nina Hixson who was the juvenile judge who came off the bench. To also write asked to bring attention to this issue and from that. We just sort of joined forces to do the right thing that we could do at that particular time in our community, but it's not enough dr. Cooper for us to rescue.
26:50 Girls and boys or vulnerable adults, it's not enough because there must be something beyond the rescue right to rescue and not to bring the family along with them and help them to reunite for families with unoffending family members is wrong. It's not right. If we don't help everyone move forward in a wholeness so that they can be supportive of one of each another. It's not right. If we don't bring Community the legal system, the medical system, the educational system into play. So they understand what is happening in community, how to recognize it. But more importantly, how to prevent it from ever happy.
27:35 Ever to the first child being sold, right? And then for me, it wasn't enough to rescue to provide a safe Refuge, Living Water, for girls and women are Learning Resource Center where we provide a GED and access to college and access to book a tional skills-building, that wasn't enough. We had to make sure that there was a future, a solid future for witches, they could build upon when they were ready to do. So, and that is what led to the first scholarship that we offered the circle of friends, which was in 2016 from 2016, to 2018. And that was a scholarship for any traffic victim anywhere in the United States. And in the territories who wanted to go to college. We put up funds to make that happen and not unlike other organizations out there. There are many organizations who have
28:35 Also, had scholarships for girls mainly to go to school if they wanted to, but in 2008, I understood that a part of my legacy had to be about what happens. After my desk, does everything stop when I stop breathing. And that's a whole nother conversation, right? Yes. Okay. And if that is the case, then what have I done with this moment of time that I have been afforded to breathe. And so, that's when I started looking for Community Partners to partner with me and with my vision to create something that was bigger than me.
29:21 That was bigger than our nonprofit, that was bigger than the problem in terms of providing access and opportunity to build a new future upon an Boston University came into the picture. And we have this love affair been going on because they heard me, they understood me, they respected the work. They respected, my girls who they were, who they could be, and who they were destined to become. And we put together three endowment. The first one was in 2008, which was a circle of friends impact endowment fund and 2019. We put together the circle of friends, impact Legacy fund and in 2020 on January 20th. We put together the circle of friends, diversity, and inclusion impact fund those funds.
30:21 Dr. Cooper individually will are part of the century challenge at Boston University which basically means that our endowment will live on for 100 years, 100 years and each endowment is likely to return scholarship funds in the amount of 5 million dollars a piece. So for me, I will not know most of those who will benefit from the education of those endowment. It's not important but what is important is that that girl in the future or that girl, who is breathing today?
31:05 Or that boy understands and will understand.
31:10 That people today.
31:16 Thought about them and their tomorrow's and made a way forward for them, so that they can live in a future with hope live in a place where they could take their experiences and their voices, and help to elevate others, and move them into a place of hope, and in the place of living their best life, not as a cliche.
31:45 But in truth, and that is what we're able to do with our endowment at Boston University, but the Lisa, C Williams Listening Room was an extension of what we have built into our living water for girls, home and are living for water and are living water home for women. We had quiet rooms in each of those building, right? Because it was necessary to have a quiet space and we call them quiet rooms a quiet space. So want to go to hear themselves over the ranting and raving of the world over the messages that they have been fed, that they weren't worthy of that. They were less than that. They weren't human that. Because perhaps of the color of their skin. They should not receive services that they could not truly be victims. They went to a place where they can unpack all of that.
32:40 And then figure out the questions that they wanted to ask someone to help them with or mourn. The loss of their innocence of their girlhood. Are there that girl child that only resided for a moment inside, right? Right, right. Scholarships provide them with a way to access the world away to travel to learn and to share their knowledge and their gifts and all the creativity that God has endowed into them. That is what we did to The Listening Room. At Boston, University is just an extension of the quiet room that I had built into my program. So that the girls at Boston University and we have one boy recipient of our scholarship. This year, have a quiet place to go and be into listening to go into engine for introspection, and it's for the staff and the professors and the leadership and Boston University is a global University. One of the best, the top tiers unicorn of the sea.
33:40 Your universities in our nation. Do people from around the world will visit the Lisa, C Williams, Listening Room.
33:49 Not to see me not to hear me, but they hear from themselves. And that is something that I'm very proud of because that will live on Beyond us and it will serve as a reminder of the human spirit and how important it is to nurture it and to listen to it and I believe dr. Cooper with everything that send me.
34:13 That if we took a moment to listen more,
34:18 The what?
34:20 Victim survivors have told us.
34:22 That we could eradicate trafficking and I mean, it in the truest sent, not since not in the sense, let's go out and eradicate traffic and it's so easier if we just just think about it. Then I do know what our girls have said. If you really want to stop this then prevent it from happening in the beginning. You already know the social construct that have been put in place to make me more vulnerable. You already know the social disparities, the health disparities that render me more vulnerable and susceptible to trafficking. You know, that Parvati plays a part, you know, that Homeless place the park, you know that the lack of quality education, you know that violence in the Home and Community around our nation, you know that racism bee stings play a major role in my vulnerability.
35:19 So if we're really serious about eradicating trafficking, we have all of the tools and resources to do it. Let's do it. Let's stop playing with this thing.
35:31 Yes, so I know I'm sound a little angry right now. No, I mean to be because I am because the fact is we should not have this the same conversation 50 years from now.
35:43 New fact that were talking about it 20 years from the date that I 22 years from the date that I started. My nonprofit is unacceptable to me. We know what to do. The question is, do we have enough integrity?
35:59 Do we have, do we have the character?
36:03 Do we truly value each life? The same, huh?
36:09 Right, right, and that's right. And you say the same to propel us to do something to ended. And to hold those who walk around with impunity. Hold them accountable for their actions. That means some of our brothers are sisters are fathers. Our grandfathers are uncles that child, that male child, you raised who is raping your knees every day and selling her. Will you go and turn them in and hold them? Accountable, and let's be very real about this. Will you turn in those folks who are facilitating the, the buying and selling?
36:47 And those, the men to rate for-profit our our children are our most vulnerable citizens. That's the questions that we must ask and then be truthful with our answer. And then start engaging in activities that will change the total Dynamic of trafficking ever again in America and the world. That's what we can do. And that's what led me to say. Yes. To becoming the first-ever chair of the international Survivor Council on trafficking, which is a part of your OST. And, and oh dear, you know, because they said here's a global platform for Survivor leaders to lead the way to provide advice and guidance. And know-how from the inside out of dealing with trafficking on a global scale and said that they have been kind to us in terms of elevating, our knowledge skills and ability.
37:45 To a platform where people in power to make informed decision, based on the information that we can help provide to them. And on our leadership in this area.
37:59 And I still applied what you were saying because the role that you have been selected to to Really, Really Leave the ship on an international level for 57 countries. You are the chairperson of the international survivors of trafficking advisory Council. And in that way, you have begun already, extremely important, education to individuals, were going to make some of the decisions and funding for victims, not just in the United States anymore, but now all over the world and that is something for, which you should be commended. And So Lisa, I know our time is running out, but I want to say something to you and that is that what do you hope? People will remember about you the most?
38:56 I don't.
38:59 Necessarily want to be memorialized or for any think like that to take place. I would hope that they would remember.
39:10 And I stood alongside of other, Survivor leaders, and other people who work for justice and we did the work that we were chosen to do the work that we knew to do and that we did it in a way that created greater.
39:31 Accountability responsibility and hope for a better future for all victims, and survivors, and changed.
39:41 The Narrative so that we could prevent another person another child from being bought and sold for the very first time. Just, that is what I really hope for. And I on a personal level, it would be nice if my my children would remember their mother as a dad. And my husband, I would remember the things that we we learn together as a family, how we grew as a family and how we decided that our family was capable of making a change. And that together we could help change our community, our nation and certainly,
40:26 In this new opportunity opportunity at o s t e f o s t e n o d r that we have an opportunity to impact the 57 participating states in North America. Europe. Asia, do the organization for security and cooperation in Europe, which is the world's largest regional security organization. By the way that we are here now on this preferences, but we're here now because we did something 20 years ago. And for the next 20 years, we're going to make sure that we're not having the same conversation that we will be in a different place, not just here at home in America, but around the globe and I'm thankful for you Doctor, Cooper for being my mentor, my Confidant and a person who has taught me how to play well in the sandbox so that I
41:20 Stuff that I can really get the work done. That is necessary that I can do as an individual and then with the work that we can all do together at the collaborative. If not, I kind of thing. Doctor Cooper is never about a guy or one person is about what we choose to do together as a collaborative. Nothing I have done has been singular. It has always been with others and I'm thankful for each person who is walk. This journey along with me, and I am very thankful that I have an opportunity to call you friend. Thank you.