Santa Cruz — and the world — lost a “matriarch” of the anti-human-trafficking movement when Deborah Pembrook died suddenly in April. Pembrook, a survivor of child sex trafficking, escaped years of continuous exploitation by heading west and settling in Santa Cruz in 1989. She made a life out of helping survivors — including those in Santa Cruz — and devoted her time to pushing the nation to rethink how trafficking is approached. Jess Torres, a survivor who considers Pembrook a mentor, writes about her legacy and the work still to do.
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.
In late April, the anti-trafficking movement was devastated by the sudden loss of a devoted leader, Deborah Pembrook, 51, who made Santa Cruz her home for 33 years.
Deborah was a tremendous force of will who empathized deeply with exploited and oppressed people. She surrounded herself with their stories of perseverance, anchored by the fundamental belief that every human has the right to safety and care.
Her husband said her greatest superpower was “kindness.”
Deborah was a thought leader, educator, policy advocate, direct service provider and mentor.
She was also funny, humble, endearing and monumentally impactful.
Deborah inspired and mobilized hundreds to action in her lifetime. Her unexpected April 27 death after a pulmonary embolism has left a chasm for all of us in the survivor community.
Rising Worldwide, a Santa Cruz nonprofit that promotes economic justice by amplifying the power of lived experience leaders, will observe its 20th anniversary with a virtual gala at 4 p.m. on Sept. 29. As part of the celebration, we will also pay homage to Deborah’s extraordinary legacy.
Before she died unexpectedly, Deborah was preparing to write a piece about trafficking for Lookout.
Now it’s up to us — those who collaborated with Deborah, those touched by her efforts through the years (many of whom were waiting for her to jump onto a Zoom call the very evening she left us) — to pick up the pen, the mic, the torch and continue moving forward.
By us, I mean the survivor leaders, the lived-experience and subject-matter experts and all who have been “movement-building” since before any anti-trafficking laws existed, since before anyone would fund peer-to-peer support or mutual aid and since before there were any allied professionals willing to help.
Deborah’s anti-trafficking leadership began with healing herself
Deborah escaped the torture of child sex trafficking at age 17, when she fled from her Ohio home and her trafficker and headed west. She eventually chose Santa Cruz to begin a life of freedom. Without support, encouragement or much money, she enrolled at UCSC to pursue a degree in environmental science.
She soon became deeply involved in transformative human rights work and realized the guilt and shame she carried — what she had internalized as “her fault” — was not her burden to bear. This allowed her to begin shifting the shame and pain and putting her experiences into context.
Human trafficking is a widespread scourge — a crisis of power and control that targets millions of vulnerable people who are made to feel both powerless and responsible for their own victimization.
Just last week, an Iowa judge ordered teenager Pieper Lewis — a child victim of commercial sexual exploitation — to pay $150,000 to her attacker’s family. Pieper, who was 15 at the time and who was afraid, panicked and fighting for her life under grim circumstance, fatally wounded him.
Pieper was forced to endure egregious exchanges with adults, who essentially purchased rape. Luckily, the public rushed to help her cover the fees and has raised more than $500,000 for her.
The court decision has pushed the nation to finally consider vital questions of what justice looks like for victims of trafficking and if a system that punishes children for defending themselves against repeated victimization is fair.
Deborah understood these questions viscerally.
She also realized — and it’s one of her great legacies — that almost no one creating and implementing anti-trafficking programming and initiatives had been trafficked.
In 2014, she began leading the Coaltion to End Human Trafficking in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, one of the only survivor-led coalitions in the nation at the time.
Santa Cruz needs this kind of work.
Trafficking — defined as exploitation through force, fraud or coercion in any form of labor, including the sex trades — is happening here, and regularly, even if you don’t see it.
In 2018, the FBI identified the San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, as one of the three highest-intensity child sex trafficking regions in the United States.
Trafficking is often difficult to identify because few come forward due to physical and sexual violence, isolation, psychological and financial manipulation and other trauma or abuse continuums. Many don’t realize they meet the definition of “victim,” while others fear participating in a retraumatizing and legally risky process.
The Polaris Project, which monitors trafficking across the country, counted 16,658 cases of known trafficking in the country in 2020. It shows California, the Bay Area and the Central Coast as hot spots.
For confidential assistance 24 hours day, call any of the following:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888 or live chat
Monarch Services (in Santa Cruz County): 888-900-4232
Monterey County Rape Crisis Center (in Monterey County): 831-375-4357
Community Solutions (in San Benito County): 877-363-7238
Part of the problem is that survivors typically lack judgment-free, nurturing support systems. The short-term services that exist vary depending on local funding, and are accessible only if a person meets the qualifying urgency, residency, age, gender, immigration status, income and language requirements. If there is a response unit, often it exclusively or predominantly serves sex-trafficked cisgender girls, leaving labor-trafficking victims, adults, boys, men and the transgender community entirely unserviced.
Survivors are also afraid, humiliated and often disassociated or fragmented from reality as a coping mechanism.
Other powerful forces keep survivors stuck in cycles of exploitation, including the lack of a central database or a unified response. Misconceptions and funding gaps limit the efficacy and impact of existing programs, and rape culture maintains painful stigmas.
But when survivors have the right opportunities — like the sort of outreach Deborah offered — they can harness their agency, autonomy and gifts to care for themselves so they can build collective power and lay the foundation for accessible community support and personal empowerment.
I have always referred to Deborah as a “mother” of the movement.
She trained hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, but she also trained agencies. She was that special.
Her wisdom lives on in many places, including: the California Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Action Team Advisory Board, in the body of work she created with Freedom Network USA, Futures Without Violence, Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, National Survivor Network (NSN), Preventing and Addressing Child Trafficking Project (PACT) and more.
Deborah’s imprint ripples through dozens of bills and legislative initiatives, including Assembly Bill 629, the first law of its kind to make human trafficking victims eligible for up to $20,000 in victim compensation.
Instead of focusing on “rescuing” victims, Deborah pushed to shift the power disparities between the victimized and the traffickers to upend the social and economic conditions that enable severe exploitation.
Deborah ignited a fire
Deborah dreamed of a space where survivors could flourish and determine their own justice. Most recently, she served as the Rising expert program manager, a program she created at Rising Worldwide in Santa Cruz. Rising experts draw upon their lived experience and expertise to create communities resilient to trafficking.
She formed a team of survivors to work with United Way Worldwide’s Center to Combat Human Trafficking to bring anti-trafficking live learning sessions to United Way offices and communities across the United States. She also managed Rising’s Safe and Sound Human Trafficking Prevention Program in Santa Cruz and Monterey county schools.
Her husband believes she made this stretch of earth her home because of her love of rocks and science. Her favorite pastime was to look at rock formations in Santa Cruz; she was in perpetual awe of their unique geology.
She sat in the presence of these ancient beings, the holders of the earth’s stories, looking and listening, holding deep reverence for their layered teachings and finding meaning in the microscopic.
Deborah Pembrook held an inextinguishable fire.
She survived and thrived against all odds, finding others like her and sharing her radiance.
Fire is a sacred energy. Those of us ignited by her spirit, who are blessed to have known her, are the firekeepers carrying the flame forward.
Jess Torres is a 2-Spirit educator, community development and policy specialist dedicated to organizing work for the marginalized and criminalized. They have 15 years of experience community building serving in the following leadership roles: the in-house production team (HT Survivors) and U.S. Artisans program manger at The Little Market in Orange County, the survivor leadership program coordinator at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles, the community liaison for the mayor’s office to end gender-based violence in New York City, and as a Rising expert with Rising Worldwide in Santa Cruz.