N obody can tell Brenda Myers-Powellâs story better than Brenda herself. Itâs what she has been doing since escaping 25 years of abuse and sexual exploitation to transform herself into a beacon of hope and compassion for women in desperate circumstances.
Now 63, she is the co-founder of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a US-based non-profit set up in 2008 to fight human-trafficking in the Chicago area, and the vivacious, multiple wig-sporting star of an acclaimed 2015 documentary about her work, also called Dreamcatcher. In late June, her memoir, Leaving Breezy Street, will be published in the UK, and a film adaption is already on the cards.
Yet however famous she may become, Myers-Powell will still be out on the streets of Chicago at 3am, or 4am, handing out condoms and sandwiches, and using her life story to help others. âI tell them: âLook, my footsteps are right over there on that corner.â They ainât gotta give me the book Prostitution for Dummies, yâknow? I already know what kind of pain theyâre in.â
As a girl growing up on Chicagoâs West Side, however, it wasnât Myers-Powellâs undeniable charisma or storytelling talents that she was taught to value. âNo one ever said: âBe brilliant, get an education, build yourself up to be something extraordinary.â I was told that my body was going to make me famous, that pussy was the way to success; get it and get the money.â
For many anti-human trafficking and feminist activists, âsex workâ is now the preferred term for how Myers-Powell survived from the age of 14 until just before her 40th birthday, when a particularly vicious assault forced a change. But it is not a term preferred by Myers-Powell. âI understand why people [use âsex workerâ] and I appreciate it, but, you see, I lived it. No one ever used those soft words about me. My arrest record, before it was vacated, never said âsex workerâ. It said âprostituteâ. The men never called me a âsex workerâ, they called me a âhoâ.â
And thereâs another reason this terminology doesnât sit right with her: âIt makes it seem as if itâs a part of normal society â but I donât know any prostitute that ever got a 401k [pension plan] or a paid holiday, or benefits. Do you?â
Myers-Powellâs formidable power as an advocate comes from this directness. She has never found it uncomfortable to talk about her most painful experiences. âItâs always been part of my uniqueness,â she says brightly, then goes on to prove the claim by unstintingly describing her childhood. Her 16-year-old mother died when Myers-Powell was just six months old.
She was raised by her grandmother, âa beautiful woman, a great woman, a strong woman, but she had a drinking problem, and that made her be like two different peopleâ. Myers-Powell has many happy memories of reading comics together and baking. âShe could cook anything â even hard candy!â But then there was the drinking: âThere was an opportunity for her drinking partners to take advantage of me, because her focus wasnât on me â¦ but theirs was. So I got molested a lot.â Myers-Powellâs earliest memories of rape go back to when she was four years old.
She was often alone at home in the evenings, because her grandmotherâs job as a maid for wealthy families in the suburbs meant a long commute. Her favourite entertainment was to sit at the window and watch the red light district outside.Dream team: (L-R) Editor Ollie Huddleston, Brenda Myers-Powell, director Kim Longinotto and producer Teddy Leifer, who created the 2015 documentary, Dreamcatcher. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
âAt that time, [the prostitutesâ] dressed up really nice, like Diana Ross and the Supremes, with the sparkly dresses and the big hair, and they impressed me,â she says. One day, when she was about nine, she asked her grandmother what these glamorous women were doing. âShe said: âThey take their panties off and men give them money,â and I said: âIâll probably do that when I grow up,â â because men had already been taking my panties off.â
When the young Myers-Powell expressed this intention aloud, her grandmother replied distractedly: âBrenda Jean, whatever you be, be the best.â
Those words stuck. âI thought about it, and [decided] I was gonna be the best prostitute.â This combination of heartbreaking naivety and gritty ambition wouldset the course for Myers-Powellâs life over the next three decades.
Her trauma, like that of many victims of child sexual abuse, manifested in promiscuity, and by the time she was 14, she had given birth to two daughters. âI remember, after I had my second baby, [my grandmother] saying that I needed to make sure I didnât destroy my life by being used; that I needed to make those guys give me money instead of just dropping me off.â
Did she take this as a direct instruction to begin selling sex? âShe didnât really mean it like that. She â¦â Myers-Powell sighs and tries to find the words: âYâknow, growing up in my community, I saw a lot of things, girl! Me and my girlfriend, Gloria, used to sit on the fire escape on weekends and watch women get black eyes and wake up the next day and cook him breakfast. Or get their arm broke and be telling everybody, âI loooove my man!â Yâknow, this was a normal thing.â Her grandmother was a product of that culture. âSheâd say to me: âWhen you get older, your manâs gonna whoop your ass, because you canât cook or clean up,â as this was the shit that they got their ass whooped for.â
Myers-Powell was raised to expect daily violence. âI had only maybe one really violent pimp. The rest of them, we had relationships and it was cool; it was the streets that were violent.â It was the pimps, though, who compelled her to return to the streets, night after night. Myers-Powell was shot five times and stabbed 13 times over the course of those years. According to one 2004 study, women in sex work are 50 times more likely to be murdered than those engaged in the USâs next riskiest profession, which is liquor-store worker.
After 15 years, she finally succumbed to drug addiction. How did she cope before? âThe prostitution,â she says simply. âI wanted the money. I loved the dressing-up, the glamour. I thought I was Pretty Woman before the movie came out, girl. That was my thing. I was really screwed up.â The brutal reality of sex work was what she survived, but the fantasy of sex work was also how she survived. âI didnât have nothing to lean on, except to tell myself this crap.â
There are, says Myers-Powell, plenty of women who say it is a real lifestyle choice, but for her it was self-delusion. âI said I enjoyed it! Like, I was Superhooker, OK? And nobody does it better! I am the best ho in the world, and if youâre not a ho like me, youâre a stupid ho.â Her voice grows quieter. âBut see, you werenât around the nights when I was in my hotel room crying, or wanting to hurt myself.â
In 1997, a customer who didnât want to pay, kicked her out of his car. Her dress got caught in the door and she was dragged along the road for six blocks, tearing the skin from the left side of her face and body. Confined to a hospital bed for several weeks afterwards, she had to reflect. âI said: âGod, I have no more bright ideas, every idea Iâve had up until now has gotten me here.ââ
A nurse referred her to Genesis House, an organisation set up by the British Catholic theologian Edwina Gateley along the same principles of judgment-free compassion that would later underpin Dreamcatcherâs outreach work. Myers-Powell adores Gateley, and still refers to her as âMomâ.
At Genesis House, she was treated with tenderness for the first time, and that alone was transformative: âWhoever the lady was on night shift that first night, came up to my room, changed my bandages, lifted my head up and gave me my pain medication. Then she stuffed a teddy bear up under my arm and covered me back up.â It was here that Myers-Powell met Dreamcatcherâs co-founder, Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, and began volunteer work. âIt seemed like I was supposed to do it.â
Since 2008, their Dreamcatcher Foundation has grown from a local mutual support group into an advocacy organisation fighting to end human-trafficking, and in March 2020 Myers-Powell was appointed to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Dreamcatcherâs efforts include training police officers, mentoring at-risk youth and academic research.
The pandemic, of course, has made things tougher: âWith this other crisis, everything became a crisis, so my girls got really pushed to the side. And theyâre OD-ing, the economic situation brought more of them out there, and theyâre younger â boys and girls. So now Iâve got to be out there in the thick of things, to figure out the whole new set of rules.â
Myers-Powellâs day-to-day â or night-to-night â will always be the outreach work made possible by her own life experience. To illustrate how it works, she tells me a story about a young woman who once came to her office: âIâd say: âWell, how many tricks you done today?â And sheâd say: âHowâd you know, Miss Brenda?!â And Iâd say: âCos, before, I was you. I would have turned some tricks on the way here.ââ
The gentle questioning she uses is rather like talk therapy, albeit with added Chicago street slang. âShe come back a couple days later and she says: âMiss Brenda, I didnât turn no tricks, na na nah! What you got to say now?â And I said: âThatâs cool â¦ what you steal?â She said: âHow did you know?!â And I said: âBecause if I ainât ho-ing, Iâm stealing.ââ
Myers-Powell then Googled likely prison terms for theft: ââSo thatâs five years away from your daughter. When you get out of jail, sheâll be seven!â And she looked at me and she said: âWell I canât win, right?â I said: âNot in this game.ââ With Myers-Powellâs support the young woman left sex work, gained her high school diploma and became the manager of an upmarket hotel, where she still works.
Self-delusion was once Myers-Powellâs survival mechanism; now she expects frankness from everyone. Questions such as: âShould prostitution be legalised?â are not allowed to remain a polite abstraction: âI donât agree that any type of slavery should be legalised. How far we gonna take this thing? Are we gonna put it on your block? Are my kids gonna drop out of high school to go be a ho? Or are yours?â Itâs the same mix of straight talk, humour and irrefutable logic that she uses to form rapport â and, eventually, escape plans â with trafficked women.
Yes, she says, there should be less stigma around sex work, but insists that understanding the real circumstances of the work is the most important thing: âIt is something much deeper than what you see. It is not a choice. How does she get to where she decided to let five or six men penetrate her a day? Just think about that. How happy would you be, Ellen? You wouldnât want to have sex with your boyfriend [that often] and you know him, and probably love him.â
Myers-Powell believes â knows â sex work has a dehumanising effect. At the heart of her mission â and the reason she will tell her story over and over â is a commitment to giving women back that stolen sense of self-worth; in their own eyes and those of the world. She has co-authored several studies on attitudes to sex work with DePaul University, Chicago, and this ability to discount the humanity of women has been a recurring theme: âThey talk about us as if they were ordering food â pizzas and steaks, not real people.â
It would, I suggest, be easy to start hating men after a lifetime of such treatment. âI never did,â she says. âBecause during my healing, I kept running into men that were great; who treated me like a little sister instead of a prostitute, or a piece of trash,â she says.
In 2004, she began a romantic relationship with a man who is now her husband. She has also rebuilt bonds with her two eldest daughters, who were raised by an aunt and, three years ago, she reconnected with the third, who was adopted.
She still has friends from the old days, too. âThose that are still alive, weâre like this,â she says, intertwining two fingers. âBecause when youâve been through the same horrors and you stood up for each other â I had to snatch her out of a car, when heâs strangling her, you know what I mean? Those relationships donât die.â
She feels no resentment to her own grandmother. âMy grandmother gave me the gift of storytelling. She was amazing. She just â¦ she needed saving.â In someoneâs elseâs words, Myers-Powellâs story might have become a classic heroâs tale of overcoming terrible odds, but she insists that it is more nuanced; the woman who let her down also gave her the qualities she needed to survive. When she felt closest to death, it was her grandmotherâs voice she heard. âShe always used to tell me: âNever give up. If you canât do nothing but spit, spit.â And every time there was a situation that caused me to really have to fight, I could not get that out of my head.â
Now, despite all Brenda Myers-Powell has lived though, and all she has achieved, she says it is the chance to be a grandmother herself that means the most to her: âI asked God to allow me to be a better grandmother than I was a mother. Girl, Iâm Supergrandmom! Iâm the best grand-mommy in the world!â
Leaving Breezy Street, by Brenda Myers-Powell, is published by Henry Holt on 29 June