Home / News / Brenda Myers-Powell: she was pimped out, left for dead – then survived to fight for other girls

Brenda Myers-Powell: she was pimped out, left for dead – then survived to fight for other girls

Posted on Jun 17, 2021

N obody can tell Brenda Myers-Powell’s story better than Brenda herself. It’s 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. “I tell them: ‘Look, my footsteps are right over there on that corner.’ They ain’t gotta give me the book Prostitution for Dummies, y’know? I already know what kind of pain they’re in.”

As a girl growing up on Chicago’s West Side, however, it wasn’t Myers-Powell’s undeniable charisma or storytelling talents that she was taught to value. “No one ever said: ‘Be brilliant, get an education, build yourself up to be something extraordinary.’ 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.”

For many anti-human trafficking and feminist activists, “sex work” 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. “I understand why people [use ‘sex worker’] 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 ‘sex worker’. It said ‘prostitute’. The men never called me a ‘sex worker’, they called me a ‘ho’.”

And there’s another reason this terminology doesn’t sit right with her: “It makes it seem as if it’s a part of normal society – but I don’t know any prostitute that ever got a 401k [pension plan] or a paid holiday, or benefits. Do you?”

Myers-Powell’s formidable power as an advocate comes from this directness. She has never found it uncomfortable to talk about her most painful experiences. “It’s always been part of my uniqueness,” 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, “a beautiful woman, a great woman, a strong woman, but she had a drinking problem, and that made her be like two different people”. Myers-Powell has many happy memories of reading comics together and baking. “She could cook anything – even hard candy!” But then there was the drinking: “There was an opportunity for her drinking partners to take advantage of me, because her focus wasn’t on me … but theirs was. So I got molested a lot.” Myers-Powell’s earliest memories of rape go back to when she was four years old.

She was often alone at home in the evenings, because her grandmother’s 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

“At that time, [the prostitutes’] dressed up really nice, like Diana Ross and the Supremes, with the sparkly dresses and the big hair, and they impressed me,” she says. One day, when she was about nine, she asked her grandmother what these glamorous women were doing. “She said: ‘They take their panties off and men give them money,’ and I said: ‘I’ll probably do that when I grow up,’ – because men had already been taking my panties off.”

When the young Myers-Powell expressed this intention aloud, her grandmother replied distractedly: “Brenda Jean, whatever you be, be the best.”

Those words stuck. “I thought about it, and [decided] I was gonna be the best prostitute.” This combination of heartbreaking naivety and gritty ambition wouldset the course for Myers-Powell’s 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. “I remember, after I had my second baby, [my grandmother] saying that I needed to make sure I didn’t destroy my life by being used; that I needed to make those guys give me money instead of just dropping me off.”

Did she take this as a direct instruction to begin selling sex? “She didn’t really mean it like that. She …” Myers-Powell sighs and tries to find the words: “Y’know, 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, ‘I loooove my man!’ Y’know, this was a normal thing.” Her grandmother was a product of that culture. “She’d say to me: ‘When you get older, your man’s gonna whoop your ass, because you can’t cook or clean up,’ as this was the shit that they got their ass whooped for.”

Myers-Powell was raised to expect daily violence. “I 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.” 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 US’s next riskiest profession, which is liquor-store worker.

After 15 years, she finally succumbed to drug addiction. How did she cope before? “The prostitution,” she says simply. “I 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.” The brutal reality of sex work was what she survived, but the fantasy of sex work was also how she survived. “I didn’t have nothing to lean on, except to tell myself this crap.”

There are, says Myers-Powell, plenty of women who say it is a real lifestyle choice, but for her it was self-delusion. “I said I enjoyed it! Like, I was Superhooker, OK? And nobody does it better! I am the best ho in the world, and if you’re not a ho like me, you’re a stupid ho.” Her voice grows quieter. “But see, you weren’t around the nights when I was in my hotel room crying, or wanting to hurt myself.”

In 1997, a customer who didn’t 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. “I said: ‘God, I have no more bright ideas, every idea I’ve had up until now has gotten me here.’”

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 Dreamcatcher’s outreach work. Myers-Powell adores Gateley, and still refers to her as “Mom”.

At Genesis House, she was treated with tenderness for the first time, and that alone was transformative: “Whoever 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.” It was here that Myers-Powell met Dreamcatcher’s co-founder, Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, and began volunteer work. “It seemed like I was supposed to do it.”

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. Dreamcatcher’s efforts include training police officers, mentoring at-risk youth and academic research.

The pandemic, of course, has made things tougher: “With this other crisis, everything became a crisis, so my girls got really pushed to the side. And they’re OD-ing, the economic situation brought more of them out there, and they’re younger – boys and girls. So now I’ve got to be out there in the thick of things, to figure out the whole new set of rules.”

Myers-Powell’s day-to-day – or night-to-night – 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: “I’d say: ‘Well, how many tricks you done today?” And she’d say: ‘How’d you know, Miss Brenda?!’ And I’d say: ‘Cos, before, I was you. I would have turned some tricks on the way here.’”

The gentle questioning she uses is rather like talk therapy, albeit with added Chicago street slang. “She come back a couple days later and she says: ‘Miss Brenda, I didn’t turn no tricks, na na nah! What you got to say now?’ And I said: ‘That’s cool … what you steal?’ She said: ‘How did you know?!’ And I said: ‘Because if I ain’t ho-ing, I’m stealing.’”

Myers-Powell then Googled likely prison terms for theft: “‘So that’s five years away from your daughter. When you get out of jail, she’ll be seven!’ And she looked at me and she said: ‘Well I can’t win, right?’ I said: ‘Not in this game.’” With Myers-Powell’s 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-Powell’s survival mechanism; now she expects frankness from everyone. Questions such as: “Should prostitution be legalised?” are not allowed to remain a polite abstraction: “I don’t 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?” It’s the same mix of straight talk, humour and irrefutable logic that she uses to form rapport – and, eventually, escape plans – 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: “It 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 wouldn’t want to have sex with your boyfriend [that often] and you know him, and probably love him.”

Myers-Powell believes – knows – sex work has a dehumanising effect. At the heart of her mission – and the reason she will tell her story over and over – 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: “They talk about us as if they were ordering food – pizzas and steaks, not real people.”

It would, I suggest, be easy to start hating men after a lifetime of such treatment. “I never did,” she says. “Because 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,” 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. “Those that are still alive, we’re like this,” she says, intertwining two fingers. “Because when you’ve been through the same horrors and you stood up for each other – I had to snatch her out of a car, when he’s strangling her, you know what I mean? Those relationships don’t die.”

She feels no resentment to her own grandmother. “My grandmother gave me the gift of storytelling. She was amazing. She just … she needed saving.” In someone’s else’s words, Myers-Powell’s story might have become a classic hero’s 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 grandmother’s voice she heard. “She always used to tell me: ‘Never give up. If you can’t do nothing but spit, spit.’ And every time there was a situation that caused me to really have to fight, I could not get that out of my head.”

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: “I asked God to allow me to be a better grandmother than I was a mother. Girl, I’m Supergrandmom! I’m the best grand-mommy in the world!”

Leaving Breezy Street, by Brenda Myers-Powell, is published by Henry Holt on 29 June