SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.— Instead of counting arrests, Dr. Stephany Powell is now counting the people she has helped.
A long-time supporter of women’s rights, Powell, a retired police officer, recently became the executive director of a nonprofit organization that helps girls and women who have been victimized by domestic sex trafficking and street prostitution get out of the sex trade.
The early beginnings of the organization, called Mary Magdalene Project (MMP) were at the in a Presbyterian church, where Rev. Ross Greek was directly in contact with prostituted women working the streets right outside his church. At best, Rev. Greek could only provide temporary shelter from abusive pimps and johns, allowing women to hide or sleep in pews during the day.
A $30,000 grant from the Presbyterian Women of America in June 1980 facilitated the establishment of the MMP. The project resettles women in San Bernardino Valley into a safe area to accomplish the development of new life skills and new relationships.
New Executive Director
Dr. Powell joined MMP in October. She has been active for women’s rights and was a supporter of the successful Prop 35 campaign that took place in 2012.
“I had an opportunity to work on the Proposition 35 campaign, which was an issue to increase penalties on traffickers, those who were exploiting young children, young men, and women here in the United States,” said Powell.
Whereas the local sex trade was hidden from most of the public, human trafficking has globalized and people’s perceptions of the sex trade have changed.
“Thirty-three years ago, women that walked the streets were not viewed as victims. They were viewed as perpetrators of crimes,” said Powell. “So back then, it took a bold stance for an organization like MMP to step forward and provide clothes, showers, food, and a place for these women to stay.”
Powell reflected on her first interactions with MMP.
“It’s kind of interesting how I even found out about the Mary Magdalene Project. I was a police officer for LAPD for 30 years. I left as a sergeant. My last few years, I was in charge of, and ran, the vice unit,” said Powell.
Powell discovered that 90 percent of these girls and women had been abused as children.
“So I needed to have other resources, I needed to be able to get them those services. That was very important to me, and it was very important to the [vice] unit. MMP was one of those organizations,” said Powell.
After decades as a police officer, chasing criminals was no longer in Powell’s blood.
“I was too old to be out there running after people. I’d have to let the young guys do it, and these guys, I swear I was old enough to be their mother. I really was. I said ok, this is a young person’s game. It’s time to retire,” said Powell.
“So I did what old people do, and that’s usually volunteer. You’ve got to find something to do, right?”
“I liked being out on the street,” she said. “I did not like being behind the desk. I liked dealing with people. I call MMP saying, ‘Hey, can I volunteer?’ I’m thinking I’m going to stuff envelopes or answer phone calls.”
“Because I’m also an adjunct professor at the University of LaVerne, they [MMP] called and said, ‘Hey, we have an executive director spot open.’ After about half a second, I said, ‘OK.’ I was in.”
The new position allows Powell to focus on the problem from the other direction.
“It’s been extremely rewarding for me because I’m now able to help more extensively, because my hands were kind of tied, because my boss wasn’t asking how many people I was rescuing on the street, he wants to know how many people I’m arresting on the street,” said Powell.
Root of the Problem
“The other thing that didn’t take me very long to figure out was, even though we were arresting the girls, girls weren’t the real issue. It was the pimps and the johns, the customers, those were the real issues. So I would focus a lot on the pimps and the johns,” said Powell.
But the pimps usually proved elusive. She said that during her time in the vice unit, “when I would get them, we’d be doing the Holy Ghost dance, because we were just so glad. We were really happy about that, because they’re so hard to get.”
“What we’ve also found is that—and it speaks to women in general, as it comes to crimes against women—is that even though these pimps were exploiting these women out here, it was hard to get convictions on them. It was hard to get DA filings on them. It was very discouraging,” she said.
“The pimps would realize this (and a lot of them are gang members now), that it’s easier for them to run women than it is to run guns and dope, so to speak, because they’re probably not going to get caught,” said Powell. “That speaks volumes.”