Interview with Brooke Elise Axtell, activist and artist

Hear from Brooke Elise Axtell, an activist, author, and performing artist from Austin, TX. Photo: Brooke Elise Axtell

AUSTIN, TX, June 8, 2013 – Brooke Elise Axtell is a writer, activist and performing artist. Brooke talks about how she became invoved in anti-human trafficking advocacy, her own history and her current projects.

Brooke, how did you get involved with anti-human trafficking advocacy/speaking?

SEE RELATED: Interview with Justin Wassel: Human trafficking abolitionist


After pursuing my own healing path as a survivor of sex-trafficking and witnessing the prevalence of this injustice within the U.S., I felt compelled to speak out and encourage other survivors through their recovery. My passion for social justice compels me to make this oppression visible and address it at the level of both policy and cultural awareness. 

My compassion compels me to keep speaking because I know that countless women and children are continuously exploited and subjected to sexual violence for profit.  [Victims] need to know that they are not alone. I was faced with a choice: to allow the shame of sexual exploitation to silence me or transmute my pain into healing power. I am not a victim. I am a warrior for peace.

Are you a member of any networks that you would like to mention? 

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I am a member of the Truth Forum, a Speaker’s Bureau for Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an organization devoted to educating youth about human-trafficking. One of the founders is a direct descendent of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. I am honored to be a part of their efforts to engage young people in abolitionist work.

Did any organization or advocate play a significant role in your healing / empowerment process? 

I was forced into sex-trafficking in Dallas, Texas when I was 7; but I didn’t disclose my abuse until my early 20’s. At that time I reached out to Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network (RAINN) for a counseling referral. I am now part of their Speaker’s Bureau. I also found support through SafePlace in Austin, Texas. I am deeply grateful for their help. 

Are you working on any current projects? 

I recently joined the Editorial Collective for The Feminist Wire. I am excited to be part of such a vibrant community devoted to all forms of social justice. We feature the work of courageous writers across the spectrum of gender, age, class, race, sexuality, ability and geography who are passionately engaging with current events and offering creative solutions to myriad oppressions. 

Please share any recent speaking events, awards, accomplishments, or experiences.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the Annual Crime Victims Awards Ceremony in Austin along with former Oklahoma Senator, Brooks Douglass. I also spoke at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference on the “Women Write Their Lives” panel hosted by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter. I am fascinated by the healing power of telling our stories and creative expression as a form of revolutionary resistance.

Please share any upcoming events or honors.

My essay “Shame Illuminated” is featured in the upcoming anthology Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs. I explore her song “The Magdalene Laundries” and my personal connection to her music. Here is a brief excerpt:

The fear of disbelief is common for survivors of abuse, but particularly those who suffer through religious and clergy abuse. The elevated social status and unquestioned spiritual authority attributed to religious leaders exaggerates the power difference between abuser and victim. The Catholic Church has yet to take responsibility and make amends for grievous acts of continued abuse. Sadly, the Magdalene Laundries is just one chapter in an unfolding epic of violation…I am deeply intimate with the way religious language and authority can be used to justify abuse…

My mom introduced me to Joni Mitchell’s music when I was a young woman. Mitchell is one of the artists who taught me how to transmute pain into healing power and insight. It is the power to create, to unlock the silences that keep us bound in shame, that prepares the way for a spirituality of liberation. This space of the spirit must also include reverence for the bodies of women and girls.”

What has been your greatest achievement or most meaningful moment while advocating against human trafficking?

My greatest achievement was finally sharing my own story and creating SHE: Survivor Healing + Empowerment, a healing community for survivors of rape, abuse and sex-trafficking. Through this process, I have connected with countless survivors across the globe and regularly have the opportunity to help traumatized individuals find recovery resources in their area. 

Healing is a deeply intimate and often excruciating process for survivors. They feel comfortable reaching out to me because I have been transparent about my own struggles and devotion to a path of liberation. I advocate for what I call Radical Recovery, the fertile intersection between inner healing and social justice. Human trafficking is both painfully personal and systemic, so activists and allies must consistently address both dimensions.

What message about human trafficking do you most want to communicate to the public?

This is happening in your community and it is your responsibility to take a stand. Take a stand against everything that contributes to the normalization of sexually exploiting women and girls for profit, including male entitlement and privilege expressed through violence. All these issues are interconnected.

How can the public help you with your plight?

At this time I would love support through additional speaking opportunities to help raise awareness, encourage recovery and introduce creative solutions in communities across the U.S. 

What message would you like to pass to other survivor advocates and speakers?

The pursuit of social justice is not sustainable without a fierce commitment to self-care. Cultivate consistent practices that nourish and replenish you. For me that includes prayer, meditation, writing, nature walks, swimming and being honest with my allies. Open yourself to compassionate community and seek out the support of other activists. Stay close to people who affirm your worth. Let go of those who do not have the capacity to honor you and your work. Be gentle with yourself in the process. It is easy to take on the burden of this issue as if it were yours alone. But you are not alone. We are standing with you.

Are there any other accomplishments you would like to mention?  Have you published a book? 

Through my poetry collection, Kore of the Incantation, and my CD of original music, Creatrix; I explore the healing power of art, intimacy and the Sacred Feminine. Writing and performance have been vital aspects of my restoration. Sex-trafficking deeply shatters a person’s sense of worth, power and identity. The arts provide a space for reclaiming and rebuilding the dignity of our personhood.

What is your Twitter handle and Facebook page?

Twitter: @SurvivorHealing

Facebook: SHE: Survivor Healing + Empowerment


READ MORE from Holly Smith at Speaking Out

Holly Austin Smith is a survivor advocate, author, and speaker.  She invites you to join her at her blog

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Holly Smith

Holly is a survivor of child sex trafficking and an advocate against all forms of human trafficking.  In efforts to raise awareness, Holly has appeared on the Dr. Oz show and has been featured in Cosmopolitan magazine.  Holly is requested on a regular basis to provide testimony and input to law enforcement officials, social service providers, human trafficking task forces, legislators, educators, and journalists.

Holly's book, Walking Prey, is now available for presale on Amazon.

Contact Holly Smith


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