Meet the Sex-Trafficking Survivor Who’s Battling Prostitution

Toward the end of award-winning director Kim Longinotto’s new documentary, Dreamcatcherthe film’s subject, Brenda Myers-Powell, stands onstage in front of a room full of mostly women. Confident, passionate and determined, Brenda speaks to the gathered conference attendees and encourages them to keep an open mind. She’s brought a guest, Homer, a former pimp and sex trafficker, who sits nervously in the audience, and she senses the tension his presence evokes—a tension we can feel through the screen.

“I don’t want to offend anybody,” Brenda insists, “but we need the information, people. We need this information. We don’t need to get angry about anything today. We need the information to learn how to fight human trafficking.”

Neither Homer’s story, nor Brenda’s own, is for the faint of heart. And this insistence on shedding light on even the most difficult truths lies at the heart of this eye-opening documentary, and underscores the mission of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago organization co-founded by Brenda and Stephanie Daniels-Wilson in 2008 to support survivors of sex trafficking. A survivor herself, Brenda ran away from an abusive home at age 14 and spent the next 25 years on the streets. Now, she’s dedicated her life to helping girls and women find a way out of prostitution, knowing full well that the road to recovery isn’t always—or, perhaps, ever—smooth.

Throughout the film, Brenda’s noted patience, kindness and perseverance shine through. “I’m ready to help when you’re ready,” is a frequent refrain, and she fervently believes that the women she visits on street corners in the middle of the night to hand out condoms and water and coffee will come to her when they’re open to change. Stressing both prevention and intervention, Brenda’s work is tireless and seems to consume her life, and yet she’s buoyed by her interactions with those who are trying to find a way out of a life that is all they’ve ever known, as she once did herself.

As inspiring as it is edifying, the film has an unassuming quality one might not expect from a documentary about such a hot-button issue. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Dreamcatcher is its ability to provide such a deeply intimate and open portrayal that simultaneously never feels intrusive or sensationalized.  It’s no wonder Longinotto won Best Director at Sundance this year, and is also a recent recipient of both the BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award and DOC NYC’s Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence. The care she’s taken in gaining the trust of the people she films, both survivors and former traffickers and abusers, is evident from the natural way in which the film’s subjects address the camera.

This casual intimacy offers insights we may expect, but often presents them in unexpected ways. During a particularly heart-wrenching scene, teenage girls in an after-school program for at-risk youth discuss, under Brenda’s guidance, incident after incident of childhood sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence at the hands of loved ones. They are calm, courageous, and shockingly matter-of-fact, suggesting not a lack of concern but a deep-seated resignation that the pattern of abuse they each so impassively impart is something they’ve come to expect in their lives. “It’s not your fault,” Brenda tells them. She thought it was her fault, too, when she started being molested at age 5.

Brenda is honest with the teenagers in her program and with the film’s viewers about how that early abuse led her to prostitution, drug addiction and abuses of her own—such as abandoning her now-adult daughters for over a decade and even drawing other girls into prostitution herself. Given her experiences, Brenda takes a two-sided approach to her work. She encourages the women she meets on the street to consider how they are responsible for not only their own futures, but also those of their children and loved ones. She does not cast blame, stressing accountability and rehabilitation instead. With the girls she meets, she counsels them to stay safe and take care of themselves while urging forgiveness, recounting how her own daughters’ love and acceptance eventually helped her see a way out of a life of addiction and prostitution.

“You give hope and that’s what we need out here,” a woman name Marie tells Brenda. She’s been on the streets since she was 8, at first running money for the pimps before eventually becoming a prostitute herself. Now, with a 4-year-old daughter and pregnant again, Marie is ready for help. And, as we’ve come to expect of her, Brenda is there.

Dreamcatcher is distributed by Women Make Movies and is available to stream on iTunes. For information about upcoming screenings or to contact Longinotto about hosting a screening in your city, visit her website.

UPDATE March 15, 2016: The title of this article has been changed to more accurately reflect the nature of Brenda Myers-Powell’s experience. We apologize for the error.


Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.