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Advocate tells her painful story of trafficking

Gail Trombley is known in the Superior community as a tireless housing advocate and an outspoken nontraditional student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where she was once described as having a "world-class sense of humor."

But there's something many people might not know about her. Something she's been talking about only in the past year.

In 20 years of getting paid for sex with men, mostly from Twin Ports docks, she found herself one day waking up in Thunder Bay. Men were planning to sell her.

"I've got attitude. That got me back," she said.

Trombley was lucky.

She wasn't alone. More and more women in recent months are speaking about human trafficking in the Northland.

That's because of a growing grass-roots effort to inform the community and provide safe haven for victims.

Reyna Crow introduced Trombley to an audience of more than 40 people Wednesday afternoon at the UWS student union. Crow is part of the group Idle No More Duluth, working to provide support services for survivors of trafficking.

Her work is to get the community to acknowledge trafficking as an issue, especially among Native Americans, and to create an atmosphere where women can speak out and break free of trauma they've suffered.

Crow told students to educate themselves on trafficking and then find small and large ways to help through groups like Idle No More Duluth.

"For many years, this situation broke my heart," Crow said. She said it's difficult today to look through a window in her home in Duluth toward the harbor. She's heard too many stories of pain that begin at the docks.

People like Crow are through debating whether trafficking remains a problem at the ports. She said her focus is on stopping it and providing a comfort zone for victims. Her group is working with others to create a safe house that's expected to open sometime this year.

Each time she hears a victim's story, she asks if they are still in pain. Many are, and she said the best route to healing was through Native American traditions of healers that surround victims with the community.

"Speak out," Crow urged the students. "They need to hear community members say they care."

That acceptance will go a long way in flipping stereotypes, she said.

"The stigma belongs to the perps," she said.

Dixie Dorman teaches in the First Nations studies program at UWS. She said students can take a stand against trafficking by simply refusing to adhere to clichéd and demeaning expectations of girls and women through mass media.

"Women aren't necessarily valued unless playing the princess role," she said. "It's taught at an early age."

"We need to teach our women to have respect and honor," Trombley said. "Walk with honor and your head held high."

Haji Dokhanchi is a political science professor at UWS and works with the students in the Amnesty International organization, which sponsored the talk with Trombley and Crow.

He said students should think of the smallest touches in tackling the trafficking issue, starting by being supportive members in the community.

"Not everyone needs to be a foot soldier in the front," Dokhanchi said. He reminded students of the Amnesty motto of "Learn, join, act."

Trombley said she will continue the hard work of telling her story and offering support to others.

She is slowly getting her self-respect back.

"I'm no longer a ship whore," she said. "I'm a survivor."

She used a term her granddaughter uses to explain the strength she needs to tell her story.

"It takes a lot of lady nuts to put my face out there," she said.

Trombley received the 2012 Woman of Color in Education award at UWS for her work in housing, particularly for the homeless. In what should have been a triumphant moment, Trombley says she felt doubt creeping in. She still struggles to acknowledge her own worth.

"I felt like it was a mistake," she said. "But I'll be damned if I let that demon run me. Don't limit yourself. Dream big and go for it."