Rising Above

Left: Rhonelle Bruder giving the keynote address at Covenant House Toronto Sleep Out: Champions Edition Awards Ceremony, April 2019. Right: Rhonelle Bruder and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after participating in a roundtable on economic participation and opportunities for women of colour on International Women's Day 2019.

Rhonelle Bruder and The RISE Initiative

It’s a scary world out there when you consider the continued presence of societal scourges that common sense says shouldn’t exist. Sexual exploitation, homelessness, poverty and violence are all gross violations of human dignity. Despite public exposure and dialogue surrounding these problems, movement toward eradicating them seems to be creeping along at a snail’s pace

One particular issue is starting to be get a lot more attention: human trafficking. Several times a year the media hone in on this topic and the public is starting to get the message:

human trafficking is no longer a problem based in faraway lands – it’s something that happens right here in Canada. In fact, 90 percent of human trafficking cases in Canada involve people born here. Toronto Police recently reported that, over a five year span, they dealt with over 1,000 cases of human trafficking and that they were able to help around 300 victims. Experts say that the Toronto numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. They say that over 60 percent of human trafficking cases in Canada emerge in the Greater Toronto Area alone. If Toronto cops are dealing with 1,000 cases (and that number is believed to be a very low estimate), one can only imagine the true extent of this problem.

Enter Rhonelle Bruder – herself a victim of human trafficking. Bruder was born in the Caribbean but was raised by her adoptive family from the age of three here in Canada. However, while growing up in a loving home, she was often the victim of vicious bullying and discrimination at school. Despite her adoptive parent’s efforts to protect her from this abuse, Bruder felt isolated, eventually dropping out of high school, leaving the confines of home and winding up on the streets of Toronto. From there, she shuffled from one youth shelter to the next in a state of constant instability.

It didn’t take long for a Toronto-based human trafficker to recognize Bruder’s vulnerability and lure her into the sex industry. She was compelled to work in strip clubs across Ontario, living in a state of fear and isolation, constantly under the vigilant watch of her trafficker.

Things changed for Bruder after she witnessed a vicious assault on a woman at the hands of her trafficker. She knew it was time to get out. When Bruder tells her story, people ask, “Why didn’t you leave earlier?” If only it were that easy. Experts working with victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking report gradual coercion and grooming until the victim loses all sense of self. In fact, many victims don’t want to be helped because they believe their trafficker has their best interests at heart. Bruder likens the situation to Stockholm Syndrome – the process whereby victims develop an allegiance to their captors. This is why her emergence from a life of exploitation and victimization is all the more remarkable.

Now 36 years old, Bruder points out that she escaped this life of fear and intimidation at a time when human trafficking was not a mainstream social concern. In fact, she did not even know she was a victim of human trafficking at the time. Certainly there were agencies that could lend a hand to at-risk youth, but specific help for those forced to endure life in the sex industry under the domain of a human trafficker was not even on the radar back then. Now there’s a name for the experience. Back then, she was flying blind.

Rhonelle Bruder credits the support from fellow street kids and some friends who provided her safe-haven as she made the move away from her previous life. She also credits her family for welcoming her back into the fold. However, despite her courageous decision to escape her human trafficker, Bruder still had some hurdles to face. She became pregnant at 18 and had to begin raising her daughter as a single mother. Wanting to provide a better life for the two of them, she went back to school – first to complete her GED and then to on to earn an Honours Bachelor of Science in Health Services Administration and a Master of Science in Health Informatics. Since then, Bruder has built a successful career working in the healthcare industry as both an analyst and researcher.

However, it was through her extensive experience as a volunteer with at-risk youth that her new passion, the RISE Initiative, was born. Bruder would offer her advice only to get the brush off from people she was trying to help. She found herself being challenged by at-risk youth who would say, “You just don’t understand.” She would respond by telling her story to them and an almost immediate alliance would develop. Bruder says the walls that stood between them would come tumbling down and the work of helping the young person would begin. This is what led her to take things one step further with the founding of the RISE Initiative – an acronym that stands for Resilience, Inspiration, Strength and Encouragement.

Bruder believes her lived experience is what gives her an authentic voice when speaking with victims of sexual exploitation, homelessness and poverty. Now she uses RISE to reach others through her workshops and presentations. Recently she conducted a workshop for sex trafficking survivors at Covenant House in Toronto. She also conducted a series of workshops with the Youth Justice Program at For Youth Initiative. This program helped youth recognize the need to alter the direction of their lives and convert their efforts into something more positive.

Rhonelle Bruder’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. She was recently invited to participate in a roundtable discussion in Toronto designed to provide a perspective that would help vulnerable members of society. The initiative included a face-to-face with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with the overall goal of creating a forum for economic entrepreneurship for groups – including women of colour – who often see their efforts thwarted by certain systemic biases.

While the RISE Initiative is essentially in its infancy, Bruder hopes that the organization will grow to be an agent of social change. She’d like to use RISE to not only help vulnerable youth after they have had to overcome adversity and hardship but also help young people avoid falling victim to things like human trafficking, homelessness or poverty from the very start. This would be accomplished through education and preventative work that would allow people to see their value in society as whole.

By Sean Dolan